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The Cons of Cons

Back in my day, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth in steam-powered chariots and Venus was still considered potentially viable off-world real estate, running an SF convention was a relatively simple affair. (Note emphasis on “relatively.” That doesn’t mean it was easy. I helped on two, acting as the chair of the second. I had already decided that I would never do such a thing again long before the current crop of kerfuffles grew up. Now? Now I think you have to be insane to want to run a convention.

When I wanted my con to be forward-thinking, I invented the idea of a gun-free convention. Cosplay with guns (not that “cosplay” had been coined yet) was very popular, although there had been reports of some problems with too-realistic props that made the police nervous. For specific reasons that honestly escape me now, I decided that our convention would sport a “no-weapons” policy. No weapons, no how. We got some vague reports of complaints, but nobody tried to test our resolve by bringing in a contraband toy, and although I was far too busy to notice at the time, the after-action reports said that everyone had a good time.

Of course, that was before the Internet.

Now, anything you do is susceptible to being broadcast world-wide in seconds. Millions of people who would never even consider coming to your convention can comment on (or argue about) your choices. If we tried imposing that policy today, the roof would fly off.

But there are many other, new, considerations that we didn’t have: Codes of conduct (going beyond just not bringing a weapon), anti-harassment policies, safe spaces, accessibility issues (we had a one-story convention space)…and now, the piece de resistance, civil rights lawsuits. An author is suing Worldcon because he says he was banned solely for his political affiliations. It is not my intent to discuss the merits of that case here, merely to point out that we have crossed a line: If you want to put on a convention, your liability insurance now has to include coverage for legal fees. (Even back then we were smart enough to incorporate, but this suit seeks personal liability.)

I don’t know what it costs to put on even a small con these days, let alone a Worldcon, but I do know that every new wrinkle adds to the expense. And legal fees are a very large wrinkle. Not to mention what a lawsuit does to your credit rating and your precious free time.

Maybe this is an anomaly; I hope so. But in our society, I cannot believe it. So what’s going to happen? Fewer conventions? More overseas Worldcons? I’ll tell you what isn’t going to happen: More reasoned dialogue. More unity of purpose on issues that affect us fans. We’re supposed to be looking toward the future, people, and I don’t think this is the future we want.

Ironically, those who support this lawsuit claim they just want to bring “fun” back to science fiction. It may be that there is a valid reason to drag your fellow fans into court, but I can tell you, without fear of contradiction, it won’t be fun.

#SFWApro

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They say, “The Devil’s in the details,” but as is usually the case, “they” are wrong. Or at least, woefully inadequate as a result of gross over-generalization. If you’re a writer (or to avoid a gross over-generalization, this writer), the Devil is in the beginning.

Here’s the problem. Ever since I finished my last novel, “The Killing Scar” (available free on Kindle Unlimited!), I have been suffering from writer’s block. Other than doing yet another in a series of edits on another book that may never see print, I have not been working. I have accomplished almost nothing of a practical nature. That “almost” consists of one story whose vague parameters I have outlined for myself. (So vague, in fact, are the parameters that one of the main characters remains unnamed.)

Now, this is a story for which I have high hopes. Conceptually, it’s really good. It has emotional resonance for me, it’s simple, and it can probably be brought in under 5000 words, which gives it a wide variety of potential markets. The problem is…

… I have high hopes for this story. I think, properly constructed, it could sell to a prime market. It might even go further. And that is scary as hell.

In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov recounted writing his classic short story, “Nightfall.” Although I don’t have the source material handy, I remember that he said something to the effect that, had an angel tapped him on the shoulder that night and said, “Isaac, you are about to write the greatest science fiction short story of all time,” he would have been paralyzed. He never could have written a word.

Now I am not claiming that I am about to write (or could ever write) the next “Nightfall.” But I am afraid this story could represent a new plateau for me–and so, like Isaac (had he but known), I find myself unable to proceed. I am so afraid to fail that I cannot begin to succeed.

The solution, of course, is obvious.

So don’t call me tonight. I’ll be working. Again.

#SFWApro

 

 

I sometimes wonder: Is it over? Where is the next one coming from?

Writing is tough, because it’s creating something out of nothing. People ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” like that’s the hard part. It isn’t. Every writer has a hundred ideas, a thousand, that he’ll never use. The hard part is taking that lump of mental clay and molding it into a story, taking an idea and turning it into a dream.

There are times when none of your thousand ideas sparks. You just don’t see the statue within the marble. Usually when that happens, you can take a walk, or read, or work on another project… But there are times when it’s not enough, and the blank spot in your mind simply sits there, empty and unmoving. And you wonder: Is this it? Have I dreamed my last dream? There are no guarantees; just because you’ve written a hundred stories doesn’t mean there are 101 stories in you.

At times like this, I like to read stories by writers I admire; they can inspire me to create similar work (if not as good). Being similar to a great writer is okay, so long as it’s emulation and not imitation. Some of my best work has come out that way, ideas I’m glad to have dreamed.

In the end, I think, stubbornness is my greatest weapon. I have spent way too many years getting to where I am now to quit. The boy who might never would have started walking had he known how long the road was going to be would never forgive me if I gave up now, after achieving some much of what he imagined doing some day.

Show yourself, Story No. 101! I know you’re out there! I’m going to find you, and you’d better be ready when I do.

#SFWApro

 

 

Every so often, it pops up: The case against reading fees. I mentioned it myself not long ago. But still, reading fees keep raising their ugly head, and recently I saw them arise in another context: Writing contests.

I got an email advertising a contest, from a publishing industry publication, focusing on unpublished or self-published novels. It offers a cash prize to one winner, but each and every entrant receives a personalized mini-critique, which I can tell you from past experience is the hook upon which a lot of fish will be caught. Unpublished and self-published authors pine for feedback of any kind, and this kind, with blurbs from award-winning authors and editors offered to semi-finalists and above, is certain to lure the desperate and unsophisticated by the hundreds. I myself was attracted enough to read further.

That’s when I got to the catch: a $99 entry fee per manuscript. I closed the window on my computer and deleted the email.

Now, I’m not saying that this contest is phony, or rigged, or that it doesn’t provide exactly what it says. I’m sure it does. But is what it offers worth $99?

Hell, no.

One entrant will win a nice cash prize. Others will be mentioned in a blurb in the magazine, and all will receive a critique, which judging from the samples helpfully offered, runs about a hundred words. That’s a dollar a word. I have belonged to a lot of critique groups where members can review each other’s works and give 500- to 1000-word critiques for free. Actually, it’s better than that, because they expect you to reciprocate, and there is no better way to see the faults in your own writing than to critique someone else’s.

And what’s more, there are a lot of contests out there that don’t require any entry fee at all: Writers of the Future, Minotaur Books First Crime Novel, Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award… Nor does that include publishers who have occasionally held open calls for unagented manuscripts, like Angry Robot and Harper Voyager.

If you want to spend money on your book, self-publish. It’s okay to spend money on editing, and a cover, and some advertising, and your chances of success are probably as good as any contest you enter. At least you’ll know where your money’s going.

If you want to be a writer, you have to pay your dues. But you don’t have to pay reading fees.

#SFWApro

I was discussing modern art with someone the other day, and she mentioned that she felt the problem with modern art was that, “There are no standards.” In previous times, when there were recognized art academies, they “regulated” art by their favor or disapproval. While this equated to a definite conservative approach, it also maintained a level of quality (insofar as the members could agree on what that meant). They acted as gatekeepers. (Eventually, the academies fell out of favor, and the laissez-faire “whatever moves you” concept took over. Hence, we have “art installations” which stretch the concept of Art. There are far too many to number, but we all know of examples.*)

I, of course, immediately said: “Like self-publishing.” Because the same argument exists there: While traditional publishers had a chokehold on the industry (and you can argue about their taste, political leanings, economic policies, etc.), they did act as gatekeepers to ensure (in most cases) that a certain minimum level of quality was maintained. Now that gate has been torn open.

No one knows how this is going to play out; self-publishing as a popular phenomenon is only about 10 years old. But some trends are already evident, primarily the flood of new works, many of which would never have appeared anywhere under the old, gatekeeper-controlled system.

Like modern art, many embrace these new works. Others still distrust this open system, and with some support. It is more difficult to judge whether a new author is worth your time because no one has done the grunt work of weeding out the incompetent and unreadable. There are new gatekeepers in place, the rating and review systems available on Amazon and Goodreads, for example, but these depend on volunteer labor and are vulnerable to tampering. (Ask 20 of your friends to review your book favorably and suddenly you look like a star.)

So again we are left without standards. Anyone can now publish a book. And while if fiction is bad, you can toss a novel away and no one is harmed, if you get bad advice from a self-published non-fiction “expert,” you could be hurt.

There are arguments on both sides: free expression versus limited outlets. The ability to seek one’s entertainment widely rather than from a limited set of corporate-approved (but likely more professional) options. I like the self-publishing revolution; I’ve taken advantage of it. But that doesn’t mean that all self-published novels are good; it doesn’t even mean that my self-published novels are as good as they could be. What it does mean is that there are no longer any standards…and whether we ever again agree on what constitutes Art remains to be seen.

*Discussing the relative artistic merits of these efforts, or whether such merits even exist, would occupy far more time than I have to spend.

#SFWApro

 

The premiere issue of Factor Four has bowed, several days before the anticipated April 1 date, which pleases me no end, because my story, “The Deadline,” is the first in the line-up. First story, first issue. Anyone who buys the magazine without previewing the free on-line sample (and who isn’t looking for someone in particular) will read me first.

So I’m the first of the first, before the First.

That’s gotta be a first.

Excuse me, I’ve got to get a drink of water. All this writing is making me firsty.

#SFWApro

Selling It

I am excited to announce not one, but two recent short story sales! The first, “Junior Partner,” went to StoryHack Action & Adventure. “Junior Partner” is a little tale about Blacklight, a superhero’s sidekick who can’t get any respect–until his partner goes down and the world is teetering on the brink. Blacklight’s going to have to reach inside himself to see if he has what makes a hero. But even with courage and determination, what can a mere sidekick do…?

“How to Murder a Corpse,” is the second in a series of stories involving a nameless mid-century private eye–who raises the dead on the side. He recently raised a pal killed in an accident so he could say good-bye, but zombies don’t last long, so why would somebody bother to kill him again? And why did he have a vampire’s bite on his neck and a bullet hole in his forehead? Find out in an upcoming episode of the Gallery of Curiosities podcast.

As if that weren’t enough, my flash story “The Deadline” is coming out in the debut issue of Factor Four Magazine on April 1. A long marriage can hide many secrets, but not many of them are quite this … cosmic.

And of course, if you like my short fiction, you can check out my novel series The Stolen Future and Nemesis, by reading their respective introductory volumes, The Invisible City, and The Choking Rain, for free.

I tell you, I am the gift that keeps on giving.