Ten Things I Learned at SFWA Nebulas Weekend

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Ten Things I Learned at SFWA Nebulas Weekend

by Cecilia Tan

This past weekend was the SFWA annual gathering known as Nebulas Weekend, which is not only when the Nebula Awards are given out, but also a conference for professional science fiction writers. People tell me that in the past Nebulas Weekend was mostly a party/schmoozefest and not so much of a professional development seminar. That might explain why I never bothered to attend before. I go to plenty of schmoozefests at other cons and book industry functions where I can rub elbows with the elite writers and editors in science fiction/fantasy (viz: the SFWA suite at any Worldcon or World Fantasy, the SFWA annual “Mill & Swill” in NYC, ICFA, miscellaneous book launches and parties, various regional fan cons, et cetera). I didn’t need another one. But a pro development seminar for sf/f? Sign me up.

Before this, there was no open attendance professional development seminar for sf/f writers. There are the application-only writers workshops like Clarion, Odyssey, and Viable Paradise. There are science courses like Launch Pad and the Schroedinger Sessions. But nowhere within sf/f except occasional tracks or workshops at cons to learn career skills, i.e. self-marketing techniques, social media management, website management, legal issues, and so on. I had been advising writers I know to attend their nearest regional romance writer conventions (even if they didn’t write romance) in order to get some of that.

Thanks to the co-location of this year’s Nebs with BookExpo America, presentations at the conference included many by service providers of various companies in the publishing ecosystem, as well as the opportunity to sit down one-on-one to pick the brains of many presenters. (Schedule) Reps from Kobo, Draft2Digital, Patreon, Kickstarter, Amazon/KDP, Audible.com, and others were here, and also various members put themselves forth for brain-picking in the Ask an Expert area. So I picked some brains, went to some seminars, and here’s what I learned during Nebulas Weekend: (details below the cut)

1. We Clean Up Pretty Good
2. Kickstarters Should Be Pretty
3. At Patreon a Little Means a Lot
4. Dictate for Artistry
5. The Myth of Self-Publishing
6. White Knights and Online Harassment
7. Think Globally
8. You Can’t Be in Two Places at Once
9. John Hodgman is Really Funny
10. Not the Hugos or the Worldcon

1. We Clean Up Pretty Good

The conference was held at the Palmer House Hilton, one of the 26 “grand hotels” left in the United States. The place is swank in a Gilded Age + Wifi sort of way. For the first few nights we were treated to several different prom groups in ballrooms near ours. One night as I waited for a ride, I watched many limos and minivans and shuttle vans disgorge dozens upon dozens of pairs of teens in formalwear. So I was quite up to date on the very best fashions in ball gowns. My conclusion after the pre-Nebula reception? We measure up quite well. Anyone who thinks otherwise? Fight me.

Zomg #nebulas opening dance/song you must see #sfwa

A video posted by Cecilia Tan (@ctan_writer) on


(Note: We’re still nerdy as all get out, of course, even when we’re cool.)

2. Kickstarters Should be Pretty

In recent years, Kickstarter has moved from just being the funding source for DIY art projects to being a major part of the ecosystem moving the sf/f genre forward. Not just the amount of money raised but the amount of attention centered on efforts like Lightspeed’s “DESTROY” campaigns, the creation and launch of anthologies like Long Hidden, publishing enterprises like Rosarium (who used IndieGogo), and the launch and continued success of Uncanny Magazine. And those are just the ones I thought of off the top of my head. So it was great to be able to sit down with Margot Atwell from the company to talk about best practices since I just wrapped the latest Daron’s Guitar Chronicles Kickstarter myself and Circlet Press is likely to run one in the near future. One thing she stressed was the importance of great graphics. Although the header art for a campaign has to be 16:9, which is the wrong aspect ratio for a book’s front cover, try to make something that will be as beautiful and enticing as the cover. Successful campaigns usual break up their wall of text with some images, too, and the overall aesthetics of a campaign are often what can get you noticed. Also, December is a very rough time to try to raise funds, but January is not as hard a month as it used to be. So noted.

3. At Patreon a Little Means a Lot

Of course the other paradigm out there feeding money onto the indie publishing ecosystem is Patreon. Fireside has shifted to Patreon rather than running serial Kickstarters since after a while repeated Kickstarters fatigue the audience and the company as they are a lot of work. The biggest tip I took away from talking with Jamie Crabb is to come up with a reward for $2 supporters. I use Patreon to support Daron’s Guitar Chronicles but I only ask for $1 per pledge. Her suggestion was come up with just one incentivizing reward to add at the $2 level. That could potentially double income with only an incremental change at my end. In retrospect I should’ve thought of that, it seems such a no-brainer, but that’s why it’s important to talk to people. Can’t think of everything.

4. Dictate for Artistry

Nebula nominee Martin L. Shoemaker did an ask-an-expert session about dictation. I went to it to try to find out all I could about whether at some point I can or should switch from typing to dictating since it would appear a new RSI is trying to rear its head: my thumbs hurt. Martin did have lots of info for me about Dragon Naturally Speaking and encouraged me to look up some stuff about how the iOS/Mac platforms have some kind of native speech recognition/dictation ability as well. (Edit/Addition: Dragon 5 for Mac transcribes recordings made on Voice Recorder Pro app on iPhone.) But the most fascinating thing to learn was that he doesn’t dictate to save himself keystrokes: he dictates in the car while commuting for his first draft and then does a re-typing pass. This isn’t only to save time. Though it started out as a way to turn a non-productive commute into a productive one, dictation has made Martin a better writer.

“Sometimes it’s a pure brain-heart dump,” he says, in which the internal censor is switched off. “It comes out like a long session of burst writing when you’re ‘in the zone.’ I am in the moment. Though not ttoo in the moment, since I am driving.” Martin’s best stories have all come through dictation instead of direct keyboarding. “Is it small sample size or is there a correlation? I don’t know but the ones that I’ve typed aren’t selling and the one’s I’ve dictated are.”

It takes him three hours to do the transcription on one hour of dictation. His last tip for those trying to use speech recognition: the better the microphone, the better the accuracy.

5. The Myth of Self-Publishing

Mark Lefebvre of Kobo Writing Life, a Toronto-based ebook publishing/selling platform akin to the Kindle Digital Platform, said something I havent’t heard many self-publishing advocates say. “There’s really nothing ‘self’ about self-publishing other than maybe that it’s self-directed.” At every step of the way from first draft to publication, the author typically relies on a lot of other people to edit, polish, format, design, etc etc etc the book: in other words, not that different from a big publisher. Where it differs is in who’s in control. It was also interesting to note his spin on the difference between Kobo and Kindle: “Kindle draws mostly bargain readers who are very price sensitive. Kobo has more good readers who will pay $4.99 and up.”

6. White Knights and Online Harassment

One seminar I sat in on was Annalee Flower-Horne’s workshop on online harassment, specifically talking about how to deal with stuff like ugly trollstorms and how to help friends who may be going through it. If I took away one counterintuitive thing from it, it’s that if you are trying to “defend” a friend from a troll, you are most likely doing more harm than good. Examine why you are doing what you’re doing. If you’re trying to “draw fire” from them, you’ll fail: trolls are not grizzly bears who can be distracted from their original target. They can do two things at once and if you only make them even more angry, you can cause things to escalate when they might have de-escalated on their own. If you’re trying to “be a hero” to your friend and your way of doing it is arguing with the abuser and cc’ing the victim in each argument, all you’re doing is forcing your friend to be part of the argument and/or trying to make brownie points with your friend instead of actually improving their situation. Do not cc or add people to arguments online without their consent. And never ever call the police on someone else’s behalf without their knowledge and consent. If you really want to be a hero, offer to document the abuse online so the victim doesn’t have to see it, so that if and when they need the evidence you’ll have it.

7. Think Globally

Draft2Digital are a company I’ve heard a lot about from romance-writing colleagues so I was interested to talk to Dan Wood, the head of author relations for the company. They offer a lot of snazzy, useful tools that look well worth the 10% of revenue they’d take as a publishing portal to B&N’s Nookstore, Inktera, iBooks, and the other places they upload books to. But the point he made that really stood out for me: other countries haven’t had their ebook “gold rush” yet. The early ones in a market are the ones who make the most. Through D2D right now you can get in on the early Spanish and German markets, probably with more to come in the future. So that’s worth thinking about.

8. You Can’t Be in Two Places at Once

The problem with the Nebulas being co-located with BookExpo America/The BookCon is that meant one was always missing the stuff happening at one while attending the other. So I missed a lot of things at the Nebulas I would have otherwise been present for, including the first 80 minutes of the Mass Autographing (my publisher took me out to dinner–I was not going to say no) and meetings/presentations with Amazon/KDP, Jeremiah Tolbert’s talk on Websites for Authors Best Practices, and much more. (There was also an entire legal track.)

9. John Hodgman is Really Funny

’Nuff said. The guy who was the PC in the Mac/PC TV commercials (among other credits) let his inner nerd shine while at the conference. Find a video archive of the Nebulas ceremony and you’ll see what I meant. I move that his opening remarks be published in the SFWA Bulletin as a humorous essay of their own.

10. Not the Hugos or the Worldcon

Even before the whole “you SJWs are ruining the good ol’ genre with your political agendas” attitude that underpins much of what the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy camps came along 2-3 years ago, there were self-identified “liberal” individuals within the fandom organizations that produce the Worldcon and regional cons advocating various flavors of “not our kind” campaigns. Some moved to add to the by-laws to artificially keep the price of Worldcon high, for example, specifically to keep the “young” riffraff who “clog up” comic-cons out. (The by-law change movement failed, btw.) I can understand wanting to preserve institutions for tradition and fearing fundamental change that might destroy from within, however believing that fans who founded these cons decades ago (Balticon 50 is this year, Worldcon will be 75) were all white, straight, middle-aged, and middle-class “like us” because that’s who dominates some fan organizations currently does not mean either that a) the belief is true, nor b) that now that cons have become the domain of the white, straight, middle-aged, middle-class they should stay that way “because tradition.” Sorry, but no. If your vision of science fiction fandom is that limited, it deserves to die out. The thing is, of course, the diversity that has always been present in science fiction (both in the literature AND in the fandom) has been erased by collective memory. In the places where the concoms have always celebrated and embraced their own diversity (like Arisia and Balticon) the cons flourish and continue to grow, while the concoms that have put the clampdown on assimilation and against adaptation or change (Boskone, Philcon) have seen their numbers shrinking.

Our genre–and the sociological community of both writers and creators that surrounds it–has always been polychromatic and nonconformist and outside “the box” in every possible way. You know what happens when you stop trying to whitewash or suppress and you instead give equal access to all regardless of privilege? You get something a heck of a lot like this year’s Nebulas Weekend program as well as this year’s Nebulas nominee slates. (I didn’t even realize that all women had won Nebulas this year until I saw the headlines today.) When what matters is the writing, the quality, the ideas, and the love, and not, in fact, the race or privilege level (high or low), you get an incredibly robust garden of biodiverse flowers instead of a monoculture that is easily susceptible to invasive, opportunistic vermin. Ahem.

So. Here’s to the continued robust health of SFWA.

My hope is that in the future SFWA will continue to beat the professional development drum, both for the Nebulas conference and overall. If the organization is going to continue to serve writers, staying up to date in a rapidly changing publishing ecosystem and maintaining access to the shifting players and stakeholders is going to be necessary not just for us writers, but for the organization itself.

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ctan
Writer, editor, baseball fan, bisexual, eastern healing therapist, etc...

12 Comments

  1. Worldcon 75 is next year 2017 in Helsinki. There are those of us in conrunning pushing for diversity along a number of axes. I’m thrilled the Worldcon concom for next year is full of younger fans bringing all kinds of bright energy.

  2. Thank you for such a lovely writeup. It is really encouraging to see the efforts to make this a professional conference recognized, and I am so glad that it was useful to you. In coming years, you will see a continued emphasis on making the Nebulas a conference that is useful to working writers. Many shout outs to Mary Robinette Kowal, who was the lead on this year’s programming and Maggie Hogarth, who was instrumental in getting people like Kickstarter, Bookbub, Patreon, Amazon, and a list of others too long to go into, there for people to talk to and network with.

  3. Thanks for the write-up – it’s an interesting and useful read.

    As a long-time user of Dragon, I second the comment about the better the microphone the more accurate the result. I liked the headset mike I was issued at work so much that I bought one for home. At £40 it wasn’t breaking the bank, but it was still noticeably better than the cheap ones.

  4. On your point of what people “think” the early cons were like, I might note that costuming was essentially begun by Morojo (Myrtle Douglas), and Art Shows that were originally just publishers showing book covers were turned into the Art Shows we know by Bjo (Betty Jo) Trimble. The women have always been there, and usually doing more than their share of the organization.

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