I hope I’m not stepping on anyone else’s assigned topic here, but as an attendee and sometime panelist at the symposium on science fiction and fantasy held at BYU last week, I wanted to offer some observations.
A consideration in two parts, starting with the general and moving to the specific.
Life, the Universe, and Everything XXIX, the Marion K. “Doc” Smith Symposium on Science Fiction and Fantasy held at Brigham Young University took place the second half of last week at the conference center just northeast of the Marriot Center.
The event actually kicked off the day before, with a radio interview on KBYU’s “Thinking Aloud” program with host Marcus Smith. The interview runs about thirty minutes and features Dave Doering (who started the annual symposium), Howard Tayler (a popular sf cartoonist and blogger), and me (a general busybody). It’s a brief look at the popularity of sf in general, and the success of so many authors associated with Utah in general and BYU in particular. You can listen to the show on KBYU’s Web site at this link.
The event proper began Thursday morning with a panel on Mormons and the paranormal, best and worst writing advice, and the impact of free ebooks on retail print sales. It then continued until Saturday night with mix of panels or presentations offering writing advice, author viewpoints, market analysis, genre exploration, readings, cultural exploration, workshops, career management, story development techniques/research, market opportunities, and more for authors, editors, artists, publishers, and anyone else involved in producing or publishing.
I won’t attempt a full review of the symposium, but I did want to offer a couple of quick observations. I’ve attended all but two of these events (mission), I’ve organized several of them, and I’ve worked behind the scenes on more than three-quarters of them in some support role—and I continue to be impressed with the breadth and depth of content, and the absolute willingness of authors, artists, fans, and academics to gather and contribute. Despite my deep involvement with the organization over the years, even I continue to be surprised, gratified, and engaged by the variety and scope of content the event offers.
The symposium works very hard to deal with life, the universe, and everything. And from where I sit, it succeeds as well as anything can.
It’s a lot of fun to attend a panel on Mormons and the paranormal and hear widely diverging viewpoints on why Mormons can/can’t as well as should/shouldn’t tell stories about the paranormal. An LDS paranormal investigator offered insight on the blending of religion and the paranormal and his experiences with it.
This year’s symposium featured a distinctly Young Adult bent, featuring James Dashner, Dan Wells, Tracy Hickman and others, including discussions on the rise of dystopian stories, author versus character moral stances, and the importance of treating young adult readers as young adults, not precocious children.
The event also featured a wide variety of academic papers, ranging from analysis of the Holocaust through the mechanisms of the graphic stories Maus and Magneto: Testament; to observations on explorations of LDS thought and theology in works by Michael Collings, Steven Miller, and others; to feminism, power, and choice in Twilight.
I won’t pretend I enjoyed every panel or found every presentation interesting. But I will say that it’s been a pleasure and a good use of my time to both participate and attend. I highly recommend the event to pretty much anyone.
At the risk of veering into the personal, I also found the symposium to be powerfully motivating for me as an individual author.
As I mentioned above, I have been involved with the event in some way since very early on. I’m arguably one of the first people to engage the BYU sf community purely from the outside (I attended the inaugural symposium as a freshman, with no prior knowledge of anything about it), who then went on to work his way into that community’s institutions—The Leading Edge magazine; Quark, the sf club; and the symposium. I never attended the “class that wouldn’t die,” but I did participate deeply in these institutions that sprang from it.
But I was always an author first, and for more than fifteen years my approach to sf at BYU was always as a budding national market author. Unfortunately, that road has proved to be far more challenging that I expected. Fifteen years ago I attended the symposium as an up-and-coming author, with increasingly impressive (though still entry-level) writing credits and deep engagement with the larger community.
Then, about fifteen years ago, I stopped progressing and became just another hanger-on, just another failed amateur dabbling at the edges. The interest remained, but the fire to succeed had dwindled and I had become a glorified fan rather than an active author.
I lay the blame for that on two key factors–professional success in my day job, and discovery of the AML. I now had other things to draw my interest and dissipate my passion, other ways to be involved and contribute. And so the fire to be an author dwindled.
Of course that’s not entirely fair. I had already run up against the deep frustration of being a finalist, but never winning the prize. I was as good as most, but while they were selling I was receiving kind rejection letters. I had arrived at the stage of my writing career where I had to move from short stories to novels to meet my goals.
And I blinked. The idea of writing a novel intimidated me out the business. And these other outlets provided the excuse for not forcing myself past my own fears. After all, I was still building the community. I was still evangelizing sf as both a uniquely Mormon and independently useful class of fiction. I was still educating the next generation of authors from a position of insider knowledge.
I’ve spent the last twelve years or so avoiding the problem and giving myself excuses.
In his main address on Saturday, James Dashner talked about his own experience of starting as a local author publishing in small press and his dissatisfaction with that–he wanted to make a living as an author, and small wasn’t getting it done.
I remember a hallway conversation at the symposium in 2003 where James talked about his goals, and I glibly offered that local wasn’t going to get it done and he needed to focus on the national market. Of course he already knew that and had already begun his transition.
It was a forgettable conversation, and I suspect James has long since forgotten it. I remember it for two key reasons–my own smug superiority because I was working at the national, not local level; and my recognition that I had no basis for being smug, because this young man had already written and published three or four novels (even if they were with a small local publisher)—something I had not managed to do even once, with any publisher.
In the intervening years, James has become a New York Times bestseller while I have continued to stagnate as an author. I’ve seen Brandon Sanderson do the same. And at the symposium this year I saw yet another generation of authors working their way up the food chain toward greater success, while I continue to talk a great game from the sidelines.
The annual symposium on science fiction and fantasy held at BYU contains many, many events designed to educate, entertain, and inspire. For me it succeeded on all three counts this year, if for no other reason than because it forced me to recognize my own arrogance and passivity and confront a question—am I willing to work hard enough to succeed?
We can’t all be James Dashner or Brandon Sanderson. But shame on us if we give up without really trying, if we allow ourselves excuses for not doing what we need to succeed because we’re afraid to find out we were never that good.
To paraphrase James Dashner from his main address: Never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up.
Here’s to hoping that one can still repent from having already done so. And here’s to the next generation of authors who refuse to stand on the sidelines and watch, but who choose to engage and do the hard work necessary to succeed. Because ultimately, that’s the difference between a successful pro and a precocious amateur: how hard (and how long) you’re willing to work to meet the goals you set.