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Sun, 26 Jun 2005

Misspent weekend musings

It's hay fever season, as my sinuses are informing me. I've just got home from a talking slot at a writer's conference in Winchester, and I'm facing a deadline – I have a novel to finish by the end of July, and maybe 50,000 words to go, so I won't be tinkering with the blog much this month. On the other hand I'll be updating the downloadable copies of Accelerando next week (got a couple of formatting whoopsies to fix and a PDF version to add), and posting reviews as they come to my attention.

Some of you have been bugging me by email about the RSS feed. It's not operational right now because I've switched to static HTML for the blog, due to low turnover of new content and the huge additional server load imposed by the Accelerando website. Nevertheless, if you want RSS, point your newsreader here and things should start working again.

The writers' conference was interesting and educational. I don't normally get speaking invitations to these events, so I spent a chunk of my time with my ears open. (Those of you who've met me will know that I talk a lot; but I'm also capable of observing what's under my nose. The beauty of being a motormouth is that you're a whole lot less conspicuous as an observer than if you're sitting in the back row with a tight smile and a reporter's pad on your knee.)

I guess the most unexpected thing for me was the demographic mix of the attendees. Writers conferences like this one are places were people who want to write books (or poems, or stories) pay to go to rub shoulders with real live writers and ask them questions about how to do it, as if success is contagious or what worked for one person will work for another. I'm not averse to such junkets myself, being something of a workshop junkie, but I knew I was an SF/F writer from an early age and consequently sought out genre-specific events and groups. More importantly, SF/F have a very active base of fans who network, and quite a lot of them have writerly aspirations, and many of the active writers attend conventions and hang out with fans -- so there's a very permeable barrier in my field, and once you discover fandom you also discover a huge support network for aspiring writers. My experience is that there's a roughly 70/30 gender split, male/female, in SF (but reversed, with a 30/70 split, among aspiring fantasy writers); and the age distribution is quite flat, possibly with a peak between the early 20's and mid-30's.

This conference was genre-agnostic, with no less a luminary than Fay Weldon giving the keynote speech at the beginning, and I suspect it attracts a much more "average" cross-section of aspiring writers than you'd find in an SF/F specific context. The gender balance was closer to 80/20 female/male than 70/30 or 50/50; and as for age distribution ... well, there's no getting around it. Your stereotypical aspiring novelist in the UK is a middle-aged middle-class woman. There's a scattering of older people (retirees in search of a hobby or returning to ideas they chewed over in their youth but had no time to subsequently explore), but far fewer young ones than I was expecting. I suspect some of the more talented young would-be writers are being drawn off into MA courses on creative writing, and thus wouldn't be as likely to attend a week-long festival of writing with lectures and one-to-one slots with authors. But the under 30s (or even the under 40s) were conspicuously thin on the ground.

A comment from a fellow professional genre hack and a brief discussion with our marketing shepherd from Time Warner Books put things in perspective: the demographic make-up of the writers' conference tracks very closely the demographic make-up of the readers of meanstream, literary, fiction. This being so, it should be no surprise that the age, gender, and social stratification of the mainstream doesn't match the SF and fantasy readership. We came to reading as a recreational activity from different directions, to satisfy different cravings. If anything, it would be more startling if we were less different. And it gave me pause to reconsider whether it is even possible, much less desirable, for SF to achieve a degree of respectability within the mainstream. It'd be like demanding equal time for Iggy Pop on Radio Three.

The spread of abilities among the aspiring authors I spoke to was astonishing. I don't want to cast any aspersions on individuals here: they're all sincere, hard working folks and I wish them all every success. Nevertheless, preparation, legwork, research, and an understanding of the publishing process are important aspects of the writing process: and some of the attendees didn't really seem to realize just how much of it they had ahead of them if they wanted to realize their visions. Writing was what it was about, and they hadn't quite worked out that before you start writing you need to do a whole lot of reading. Research and preparation are essential skills for any writer, but looking back at the programme of events for Saturday I'm struck by how little emphasis on research there was in it: maybe two or three out of a total of 36 talks had any bearing on these topics.

At the other extreme I also ran into unpublished but hopeful writers who seemed to be doing everything right – they'd done the research, the referents for their novel pitches were up to date and on the leading edge of the genre they'd picked to write in, and who clearly had something new in mind. Going from the one type of aspiring writer to the other was quite surreal; like going from an interview with a small boy inexpertly trying to build a model airplane to a meeting with a trainee airline pilot asking about a job vacancies.

The one thing all these people had in common was the aspiration to write. And that brings me on to the epiphenomena surrounding them. The reception area held a room full of stands, ranging from the local bookstore through to magazines for writers ... and slightly more questionable outfits. I don't think it's quite fair to castigate as a vanity press the two nice old ladies with their hand-printed and hand-bound volumes, available in print runs of 1-6 copies, for that family history or autobiography: they certainly weren't selling themselves on their ability to bring fame and fortune to their clients. But the likes of PublishAmerica were visible in the background, as were the POD specialists, and the freelance editors of the kind who target hopeful writers, and the rest of the sorry circus.

The first law of publishing is that if it's legit, money flows towards the author: some of the schemes on the stands looked to me to break that rule, and more worryingly, there was no brake on this and nothing in the programme that would clearly address schemes and scams targeting the hopeful. A writers' conference full of naive aspirants is like a free lunch buffet to the varieties of parasite who specialize in retrieving people of their wealth in return for offers of future glory. And what's worse is, to the uneducated it can be difficult or impossible to tell a genuine small press publisher from a parasitic vanity press, or a useful editorial service from an exploiter of the hopeful. Wandering among the flock of hopefuls, all clutching their synopses and chattering excitedly, I felt simultaneously old and cynical – despite being on the young side by the standards of the conference – and I sorely wished that TNH was there to give them her short, sharp lecture on how not to be taken for a ride.

Aside from that, there's not much to report. I'd forgotten my last visit to Winchester, a multi-week contract job working for Hampshire Country Council on behalf of my last-but-one web startup (the one that went bust rather than IPOing during the dot-com boom). Weirdly, Orbit had booked the exact same hotel I'd stayed in for most of a month nine years earlier: I can report that The Winchester Hotel has not changed in the intervening time, other than to add expensive broadband and a sprawling mat of stubby corridors that wrap around the exterior of the hotel health spa and paddling pool, along with a possible fourth-dimensional by-pass through Hotel Space, rendering my room impossible to locate while sober.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to work. For us aspiring authors, the job is never done ...

[Discuss Writing (2)]

posted at: 17:46 | path: /excuses | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Missile Gap
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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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