Rating fiction

On the eve of the final votes for the Hugo Awards, I am trying to catch up on as many as the nominated stories as I can, so that I can post which stories I would vote for, if I were voting. I’m not quite ready to post my results yet, but I did make me think about how I rate the fiction that I read.

Everyone has their own system for rating fiction, and I’m not different in that respect. For many years, it was a simple system, based on 5 points, five being the “best”. It was sort of arbitrary, and I found that a lot of stories were rated 3s. Also, I always hesitated to rate a story as a 1 or a 2 because, frankly, I felt bad. I’ve always believed in constructive criticism and I can’t stand reviewers who skewer writers just because they think they can. So, over the years, my system has changed. I began to think about what it is a story should do, at least for me personally. Here is what I came up with:

First, a story should entertain.
Second, a story should make you think about what you read.
Third, a good story should make you feel something, anything, whether the feelings are good or bad.
Fourth, a really good story should move you emotionally.
Fifth, a truly good story should change you. This is the hardest thing of all for a story to do.

Being an orderly creature of habit, I still use my 0-5 point rating system, but for years, I’ve used it as follows:

  • 0-1: at the very least, the story entertained me
  • 1-2: the story made me think about what I read
  • 2-3: the story made me feel something (for the characters, for the drama, for the humor, whatever)
  • 3-4: the story moved me; I felt it in my gut; it drew blood, sweat and/or tears
  • 4-5: the story changed me in some significant way

It seems to me, with this type of rating system, everyone is a winner. I’ve rated stories I’ve read (even some of my own) as 0.6 (they entertained me to some degree). Joe Haldeman’s Forever War for instance, was getting a solid 3.0 through a good portion of the book. Then I came to the ending and it jumped up a notch; I got something I didn’t expect and I rated the book a 4.0.

Anyway, that’s how I rate the stories I read and that works well for me. It also helps me think about how I write stories. Do I just want to entertain, or do I want to try for something more?

Later on this week, I’ll post my votes (predictions?) for who I think will win the Hugo for best short story, novelette and novella. I can’t guarantee that I will have read all the stories, but I’m doing my best. I can guarantee that there is no chance I’ll have read the novels. There just ain’t enough hours in the day.

Published by Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

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