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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Notes Toward a Manifesto

Part 1 • “How we got here,” by Bruce Bethke •

...and here we are, in the second week of April already. It’s 20-something degrees outside. There’s a fresh blanket of snow covering the yard, with more snow in the forecast. I’m standing at the deck door, sipping my coffee, looking out at the yard and the cow pasture beyond it, and thinking: looks like I’m not going to get an early start on the garden this year.

I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Thinking, I mean. As we’re formalizing our submission guidelines and hammering out a serious business plan for Rampant Loon Press and Stupefying Stories, for 2018 and beyond, the situation requires much serious thought and a surprising amount of introspection. Why am I doing this? What exactly am I trying to accomplish here? How will I know if I’ve succeeded? When will I know?

Who is this Bruce Bethke character, anyway?

If you’re reading this, that last one probably sounds like a fatuous and self-serving question. “Why, you’re Bruce Bethke, critically acclaimed and award-winning science fiction writer! Editor of Stupefying Stories! Author of Headcrash! You’re the guy who wrote ‘Cyberpunk’!

Yes, that’s all true, as far as it goes. But if we’re going to define Stupefying Stories as, “Stories Bruce Bethke® Likes,” we need to dig a little deeper. What do I like in a story? Why? We all have conceits and biases. What are mine, and how much of them is it advantageous to reveal now?

For example, yeah, “Cyberpunk.” When I wrote it, I was a few years younger than even this (→) guy. There are still days when being him doesn’t seem so far removed from who I am now, but according to Takayuki Tatsumi’s inscription in the book I scanned this photo from, that version of me roamed the Earth more than thirty years ago.

I started writing short stories when the original Galaxy was still in business, and Asimov’s was just a gleam in Joel Davis’s eye. “Cyberpunk” was my first “pro”-market science fiction sale, yes, but there were other sales before it, and over the next twenty years I went on to sell somewhere around fifty short stories (yes, I actually did stop counting after a while), mostly to pro markets, both in and out of the SF/F genre. In the beginning, I collected an enormous pile of rejection slips. By the end, I was selling every short story I finished, usually on the first or second try, and even getting commissioned to write stories to editorial spec.

So why did I quit writing short stories?

Because I’d changed. Writers evolve, much to the dismay of their fans, who hope they’ll always stay the same age they were whenever they wrote whichever story it was that the fan fell in love with. By the late 1980s I’d gained enough experience points to level-up and become a novelist, so I did. At the same time I was also recruited to join the SFWA Board of Directors, so I did that, too, and in that capacity I worked closely with Ben Bova and Gene Wolfe and got to know around 200 professional SF/F writers, editors, and agents on a first-name basis.

My convention behavior to the contrary, it was a sobering experience.

Over the next ten years I signed contracts for 12 books, of which exactly four made it to market, and in the process I learned far more than I really wanted to about the true nature of The Man Behind The Curtain. For a long stretch of that time I was in an invitation-only writer’s group with Joel Rosenberg, Lois McMaster Bujold, Patricia Wrede, and a rotating cast of fifth and sometimes sixth members, and out of that group came a plethora of new novels by Joel, Lois, and Pat, as well as Headcrash, which as we all know won the 1995 Philip K. Dick Memorial Award for Best American Novel.

Then came the debacle that was Wild Wild West, after which I said “[intercourse] this,” walked away from it all, and went back to working in software R&D.

How could I just walk away? It wasn’t difficult. Happens all the time. Creative people, I’ve observed, have about a ten-year working lifespan. That is, from the day they decide to get serious about their craft, to the day they find themselves experiencing some measure of consistent success in their chosen field, to the day they say “Screw this,” because they’ve realized that taking their career to the next level won’t be worth the personal sacrifices it will require, is typically, on average, about ten years. Anyone who stays in the game longer than that is either incredibly successful, still on an upward trajectory, just making a hobby of it, living on someone else’s income, or one of those poor sad souls who never succeeds and never improves, but also never gives up.

So while it may look to you as though I had a twenty-year SF/F writing career, to me it seems more accurate to say that I was lucky enough to have had two back-to-back ten-year careers: the first as a short-story writer, and the second as a novelist.

I never actually decided to get back into the genre fiction game. Bands that go on comeback tours to try to wring a little more cash out of their three hit singles from back in the day always strike me as being somewhere between pathetic and desperate. As a writer, I didn’t feel I had anything left to prove. I’d won a major literary award. I’d put a new word in the dictionary. Judging by the steady stream of journalists and PhD candidates who continue to contact me to ask questions about a story I wrote 38 years ago, my place in literary history seems secure. What is now Stupefying Stories evolved organically from a blog, which became an online writing workshop—and calling it a “workshop” makes it sound far more formal and structured than it really was; The Friday Challenge was much more akin to improv theater, a poetry slam, or a literary jam session.

As things rolled on, though, I began to become aware of something else that I’d completely failed to notice when I was actively writing and selling fiction. There is a distinctly generational component in the fiction writer’s life-cycle. At first we write to impress our elders, because they’re our parents, our teachers, and eventually, if we’re lucky, our editors and publishers. Then we write to impress our contemporaries, because they’re our friends and peers, and in general, they share our language, vocabulary, common assumptions, innate value judgments, and experiential base.

The trouble comes in the third stage, when we’re writing to try to impress those younger than ourselves. Either we fail to impress them, because our ideas and vocabulary are old, and so our careers begin to wither and die, or else we try to write as if we were their age, in which case the results are often painfully embarrassing.

Once in a rare while, though, younger readers seek us out because of what we wrote back when we were their age. When they finally find us, their first reaction is often a gasp of horror:

“Look at his face! His hair! This must be the look of being...old!”

 But if we’re thinking clearly, we realize that this isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity.

Tomorrow: Part 2 • “Where we’re going” •


GuyStewart said...

This is good -- a great foundation to build the future upon. I look forward to other entries in the stories!


Judith said...

This is very interesting and, 9 years into my writing career, I can relate to what you say. I also look forward to part 2.

~brb said...

Funny how writing something out, letting it sit overnight, and then re-reading it in the morning can sometimes reveal a serious flaw in the way you're thinking about a problem.

I threw out what I'd written for Part 2 and have started over. I expect to post the new & improved Part 2 on Saturday.