We Band Of Writers

I think all of us came into the business with a mental image of that great camaraderie between writers, particularly writers of sf/f, which seemed perfectly natural.

After all, each of us grew up feeling profoundly weird, just on the writing thing (the only reason I didn’t get pounded for going “oooooh” in an ecstatic way when a story or essay was assigned is that I was twice as large as the other kids in the school – Portugal in the sixties and seventies wasn’t known for tall people – and because, frankly, I was the one people were scared of. [Never without provocation but though this might not be obvious from this blog, I have a TEENY temper.]) but also on the science fiction thing.

So I always figured out that though I was like a squid-headed (Take THAT Margaret Atwood) alien among humans, if I could go into a group of my own kind – which to me always implied being published in the traditional way and having credibility and all – I’d be received like the prodigal daughter and welcomed…

Only, it didn’t work out that way.  To some extent, I think it did in the days of pulps – note, I said to some extent – and after that too, at least in groups.  Yes, SF/F is known for the kind of epic feuds where people don’t speak to other people for years “because of what he said at the WF banquet in 1976!” but that in itself is almost heart warming.  All big families have these riffs, and come on, it’s not any different than having a big feud over “what they said about our Maudie.”

But by the time I entered – and, again, I was gratified by noting that Kris Rusch has identified the time I came in as well into the “crazy years” of publishing.  I mean, the poison of misapplied statistics “numbers” started almost ten years before I broke in – it had devolved into something bizarre.

It was – I’ve been reading a lot about the Soviet Satellites during Soviet rule (Well, there is a reason, relating to the next novel I post here in installments – at least if the gamble on this one pays off in both contributions and advance word of mouth for the piece, the second being more important than the first) – a lot like the terror regimens that always seem to follow the French/Soviet style of revolution.

It makes sense in a way, because it’s what happens when things start going disastrously wrong on a society with utopian aims, (and most people involved in publishing are academic-utopians of a form or another) and it crashes head first into human nature in an undeniable way.  Then the idea that human nature must be suppressed, worked upon and elevated becomes the value, since you’re not going to achieve nirvana anyway.

And publishing was running bad when I came in, in the same way early utopian revolutions run bad.  Yeah, you have your great slogans, but the money is running dry.  So, of course, the people at the top decided that what they should do was pick winners and losers, since, meh, the numbers the way they were being used were rife for manipulation.

This is much like a tyrannical regimen picking winners and losers, particularly when you consider that most of those picks were “for agreeing with the editor” though editor-politics are often odd, as they’re often single-issuers.  (Unfortunately for most of those editors the single issue is misandry, in which I cannot concur.  In fact I can’t even pretend and still look at myself in mirror every morning.)

Of course, editors and publishers couldn’t have you killed and all your wealth confiscated, but they could block you from publishing, which for a lot of writers is worse than death, and make sure no one saw your books, ever.

And while some of the books that made it to the top were good, no one who saw how the sausage factory worked on the other side, can have the slightest belief that these workings are in fact even vaguely “fair” or that traditional publishing is in any way a meritocracy.

In fact it was more like a “Meritrocracy” in which we meretriciously tried to ingratiate ourselves with the powers at the top, who could make or break our career even while resenting their power and often insane decisions.  Because we couldn’t do anything about them, we often turned on each other, both as a way of competition and because we had to take it out on SOMEONE.

The field has always run on gossip, but now it was gossip on steroids.  I know there are several people in the field who plain won’t talk to me, and I have to assume it’s because someone told them I said or did something about their Maudie, and I have no CLUE what.  (In the same way that some people, as I came into the field went out of their way to attack me, even though I was in no way in their way and could in no way affect them.)  This kind of crazy-making and paranoia leads to spying, friend telling on friend and the opposite of fellowship and camaraderie.  You were jokeying for position in the field, always afraid that having friends in the band that editors didn’t like would make you one of the d*med.  Yes, people dropped friends because the friends were not in good odor with publishers.  Yes, people had massive fights because they SUSPECTED (on the flimsiest evidence) other writers of messing up their relationship with a publisher.  And that was among beginners and midlisters.  I have enough bestselling friends to know that at their level, behind a facade of comity, it could get WAY worse.  And yes, we all engaged to some extent in double think.

Look, I used to think that was my experience.  That I was the only one who felt cut-off, paranoid (always a tendency for me) and engaging in double think so I didn’t throttle the living day light out of people whose power over and indifference to my career drove me batty.

Turns out, as the gates are inching open, no.  Not so much so.

And though it’s very early days yet, as the possibility of having a career without jumping through crazy-making hoops, is starting to dawn, I’m starting to see relations between writers change.  Instead of the insane competition and trying to avoid being near those who are slated for career-death, we’re starting to cooperate in small ways and go “Hey, you know, if you use this editor, he’s cheap and good” or “hey, this program works better for the conversions” or even “Would you give me a blurb for my indie book?”  And we’re starting to relax a little around each other and admit that yeah, our real anger is at the publishers – all of us, even the ones who are doing well, know someone who was screwed over for no rational reason – not at each other.

Of course, up from that – and a while from that, I suspect – there will be a time when the publishers too see that there is a gate out of the way the system has entrapped them, because they too had to do things in a way they’d rather not, because of distributors, mega chain bookstores, etc.

What’s really heart warming and startling is seeing writers of different political stripes collaborate in trying to figure out the new model.  I’d always assumed crazy politics were a part of my field, but maybe it’s more that because the publishers and editors cared we had to, also.  Heaven knows in other professions people are friends across political lines.  But we were in mode “must not be seen with x or will be sent to publishing gulag.”

I’m not saying that traditional publishers will ever completely reform (or that all writers will become buddy-buddy).  But I think it will become more of a meritocracy in competing with a more open system.  And that’s enough (most of us can at least stop the gladiatorial combat.)  Oh, okay, when dictatorial regimes fall anarchy follows for a while, but afterwards there is at least the chance of “Something better hereafter.”

And we’re living right at the cusp of it.  We few, we happy few, we band of writers…

23 thoughts on “We Band Of Writers

  1. Years ago (5? 6?) I went to a writing seminar taught by big names in sf, both authorial and editorial, and saw first-hand all the ass-kissing, inner-circle-seeking, high-school storm of shallow grudges that you’re talking about. I managed to stand up for my beliefs and keep my lips to myself, but it took self-discipline.

    Oddly enough, I was on the receiving end of some of the ass-kissing (not as enjoyable as you’d think and despite my projecting intense misanthropy) because one of the big-name editors commented I was one of the most promising people there. Blecch.

  2. When I first started publishing my little short stories (back in the heyday of horror), the camaraderie was inspiring and comforting. Of course there were cliques, but even the cliques were welcoming to those who fit into whatever image they were creating. Going to a horror con felt like coming home. I met newbies and bestsellers, and everyone seemed in the same boat. We loved scary, dark, creepy stuff. We loved exploring fear in all its guises. We were the freaks who took over the asylum.

    Then horror died. As a genre. I felt like the child of divorce. Everyone was cranky, blaming this or that for the demise, some people became possessive of their knowledge, their connections. It was depressing. I stopped writing for years. Turned to a life of nonfiction writing. The closest I got to horror was ghost-writing business books.

    When my partner and I started our indie publishing company (Lucky Bat Books), that old horror camaraderie served as a blueprint of how I wanted our company to be — open, sharing, helping each other out and up — no matter what genre (or lack thereof) we were publishing..

    I came into writing among camaraderie. Then I thought it was gone. But indie publishing brought it back. Exchanging knowledge, cheering each other on, optimism, it’s all back. It’s just like those old horror cons — only not as much black.

    1. Ninjas. We’re virtual ninjas. Well, right now I’m covered head to toe in paint having just finished painting the D*MN fence that should have been painted two years ago. It REALLY wasn’t how I wanted to spend the day (sigh.)

      1. Black because the bloodstains don’t show.

        (Yes, I’ve been playing Overlord a little too much)

  3. I got to miss all that. Almost all of my writing is non-fiction, and for internet sites.

    Glad I did. With my temper I would have done a Johnny Cash.


  4. Sarah, you mentioned Kris Rusch (and by extension, Dean Smith). They’re my writing/publishing-as-business heroes. I’m just getting started on making a business out of my writing, and they’re work – and that of all the other folks stepping out confidently into the whirlwind of the current publishing world – boost my fragile artist’s confidence.

    As far as the infighting among writers for the attention of editors, I haven’t seen it. Toni and the rest of the Baen gang are the extent of my experience with such things, and I’m given to understand that y’all are a little atypical. I’d much rather form friendships with people for their own merits, rather than out of fear of getting blacklisted. I can’t quite wrap my mind around that idea. Fortunately, with the self-publishing options available, I don’t think I’ll have to, though I am curious about the stigma of being self-published: is it still as strong as it was five years ago, a year ago, six months ago?

      1. But you still see the odd cry of, “But where will the readers find anything good to read.”

        At one point I am certain that there were a series of blogs that were being run by industry insiders because they would never, ever, publish any comment positive about self publishing, nor any comment negative about traditional publishing. There seem less of them now.


  5. Ever see video of cattle being driven into the yards, pushing and shoving and kicking and butting one another as they forced their way through the gateways? Ever see how the herd behaves on the open range?

    Must I explain the metaphor? (Or is it a simile, or analogy? Dang, ah allus git them confused.)

  6. I have only been active in the writing community for about a year now, since that is when I started getting serious about my writing and getting published. (Which I credit to your writers’ workshop, Sarah, for getting me kick-started, and to Janet Morris for inviting me to write for her anthology, which led to my first published story.) So far I have encountered mostly a lot of camaraderie among fellow writers, who have all shared knowledge and offered encouragement.

  7. Not to sound like the contrarian anchorite here, but everyone here has missed the other option. No writer has to have any connection to any writer or any community of writers ever again if they don’t want to.

    There may be some amazing authors out there who never had any experience with other authors, or writing…ever. They just decide to put up a shingle and people will buy their stuff.

    The whole idea of a “community of writers” may have to change.

      1. It strikes me that, almost by definition, writers are people inclined to want contact with others, else they would merely be thinkers, not writers.

      2. I think you’d be surprised. I think I could be very happy in a very small group of like-minded people. Not sure that’s happy, but it’s the truth.

        But more to the point, we will have to stop talking about a community of writers, and start talking about communities of writers. This already happens according to genre, style, geography, but it’s only going to explode and splinter even further.

        People will gravitate to the clique of their choice, and they will be rather specialized. I wonder what that will do to the nature of writing. Any thoughts?

      3. There’s a difference between “approbation” and “contact.” I do think all writers want approbation for their ideas and works. I’m not sure all want contact. Even then, the contact is decidedly one-way in most cases.

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