One of Liv Warfield’s songs blasts the chant, “You could call it the unexpected or you could call it ‘WOW!’” Pretty much sums up my World Con experience. Lots of firsts for me over the course of five days in Kansas City. First World Con, first time voting and being a part of the Hugos. “Hugo Award Winning” showed up on the cover of so many books from my youth it became a symbol of power, a symbol part of me hasn't yet grown too cynical to still believe in. Back then there seemed to be a correlation: I dove into authors who put their souls into their works and were recognized for it. Hugo-winning, to me, meant exceptional in some way.
Wee dogs have recently tried to pee on that. I’m not saying that an award is the end-all and be-all of anything. Growing up, I read all kinds of books by all kinds of authors. I also missed all kinds of books by an even greater array of authors. Still, I felt as if that stamp meant something.
What did it mean? 1) That my imagination was about to get a workout; 2) that I could assume a certain level of craftsmanship; 3) that other folks—writers and readers alike—enjoyed a good mental journey just as much as this poor black kid from Detroit. The “black” is important here, because the publishing industry to this day too often will not represent, publish, distribute or read work that’s “too far from the mainstream.” So in all my ignorance, all my zeal, I thought the Hugos represented, above all else, possibility. I didn’t dive into the cogs and gears of how the Hugos were awarded. I assumed they were impartially juried.
I suppose in that respect, I thank wee dogs for peeing on it. It woke me up to certain things. That wasn’t their intention, and, hell, sucks to be them, but Zigs is all up in their mix now. I attended the fucking Hugos. I wasn't nominated, I wasn't there to be slavish, but the kid who grew up wondering if everybody else realized they had no mouths but they had to scream was there as a writer. A writer of new dreams.
And as introverted as he is he attended a packed-room Tor Books nighttime jam. His respect for Tor is solidifying, and he's cool with that. Check out Tor.com and you'll see what I see.
He deepened friendships with authors Cerece Rennie Murphy and Marguerite Reed, both of whom will likely be receiving Hugo nominations in the coming years. He learned from Christine Taylor-Butler and Bill Campbell. He's in this blog now namedropping some of the fabulous writers he met: Kij Johnson, Larry Niven, Maurice Broadus, Ellen Datlow, Max Gladstone, Karen Bovenmyer, Ken Liu, Eileen Gunn, David Gerrold, Robert Sawyer; saw Robert Silverberg and GRR Martin from a distance, had breakfast with the Mothership Zeta crew, hung with Dave Robison of Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms/Onder Librum empire (Dave even did a quick Periscope interview with me), got to hug Charlie Jane Anders again, saw not one but two real life astronauts as they walked the ugly carpeting of the Kansas City Convention Center (Jeanette Epps and Stanley Love, pictured above), finally had the insane pleasure of being in the same time & space with Kelly Robson and Alyx Dellamonica, and at one point seriously considered being a part of Frank Wu’s commune should Frank Wu ever start one. Frank Wu loves what he’s doing. No cynical fart cranking out cynical fart words he. There’s enthusiasm and fun and joy and just enough of the unexpected that he makes folks smile and want to say…
Yeah. You can call me a fanboy, you can say I’m a dreamer, you can accuse me of naivety, or you can step away from fear, pretense, and ignorance and simply appreciate the breadth of work being produced in this wondrous century and, in all due wonder, whisper along with me, “Wow.”
Two amazing writers nearly the same shade of brown as me took top literary honors at the 2016 Hugos. That's mind boggling. Not that NK Jemisin won for best novel, boggling that it's the first time in Hugo history that an African American--let alone an African American woman--has won that particular honor. That speaks volumes of shame at an industry that intones the words "boldly going where no one has gone before" while simultaneously slapping at the hands of those reaching for the doors. There's pride in her win, but there's also:
Michi Trota, the first Filipina Hugo award winner for her work with Uncanny Magazine, made us cry at the Hugos, not just because of her excellent acceptance speech, but because that speech was in and of itself evidence of more than lip service, it was her ironclad dedication to seeking out new life and new civilizations. It was reality.
Call it the unexpected. Me, I prefer to call it…now.
If you care to see a full listing of wondrous things go here. Genders, nationalities, wonderful people in the skins they’re in, world views and humors, maybe a dash of foolishness or two. Not America con. Not white guy con. Not fawn over the past con. Not you’re-only-allowed-to-play-in-the-sandbox-when-we-want-you-to con. Not beware-of-the-dog con. I want to be surrounded by the awesome variety of voices asking answers of the celestial sky. It's a pleasant sound, an inspiring sound that drowns out the incessant noise of an industry that, as author and publisher Bill Campbell perfectly summed up, is not built for inclusion.
Isn't that America? A lot of yapping from a small percentage, while those of us with better things to do go about the business of maintaining reality. There’s been enough barking to last a while. Maybe we'll see an Age of Creativity drown that out.
Merrie Haskell, author of many books and winner of sweet awards (you might wanna check out Handbook for Dragon Slayers) said something very illuminating during a recent panel regarding the writing life. The gist was that we, as writers, will often plan six ways till Sunday for failure, but when it comes to success: Crickets; success is for the gods to decide. We'll, for instance, have in the backs of our minds 'Well, if this doesn't sell I can always go back to fighting honey badgers. Hours weren't bad.' And we'll have a file of local honey badger tournaments saved in multiple locations. We'll have 15 other markets to submit to if this, our best, most awesomest story, receives the expected rejection. We'll think no way is this agent going to rep us so we either don't try them or we ride into their query pile on the ship Half-Assed Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (full disclosure: I have been mate on that ship).
Plans help center us in reality. They tell us where our heads are. Please no one send the hastage #NotAllPlans.
Back-up plans are great and necessary...but what about the go-forward plans? How often do we think 'Wow, when this book finds an audience I can go to cons and fill myself with enthusiasm and set up a Thank You, Readers fund for pizza and ice cream socials'? Granted, the failures and successes, there's no guarantees for either, but that's kind of the point, innit? We treat failure as a given when it is not, but give the options for success not even half that due.
As writers, hell as people, we need to remember that digging a hole means we have the physical and mental strength to move dirt out of the way. Planning for success means when somebody says yes...what's your next step? You don't want to be caught just sitting there going fuh-fuh-fuh. You want to feel a little more that you're more active than that. It's perfectly cool and all right to take a little pride in flipping the script and planning how you want to arrange your dirt piles.
I suspect there's an art to that, and I look forward to seeing your earthen gallery.
I don't know about you but I'm a sucker for a good book recommendation, and there are certain authors who somehow--TO THE DETRIMENT OF MY PREMIUM FAUX LEATHER WALLET--manage to bring the recommendation thunder every. single. time. Same as you, I have very particular tastes when it comes to reading. I can't go where I've been a million times before; filler is a Kryptonite stake dipped in nasty and trimmed in ugh; lazy, uninteresting prose = the backhand learned from Joyce Carol Oates during that year on the mountaintop. So when certain authors recommend a story or book I immediately break out with "Thank you, sir, may I have another?" I know they're not recommending their mom or their cousin (unless their mom or cousin has written a helluva book).
A good recommendation is an act of communion.
What makes for a good rec?
When a writer's work hits another writer's sweet spot it's, well, it's
And the recommending writer has no shame sharing this with you. The enthusiasm bursts like Pop Rocks. Giddyness is a good sign.
Clear directions. When a writer is really impressed, she'll say "Buy this." Not "consider" not "mebbe" not "you might also like." I heard a preacher say one day, "If I had time to tell somebody I'd tell everybody." That stuck with me, that directive to go forth. I read. It rocked. I read again. Witness.
Sensibilities. I guess that kinda goes without saying but respect the sensibility of the recommendation. Writing is an empathic activity, and a good empath can sense where a writer is coming from. This is reflected in the recommendation. It doesn't mean you're going to have the same emotional experience every time. Joy needs to be a varied thing. A primo book reccer builds up a diverse catalog. Excellence will be the common theme but excellence crosses all genres. A discerning writer of science fiction can read a romance novel and be blown away, and vice versa. Do you sense this inclusiveness? If so, you may trust your recommending writer's judgment.
Brevity. A good recommendation doesn't spoil the potential reading experience by telling you every little thing about the book. Not even a review should do that (unless you're an ass), and there's a difference between a recommendation and a review. Rec is small plates. Review might be dinner. There are a ton of unspoken-but-understoods in a recommendation. Mind meld. Simpatico. Sometimes the more brief the recommendation the more intense the book love. You get "OMFG!" from a trusted source, you know to get your ass to a book store.
And then: the actual reading. You've bought the book and brought to it all the "you" necessary to make the reading experience flower. A recommendation might prime you but it doesn't color the experience. Being told something is good doesn't automatically make it so. A book has to reach into you and rearrange a few things. It's feng shui of the mind. You're not looking for perfection, you're looking for flow. The recommendation pushes you and the book away from the shore; the rest is up to you. There are so many books out there. So many writers. So many outlets. Book recs can be great guideposts. Even if you don't like what you read you tried something new (which can happen; we both might like cheesecake but you're a heathen who puts whipped cream on your cheesecake and I can't even). An expanded mind is a wonderful thing.
Oh, and on the practical tip: Ideally, book recommendations lead to book sales. More sales means more cool things get written and published by more cool writers whom you may not yet realize you love. So writers, keep recommending. Nobody who loves reading (and that's what the best writers are: avid readers) treats this enterprise as "The Highlander" game. There can always be more than one. Readers, keep feeling the love.
End result is this. We are indeed Groot.
Dave Eggers (you may remember him from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) liked The Brothers Jetstream enough to drop a glitter bomb on it. “Thank God for Clarence ‘Zig Zag’ Young. This is a truly original writer. He sounds like no one else, plays by no rules, and creates wildly entertaining books that create an indelible stamp on the mind." A very thoughtful (and award-winning) poet said this about it: “A remarkable achievement offering an intricate world with wondrous and richly developed characters well worth revisiting.” An author who’s about to dust a space on a shelf for a short story Hugo or two said this: “Take Buckaroo Banzai, Hellblazer and Barbarella, turn it into the 80s cartoon of your childhood dreams, and fast forward to right here, right now. If that sounds too much like a virgin version of your favourite cocktail, don't despair. This is a grown-up pleasure.”
So let’s not be coy. We love good reviews. There’s this sense in writing communities that it’s gauche for a writer to embrace this love. THE WORK SUFFICES. Yeah, Gandalf, no. Nobody does this in a vacuum (unless you’re one of those experimental types who puts an “e” on the end of artist). The dolphins at SeaWorld aren’t masterfully somersaulting through hoops for the unfettered joy of performance; they’re doing it hoping not to get tortured—and plotting a murderous overthrow of dry bipedal bastards. But damn if the fish don’t taste good. A good fishy review fills the belly. Not a smoke-blown-up-your-butt review, or its opposite, the perennial I-didn’t-read-it-but-it-sucked (just as there are lazy writers, there are lazy readers). Sincere and real are the keys.
Viewed clinically, reviews are invaluably essential feedback that help you evolve. Those that praise could cause you to evolve webbed feet because webbed feet are cool; swim on, swim deep. Those that don’t can help form the calluses or plating needed to either protect you from hubris or to—well, actually that’s it. (Again, we’re not talking about doofy-assed negative reviews or reviews from mom and dad.) Hubris sucks and makes you a putz. Favorable to you or non, evolution (tiny mental revolutions) should be your prize. You are not here to write the same thing over and over after the same fish every day. With each effort you should overthrow you and grow what you did in the last project into a new existence entirely. Reviews help this along by shining lights and holding mirrors to mental places you might not have seen.
Like this one. This review of a fairly recent short story of mine from an antho points out some good stuff (if I’m sciency enough to pay attention). “I feel as if this story is meant to have some big ideas, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what they are or why I as a reader am supposed to care about them. It’s a story where very little actually happens, and none of it seems to mean anything.” Which makes me ask: Do I have a pattern of being obtuse? See, you can post about your stuff on Facebook and a hundred people will “like” it but never buy your work. That’s not as helpful as you’d think. You get one actual review of your work from someone trying to continue (in a small way) the conversation you started in producing the words you produced, that’s a solid win. Run with that and be happy.
Be the kid with the fucking juice box skipping down the street on a hot sunny day.
Be a Doyen of Glittery Proportions for just a little while. As long as you remember the review is not “about” you but (a) the work and (b) any plan you have for your continuance of it, all is cool.
No need to thank God for your staggering brilliance. A farmerly “That’ll do, pig” is good enough.
Life, the universe, and everything creative
Towel Photo credit: EvelynGiggles via Foter.com / CC BY