2020 was a very tough year for readers seeking signs of hope for the future or solace in a brief respite from reality. It was an equally tough year for writers trying to string words together into something that felt meaningful. When our work did find its way into print or on line, all too often it didn’t attract the attention it merited. It’s time to remedy this! Writers: your readers, both new and old, need to reconnect with your insights. I urge you to put out on social media your 2020 year-end retrospective. Yes, many of cringe at the prospect of doing so. Here’s a bit of advice I wrote on SFWA’s blog as to how you might go about this without coming across as self-absorbed or grubbing for award nominations.
I’m pleased to announce that I had several articles published in 2020, all of which you can read for free:
- Monumental Thinking, which is in the January/February issue of Analog, is my take on suitable replacements for statues being torn down these days.
- Elections Past, Present, and To Come is a reprint plus update of an article from the March 2016 issue of Analog talking about what it’s like to serve as an election official/poll worker. I’ve done this a bunch of times, including the 2020 Presidential primaries. (Do those ever seem like a lifetime ago!).
- What I know about writing about dinosaurs was posted on Cath Schaff-Stump’s Fantastic History blog.
My year end retrospective would normally include a list of my fiction that also appeared in print. Alas, 2020 has not been kind to the publishing industry. I was slated to have three science fiction stories make their print and/or on-line appearances. None of them did. Writers: This is why it’s important to make sure your contract addresses rights reversions and provides a kill fee if publication doesn’t happen within a stated time period. Sigh. These stories are all out to other markets once more.
Most Unexpected Pleasure: Serving as a judge for the Endeavour Award. It’s great to have a role in recognizing fine work by my colleagues who don’t make the choice easy!
Best Trip: Philadelphia Flower Show in early March. Have a look at some of my photos from it.
Best Educational Opportunities: Smithsonian classes went on line. You don’t even have to be a member (a/k/a Smithsonian Associate) to take them. I loved learning about how birds talk, parent, and think. I also sank into lectures on Paleolithic Cave Art, Santorini, Apollo 13, the Etruscans, Machu Picchu, and the Art of India.
Best Pandemic Antidote: Monthly flower deliveries for Zoom arranging with friends. If you are interested, check out revased.com. Or just have a look at some of my creations on my Flowers page and on Instagram.
Late to the Party: This summer I read and binge watched Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Most Fun New Series: The Queen’s Gambit. This show reminded me so very much of my own days as a kid and high school student when I threw myself into the world of competitive chess tournaments. While my experiences took place somewhat later in time, the gender disparity had not changed much from the 1960s depicted in the series.
Guilty Pleasure: Tiger King. The less said the better.
Things to Come: What will the weeks and months ahead bring? Watch this space for announcements of:
- The Next Frontier: my novelette forthcoming in Analog.
- My first flash fiction (under 1000 words) to be published in a horror anthology.
- My first blog post on a different site aimed at professional writers.
- More good things I can’t disclose yet!
Seeing my work published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact never gets old and especially not when I have an opportunity to write about a timely topic from my perspective as an archaeologist. The January/February 2021 issue features my guest editorial about efforts to remove statues and monuments dedicated to various prominent historical figures whom many believe have committed reprehensible acts sufficient to disqualify them from such honors. I’m mindful that these monuments, as well as the names we give highways, plazas, and public buildings, reveal our values to those who will come after us. Thus, I’ve come up with a different approach to creating worthy replacements.
I hope you’ll read the editorial, entitled Monumental Thinking, and then check out all the wonderful fiction and articles in this issue of Analog.
Do you envision my day beginning with a beautiful fountain pen and crisp, blank pages awaiting my musings or dare I say, insights? Do you picture me putting fresh paper into a typewriter and pounding away until The Story sits in a neat pile of pages on a polished wood desk?
Hah! Here’s one day this week: It starts when, upon waking, I realize I forgot to include something in a chapter I said I’d send off today. So I do some quick reworking via computer before breakfast. Food and tea are accompanied by a side dish of email. That’s when I discover my spam filter claimed for its own the galleys my editor sent me a full week ago. Yikes. They need to go back today.
Once that’s done, including a detour to verify that I have properly employed an infrequently-used adjective, I can get the promised chapter shipped out and eat lunch.
Next up is outlining a few scenes, which bring the conundrum as to the best point of view in a novel told from several characters’ viewpoints. None of the three choices is clearly best. I take a stab at reorganizing some scenes.
Then I look at email again and see that an editor needs my bio. Given the publication’s length constraints, I dig out a recent one and update it.
By now, thoughts of putting a well-balanced fountain pen to creamy paper are a fading memory. However, a blog post to end the day…well, here you go.
Writers fill my screen, their faces showing intense concentration as we sit silently before our laptops, each in our individual rooms, plying our craft. Three months ago, I would never have dreamed of writing fiction this way. Heck, I was never terribly fond of writing in a coffee shop with others at nearby tables, let along with a group of my colleagues in the same room.
Then came the pandemic and all of my words fled. Every single last one. After struggling for weeks, in desperation I completely shook up my long-standing writing habits. I’ve always found accountability to others to be a useful tool, whether on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. So I gave group writer sprints a try, reasoning that the result could hardly be worse than zero words. To my great surprise, my words came back.
How does a writer sprint work, you ask? A bunch of writers assemble via Zoom at a prearranged time and begin by saying what we each intend to write. Sometimes we’ll take a “Twitter pledge” to stay off social media, that great distracting bane of many writers and destroyer of productivity. Someone will set a timer and we’ll spend thirty minutes or so of silently writing. Well OK maybe with an occasional comment in Chat. Then we’ll all unmute and go around with brief updates as to how we each acquitted ourselves.Those who accomplished their goal for the sprint get applause, cheers, thumbs up, etc. Lather, Rinse. Repeat.
I have no earthly idea why this radical overhaul of my method works. Maybe it has something to do with an occasional cat waving its tail at a webcam or a dog come to beg for treats. Anyway, I’m putting it out here NOT to say you must adopt this method, or any specific method whatsoever. My point, instead, is that if what you are doing no longer seems to work, try something else. Whatever helps during this terrible pandemic is good.
We are all different people with many and varied approaches to our creative processes. My friend Jason Sanford has written an insightful piece on how the pandemic has affected a number of writers. Some keep chugging steadily along. (Awesome!) Some have been unable to produce anything. Some have had to abandon works in progress and begin afresh. The approaches are as varied as the writers and their creative endeavors. My point is to simply suggest that this could be the time to try a fresh approach.
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!
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!
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.