New writers are often advised not to read reviews of their work. The theory goes that reviews are for readers, not for writers who can do nothing whatsoever to make amends for whatever glaring faults the reviewer finds in their work. Worse yet, a few bad reviews–or maybe only one or two–just might dishearten the newbie author to such an extent that they wreak havoc on further creative endeavors.
What this well-meaning advice neglects to address is how a new writer, or even a well-established author with numerous publications to their name, is supposed to resist the siren call of the review. In my own case, for the longest time, I wouldn’t even admit to reading reviews of my work because I thought it showed a character flaw. Over time, I came to see that a great many writers, maybe even most of us, do read published reviews of our work. I suppose we could justify doing so on the grounds that it’s nonsensical for us to be the only ones who have no idea what professional reviewers are saying about our body of work. A lot of us also read Amazon and Good Reads reviews written by readers. Again, it seems to make sense to find out what our fans, no matter how numerous or how sparse, think of our stories.
There’s another reason to read reviews. Writing is, inescapably, a solitary profession for long chunks of time. It can also seem frustratingly like casting one’s work into a black hole from which not a solitary ray of feedback escapes. Who wouldn’t want to hear something?
Besides, there are times when that feedback can be extraordinarily gratifying. Take for example, Rich Horton’s review of the my own story, “Conservation of Mismatched Shoes,” in the July 2019 issue of Locus. It’s his favorite story in the issue! Mark me down as thrilled. Thrilled, I tell you! This isn’t simply a matter of basking in his kind words. My reaction has everything to do with the fact that while writing this one, I really struggled to portray the teenage protagonist and her older brother. Rich Horton deemed it “[a]n honest story, convincingly characterized.”
I intend to keep on reading those reviews!
Fifty years ago today I thrilled at the Moon landing, which I watched on a a grainy black-and-white TV with my parents and brother. From that day forth, the kid who was me believed she could, one day, work on the Moon if she wanted to. After all, our later-reviled President, Richard Nixon, told us that “The sky is no longer the limit.” Oh how I could hardly wait to land my own job on the Moon!
Technology has come a long way in fifty years, which is how I was able to sit on the national Mall yesterday evening with thousands of others watching a projection of the Apollo 11 rocket onto the Washington Monument. This was part of a program in which NASA and the Smithsonian commemorated the momentous achievement of all the women and men who poured their passion into making Apollo 11 a reality. And there I sat on the grass remembering my own dream job on the Moon.
Actually, my trip down memory lane began on a rainy night at the ballpark some days earlier. There, I chanced upon a replica of Neil Armstrong’s space suit, which got me to musing about what happened to that kid who thought she could work on the Moon when she grew up. I’ll tell you, dear readers. That kid, who is as much me as she ever was, went on to get a job on the Moon! That is to say, I became a science fiction writer and found out that when I unleash my imagination, the sky is indeed no longer the limit.
Why should I go on a writing retreat when I have a home office set-up that gives me plenty of opportunity to amass all the words? I mean, it takes time and money to travel, eat out, etc. Even considering that many of the daily distractions won’t exist, will it be worth it to head out to do what I can do right here?
These questions swirled through my brain as I packed my bag not long ago and left for a retreat with some of my writer buds. I’ve done writing retreats several times before and have always come home rather surprised at how much I managed to accomplish. And that’s with–or despite–ubiquitous high-speed internet and face-time with people I haven’t hung out with nearly enough.
I’ve been giving some thought to why it’s easier for me to write in the company of other writers. For me, it’s a matter of accountability. When I see the intense concentration of my friends’ faces as they sit together grinding out words, peer pressure seizes me. My urge to sink into social media drops away. I find myself opening that unfinished piece and wrestling with it. Oddly enough, writing on retreat works best for me when I’ve reached a knotty place in the story. I find I’m less inclined to throw in the towel.
Caveat: Your mileage may vary. No two writers go about it in exactly the same way, so I’m pretty sure retreats don’t work well for some. Nonetheless, if you get the chance, give it a shot!
By which, I am thrilled to announce my debut in issue 3 of the revived Amazing Stories. Kudos to Steve Davidson (the driving force) and Ira Nayman (astute editor) for publishing some fine short stories in the first three new issues of Amazing Stories.
Seeing my story, “Conservation of Mis-Matched Shoes,” in this revitalized magazine feels like an alternate universe. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, the story is about navigating the multiverse. Hope you’ll give it a read!
I’m thrilled to say that my interactive fiction game, T-Rex Time Machine is but one of a double handful of science fiction and fantasy works written by Taos Toolbox alums in the past year or so. Hope you’ll check out the wealth of reading featured on Walter Jon Williams’ blog. They all make great last-minute gifts for yourself or someone else!
This is not your usual con report cataloging who I saw, who I wish I’d seen, and so on. It’s about magical gifts from Worldcon. Because these gifts are assuredly magic, I’m giving one or more of them to you.
1. The gift of a wondrous place. Within the fleeting writerly community known as a convention, there exist wondrous places. I was privileged to give one of these to a newly minted Clarion grad. The place was the SFWA suite. Because SFWA needed to limit access, I could get him in as my plus one. Like the best of magical gifts, this one came back to me when I heard the next day how thrilled he had been to be there and talk with all the creative folk therein. That brought back my own memories of my first time as a guest of an “established pro writer” in the SFWA suite and how it spurred me to continue onward toward my own career goals.
2. The gift of a connection. It’s so simple to introduce someone to someone else knowing they have a shared interest, or maybe several, and can pursue that together. It could be professional or pure fun, doesn’t matter. This gift also came back to me when I was introduced to several good people who already mean much to me.
3. The gift of envy. I’ve come to see that most every writer I know aspires to create more compelling work, to reach a broader audience, to be recognized and make a difference in the lives of their readers. There’s always someone who’s produced more and better stuff than I did or than you did. These are the seeds of envy. Yes, the seeds can sprout into soul-crushing bitterness, but only if we let them. For the longest time, I stuffed that envy down deep because I feared it would harm me. Then I saw that some folks envied me for what I’ve created. Wow, that was remarkable and all-the-more-so when they were the very writers whom I envied.
What I’m saying is that when the green-eyed monster comes to visit, try this: Treat envy as a two-way street. Take some time out from your own yearning for the accomplishments that others already have, whether it’s publications, awards, money, or anything on your career bingo card. Look at how some of those same writers, or others, are envying you for something you’ve done that they see as out of their reach. We all have our unique abilities. You do you.
And now, faithful readers—for if you’ve gotten this far, that is most assuredly what you are—here is your magical gift. It’s meant especially for everyone who wasn’t at Worldcon this year, or any year, and longed to be. You can reach that special place and feel that connection and find ways to deal with envy through the magic created by others. For our fleeting science fiction and fantasy nation, and a batch of its citizens, will come within your reach at some point. Then it’s a matter of letting the magic envelop you. As readers, you totally got this!
Here’s where to find me at Con Jose Aug. 16-20. Bay Area peeps: this means you!
16 Aug 2018, Thursday 16:00 – 17:00, 210F (San Jose Convention Center)
Sometimes, main characters in a story are ordinary people – not everyone is extraordinary. Can such a focus make a story more powerful? What makes them appealing? How does such a story differ from a story of heroes and villains?
Panel discussion with Cecilia Tan (M), Nick Mamatas, Christine Taylor-Butler, Rosemary Claire Smith, Sheila Finch
18 Aug 2018, Saturday 15:30 – 16:00 SFWA Table (San Jose Convention Center)
Stop by and I’ll sign promo materials for T-Rex Time Machine (my interactive fiction game) or any magazines or anthologies you brought with my stories and/or articles.
Clarion 50th Reunion Party
18 Aug 2018, Saturday 20:00 – 23:00
Many, many Clarion classes come together to celebrate fifty years of the boot-camp for writers that launched so many careers. Mine included!
EAT YOUR WORLD (Read Your Food)
19 Aug 2018, Sunday 16:00-17:00 location TBA
Dive into Worldbuilding is throwing a party. Juliette Wade and others will bring foods inspired by fiction. Author attendees will be invited to read food-related snippets from their work.
Like me, many science fiction writers and readers are getting word today about the passing of Harlan Ellison. Some who knew him will sit down to summon words to commemorate his brilliance as a writer and an anthologist coupled with his larger-than-life personality. I want to take a minute to pay tribute to his eloquent advocacy on behalf of writers everywhere. I can think of no better way to do so than to repeat the three words he put forward: Pay. The. Writer.
In this age of digital piracy, to say nothing of good old-fashioned scams at every turn, Harlan Ellison articulated as well as anyone that the money should flow to the writer, not away. If any of my readers are new to the business of writing (and yes, always treat it as a business as much as a creative endeavor), you would do well to keep this principle in mind when someone tries to talk you into giving them your property (which is exactly what your written words are) for free. They may say something to the effect of, “It’ll be good exposure.” One response is, “People die from exposure.” Here’s how Harlan Ellison put it.
Over the weekend, the science fiction and fantasy community lost Gardner Dozois, writer and editor extraordinaire. I’ve known Gardner for decades and wanted to share with you a single instance illustrating how remarkable he was.
Gardner did a stint as the editor-in-residence for the Clarion Writers Workshop the year I attended. Over the four-day period he not only lectured and extended his own unique brand of friendship to every one of us. It was apparent that he wanted us to become the best writers we could be. To that end, he read all the stories we submitted when applying to Clarion plus every single story every one of us had written in the four weeks we’d been there. This had to total around 80-100 stories and he read them during those four days! Then he held one-on-one conferences with each of us in which he critiqued our stories, gave suggestions for what needed work, how to tackle problematic aspects of those stories, and even told us which ones were not worth any more work. His help was above and beyond what any of us had expected, all the more so when I stop and think back on what he could and did accomplish in a mere four days.
When Gardner took his leave of us, my head was spinning! And yet, what he did not do was tell any of us that he wanted to buy our stories for Asimov’s Science Fiction. While disappointing, it wasn’t surprising that none of us had written an Asimov’s-worthy story—yet. Naturally, Gardner could see more clearly than we could that writing is a long game. He did buy from some of us later and/or gave us an honorable mention in one of his year’s best anthologies.
I came away from Clarion vowing to sell Gardner a story. Alas that never happened. But here’s what did occur: Gardner’s advice helped me sell some of my Clarion stories once they had been rewritten from start to finish. A couple of those eventually went on to find homes in Asimov’s sister magazine, Analog. So in closing, I want to thank Gardner for helping to make me the Analog writer I became.
Memorial Day Weekend, come hear me read from one of my dinosaur stories and talk about time travel, shopping at Target in Middle Earth, critiquing, writing methods, predatory business practices, anthropomorphism, and who knows what else! Here is my schedule for Balticon:
Friday, May 25
6pm Anthropomorphism in SFF
Learn how to tell stories from an animal’s unique perspective without resorting to writing humans in fursuits.
Saturday, May 26
11am Stopping the Clocks: Time Travel in Writing
In 1888, H.G. Wells wrote his first time travel story, “The Chronic Argonauts.” 130 years later, the concept is as popular as ever , with people still trying new takes on it. Why is time travel so perennial a theme? What are some of the different rules we’ve seen, and how do they make for good storytelling?
1pm You Can’t Shop at Target in Middle Earth
In your original fantasy setting, everything the characters own has to come from somewhere. Let’s talk about how to build a believable material culture for your world.
2pm Recognizing Predatory Business Practices
How to look for signs that you might not be dealing with a legitimate company – including common tactics such as pay-to-play, signing over derivative works, and others.
Sunday, May 27
12pm Readings: Sarah Avery, Rosemary Claire Smith, Carl Paolino
Authors Sarah Avery, Rosemary Claire Smith, and Carl Paolino read from their work.
5pm How to Incorporate Critique
What do you do when you have two readers giving you different or even contradictory feedback? How much are you willing to let the feedback change your work?
Monday, May 28
10am Outlining vs. Pantsing
Some storytellers require a detailed outline to start fleshing out their story, but others prefer to write by the seat of the pants. What are some techniques to help you get better at one when you prefer the other? Authors and gamemasters welcome!
Hope to see lots of you there!