The Future of The Field

Maybe it's my age. Maybe that's why I've recently taken refuge in the history of science fiction. Or maybe it's just the realization that I'm now one of the old-timers. I can actually remember meeting or knowing many of the legends of the field, now gone. And I have been in this field for a long time, even though it seems like a nanosecond to me.

Some of this is the rapidity of change. Readers of The Grantville Gazette appreciate history, and know that sometimes lives, institutions, countries, and everything else can change in the blink of an eye. If you look at a world map from five years ago, it's different than a world map from fifty years ago, and different from a world map from five hundred years ago. And let's not even talk about how those maps were made.

Some of the reasons I'm reading about the past, though, is the breadth of time. When you're a kid, adults say, “Wow, you've grown up so fast,” and you think, “Fast? Are you kidding? This day is already a year long.”

But as an adult you realize that time really does speed up, and all of the other time periods live in your head as real, not imagined places. (Which probably explains why time travel books are so popular.)

I got hit with the breadth of time—again—in May. I stood on a stage in Hollywood, California, at the annual Writers of the Future award ceremony, and read my lines off the TelePrompTer: Twenty-five years ago, I . . .

Twenty-five years ago, I was twenty-five. So the entire length of my time on this Earth has doubled since that day, twenty-five years ago, when I went to the very first Writers of the Future workshop. The workshop was so new that it wasn't even called a Writers of the Future workshop, although it was sponsored by WoTF. The workshop was an experiment, something that—if it failed—might not be repeated ever again.

I hadn't won an award from Writers of the Future, which was a brand-new competition—and a somewhat controversial one at that. I was chosen to go because winners had flaked out or couldn't afford the time and money to attend.

Algis Budrys had called me seven days before the workshop started and said, “I'm inviting you to a free workshop taught by myself, Fred Pohl, Gene Wolfe, and Jack Williamson in Taos, New Mexico. It starts one week from today, and you have to pay for everything. Hotel, food, plane tickets. But the workshop is free.”

I jumped at the opportunity. Fortunately, I had a thousand dollars saved up. It was my first and last on the apartment I was going to rent due to my impending divorce, but hey, what's more important? A workshop? Or fees for an apartment?

I figured I would never have the chance again, and I was right. I never did win Writers of the Future, despite entering at least a dozen times, but I got more out of that workshop than anyone else ever did. I met my husband, Dean Wesley Smith, and we've been together ever since.

Now our relationship and all the things that have come from it, from our own writing to Pulphouse Publishing to our various editing stints (mine at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Dean's at Pocket Books) to the workshops we've taught for the last ten years, have become part of Writers of the Future lore. In May, many people at Authors Services, who sponsor the current workshop, mentioned my meeting Dean at the very first workshop as if discussing a fairy tale come to life.

That was strange for me. But what was stranger was the realization that this controversial contest that many new writers wouldn't enter when it started twenty-seven years ago has become a venerable proving ground for new writers in the modern era.

Writers who win Writers of the Future really are writers of the future. The past winners have had multiple book contracts. Many of these winners are New York Times bestsellers or win other awards. Writers—and Illustrators—of the Future winners have gone on to win everything from awards in the sf field to Oscars and National Book Awards.

I realized a lot of this while watching the ceremony, listening to the young writers accept awards that mean a great deal to them—and to writing and publishing in general. To these writers, the contest is what it was envisioned to be: a validation of their talent and a send-off into the world of publishing. The controversy is long gone—and remembered only by those of us who have been in the field for decades.

These writers and illustrators truly are the future of the field, if they can navigate the changes ahead.

And those changes are vast.

I noted that as well, as I listened to my fellow professionals give advice at the workshop proper. In the past, we all gave the same advice on how to have a career in publishing. Oh, the details might have differed—publish short stories first or stick to novels only; go after awards or don't bother with awards—but the principles we all espoused were the same.

And now they aren't. Half of us told the new writers to learn about e-publishing; the other half thought e-publishing was a fad. A few of us said that getting an agent is a treacherous and perhaps unnecessary thing in the modern era; the rest believed that writers can't survive without agents.

The only thing we long-term pros could agree on was this: the industry is changing and only those people who know business will survive the change. The rest will fall by the wayside.

Right now, writers have more opportunity than they ever had before—especially short story writers. (Writers of the Future winners submitted short stories.) There are more magazines than there have been since the pulp era. There are more viable short story markets that pay good money and need content than ever before.

The flip side is that it's hard to get noticed. Twenty-five years ago, everyone in the sf/f field read the fiction in the same six magazines: Amazing Stories, Aboriginal SF, Analog SF, Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Omni. Omni paid the best, but only published one story per issue. Asimov's and F&SF had the most prestige, but Aboriginal and Amazing often found the best new talent. Analog had the most consistent voice, and any writer who sold to them was pretty much guaranteed to have a long career in hard sf.

There were other magazines, like Weird Tales, which published on an irregular schedule and some prestigious anthologies. Twilight Zone still existed then, but had begun the struggles that eventually killed it. (And it didn't publish much science fiction.) Writers of the Future came in and filled a void, first publishing writers from Dean to Nina Kiriki Hoffman to Karen Joy Fowler.

Now most of those magazines are gone. Asimov's and Analog are doing great, thanks to the forward-thinking that got them into e-publishing early. Their subscription rates, if you count e-editions (which I do), have gone way up. F&SF has one-tenth the circulation it had at its peak. Omni, Amazing, and Aboriginal are long gone, memories to those of us who sold to them, like the pulp magazines were to the generations ahead of us.

But now there's a dozen other magazines that exist mostly online or in e-format, from Subterranean Online to Lightspeed. They're starting to dominate the awards, and the stars who first appear in those magazines are starting to dominate the field.

Kinda. Because there isn't that much of a field left to dominate. The rise of the new magazines, of e-publishing, and of big mega-conventions like Comic-Con and DragonCon have meant that what was once a small little club of about 10,000 people who read the same thing (and disapproved of newcomers, like Writers of the Future) has been subsumed by mass culture.

Writers of the Future has moved into that mass culture. The little workshop I attended, held in a tiny Taos hotel, has morphed. In the late 1980s, WoTF added the workshop to the awards ceremony. Then the contest went to spectacular places like the United Nations to hold that ceremony. But the contest and its “event” as the organizers call that week didn't really take off until the rise of the internet.

Now, the judges, speakers, and contestants go through a Hollywood-style to-do, complete with clothing approval and all-day make-up/hairstyling sessions. This is so that we'll look presentable for the television cameras that are filming us during the ceremony, which has become the biggest such event in all of writing. The ceremony gets streamed live over the internet, and the WoTF organizers say that millions of people eventually watch it. Since the ceremony initially streams worldwide and remains on the website for a year after the initial airing, I have no doubt that eventually millions do watch some or all of it.

This has come a long way from the tiny little workshop that I attended twenty-five years ago. Some of the new writers I met at the later WoTF ceremonies are now old hands in the field. Many of them have moved to other fields, like Jo Beverly, a New York Times bestselling romance writer.

The one thing that has remained the same, however, is the support from WoTF and Authors Services. They do their best to prepare the new writers for a career in publishing. Not for another award ceremony, but to actually make a living at the profession. And with the exception of the workshops Dean and I run, some of which are shamelessly modeled on that first WoTF workshop, I know of no other writing workshop that trains writers to have a career.

Go take a peek at the website, www.writersofthefuture.com. You'll see how successful the contest has been over the years. Its track record is astounding. Then look at this year's class picture, at the faces you don't recognize scattered among those of us you've seen too much over the decades.

You are looking at the future of the science fiction field. At the publishing field.

I realized as I scrambled down a flight of stairs at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel to get to the photograph session on time that a lot more of my anecdotes will start with phrases like “Twenty-five years ago . . . ” because I am a bigger part of the history of the field than I ever thought I would be.

Part of that history stood beside me in Hollywood. Someday, fans of the genre will look at that photo and say, “Wow, look at all the famous writers who hung out together.” And they won't be referring to me or Eric Flint or Larry Niven. They'll be referring to the winners, who have become long-term professionals in the field.

Those fans will be looking at their past. But right now, it's our future.

And that's really cool.

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