After that sloanesomething and I got food, and then I headed back to the hotel room to do my live-blogging. That took quite a while (detailed panel reports usually take me about as long as the panel itself), so I didn't make it to any panels before 3:00 pm. A lengthy panel report follows. If you're not interested, skim down looking for "end panel report" in bold.
Tough Love for New Writers. Description: Give it up: there are already too many writers. Let's face it, even with a lot of help, the best to be expected from most new writers is that they will produce a lot of mediocre sludge. In fact, most people who attend "how to" panels at conventions won't even do that well. Moreover, there are is already so much good to read that the field doesn't need such sludge. The panel's advice to wannabe writers: give it up now and get a real job. (An honest appraisal of the new writer's chances.) Gavin Grant, David G. Hartwell, Steve Miller, Priscilla Olson (m), Teresa Nielsen Hayden
This was fabulous: funny and useful and crackling with energy. I did my best to take detailed notes because I knew at least a few people would be interested.
Priscilla Olson [head of Programming for the con] said that the panel started as a joke, a dig at a prior Worldcon that had large numbers of writers-only workshops, but then they realized it would be useful.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden (TNH) [Tor consulting editor, longtime fan and fan writer; see Making Light] said she had one word for new writers: "Don't."
Olson started the panel off by asking, what do you need to be a writer? Independent income?
TNH said that whenever you hear complaints about publishing, translate them into "I'm not selling." It's usually writers talking about themselves. Books in general are selling very well, there are more bookstores than ever, more readers than ever—but so many more sf writers than there used to be, that there are smaller slices of the pie to go around. There is an obvious solution to this, but you notice no-one ever volunteers to stop writing.
Olson said that she quit writing after going to a Clarion (twenty years ago?), because she didn't have the emotional hardiness for it. Also, it's hard to be a fan and a writer, and she chose to be an editor of cons.
(Pause for applause. Olson really did an amazing job with programming.)
Steve Miller [author of many sf novels] responded that Clarion is a very rough filter for writers; he once wrote a fanzine article (I think after his own Clarion experience, but my notes aren't clear) called "EgoBruise." Maybe more people should be dumped into Clarion. Lots of people can write pro-level prose—once or twice, but not on demand. It's why the field has a lot of very good part-time writers.
(TNH interjected: or writers with one good book and then the sixteen or seventeen after that.)
David Hartwell [book and anthology editor extraordinaire] said that authors shouldn't quit their day job, no matter what! Around 1979-80, something really painful happened in the field, a cutback after a big expansion: people stopped getting straight-line increases in advances, and a lot of people lost houses and had to go back to work. He said that it's very hard to believe that once you're recognized as a writer, it won't stay that way. TNH said, or that the stories won't dry up.
Hartwell added later that large movements in the field (possibly that contraction specifically) led to 50-100 authors and entire lines being dropped. He said right now it's actually a pretty expansive field, twelve SF lines out of New York City, which is a lot—but all the same, not as many titles are being published as ten years ago.
TNH said that the field lost the mass market [*], and there were good, well-known authors whose careers were based on that market. They would rather than had their heads handed to them on a platter rather than have six or eight of their books handed back to them, which is what they got.
[*] As-you-know-Bob, this is a technical term; it's a distribution channel, which is largely aimed at all those places that aren't bookstores: supermarkets, drugstores, airports, etc.
Miller said that he lives in the middle of Maine, because it's where they could afford to live and write full-time. If you're going to quit your day job, you're not committing to rounds of parties and glamour, just days of staring at the screen and hoping that checks are in the mailbox.
Olson said that you might get a $20,000 advance on your book—which took you two years to write. You're probably not going to make the kind of living you'd like to become accustomed to.
Publication, respect, happiness
Olson then asked, what if money isn't an issue: it's just that no-one likes your writing? Or, someone does, and you get enough sales to become a SFWA member. You think this is going to be a life-changing thing, people will follow you around at cons, all that. Well, it doesn't happen. There were 450-500 people on program at this con, and 100 more were turned down. We don't love everyone. We can't. If you can't deal with that, don't become a writer.
Miller added grisly no-name stories about people contacting him looking for advice on selling their Nebulas and Hugos. He asked, what is the pinnacle of your life? What are your dreams? He said that he's had people say to him, My life is made, I'm a SFWA member.
(At this point, TNH nearly fell out of her chair laughing.)
(She added, you can't ship Nebulas air freight, you need to do it surface.)
Gavin Grant [co-editor of Small Beer Press and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, co-editor of fantasy section of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror] offered a career model that the audience might be interested in: write a lot, don't get published, and die.
(Pause while the audience rolls on the floor laughing. Also, for some reason it sounds funnier in whatever kind of British Isles accent he has.)
He continued, this is very easy: everyone can die, it's very easy not to get published; and if you have a friend, maybe you'll be published posthumously, which will be a nice story.
As far as published or not goes, TNH offered the tale of two writers. One is a fanfic writer, very well known in the field, who she contacted asking if said writer had anything that could be commercially published without getting sued over. The writer said no; the writer was happy doing fanfic, had a built-in audience, and didn't want to be doing anything else. The second was a writer who'd gone ten years without sales. The thing the writer was known for wasn't being bought these days, and the writer didn't know how to do anything else.
Who's happier? Note, all pros aren't unhappy—but writers need to understand that writing won't make you happy if you weren't already. It's like believing if only you lose enough weight, or meet the right person . . .
Olson added, you're allowed to change your goals. It can be a mark of maturity, even.
Hartwell said that he's taught Clarion several times, and in his opening spiel he points out that Clarion's focus on publication is both a strength and a problem. "Publishable" does not equal "good." SFWA has convinced the world that if you join, you're a card-carrying writer! This is not so.
(Grant said, he'll be happy tell you that you're a real writer—just send him fifty bucks a year.)
TNH said something about how whether something sells or not is a significant division, but I think I was still laughing too hard over Grant's comment because I cannot make sense of that paragraph of my notes at all.
Hartwell said he had sad news about poetry. If you write a poem, and keep submitting it—you will be published. But almost no-one reads them. For short stories, you should set standards, and don't let yourself be published below a certain level. This is a subjective judgment, but you need to be educated enough to make that judgment.
Miller remarked that if you want respect, sf isn't the field for you.
Workshops, improving your craft
The panel then talked about writing workshops. Olson was of the opinion that they can be simply mutual masturbation.
Grant said that this is less common in sf, but you see it all the time in mainstream: the writer with just one story, that's been workshopped to death. He has mixed feelings about workshops: they can be helpful, they can also be a wonderful way to not write. (On the other hand, he said later, it can at least give you a deadline.) Miller said he knew of a story that had spent seven years in a workshop, and then sold; the writer had a contract for two more, and had no idea how to do anything without going back to the workshop.
TNH said that the Scribblies writers' group does have a good track record, and notice how it's a standout. She also said one danger of workshops is that the group gets the story in dribs and drabs, so the story never really gets going and you end up with lots of (unnecessary) exposition being added in. The readers say, "well, I'd like to know more about X," when what they're really saying is, "I'm slightly bored now and would like the story to move on."
TNH said that if you can write something people want to buy and read, great; if you can't, nothing will help you.
Hartwell said that if you learn to write criticism, it might help you learn to criticize your own work. Olson added that you should be careful, though, because in her experience with NESFA press, after very closely reading 30-40 stories by the same author, she started imitating their style. TNH said, hey, steal from the best; Hartwell said, you are what you eat.
As the panel started to get towards its close, TNH put out her basic truths of writing:
- If it works, it's right, no matter what else.
- All the best advice about writing has to be simple. The hard part is putting it into practice.
- Corollary: never turn down advice because it sounds very simple.
Question: what if I decide, I'm not meant to write, maybe I should be an editor?
Hartwell: in the field, there are less than 100 editorial jobs, including the low-paid assistants: and almost all of them are in New York City where they aren't paying a living wage.
I believe there was next a question about web-based publishing, or possibly fanfiction.
- Hartwell: well, web-based publishing happens all the time. It's almost like reading slush.
- TNH: it's part of treating writing like it's an RPG.
- Both Hartwell and TNH said that someone who writes excellent fanfiction is just an excellent writer. It's not a death-knell.
- TNH said that this idea that the field has it in for fanfic writers is part of the Ambient Disinformation about Publishing. Fanfic writers often get lots of merciless yet sympathetic feedback that really helps them improve.
- Miller said about fanfiction writers that most have never had a real deadline thrown at them; it's not just the one step of moving to a different world to become a commercially published author. Being a journalist is a really good way of learning to overcome writer's block.
Question: how do you know when your writing is on the right track? TNH: when your beta readers want more.
I believe this is where someone asked, when is it enough? Are you happy when you sell your first novel? What is happiness, anyway? I was sufficiently taken aback by this that I didn't write it down. The panel seemed to have a similar reaction, and I believe someone said, this is not a question we can answer for you!
TNH put in a plug for lists of yearly bestsellers (here's one James Macdonald found on another forum). She says it's very educational: how many have you heard of?
TNH ended the panel by saying that she'd said to herself a while back, that's it, I'm quitting writing. And every time that it slipped her mind that she'd quit, she'd find a whole pile of pages she'd written. If you're one of those: sorry. You might as well get good at it and get paid for it.
/end panel report
After that, I'd hit my con breakdown, where I didn't want to talk to anyone or see anyone. So I hid in the room and read Madeleine Robins' Petty Treason until we got hungry. Chad and I bumped into veejane on Newbury Street, where we were wandering around looking for something appealing; we ended up at a quite good Indian place and talked about RL jobs, hardboiled mysteries, and various other congenial topics.
After that, Chad and I did a quick tour through the art show while the early bits of the Hugo ceremony were underway. There were a few things I quite liked, including the penguins described by Mary Kay, and some Japanese-influenced work by an artist whose card I thought I'd taken, but apparently not. These included a snow-woman geisha and two watercolors of a Siamese strrrrreeeeetched out stalking a butterfly, and then with its paws around the butterfly (there was a bidding war going over those last two). I've seen this artist before at Boskone, and hopefully next year there'll be prints or something that we can afford. I also drooled over Ctien's work, as usual; we've nearly decided that if we haven't found something for over the mantelpiece by next Boskone, we'll consider making the jump into Real Art prices and getting something of his. I particularly admired the one of Niagara Falls.
The Hugos were full by the time we tried to get in, so we went to the Mended Drum, the pub set up in the Concourse [*], where it was being simulcast and where Chad could get a beer. We got there in time for Robert Silverberg's speech on memorable Hugo Award ceremonies; he is, as far as can be told, the only person to have gone to all fifty. Bits of note about the ceremony:
- Best Fan Artist Frank Wu bounding up on stage, saying "I LOVE YOU ALL!", and then bounding off.
- Martin Hoare's acceptance speech for Dave Langford, Best Fan Writer, reproduced in Ansible.
- Two whoops! moments, as someone doing the slides for winners slipped a finger and put up Emerald City (fanzine) and Michael Swanwick's "Legions in Time" (novelette) before they were actually announced as winners.
- Ginjer Buchanan's characterization of professional editors as
dogs (she might have said herding dogs, but the poodle, at least, is a
- Ellen Datlow = Standard Poodle
- Gardner Dozois = Old English Sheepdog
- David Hartwell = German Shepherd Dog
- Stanley Schmidt = Giant Schnauzer
- Gordon Van Gelder = Border Collie
(Jack Dann, who accepted for Dozois [recovering from a car accident], was an Australian Cattle Dog.)
- George R.R. Martin, who presented Best Short Story, said that Neil Gaiman owed his entire career to him: Gaiman had pitched a Sandman-like story for a Wild Cards anthology, and Martin had turned him down.
My thoughts on the awards themselves can probably be discerned from my ballot comments ( start here and scroll down). In short, nothing I strongly disliked won; the only place where I was completely baffled by the order of the non-winners was in short story; and while I think it's a pity Blind Lake wasn't higher than fourth in novels, I'm not surprised.
[*] I don't think I've commented on the con space yet. I thought it was great: spacious, lots of places to sit, lots of big signs saying "this way to the Hynes" (though I don't think they went up until Friday), rugs put down wherever possible to make the walking easier. As far as I could tell, this was a beautifully run con overall, and people who know a lot more than I seem to agree.
No parties for us after the Hugos; we were beat and just went back to the room, talked about our days, and tried to catch up on sleep.
Other Saturday reports so far: