An inspiring experience
Posted: 2019-07-16 , Modified: 2019-07-16
An inspiring experience
Posted: 2019-07-16 , Modified: 2019-07-16
I was at Readercon in Boston this past Friday to Sunday (July 12-14). Readercon is a convention for “imaginative literature” (including science fiction, fantasy, and horror). I had an amazing time, and highly recommend it to anyone who reads or writes speculative fiction.
Below, I’ll give some of my general impressions, as well as my notes on panels and talks.
Disclaimer: I’ve paraphrased the panel discussion and author talks, and apologize in advance for any mistakes or mis-representations (let me know by leaving a comment). The stuff that I included is what I personally found most interesting and could most easily lift out of my notes. There are plenty of other interesting things that I haven’t included.
I learned about Readercon from hanging out with the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers. This is the second science fiction/fantasy convention I’ve gone to. The first was WorldCon in London in 2014 (Loncon). I liked this a lot more because it was geared specifically towards the written word, and was a lot more intimate (with something like two or three hundred, rather than several thousand, people). I wish I had known about it ten years ago!
It’s especially a great experience for an aspiring writer, because you get to connect with the community as well as leave with tools to get better, ideas to pursue, and books to read. Coming back from Readercon I feel newly motivated to write.
I’ve found everyone really friendly, passionate, and dedicated to their work. I got to talk to Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld magazine, who was editor of the magazine for 13 years (while having a day job for the first 11 years) and goes through 1100 submissions a month; and Jeanne Cavelos, who went from astrophysicist to writer and spends a lot of time teaching writers through the Odyssey writing workshops. I always imagined editors as hostile people in my head, but the opposite was true: they wouldn’t spend so much time on their job if they didn’t love their work, and they wanted to see writers succeed. Being rejected was an universal experience that people celebrated: authors talked about having a thousand rejection letters; editors expressed their delight at having someone succeed on the seventy-something try. Another universal was having to find the time and energy to write while having a job - whether it’s one that they’re equally invested in (I was cheered to see quite a few scientists!), a job just to make a living, or a job they would like to escape. Many people talked about having been mentored in their career, and feeling compelled to pass it on. There was an acknowledgement of the difficulty of making it, as well as an infectious determination to persevere.1
Most of the panels were very high-quality. A lot of panels I went to talk about the existing literature around a certain theme, and how one might go beyond the tropes and stereotypes.2 For example, the “real Middle Ages” are a lot more complex and varied than their homogeneous representation in medieval fantasy, and rather than young characters with ample time, what about lower-class characters or older characters (“graybeards beyond Gandalf”)? A convention is always very good for assembling a list of books to read and movies/shows to watch.
There were also author interviews, and talks about an author’s works. It’s great to listen to their journey of becoming a writer, and their approach to it. There was also lots of information about writing workshops and programs, as well as local and online communities.
Panelists: Malka Older, Sarah Smith, Cadwell Turnbull, Catherynne M. Valente, T.X. Watson (moderator)
Description: With rising economic inequality and class struggle ever more visible in America, how are these issues being explored in SF/F? Is the pessimism of YA dystopias (from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, published at the start of the Great Recession, to M.T. Anderson’s Landscape with Invisible Hand in 2017) emblematic of changed views of the American Dream? How do recent works differ from their 20th-century forebears (Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain), and how are they tackling the intersection of class and other identities?
Summary: The need to have a hero in a story can bias a story towards middle and high-class characters, and means that a large portion of the human experience is left out. It is also not faithful to reality, because actual history is more often shaped by a large group of people rather than a single hero. Many mundane acts of heroism are also systematically ignored.
Stories have to follow individual characters, but we can show them embedded in their organizations or communities and focus more on those dynamics. Stories need to be engaging, but that also means we can talk about difficult issues through “vampires and robots.”
The stories that we consume affect the way that we see the world, for example, through hero worship. It’s a double-edged sword.
Highlights from panel discussion:
CV: As genres, science fiction and fantasy often have trouble dealing with class because the hero is often the one who has enough spare time to pursue a plot or mystery. People who are not part of the elite (e.g., the nobility or technical elite) don’t have time to figure out what’s going on, only the time to face things as they come. Fantasy especially has trouble with this because the nobility are the “movers and shakers of history”; at best you get the middle class (“fat hobbits”).
CT: A novel has to follow a person or small group to some climax, but actual history is seldom shaped by a few people. It’s more often shaped by a large group, including many people who don’t get named. Speculative fiction could do a lot to explore movements: how large groups of people work together to change society. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin does a good job.
MO: We act as if we’re past monarchy, but a lot of things in our world came from the Victorian age. For example, breakfast buffets in hotels are an aristocratic tradition.
CV: We are still in a oligarchy; we are in a new gilded age. We have been “convinced as a culture to cheerlead capitalism, and specific players in capitalism.” Consider how much geek fandom is invested in the Avengers endgame. Disney doesn’t care about us! Media companies are making a ridiculous amount of money convincing us to consume their stuff as a fun hobby. Corporations are “making us complicit in our own oppression, and [making us] find it entertaining.”
SS: It’s difficult to write a book about work, and about how politics works at a ground level. I think we can write more interesting novels if we can concentrate on how economic systems really work.
Question: How do you address the fundamental difficulty that stories have to be about individual people, not about systems?
MO: I’m fascinated by organizations, and group dynamics. Working as part of an organization, you can see yourself as a hero for a certain amount of time, but after a while you can’t keep tricking yourself. In stories, you need characters to identify with; I can’t be intrigued by abstractions. But we can show characters enmeshed in the organizations they’re working for.
In the modern world we consume a lot of content. If I don’t have a stack of good stories within easy reach I get nervous. Consuming this much affects how our brains mediate the world, and frames our experiences. We put the popular narratives as frames on everything we see. This can both be a good and bad thing.
We imagine people as heroes, because plots are built around individual heroes. We imagine romance where there isn’t any. What we think of as fundamental aspects of story are not fundamental - they’ve changed over history. Sometimes we’re right because others act on the same impulses, and so the story sense is a kind of intuition, but sometimes it’s false. We need to be critical of the narratives we’re consuming and imagining.
CV: We are motivated to take the stories we read and bring them into the real world. Consider the amount of worship that people direct towards Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and other billionaires. Trump is a “real world Tony Stark” (from Iron Man). We want to live in a world where someone comes to save the day. Elon Musk has been terrible for the class struggle; he was born with privilege upon privilege; his claimed inventions aren’t invented by him. But he bends narrative energy towards him, so people see him as a way to live in a different story.
CT: There’s a drive towards exceptionalism in stories: a super-competent hero saves the day. A challenge is to write normal people, facing something traumatic in their normal lives.
MO: Consider people who are heroes in your and other people’s lives. It’s hard to find these heroes in the news; they are unknown or disappear immediately; it’s hard to anchor them in your head. The things we are told are heroic are not as heroic or exciting as the things we ignore completely.
For example, pregnancy and childbirth are largely ignored in science fiction. But pregnancy is a heroic journey, and much more guaranteed to have pain than the journey of throwing a ring in the volcano. We think of it as mundane, unexciting, unremarkable. But this kind of heroism doesn’t have to be boring - think about the struggle to feed one’s family.
CV: Pregnancy shows up in horror stories. But childbirth and early childrearing are ignored, and used as a way to get rid of a woman character.
Breastfeeding is a class marker that has switched. It used to be that wealthy people used baby formula; breastfeeding was seen as vulgar and obscene. Now, it’s wealthy women who have the time to breastfeed, and the poor who use a formula because they have to go back to work.
Even women don’t write about these things because they think it’s not novel-worthy. Similarly, war is worthy and education is not. (Though, education and childrearing are talked about in AI stories.)
There is nothing in life that class does not permeate. Art has no obligation but to tell the truth, but if you are not involving class you are probably not telling the truth.
Question: We eat nutritious food (stories tackling important issues) and pizza (popular fiction). Where capitalism booms, are we doomed to pizza?
CT: Spinach pizza? If you create a beautiful thing, you can sneak in a lot of cool stuff and people will support it.
CV: This is where science fiction and fantasy shine. We can write about class struggle with vampires and robots. It’s not fun without vampires and robots, because we read about it in the newspaper every day. But because we write in genres, it goes down easier, in a way that people will remember more, because they were not expecting to get a lecture on class struggle.
MO: Fun is a highly underrated quality in literature. Writing about class, slavery, etc. doesn’t have to contradict fun; the writing and voice can be strong and enjoyable.
Q: Does human nature make utopia impossible?
CT: We need to get away from merit-based systems. The punishment for not winning the cherry-pie-eating contest should not be abject poverty. The bottom line should be nice and solid, so no one is falling through it.
MO: There are many ways to organize society. We’ve designed society to incentivize certain ways of sucking. There are new societies we haven’t tried yet. We won’t know until we go out and try.
Panelists: Jack Dann, Theodora Goss (moderator), Kate Maruyama, Kenneth Schneyer, Holly Walrath
Description: Those who want to learn the craft of writing popular genre fiction have more options then ever. MFA programs and workshops of excellent repute are popping up all over the U.S., from Stonecoast in Maine to Clarion in California, as well as in other parts of the world. With so many options, how does one choose? Panelists who have participated in these programs as mentors or mentees will discuss their experiences.
Summary: The panelists compared credentialing programs (such as MFA’s) with intensive workshops. Intensive workshops develop critiquing facilities that you can turn onto your own work, as well as create instant community and give you a mutual support system. A credentialing program won’t do more for your editing skills than a workshop will, but is important if you want to teach writing. A degree program is like an apprenticeship; pay attention to who you’re going to be studying with, and whether they are good teachers. There are a variety of different programs, from full-time to low-residency programs.
Beyond the high-profile workshops, there are many local workshops and classes, for example, Grub Street in Boston and Gotham Writers in New York, as well as online classes such as Odyssey and Writing the Other. Recommendations for books on writing: Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin and Story, Robert McKee.
KS: Rejection is part of an artists’ life; be accustomed to the experience without being crushed. I’m reasonably successful, and my acceptance rate is 9%. Get used to resending things.
Panelists: Charles Allison, Robert Killheffer, Chelsea R. Miller (moderator), Jess Nevins, Faye Ringel
Description: Medieval Europe was a hotbed of interaction among people of different cultures and ethnicities, so there’s no reason for fantasy novels with medieval-like settings to be blandly homogeneous. Panelists will discuss how popular narratives of medieval Europe misrepresent known history, how these narratives serve white supremacist movements, and how writers can do better by readers by basing their worldbuilding on Europe as it really was.
Highlights from panel discussion:
Inventing the narrative of the Middle Ages
CA: The image of Europe as a sequestered place during the Middle Ages, not influenced by other lands, is absurd. A simple version of history is an agenda.
CM: Medievalism in pop culture tells us less about medieval world, and more about the ecology where it’s written. Check out Shiloh Carroll’s book on medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire.
FR: The Middle Ages is always being reinvented to mirror what people are looking for at the time. The very idea of “middle” started as pejorative. It was coined during the Italian Renaissance, to imply all the “middle” stuff between them the Roman empire was bad.
On the flip side, countries often use their “history” in the middle ages for the sake of nation-building, for example, the Kalevala from Finland.
CA: Saying that Mongols are oppressors is a simplistic narrative. A lot of Russian and Muscovite culture comes from Mongol/steppe influence. As James Halper said, even hostilities require a degree of intimacy. “You sacrifice accuracy for a narrative you find compelling… Fantasy is a key part of history.”
RK: Rulers create backstories for their countries to legitimize their rule. The idea of “national types/characters” is that the place a person is from tells you something about them.
CM: There is a history of European national leaders abusing their historical stories for nationalistic purposes. For example, Francesco Franco invoked the memory of Spain’s medieval past.
JN: Check out the book Inventing the middle ages.
RK: Mythmaking is not unique to 19th century Europe. Early Anglo-Saxons rulers made up genealogies to include Jesus and Caesar.
CA: Europe got heavy cavalry from steppe cultures. This runs counter to the standard white nationalist narrative of a sequestered Europe.
CM: What ways are white supremacist transforming the past? What are ways writers and readers can respond?
FR: The name King Arthur Flour came from the association of medievalism with whiteness, purity, and strength. The KKK saw themselves as descendants of noble Scots clans and dressed with what they imagined as 15th and 16th century clothes.
JN: The white nationalist website Stormfront gives a history of the white race, leaving out everyone who’s not white; it constructs a reactionary version of the middle ages. The son of the cofounder read up on the middle ages and defected from his family and the movement, getting a degree in medieval studies.
RK: Respond using facts! Anyone open to facts will have to change their mind; facts overwhelm simplistic stories.
CA: Check out primary sources from other countries interacting with medieval Europe. A great book is The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition by Al-Nuwayri. Open to any page and it’s fascinating; you see a historical account of a battle, or how to cure a hangover, or erotic poetry next to an article denouncing erotic poetry.
Q: Tell us about another culture that has interacted with medieval Europe.
FR: I want to point out the Jewish contribution. When I was starting grad school, nobody was writing about it. There are huge amounts waiting for translation to be accessible, such as the Yiddish King Arthur story, and the story of the Jewish troubadours.
RK: Arabic literature had a large influence. Research in the 1990’s and 2000’s revealed the extent of the interaction.
JN: I’m fascinated with individuals who cross borders. In 1102, a Sudanese man accompanied crusaders to North France, and became the hangman of Lyon, France. He was even more Black Adder than Black Adder. The crusader was killed by a mob, and there was no evidence of what happened to the hangman (named John). He was wandering around Northern France. Someone needs to write this story!
CM: I like to focus on places with intercultural interactions, like the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Panelists: Lisa Bradley (moderator), Carlos Hernandez, José Pablo Iriarte, Julia Rios
Description: Isolationist governments portray immigrants (and citizens perceived as foreigners) as vectors for disease, crime, and terrorism. Currently, the U.S. administration is demonizing Latinx immigrants in this fashion, and oppressing asylum-seekers from Central America. How can authors dismantle anti-immigrant myths while portraying immigrants in all their human complexity? Led by Lisa M. Bradley, Latinx writers will discuss their work regarding borders and immigration, providing historical context and exploring possibilities for future stories.
Highlights from panel discussion:
CH: After Fidel Castro took power, the US had the wet foot dry foot policy: If a Cuban could put one foot on American soil, they were allowed in and embraced, and if they were caught on the strait, they were sent back. (The policy was recently rescinded by the Obama administration.) After Castro came to power, Cubans went from being perceived as exotic like other Caribbean people, to being perceived as freedom fighters. This gave Cubans a position of privilege compared to other Latin Americans, though they still faced racism.
White is not a color; it is an ideological position. The Irish were not considered white for a long time.
JPI: There are differences in status within the Miami Cuban population - people divided themselves based on who had left the country earlier.
JR: My father is from Mexico, but in our family we internalized the idea that the best way to be successful is to be as white as possible. My parents didn’t want to teach us Spanish. My dad wanted me to know my heritage without being part of it.
LB: Where we settle in the US has an effect on how we’re treated.
CH: Florida is its own brand of weird - ask Google to auto-complete “A Florida man.” I grew up in Sarasota. The average age is deceased (older than the average life expectancy). It is the high school drinking capital. People there have set up microwalls with each other. There is homophobia and different levels of racism based on skin color.
JR: There’s a difference between rural and urban communities. Los Angeles has a giant Mexican population, with more Mexican-Americans than whites, but it still feeds to white privilege.
Urban communities benefit from having a big community, through having newspapers, festivals, and activism. We moved to rural Southern California. It is very red and has a significant Latinx population, much of which was farm workers. White people own farms, and Latinx people work.
I picked strawberries in the summer. Latinx workers were devalued and paid little. People who were much better at picking than me may have been paid less because the owners thought I was white.
LB: Children of immigrants are part of two different cultures. What kinds of conflicts and identity issues arise?
JPI: I keep writing about children of immigrants “stuck between two cultures.” We are expected to honor our heritage, but it conflicts with the dominant culture. I grew up in the “shadow of Havana,” in its re-creation in Florida. I have never been to Cuba, and if I traveled there, it would be as a tourist, but I feel a loyalty to the culture, and obligations to the land.
CH: I visited Cuba in 1997 as part of an educational exchange, and brought back $200 worth of cuban cigars, legally. I saw the devastation of Havana. It looks like a slow-motion bombing had happened over four decades. The Cuba that existed is preserved in Miami now - the idealistic version, with money. It’s said that the “three failures” of the revolution are breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
JR: I’m half-Mexican; my mother is white and Protestant. I didn’t fit with either side of my family.
People who spoke Spanish as their first language were often defensive, lashing out at anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish. When you feel powerless, you gain the only power you can, by lashing out at other people.
I took Spanish in high school. My father yelled at me when I made mistakes; I had a big mental block from learning the language for a long time.
JR: My ideal world is a world without borders. Open borders create economic prosperity. After Brexit, people didn’t actually want to leave, because no other deal looks good; they need immigrants for industry.
There was a community meeting on immigration policies in Somerville. The major said: we love immigrants, and we need you to work in the hotel and casino that’s opening. The meaning was: We want you here - and out of sight.
JR: We need fiction showing Latinx characters being human, and we need a variety of voices, for a chorus effect.
JPI: Studies show that readers are more capable of empathy; they learn to live outside themselves. Marginalized communities get value from seeing themselves in print. Non-marginalized readers get value fromn seeing us in print and identifying with us.
JR: People change when they see others who don’t seem to share an identity with - and then see themselves in those people.
CH: Fiction plays the long game. A book here now can keep talking 75 years from now, reverberating and inspiring others to write things.
There are things to work on inside our communities: the bullshit machismo that permeates the culture, homophobia, and position against women. I grew up on the show Salvador Gigante, which had naked women dancing around onstage.
JPI: Criticism is easier to take from people within the community.
JR: Racism is not just a problem in the US; it’s also in Latinx countries. When a country is colonized, being like the colonizer is ideal, so people prized whiteness. “Limpia de la sangre,” purity of the blood, is racism based on how much Spanish/Indio heritage one has.
Check out Polloman, a Mexican mythology comic.
Panelists: John Clute, C.S.E. Cooney, Chris Gerwel, Elizabeth Hand (moderator), Howard Waldrop
Description: Gene Wolfe (1931–2019) was Readercon’s first guest of honor, and for good reason. His Book of the New Sun series was not so much groundbreaking as earth-shattering; his short fiction equally displayed his virtuoso talent for unsettling and disorienting the reader. He dipped into numerous genres and refused to be bound by the conventions of any. Join us to remember our friend and colleague and to explore his extraordinary body of work.
Highlights from panel discussion:
CG: I first encountered Gene Wolfe’s books as a kid, when I was 10 years old. I got it because it had a fantasy-looking cover, and understood 1/4 of it. It was dense, interesting fantasy, unlike any other. There was more I didn’t grasp. I keep going back to it, seeing more layers to how he’s constructing narratives. It boils down to layers and contradictions.
JC: Reading the Book of the Citadel, his masterpiece, was like falling down a rabbit-hole, opening a door into something that had no bottom. You had to read every single word, and believe. When you believe every word, then there are no deceptions. At the end, everything is true. After all the meanness and cruelty, this torturer [the main character] was searching for some way to become a good person.
CC: Because I wanted to be a writer, my father introduced me to Gene Wolfe, who was in the same church. He was twinkly-eyed and friendly, a raconteur. You have to start by writing short stories, he said, they can be about anything.
He became a mentor to me. We exchanged letters; he took me to brunch, to conventions, taught me to write cover letters. I wrote to him about my rejections, and he said, good on you for moaning. Shouting to the walls is even better. “It is those who say it doesn’t matter who cannot be saved.” I kept my rejection slips with his letters.
EH: Wolfe was a convert to Catholicism. He said Catholicism was impossible to keep out of his work, but it’s not easy to pick up the clues. How and should it matter?
CG: One can read his work without any awareness of his faith, but his faith permeates it at every level. For example, he would reference theological debates in Catholic tradition, like some schism in the 12th century. His work always had a drive towards goodness, an optimism, a quest to positive morality, which set it apart from the modernist tradition.
JC: Every moment has been his drive to do the right thing. Gene Wolfe’s protagonists are young boys, but his books are not YA novels. In the end, the ideal Gene Wolfe character fulfilling Gene Wolfe goodness is a boy managing to do a man’s work.
EH: Rather than invent a new language, Wolfe would mine the English language, and create an ornate style out of the strangeness of the English language. He cast a big shadow over genre writers.
HW: I’ve never consciously tried to imitate Wolfe. His writing is so changeable. He writes a story like it needs to be written. It’s impossible to imitate one-off person. The way he could craft the story once he had the setup - he did exactly what story needed. I try to do the same thing: never write the same story twice, never write the kind of story from the same viewpoint twice. It feels like the story was there, Gene Wolfe just wrote it down.
CC: I started writing short stories. He would comment on them, “prose like uncooked dumplings but the dialogue is pretty good.” At 18, I wrote to him for any response. I kept submitting stories, but didn’t get accepted.
I was also writing story poems. He said that they were very good - use the poetic structure, keep every line, just put it in paragraph form. It got published in Subterranean Press. It gave me permission, that a short story can be rich.
JC: Gene Wolfe is the most emotionally intense writer I’ve encountered. The more you get to the center of Wolfe, the quieter it gets: Dead silence at the center of the most impassionate heat. His books are complex; you have to go through the carapace to the truth he’s telling. He is exposing and defending himself at same time.
CG: There is a large amount of work the reader is expected to bring to his stories. One can project just about any kind of emotional impact or meaning onto a Gene Wolfe story. What he is asking us to do is to think about it, to construct a response to his work for ourselves.
Panelists: Liz Gorinsky, Austin Grossman, Catherynne M. Valente, Sabrina Vourvoulias, T.X. Watson (moderator)
Description: For Arisia’s 50 Panels in 75 Minutes panel in 2018, Cecilia Tan suggested “Why Does Space Get the Opera and Cyber the Punk?”, which was universally acclaimed as too good for 1.5 minutes. Our panelists will give this exploration of speculative and musical genres the full hour it deserves. (And where is the spacepunk and cyber opera?)
Highlights from panel discussion:
Thoughts on punk vs. opera
AG: “Space opera” was coined in the 40’s as a derogatory term - operas are boring. It’s more what people thought about operas.
CV: “Punk” was also derogatory.
AM: It’s more about the aesthetics than about the musical genre. My initial understanding of “space opera” was that it’s space books written by women with emotion. [cf. soap opera]
CV: It’s a lot to do with class. Cyberpunk is about people not in the ruling class, while space opera is (it takes money to go to space).
AM: Opera is enjoyed by the upper classes, and a symbol of decadent elitism. It describes a story that has an over-the-top grand narrative, involving people with the time and energy to go on adventures.
CV: Most people don’t like opera but think they should. It’s not an art form for the mainstream. Punk is music, aesthetic, feeling, and culture; it speaks to people.
Catherynne Valente on Space Opera and Eurovision
Quote: “the only wall we could ever build against What’s Going On was the glitter and the shine and the synth and the knowing grin that never stops knowing. The show. Because the opposite of fascism isn’t anarchy, it’s theater.”
CV: The book is a love letter to music, based off Eurovision; it’s a working-class space opera. Eurovision is a nationalistic project.
Costumes are a big part of Eurovision, representing the culture of the country. Iceland’s band had the goal of ending capitalism. They sang “Hatred will prevail” and never broke character. Everyone hated them but the American media thought they were adorable.
More optimistic visions?
AM: The inheritors of the anxiety of cyberpunk are climate/ecological science fiction.
TXW: Solarpunk gives an optimistic view of the near future, taking into account the environmental realities of the present; it’s a reaction to dystopia. Dystopia is a fire alarm, useful if there’s a path out; otherwise it just makes burning to death worse.
AM: I like Christian sacred harp music. There’s an Appalachian folk tradition, sung in 4 parts. The participants are untrained. They sing in a square, at each other. It’s not for an audience, but for participants. It’s gender neutral, and can be sung in any octave. The lyrics are based on apolistic Christian hymns from the 18th century. What would the soundtrack to climate fuction be? That with electronic voices.
On managing slush readers:
Neil Clarke guides slush readers one-on-one during their first month. Any story that they pass up to him, he gives feedback if he doesn’t end up taking it. The comments in the internal system are brutally honest.
Everyone starts by recommending more stories than they should, but they soon adjust. Reading the slush pile can give people a confidence boost - they see they are better than x% of the slush.
People make routine mistakes; it’s easy to catch in someone else’s writing.
On being an editor:
Clarke reads 1100-1200 stories a month, and is first reader on 70% of submissions. A slush reader has to read 5 stories a day. It sounds like a lot, but you don’t have to read all of a story - you can pick up on clues to reject.
For 11 out of 13 years, he did this while holding a day job.
The really bad stories are the easiest to reject. The hardest are the stories that are good until they blow the ending.
For an issue, he picks stories that work well together, like a mixtape.
Every editor wants to discover a new author.
People read a magazine because their tastes are similar to the editor’s. Often when the editor changes, the magazine loses readership, not because it’s gotten worse, but because it’s gone in a different direction.
Some of the best storytelling is when you have a 5000-word story, but you swear it’s 8000-10000. It’s a well-designed universe, so that everyone can fill in the gaps.
Years ago, when the submission numbers were lower, Clarke did some research on demographics. 70% of submissions came from men and 30% from women, but of accepted stories, 40% were from men and 60% from women.
He gave out a survey to 1000 of the authors, asking them to read the five authors that most influenced them. He found that he was more likely to publish people who read authors he was unfamiliar with, and women were more likely to read different authors from him. The lesson is that reading broadly works. The more sources you can pull from, the less likely you’ll write something the editor has seen before.
There are people who don’t get published until their 70th submission.
Clarke has a spreadsheet of every story, and tracks the demographics. When he publishes a story from a foreign country, the readership and submissions from that country spikes. He also has report cards for each slush reader.
Panelists: Charles Allison, Carolyn Ives Gilman, Anna Kashina (moderator), Chelsea R. Miller, Walt Williams
Description: Writers looking for alternatives to cod-medieval European settings don’t need to look far. The years 500 to 1500 C.E. were times of tremendous cultural and technological change around the world. Novelties of that period included Islam, paper money, and fast-ripening rice; the Incan Empire, Great Zimbabwe, and the Tang Dynasty flourished. Which non-European settings of the 6th to 16th centuries have been successfully used as the basis for fantasy lands, and which might writers find particularly inspiring?
Highlights from Panel Discussion:
CG: The origin of science fiction and fantasy can be traced to travel literature of the Elizabethan era; it similarly evoked a sense of wonder.
Some non-European settings
CA: There is a range of contradictions and varieties in a small area. For example, going from Yucatan to the border with Texas:
CG: There is an amazing enchanted landscape, with ruins old as the Roman empire, enormous geometrical symbols on the landscape. When you walk across it you can’t see the other end. They reproduced the same designs hundreds of miles apart, patterns of circles and squares. It’s the fabled land of Ohio! These are symbols from a people fascinated with geometry and measurements. They knew math and astronomy. What message were they sending? It’s a marvelous mystery.
How do you approach research?
WW: I look at the literature of people I’m writing about. This gives the internal view. I recommend Cynthia Ward and Nisi Shawl’s book Writing the Other.
CM: Stay abreast of recent scholarship. Folks are trying to make it broadly accessible.
CG: There is no substitute for visiting the people themselves. Find differences in attitudes, in the way people look at the world.
CG: Non-western civilizations have different ways of telling stories, different narrative structure and language; it’s non-Aristotelian. Western readers find it deeply unsatisfying. Just by transforming them to stories satisfying to Western readers, we are distorting and colonizing them.
CG (?): My research is on Brazil. I find a ton of stuff searching in Portuguese on YouTube. People film their local festivals. At the local market there will be someone selling DVD’s. They’re wicked good.
Panelists: Josh Jasper, John P. Murphy (moderator), Tracy Townsend, John Wiswell, Navah Wolfe
Description: On a panel at Readercon 29 about collaboration and community, John Wiswell observed that heist novels have “a synthesis of premise and plot,” while Scott Lynch added that heist stories reinforce that people need one another. This panel will dig more into heist stories, which (like humor and horror) can be layered on top of any genre or setting. What makes them satisfying? How can they make use of speculative elements while retaining their core of human ingenuity and interdependence?
Highlights from Panel Discussion:
JM: What is it about committing crimes that is so fun? How to write heists in a speculative environment? What does “synthesis of premise and plot” mean?
JW: A heist story focuses on a group rather than individual (and it counters our toxic individualism). Heists can only function if you assemble a group. Heists were originally wedded to the crime or police procedural genre. But it’s a schemata that can be placed over any genre, doing what the premise of the genre asks you to do. If you want to steal the king’s treasure, you can make it a heist rather than through battle as a knight.
NW: It’s a worldbuilding tool. Use it to explore. Going from A to B to C, you can fill in out the world.
TT: It allows us to participate in a crime as a proxy. There are many stories about trickster-like figures: Coyote, Anansi, Loki. But it always ends badly for Anansi - it’s not individuals but groups who are successful, like Robin Hood and his merry men.
JJ: Heist stories require the reader to accept the rejection of the law. It requires society to be unfair. Heist stories are good when I don’t want to read about a revolution, I want to read about someone stealing for themself.
NW: You have to define the bad guy as the person you’re stealing from.
Heros in heists
TT: We think of heists as plotty, but actually we have to think explicitly about character and motive. (JW: See Republic of Thieves - it’s the second level of heist fiction, the reveal isn’t how, but why.)
NW: The audience will support lots of things. There is nothing as sexy as extreme competence. Bring together highly competent people, and I will follow you down any dark road, as long as it’s fun. Heists are competence porn.
JJ: There is a genre-related desire to see super-competent people. We (fans) are encouraged to see ourselves as smart people, solving things with our brains. Even the punchy guy super-competent about punchy. We want to see ourselves in the heist.
TT: (asks people who play tabletop RPG to raise their hands) RPG’s are like heists; players have narrow competence growing over time, and need each other. It’s wonderfully deep Platonic bonding.
Heist stories are love stories - about found family - We’re in this together because we have to be.
Heists are episodic in nature, so they thrive across genres. They are easily serialized. Heists thrive on suspense; as things go bad for group A, cut to group B.
JW: Any syndicated TV show will eventually heist and Rashomon. It is so fun to see stories not originally created to tell heist story, adapt to heist. See Widows (movie) - the wives of the heist crew that died; they have the plan; they will not die without trying; they wake up to who they would be if they didn’t let someone organize parts of their life.
JM: Why are crimes/heists so interesting?
JJ: It’s a way to strike back at an unjust society, and at the same time, winning for oneself.
NW: Normal people do it. If it were a group of superheros it wouldn’t be a heist, it would be a mission - they can just use their powers like a battering ram.
JW: Avengers Endgame is not a time heist, but a time shopping spree. Can I get the timestone? It’s not theft, it’s a cash advance.
Cons vs. heists
A heist is an infiltration of space; a con is an infiltration of trust. A con is often central to a heist but doesn’t need to be. A con by itself is harder to make work because we’re terrified of being manipulated or being seen as a manipulator; a con with a heist becomes forgivable.
Speaker: Austin Grossman
Description: Barriers between speculative and “literary” fiction are crumbling. In this talk, Austin Grossman tries and inevitably fails to understand how we got those barriers in the first place! It’ll be fast, fun, and messy.
Description: Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar discuss how they co-wrote their epistolary spy vs. spy novella.
Choosing the project
Amal and Max wanted a way to collaborate that allowed their complementary approaches to writing to reinforce rather than neutralize each other. An epistolary format naturally lended itself to this, because each could write all the letters for one character, and the story would be consistent. Max came up with the idea of a “time war,” because it could span a “huge range of causality and contexts,” and they could easily play in the world, as long as they followed simple ground rules.
M: A bad scenario would be if neither of us felt like we had authority to play around. That sense of authority is really important, for authors trying to do their best work.
On writing letters
Amal and Max wrote physical letters to each other, on beautiful paper with wax seals.
A: It’s amazing how much pleasure we can get from communication, when we are now saturated with it. Email takes away from writing a lot of the time.
M: Both of us have been overwhelmed with social media. Our letters are not going to feed a machine learning algorithm. We can destroy them by dropping in water. They are fragile and permanent, in a way nothing on computer feels.
A: Communicating on internet feels like knitting. It’s taking form, taking up space, but can unravel so easily because there’s no knot until the very end.
They wrote all of the story during their time together, mostly sitting across from each other in a gazebo, with their computers, writing at the same time. They discussed the situation, but never the letters, so it was always a surprise. Max wrote 4 times as fast at the beginning, but as the project went on Max slowed down and Amal sped up; they naturally synced so they finished at the same time. They wrote 3 out of 5 acts in 9 days at a retreat, and finished the rest when they met later.
A: It’s a positive feedback loop. You get the gratification of someone reading your work, and reading something addressed to you, immediately.
M: It’s like jamming in a band.
A: It has little to do with the skill you bring, and more with the generosity and capacity for listening and delighting in each other. It’s like fusion in Steven Universe.
Theory of time-traveling queers
A: On my theory about time traveling queers: A disproportionate number of time travel stories are coming out this year. I realized they were mostly written by queer woman, foregrounding them and romances, in a world with no homophobia:
I asked the authors when they wrote the stories, It was all in 2016. Everyone was talking about how we’re in the worst timeline: David Bowie died, the US election. Brexit happened when we were writing the novella.
They were all saturated with abusive, gaslighty environments. Time-travel had an escapist, resistance quality. Why the foregrounding? Marginalized people are always fighting a time war, fighting the erasure of our time narratives. You don’t need a time war to erase someone, you just need selective memory. When we recuperate lives from this blanketing whiteness like snow, we are literating changing history and the future.
Biography: Stephen Graham Jones is a Piikáni (Blackfeet) author of cutting-edge fiction, ranging from the crime, horror, and science fiction genres to the purely experimental. His work has been multiply nominated for the Shirley Jackson, Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards, with Mapping the Interior (2017) winning the Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction. He has also won the Texas Institute of Letters Award and been the recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship in fiction. Playful, inventive, sincere, imaginative, touching, and horrifying, Jones’s work spans genres and defies the cynicism and alienation of postmodern literature.
S: [on Demon Theory being “100% autobiography”] Often the writing process is: write 10-12 pages quickly, hit a wall, cast about on social media, and repeat. When I wrote Demon Theory, there was no social media, so every time I hit a wall, I reached into my life and put my life in. It’s not being very creative.
S: I am someone with very low standards. There is no such thing as writer’s block. When you lower your standards you can get a lot of work done.
S: Janet Broa (?) gave me the best piece of writing advice. She said that her biggest regret was that while living with family, she would write in the study room with the door closed. I resolved to leave the door open, or write in the living room. Books are great, but family is everything.
S: I was always moving from school to school; one semester I had 83 truancies out of 83 school days. Other kids pushed me around to see if I would push back.
S: I never planned on going to college, just on being a farmer. When I was 19 years old, my mom told me, “You need to get out of town” and gave me a suitcase with enough money to go to 1 semester of school. I took a beginning philosophy course. Everyone had read the reading and talked about it as if it mattered; I had never been among people like this. So I took loans and jobs and worked my way through college.
Some police officers came into class one day because my uncle had been burned and I was the only family they could find. I got bored in the hospital so I wrote a story. I didn’t do the homework assignment and submitted the story instead; my teacher typed it and submitted it for a department award. That was my first check from writing.
S: If I don’t give 100% on teaching, then I don’t give 100% on writing.
S: People used my first novel, Demon Theory, as a lens to focus on American Indian culture, rather than reading it as a book. That’s a weird way to use art. So then I wrote zombies and slashers; what would they make of that?
S: When I was a kid, my aunt and uncle knocked on my door and asked whether they could sleep on the floor with me. They saw a Halloween movie and couldn’t sleep alone that night. I thought, what could push these people to sleep on the floor with me? Horror. I’ve been staring into the darkness ever since.
When were you most scared?
S: When I was 4 years old, my stepdad brought me to the edge of Kleechie Pit, 60 feet deep, gave me his beer, and dropped off the cliff. I thought he was gone until some time later he tapped me on the shoulder. It turned out that 12 feet down he had grabbed onto a ledge and walked to the side.
Just one thing:
“Get in the hoverdog, nerds!”
Panelists: Marc Abrahams, David DeGraff, Anna Kashina, Kathy Kitts (Moderator), Vivian Shaw
Description: Some topics require more scientific know-how than; others. How much do writers need to know for particular topics—and how do they know how much they need to know? What are some techniques for acquiring necessary knowledge without getting a PhD? This panel of scientist-writers offers helpful guidance.
Highlights from Panel Discussion:
Talking to scientists:
DD: Email scientists. They are usually happy to talk about their work. Especially those on twitter. (K: And especially grad students; they have time.)
MA: Scientists are clever. With questions you don’t know how to ask, you can ask “how could this work” and then shut up. They will work like crazy, find 1 million ways it might be done. Scientists are the best audience for that story.
KK: Find EPO (education and public outreach) programs. For all NASA grants, a certain percentage has to go towards EPO. They hire someone to be a spokesperson for each mission; reach out to the EPO director; they can help you formulate the question.
Description: Jeanne Cavelos describes Odyssey, an intensive six-week program for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror held each summer in Manchester, NH. Current students and graduates will add their own perspectives. The talk will cover the structure of the program, the work required, common struggles of writers, and the pros and cons of workshops.
Q: How did you transition from astrophysicist to writer?
J: Pay attention to what you care about, what your passion is and how to follow it, instead of bowling ahead on the path you are on.
I am a thorough person (I write thorough critiques), but it is not always good to complete something.
I studied astrophysics in college; my goal was to be an astronaut. I worked at the astronaut training division at NASA and at home, on psychic western novel. I liked dreaming more. I finished a 811-page novel, realized it was horrible, and so got a MFA in creative writing.
I worked at Bantam Doubleday as an editorial assistant. As I made my way up the ladder, I took more work home at night. I read about an editor retiring, saying that they now finally had time to write. I knew I had to get out before that happened to me!
I moved to New Hampshire, and continued to work with writers through the Odyssey workshops; that was 24 years ago. Besides the workshops, we also have online classes (announced October, held January to February), professional critiquing services, podcasts, and online salons.
On making a writing habit
J: Set hours for fiction writing, schedule it like a job. When you do everything else first, you are left over with no time for writing. Set a goal to do e.g., 1 hour every day, and do it at the same time. 95% of successful writers write in the morning. Write every day for 6 months and see how you feel. Give it a fair shot.
It’s about rewards: Some people pay themselves for time writing, like $10 each time they finish or submit a story, to spend on things they would never otherwise allow themselves to buy.
Clarion workshop structure
J: Class is 4.5 hours, 5 days a week. 3 hours a day is lecture and discussion; 1.5-2 hours is critiquing manuscripts. Most other workshops don’t spend a lot of time on lecturing and giving techniques. But lectures and critiques go hand-in-hand: if you get feedback that you need to improve ABC, and no one tells you how, it’s not going to help. The workshop changes the process by which you generate stories.
There is a thorough curriculum, including: making the protagonist struggle to achieve goal, plotting in acts (escalations), creating strong character, point of view, eliminating unintentional distance, telling and showing (how and when to do each), showing character emotions, identifying the best sentence structure for the idea, what each scene of story should do, publishing industry.
Every day there is a writing exercise, and 2 stories to critique. It takes 2-5 hours. Students also work on their own stuff, turning in a new submission each week, up to 6000 words.
I personally meet with each student at least 3 times over the course of the program. I give detailed feedback; my critiques are usually >2000 words. I make a list of common strengths and weaknesses in their work. We talk about them, choose a weakness to attack, and make a plan.
As an editor, I’ve collected different methods that work for different writers, and offer many different possibilities. I see how your brain works; what are the steps you’re missing?
Clarion has less continuity, and teaching is divided between 6 writers, so topics are covered more unevenly; there is more focus on networking.
[On critique workshops] A lot of stuff can go wrong, you are handing you baby over to people; they are chopping it up with hatchets. It’s always at least a little painful; sometimes it’s a lot painful, depending on how much you have invested. You have to walk clear line, not be attacked or coddled, but told the truth. The rule is that it’s gotta be true… It doesn’t matter how someone else is doing. If they do bad, you aren’t a better writer. Focus on your own particular journey.
Everything needs to be true and helpful - specific. “This story sucks” may be the truth but doesn’t help, because it doesn’t offer the author any way to improve. (Remove the suckiness and Hugo award winner!) More specific feedback is “There is no suspense because nothing is at stake.” It can be tough, but it gives the author direction. Suggestions are important. Not because the author should take the suggestions, but because the author often doesn’t see any other possibilities; suggestions widen the possibilities.
More on writing
A common problem is that the protagonist doesn’t struggle to achieve a goal. Another is that the character or protagonist doesn’t fully come to life; often it’s because the circumstances don’t evoke emotion; there needs to be clear mental conflict.
Many writers don’t like outlining. Find a way to do it that’s useful. If you know the beginning and end, that’s an outline. Outlining is analytical, writing is instinctive. Think about character while outlining; have some “dreamtime” while outlining. Go back and forth between outlining and writing; brains are not assembly lines. The part of brain that read all those lectures on writing, is not the part of brain that does actual writing. Daily writing exercises help (for example, writing dialogue with strong beats).
Panelists: John Clute, Elizabeth Hand (moderator), Anna Kashina, Barbara Krasnoff
Description: Relatively few stories have protagonists much older than the target audience, and the traits commonly associated with heroism aren’t often associated with age. Yet in speculative fiction there are all manner of ways to break the link between age and infirmity, or to defy or redefine the concept of aging. Panelists will explore the potential of elderly protagonists and unpack a hero’s journey that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Highlights from Panel Discussion:
Why is it challenging to write older characters (beyond wizard and sage characters)?
JC: Joseph Campbell’s “hero of a thousand faces” is a model we build stories on that is inherently biased against older protagonists. A story about a people who have only managed to survive, who hasn’t done too good a job of being grown up, doesn’t fix the pattern we expect.
EH: The hero’s journey is a model that is common in genre fiction, but not common in domestic fiction, where there are a lot more middle-aged character, like Mrs. Dalloway.
BK: Stories often stop when characters reach adulthood, get married, etc. Authors find it difficult to go beyond that.
EH: Culture in America is very centric despite differences in population. Baby boomers are advertised to be younger. We refuse to accept that we’re not getting younger.
(Someone commented that vampires are old characters who look young. Response: Immortal people have all the advantages of youth and old age (wealth and power). The problem is, most old people can’t look and act as if they are young.)
Panelists: Rob Cameron, Crystal M. Huff, Matthew Kressel, Jim LeMay, Lauren Roy
Description: Readercon and other national conventions are great, but what’s happening in your backyard? Local cons, reading events, workshops, classes, and critique groups are just a few examples of places where you might find other speculative fiction fans. If those things don’t exist near you, it might be time to create them! Panelists will share their experiences with joining and building in-person fannish communities, including joys, perils, and practical advice.
Highlights from Panel Discussion:
Finding a critique group:
RC: The best way is to search meetup in your city/state.
MK: What if you’re in a small city, and find nothing on meetup?
LR: You can find people who you are friends with online. I’m a big fan of online groups. I play on a RPG server, World of Warcraft. The forum has writing section, where people exchange stories. We had a small critique group going.
MK: There are people you can approach to ask. The best resource is the local library. You can go to the local college, and approach professors. I started a group in Hoboken New Jersey, by advertising with flyers on boards in coffeeshops.
CH: I’ve been setting up google hangouts with writing friends. Once a month for 2 hours, we check in and get to work. We bounce ideas, and pass each other googledocs. For the check-in, we talk about what’s going on emotionally, like if we’ve had an upsetting week, etc. What’s going on with my writing, where I am at?
RC: If you just want critique, check out critters.org. It’s a community where everyone is there to do same thing, an economy of stories, critique to be critiqued.
We (the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers) have been experimenting with an online group - particularly for writers who have moved, or work night shifts and can’t make the normal times. We use google hangouts and google drive, and converse via hangouts, and workshop a maximum of 3 stories per meeting.
JL: I’m in Denver. Bookstores and coffeehouses are places to find out about writers’ groups. Bookstores in Denver often have well-known writers show up.
MK: Go to a local writing event in the community to meet writers, and people with similar interests. For example, Fantastic fiction at KGB. For people who are introverted, being at reading allows you to just sit and absorb; there’s less pressure.
RC: Game stores are also good places.
MK: Codex writers has a straightforward application process; it’s a private forum of people who critique and give each other moral support. Subcommunities on reddit can also be supportive: /writing.
RC: I emailed an author, I love your work, and I’m writing with a story with an element similar to yours. That started a 2-month-long correspondence.
MK: SFWA has a mentoring program.
Panelists: Martin Cahill, Scott Edelman, James Patrick Kelly (moderator), Benjamin C. Kinney, Kenneth Schneyer
Description: As Ann Leckie explained in a 2013 blog post, even great writers will have stories rejected if they write 7,000 words around an underdeveloped idea. So what kind of research should go into a short story? How much plot and exposition are called for? What questions should the writer be asking and answering before they even start writing? Panelists will explore various methods by which a story seed can be nurtured into something publishable.
Highlights from Panel Discussion:
James Kelly started by asking how many rejection slips or letters the panelists had. Answers ranged from 400 to 2000. Kenneth Schneyer mentioned that one author got accepted to Asimov’s on their 79th submission.
Then they discussed the next story that they were going to write, and what they knew about it.
MC: When there’s a trope that I dislike, the way I figure out why is to write that story.
SE: I have an concept for a world, but the seed/concept is not the story. I need to know whose story it is and why it matters. Who would be changed in the most profound way? When I arrive at the answer, I know what it’s about. I’m going through possible genders, races, ages, etc. of the main character, and considering different possible plots.
What questions do you need to ask and answer before you start to write?
KS: Why would I or anyone else care about the story? I have a word file that’s the length of a short novel, with nothing but 1-3 sentence snippets of story ideas. The majority go nowhere.
SE: The comment that hurts me the most is “this is trivial.” Or “Why did you waste my time?”, “There is no sense of purpose,” “Does this matter?” So ask yourself: how many stories am I going to write in my lifetime, and do I want this to be one of those stories?3
MC: Who is changed or being challenged? What is the consequence of their actions?
BK: What makes it not trivial - what is the common human experience that it relates to?
JK: Why am I the person to write this story? Be cautious about writing to theme anthologies - too much constrained work can be deadening to the exploratory inner writer who wants to write new stuff and find themself.
JK: How do you know when you’ve done enough research and it’s time to start writing?
KS: Do enough to start writing, and then do the research you need. It’s so hard to get myself writing that I don’t want anything to stand in between. I write a first draft, and then research and correct.
MC: Do enough research to empower you, not to bog you down. Google quick questions. For something specific, people who know will know you don’t; do enough to cover your ass.
KS: Often some research can get the story going. I read something nifty, and think, “That is so cool.”
SE+JK: You can write about something you’re intrinsically interested in - then you’d naturally have done the research over the course of your life.
KS: Use the power of handwavyness.
JK: How do you find problems and fix them?
BK: Two things can kill an otherwise competent story: no driving conflict (it’s good to have conflict on page 1), and lack of character agency.
Bring the cool thing up to the front. Put the reveal in paragraph 1, and explore the implications for the rest of the story?
MC: Use a writer’s group/beta readers.
JK: There are 3 parts of a story: beginning, middle, and end. Look at your own story. How much of it is beginning, middle, and end?
The beginning ends when the main character walks through a one-way door, that they can no longer go back through. Similarly, the transition to the ending is irreversible.
KS: Find the core of the story. When I write the first draft, 80% of the time I don’t know what the story was about - what was compelling about it. Ask: where is my unconscious emotional energy? What is the thing that I felt was necessary to say? Don’t sell yourself short. You didn’t do it just because it was a fun idea/exercise. Somewhere there was something that made it urgent enough. Find what that is.
MC: As Cat Valente said, a short story is a series of investments, convincing the reader to keep reading.
Check out A Kiss with Teeth by Max Gladstone. At cusp between the middle and the end, it seems to make a turn towards the really dark, but he flips the story on its head.
I feel like this is how any professional community - of experts and aspirants - should be, and yet I’ve hardly found it anywhere else. Perhaps it’s because there are so many roads leading away from science fiction and fantasy that the people who are here really love it (it’s not a good way to get money; it’s not a good way to get conventional respect - it’s not as respected as literary fiction; for example, several people mentioned being nudged away from genre fiction in college and finding their way back). ↩
I find it much like “open questions” in an academic subject - what are interesting directions to pursue!↩