Life, The Universe, and Everything is Utah’s premier symposium for serious SF/F creatives (who aren’t always so serious!) and has been an ever-expanding project of the local SF/F fan-creative community for almost four decades. My first one was in 2009, and by the following year I wound up on the other side of the panel table, dispensing what knowledge I could about this nutty new career I’d invented for myself. Due to military deployment and other issues, I wasn’t able to attend in 2016 or 2017, but I was thrilled to be back for 2018, and even more thrilled to find the symposium had grown even more — attracting an ever-larger pool of professionals, semi-professionals, and aspirants. Both from around the state of Utah, and from across the country as a whole.
I can’t distill the whole experience down to a single article, but I thought I would deposit a list of ten authorly items which stood out to me. I never go to an LTUE without coming away with thoughtful and provoking insights into why we all do this crazy career called writing.
This year’s (for me) in no particular order.
Everybody’s path is going to look different from everybody else’s. And while there are certain to be similarities, ultimately, part of learning to be a creative who makes money at it, is learning to navigate independently. Parsing the endless streams of advice. Charting a unique course.
Writer’s Block is often mislabeled. Because it’s Life Block. Life gets in the way. Shit happens. Urgent matters must be attended to. Family or friends suddenly need your work, help, and attention. The day job must take precedent. Your necessities for living derail your ability to sit and focus on the plot. This is normal. It happens to everybody. Don’t think you’re alone.
Powered suits of armor — like the eponymous Iron Man suit — are unlikely in the short term, because we simply don’t have the kind of power sources necessary to run them over any significant period of time. Some day we might. You as the author can get away with a little hand-waving in this regard. But remember that even Tony Stark can’t cheat the laws of physics. High gee forces result in pulped pilots.
Similarly, high gee forces cannot be ignored by future fighter jocks, either. That nifty sharp turn by the X-Wing belonging to Poe Dameron, is probably going to be lethal in real life. Again, as the author, you have to make choices about where you set your audience expectations. And as L.E. Modesitt, Jr., said so well, don’t mix up those expectations during the course of your book or story. Go Space Opera, or go Hard SF, but make sure you are consistent.
Working in other peoples’ universes can be a thrilling treat, but you usually have to show your chops by having built some of your own universes first. A shared universe project can amount to merely using the same “playground equipment” established by the creator, or taking what the creator has left behind, and using that foundation to launch the universe into new territory — with your voice driving the prose.
Short fiction continues to be an important part of literary SF/F and is a great place to cut your teeth on matters of craft. Some of the skills developed for short stories can benefit you at novel length, but then again telling a novel-sized story can involve a great deal more planning and preparation. As calling cards, short stories continue to be a good door-opener to bigger and better things in traditional publishing.
Successful action scenes don’t get bogged down in pages of blow-by-blow. Once you’ve painted a few visceral images for the reader to sink her teeth into, you can expedite events and focus on outcomes. Also, if your story has been leading up to and promising a climactic fight, be sure you don’t welch on that promise. Your readers are expecting a payoff. Disappoint them at your peril.
The 10,000 hour rule applies at all times, and in all cases. Almost nobody gets to cheat this one. Give yourself permission to have your first million words of not-quite-camera-ready storytelling. Endlessly polishing the same book or story (or few books and stories) won’t help you grow and get better, nearly as much as moving on to new work and new landscapes. Again, give yourself permission to not make it perfect. Nothing ever is. But you can get better with each new project.
As much as authoring is about art, it is also about business. Be your own best businessperson. Enlist your spouse as your own best business partner. Make and keep “office hours” and include a time sheet or punch card if necessary. Do not under any circumstances skip out on paying your taxes! Be ready to manage the number-crunching as much as you manage the storytelling. Know how to do business expenses, and how to read your contracts. Nobody will look out for yourself, better than you.
Production is king. You’re only ever as good as your most recent book or story. Don’t fall into the trap of being “boutique” with your attitude. It’s about making sure you have new material on a regular basis, regardless of whether you’re indie or trad pub. The more you have on the market, the greater your chances of getting backlist buys, as well as expanding your audience base.
That’s it for me. For now.
I am sure Sarah A. Hoyt and the other attending pros will be able to add more, in the coming days and weeks. These are just some of the things which zoomed through my head, from the panels on which I was a participant. I’ve probably learned more from just sitting and listening to the other pros talk about their experiences, than I ever did reading those “How to write books” books which are — aha, amazingly — written by people who’ve only ever published how-to-write-books books. 😉