Hello, sir or madame. Since you’ve arrived at the service door — versus the red-carpeted, velvet-roped grand portico — I can only assume that you’re a conservative, classical liberal, or libertarian, seeking entrance into the great and spacious building known as Professional Speculative Fiction; encompassing science fiction, fantasy, horror, and a few other subgenres. Don’t be nervous. I know you saw everything that’s going on (through the windows) and you’re wondering if you should even bother trying to get in. Doesn’t seem like an easy place to fit, does it? They built it that way, by design. You’re not supposed to be comfortable here. You’re supposed to feel like you’re the sore thumb. Out of place. Unwanted. And if you’re doing this because you think it’ll be quick money, or because you wanted something less stressful than your day job, I suggest you recover your coat and hat, and seek a different venue.
Still here? Okay. Good. I know exactly why. You can’t let it go. Speculative literature speaks to you. Maybe you started with Heinlein? Maybe it was somebody else? Doesn’t matter. You want in, however you’ve got to do it. Because there are spec fic stories you believe need telling, and you’re the one to tell them. Stupendous. Speculative literature desperately needs its conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians — protestations of the cognoscenti notwithstanding. This is the field of “What if?” and Dangerous Visions and effing the ineffable. It cannot call itself what it is, without solid conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians holding their respective flags high. So as to keep the rest of the field honest, and not let the bastards off the hook.
But you need to understand a few things first. Things I didn’t understand when I originally dared dream of entering. Of becoming “pro” and walking in the footsteps of my heroes.
This is a field that really, really doesn’t like you. Or at least the avatar of “you” that the field generally has in mind, whenever the field thinks of admirers of Heinlein or Rand or Hayek or Friedman or Reagan or Limbaugh or FOX NEWS viewers. Hell, you don’t even have to be any of that. Just think that maybe socialism isn’t a great idea. Did you enjoy listening to Paul Harvey on your father’s car radio? Do you follow Mike Rowe’s page on Facebook? See, it doesn’t take much. To be on the outs with the people inside this great and spacious building. That’s why you’re at the service entrance, and not the front door.
Red carpet is for like minds. Red carpet is for people telling the field what the field wants to hear — about itself, and about the world in general.
You will not now, nor are you likely to ever, get the red carpet treatment.
At least if you choose to be open about yourself, and who you are, and how you think.
So, let’s consider your possible paths. Some of these, once you’ve gone down them, are permanent. Others can be deviated from in time, with consequences. Before you go inside, you need to be aware of the reality that you’re facing. Eyes wide open. Back straight. Shoulders squared. Nothing about entrance is impossible. There are simply choices you will have to make, and be ready to live with them. And if that sounds too nerve-wracking, again, there is no shame — zero, in fact — in turning around, and walking away. It’s been done many times before. There are 101 faster, better, less excruciating ways to make money, or achieve status, or reach an audience.
But since you’re still standing there, waiting patiently, I have to assume you are, in fact, afflicted with the same vision that afflicts many of the rest of us. Of journeying to the planets, and the stars. Of boldly going. Swords drawn against the orcs of Mordor. Because somebody has to help Frodo destroy The One Ring. And, dammit, Paul Atreides can’t ride those Sand Worms all by himself! Besides which, Emperor Palpatine is cackling on his throne, and somebody really ought to do something about the Romulans invading the Neutral Zone. Lest Slytherin take the Quidditch Cup and Lord Voldemort claim the Map of Creation from King Arthur and his Jedi Knights. The Kzinti want their damned time machine back, before the Morlocks take it to Foul’s Creche and help Nehemiah Scudder create an army of T-800 cyborgs — the likes of which not even Commander Adama and his Colonial Warriors from the battlestar Serenity can hope to defeat!
All right, we’ve established you are both crazy, and really want to do this. These — my insane friend — are your options. Read carefully. Take your time to decide. There is no rush. Just be sure, when you’re ready. As noted earlier, some of these are permanent.
But first, a practical reminder: Rome was not built in a day, and neither are your writing nor storytelling skills. If wishes were fishes, we’d all be richer than J.K. Rowling. Publishing is easier than it’s ever been. Success is still hard. Maybe harder? Because there are more people trying to publish more speculative fiction — now, in 2016 — than at any time in the field’s history. Many of those people are far more talented than you are. Some of them will be more hard-working. If you’re not willing to pay your dues — in rejection slips, or teaching yourself your craft, or doing the daily grind of punching out word count despite setbacks and your day job — it won’t matter what your politics are. Because you won’t have anything to offer the audience that’s worth offering.
(ahem) Now then . . .
PATH ONE: SILENCE
This is the safest, most time-honored path you can take. It merely requires you to never voice your opinions in a public fashion. No blogging. No editorials in your local paper. No loudly debating your colleagues at the con parties. Just . . . keep your trap shut. Oh, you can probably sneak some of your beliefs into your stories. But you gotta be stealthy about it. You might get on some awards ballots. Maybe even win a few? Straying from this path means you can never, ever go back again. Because people — and the intarwebz — remember forever. Start opening your mouth, disliking the latest Democratic candidate for President (or worse yet, failing to properly hate the latest Republican candidate for President) and you can never, ever be a silent runner again. You will have flipped over your cards. Be aware of that, in the years ahead, when the bullshit is piled so high and so thick, you feel like screaming. Can you vent privately to trusted friends? When the idiocy of the conventional wisdom in the great and spacious building gets to be just too much? Keep a private journal. Save your thoughts for a closed circle. It’s been done many times before. It can be done again. This is the form of “conservative” the great and spacious building just might respect. Or at least put up with. Because they never have to realize you exist.
PATH TWO: CHAMELEON
This is the double-agent’s path. Somewhat similar to Path One, but far harder and more dangerous, because you have to actively work to make the great and spacious building think you’re one of their kind. You have to be up on all the hip language and all the street signs of psuedo-liberalism. Attend the con parties and smile and laugh when they mock ideas and people you revere. Be sure to be seen praising whichever socially conscious author and/or book is being praised this year. Also be seen supporting whichever cause(s) the Jon Stewart set finds laudable. Thanks to the miracle of the World Wide Web, your performance can be done from the safety of your office or home. It’s not hard to make the great and spacious building love you, when you sound and act and talk and chirp just like all the others do. Be sure to re-Tweet all the “cool” people. You will know who they are, because they will be surrounded by sycophants who desperately want to be “cool” too, or who desperately want to be noticed by the people who are “cool.” Make sure everybody knows precisely how concerned you are about matters of Social Justice. Attend a few witch-burnings, for this very purpose. There’s always a witch-burning (some hapless heretic caught with his pants down) happening in speculative fiction these days. The chief problem you will have is: looking at yourself in the mirror every morning. Machiavellianism (in the arts) is as old as the hills, and twice as dusty. It may rest easier on your heart, than it does on the hearts of others. If you can’t sleep with that at night, don’t go this route. It’s really not worth it.
PATH THREE: OUT OF THE CLOSET
Many people — having gone down either Path One or Path Two — eventually decide they can’t take it anymore. They see and hear too much. The bullshit rises up over their eyebrows, and they simply can’t deal with it any longer, otherwise they’re gonna go nuts. So they elect to step out of the closet. It’s a delicate, usually painful process. Your closest, sometimes dearest professional speculative fiction friends, will gasp with shock and exclaim, “Oh my God, how could you?” Or, probably, “My God, how could you do this to me?” All this time, they thought you were one of the Good Guys. Or at least, one of the Silent Guys. Revealing who you truly are — what you truly believe — is going to come with repercussions. Rejection. Lots, and lots of rejection. Plus anger. And a quiet readjustment of your “stock” as its perceived in the field. If you were getting critical acclaim before, that spigot may slow or stop. If you were on awards ballots before, or within striking distance of awards, they too will become a non-option. Oh, you’ll keep selling. Unless you were so deep into Path Two that your stories and your work were also Machiavellian. Betraying the great and spacious building is survivable. Betraying your readership? Not necessarily so. Get a pen name. Try indie. You may wind up starting from scratch. But if you were a good, properly Silent fellow, with some connections forged, not all of them will snap. The great and spacious building isn’t run entirely by dicks.
PATH FOUR: THE LOYAL OPPOSITION
This is the path of apologia. Of forever having to explain or make excuses for what you believe, or for your friends who believe likewise. This is when you keep your temper in check, remain calm, mannerly, and no matter how rude or bombastic they are to you, you don’t let it ruffle your feathers. You will be a known quantity, right from the start — as one of those people. You will not be loved, for this reason. But you may be liked. Enough for the occasional, stray award nomination to come your way. Winning? Hah! No, most probably not. But that’s okay. You’re fulfilling your role — as the permanent minority. You’re not supposed to win awards. You’re supposed to be happy with your lot, or at least comport yourself as if you’re happy. They will occasionally egg your house, or toilet paper your trees. You might be the subject of a witch-burning, or three. Smile through the flames. Your friends in the business will be by to dust the soot off you eventually. Always be glad for the fact that they let you have a seat, even though they consider you a moral and intellectual n’er-do-well who is the authorial equivalent of second-class goods. You’ll still be expected to defend the great and spacious building against accusations of incompetence or maliciousness, from people on Path Five. This demonstrates your good faith to the house. In this way, you will maintain your credibility. Many people on Path Three, eventually wind up on Path Four. But not always.
PATH FIVE: JOHN WAYNE
Make no excuses. Walk in like you belong. Dare them to be unhappy with you. Speak your truth, loud and proud. The witch-burnings will be constant. Get an ice chest and a keg, and make it a barbecue. Invite your buddies. It’s a party! You will be surprised just how many people secretly wish they could do the same. You will get letters and communications from the Silent Ones and the Chameleons, cheering you on. They know how bad the bullshit is. They wish they too could give zero fucks. The great and spacious building will be appalled at your very existence. You are worse than they ever suspected your “side” could be, because you never say you’re sorry. A tiny handful of true liberals will actually tell you they disagree with you entirely, but they respect the fact that you aren’t afraid to state your case, and can do it with style. You will never, ever get awards. Not from the great and spacious building. You may get recognition from outside — from beyond the spec fic ghetto — but the building itself will loudly wish you did not exist. You are filth. You are inhuman scum. You are going to have a tough time selling to certain editors and certain houses. Be ready to go indie, if you’re not indie from the start. If you didn’t have a thick skin to begin with, develop one. And give some back. No, give a lot back. You are surrounded by gerbils. Be a mountain lion. Many people on Path Three, skip over Path Four and jump directly to Path Five. As with Path One, once you go Five, there will never be any going back. No matter how much you might want to.
But what does any of this have to do with surviving?
Look, here’s the thing. The Market (caps m) always wins. Your career can boom, or it can go bust, and this may or may not have anything to do with what the great and spacious building thinks of you. In the world of Patreon and Amazon Kindle, Kobo and Smashwords, you don’t even have to bother with the great and spacious building at all — if you don’t want to. There are an increasing number of successful examples all the time. Because the Market — speculative — escaped from the confines of gate-kept traditional publishing. Your two best survival traits will therefore be: productivity, and longevity.
I’m going to say it again: your two best survival traits will be productivity, and longevity.
These, and being unafraid to be your own businessperson.
Which, perhaps not coincidentally, were the same survival traits necessary to win before indie publishing took off at the end of the last century.
Now, if you can’t tell a good story, I am not sure anything can help you. If you go blustering into the great and spacious building, popping your six-shooters and looking for a bar brawl with one of the Eloi — but you can’t write your way out of a paper bag — the great and spacious building is gonna either ignore you, or laugh at you. Because you’re living down to precisely the level they expect from any conservative; especially a Path Five conservative. All bark and no bite, one might say.
So focus on learning your craft, and teach yourself (through hard learning and patient effort) what it takes to not just make stories that are worth a reader’s time, but which will so engross that reader, (s)he makes every effort to come back for more. Again and again. On your next book, your next story, or whatever it is you’re trying to do. A web comic? A podcast? Something else? It’s all intellectual product. Can you do your craft to the level of a professional chef, or are you just slinging frozen patties onto the hot clamshells at a McDonalds? We all start out in the grill. Moving out of the grill — up to something more sophisticated — takes time, effort, and (yes) talent. Talentless bluster also lives down to the level the great and spacious building expects. The great and spacious building will insist that talent and conservativism are inversely proportional. This is a canard the great and spacious building has been telling itself for decades.
Do yourself a favor. Don’t mistake chutzpah, for skills.
It takes a lot of both, to walk the talk — and be a spec fic author who wins in this business.
The good news is, you are not alone. The Cheka may have scared many people into silence and hiding, but not everybody. There are several short fiction markets and at least one major novel market who are not going to ding you for being un-progressive. In fact, they might see it as an assett. Your doors will not all be closed. There just won’t be nearly as many of them. And (as noted above) you need to really be ready to go indie — or if you’re already indie, go great guns at it. Boutique authoring doth not a powerhouse career make. Boutique authors are a dime a dozen in the great and spacious building. They publish sparingly, and often to great critical praise — awards, awards — but they ‘aint making much bank off it. You’re an un-progressive. Business is not a dirty word to you. Put your back into it, and have fun making money.
Again, productivity and longevity. Work your ass off, and don’t quit.
Basically, the same two principles that bring success in practically all other arenas of life. I know, I know, we were all expecting some kind of shortcut. We wanted this career to be so utterly unlike all our other jobs. We expected it to be all fun and no pain. T’aint so, my friend. T’aint so.
Meanwhile, locate those oases of sanity which present themselves. You will find them eventually. It takes a little effort sometimes. The great and spacious building has no idea just how many un-progressives have infiltrated. In fact, the great and spacious building likes to pretend that there were no un-progressives from the beginning — it’s progressives all the way down. Only, it’s not. Conservativism, libertarianism, and classical liberalism have always been part of the structure of the place. It’s just that the pseudo-liberal Karl Marx Memorial band noise (and floor-to-ceiling #SocJus banners) have kinda covered up the portraits — hiding some of the anchors from the field’s more cosmopolitan sector.
So, locate your calm harbors. At the conventions. On-line. In the marketplace. Forge relationships. Dwell therein. Be kind to your fellow travelers. Be funny. Be generous. Be relaxed. Be loyal. And absolutely try to be cool to the handful of bona fide liberals who don’t shit on you, for being un-liberal. Those relationships will be the toughest to foster and keep, because the performative tribal nature of our current politics demands that “they” never be seen having a good time with any of “us” on the “bad” side. Also, you’re going to piss them off from time to time. Just because liberals are from Venus, moderates are from Mars, and you’re from Planet Krypton. You’ll think you’ve just tapped them on the shoulder, playing around, but they’ll feel like you’ve punched them through the wall — into the next room. And they will expect you to feel bad about it, too.
But how am I going to get famous and make a lot of money?
Wait, what? Okay, let’s re-wind. I said there are far better ways to get rich, find acclaim, or get an audience. For example, there are two dudes on YouTube right now making six figures apiece for basically doing nothing of importance. They mess around for fifteen minutes per episode, just being two guys who are silly, and I’m pretty sure my soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old daughter thinks Rhett and Link are the Alpha and Omega of 21st-century entertainment. Rhett and Link seem to have a bajillion female (and a few male) fans all over the world, ages 10 to 25. You would do far, faaaaaaaaaar better trying to emulate Rhett and Link, than you would trying to become a moneybags spec fic author whose name is known to the world.
But if you’re like me — like us — and you can’t take your eyes off the stars, this can be a career for you. Not an easy career. Not a career free from rage-inducing stupidity of both a political and commercial variety. But a career just the same. And you are not alone. Understand? The great and spacious building wants you to think you are completely out in right field, far, far away from anything and anyone civilized. But your peeps — the ones who “get” you — are close at hand. As is your market. You just gotta dig a bit, work a bit, and find things the hard way. You’re not cherry-picking. You’re getting it out of the ground, like a wildcat miner. Not a job for the dilettantes or the nonchalant. You have to want it. And want it badly enough that you’re willing to put up with everything the great and spacious building will hurl at you — then hose yourself down, change your clothes, comb your hair, put something totally and outrageously Metal on your MP3 player, and get back to work.