I had *intended* to post this to my website some months ago, and it got lost in the shuffle. May 20-22, I attended the Nebula Awards Weekend here in Washington, DC. Nathan McKnight came with me.
This is a really long post, so if you want to get to the meat of things, skip down to Part 4. And if you should decide to read the whole thing, thanks for indulging me.
I wrote this assuming that a lot of my readers are NOT writers, so if you happen to know all about the Nebulas, please bear with me.
1. Overall impression and quick summary
You probably already know this, but the Nebula Awards Weekend is hosted every year by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Association (SFWA) to award the best writing in the categories of YA Novel, Short Story, Novelette, Novella, Novel, and Screenplay. The Nebulas are nominated by and voted on by members of SFWA, which is a professional organization for SFF writers. This means the Nebula Awards are awarded by writers and editors in the field, as opposed to the Hugo Awards, which are awarded by the fans. (I think both are valuable.)
I read all of this year’s Short Story nominees, and several of the nominees in other categories (my reading list is long these days), and universally, this year’s writers pushed the bounds of what science fiction and fantasy are capable.
In anticipation, I studied the guest list. There were dozens of professional writers, editors, and agents, including many names I had read or at least recognized. My aim was simply to meet and talk with other writers about writing. I hoped to just glean some tidbits of lore from this vast collection of luminaries gathered in one place. I had finished Song of the Ziggurat a few months before, so I felt like I had something to say, as well. I had been taking networking lessons from Lauren, practicing the pitch about my book, and just hoping to meet some people.
I imagined the Nebula Awards would be like a con, or maybe like a book festival, with thousand of fans lining up to get their books signed by their favorite authors. The kind of event where, by the time you reach the front of the line, you have approximately 30 seconds to tell the author how much you thought their book transformed the field, how much you admire their work, how you yourself recently finished a novel–. And then the garlic-smelling guy whose been in line behind you complaining about how the latest X-Men movie didn’t live up to the comic butts you out of the way so that said author can sign sixteen first editions of his novel that smelly guy can then hawk on Ebay. The kind of event where you wish you were there, behind the curtain, talking with the other authors in conspiratorial tones and telling inside jokes about the last con, rather than sitting in the audience.
I was quite wrong. The Nebula Awards is not like a con or a book festival in that way. And, though they have a book signing, its not like any other book signing I’ve ever been to. The thing is, there were only about 200 or so people participating in the conference, and all but a handful were members of SFWA, which means that almost everyone in attendance was a professional or semi-professional in the field – short story authors, novelists, small press publishers, magazine editors, SFWA board members, and a handful of literary agents. The remaining minority of us were either un- or semi-published writers (like Nathan and I) or members of the local SFF fan association, which was helping to host the event.
And of the professional writers in attendance, everyone that I spoke with was serious about their work, about improving, and about being a part of a community. So when I say there was a book signing, it’s like yeah, there’s a book signing, but the people that are getting their books signed are the authors themselves. So the woman in line in front of you isn’t just a fan of the author at the head of the table, she’s probably also an author herself (I actually had this happen with Aliette de Bodard, who was in line in front of my to have M.K. Hobson sign her book).
The most extraordinary thing was that every person that I met or spoke with throughout the weekend was easygoing, friendly, and treated me like a fellow writer, not like a fanboy. Everytime I spoke with someone, I expected them to start levitating and glowing while I withered beneath them, but it never happened. Every person I spoke with – even multiple award-winning veterans like Connie Willis and Joe Haldeman – were some of the most humble, friendly, respectful people I had ever met. They weren’t gods or superheroes. They were just ordinary people who happened to enjoy doing the same thing that I do – writing fiction.
2. Welcome, programs, hospitality suite
This year’s event was held at the Washington Hilton. The first thing that they hand you upon picking up your badge was a bag full of brand new books and magazines donated by publishers for the event. There were random assortments of great titles in each bag and a swap table. Ahhh… I’m home.
Nathan and I attended several workshops and panels. “Science in Science Fiction” was quite interesting, though we missed most of it. It was a panel of NASA scientists and biologists, and mostly they talked about how they had all been influenced by sci-fi, so it was more “science fiction in science” rather than the title of the panel.
“Warfare in Writing” was about the most informative 2-hour workshop I’ve ever sat through. The instructors, a military historian named Timons Esaias, made it his personal goal to help us make less fools of ourselves when writing about anything dealing with war, armies, or fortifications. He was humorous and the information he gave was incredibly useful, because it was mostly cursory and from a writer’s POV – i.e. thinking about how these things often occur in stories. What does a battlefield smell and sound like? If your character is going to war, how does he get there and how long does it take? Is your character the general or a soldier on the ground? The experience of the two will be vastly different. What are idiotic mistakes to make as a writer, and as a general (he showed some examples by George Washington)? I took 20+ pages of notes and came away with a stack of handouts.
“Plotting Short Stories” was a panel discussion from a number of Nebula-nominated writers this year. While I didn’t hear anything totally revolutionary here, it was interesting to hear what strategies and techniques people use for plotting. It was also interested to hear certain things phrased in new ways, and to see how people’s approaches were similar or differed.
One of the most awesome features of the event was the Hospitality Suite. Normally, you will never hear these words escape my lips, but in this case, it was grand. While there were tours and workshops going on throughout the weekend, there were large blocks of time where Nathan and I had nothing scheduled (I don’t need to tour the Smithsonian – I live here!). So whenever we had some free time, we would mosey up the Hospitality Suite, where everyone gathered to chat, hang out, drink, or have a snack. It was open all day and evening to anyone who was attending the conference. You could go in anytime, and there were between 6 and 30 writers sitting around dishing about everything from Game of Thrones to the upcoming local sci-fi con, to what stories were nominated this year, to intercollegiate sports. It was a great, casual way to have some extended conversations with folks.
3. The People
There were a number of really extraordinary writers and editors that I met this year. With most of these people, I had the good fortune to have an extended conversation (rather than just a quick “hi, I’m a big fan”).
John Joseph Adams – Editor of Lightspeed Magazine and a pile of award-winning anthologies. I spent a good chunk of Saturday talking with John and others about writing, editing, the magazine business, and my novel. I have since started reading slush for Lightspeed, and I love it!
Eric James Stone – This year’s winner for best novella for his extraordinary story “Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made.” Eric is an assistant editor at Intergalactic Medicine Show. I talked with him about plotting following the panel on Saturday, and discussed with him the story I was working on called “Reignition”. He was extremely friendly and welcoming.
Aliette de Bodard – French writer whose novellette Jaguar House in Shadow was nominated for a Nebula. Extremely friendly, incredibly intelligent, soft-spoken, and keen-eyed. Nathan and I talked with her about her daily writing habits (she managed to publish a novella, a few novellettes and eight or nine short stories last year writing about 2 hours a day) and her research methods. I have recently finished the first books published in her Obsidian and Blood series, and if you enjoy a good mystery or a compelling historical fantasy, they are absolutely worth reading.
Amal el-Motar – Mediterranean-Canadian writer currently living in Cornwall whose short story “The Green Book” was nominated. Amal was very friendly was was just stunned to have been nominated. Her wide-eyed excitement was infectious, and I found myself rooting for her (and many others) the night of the awards ceremony.
Paolo Bacigalupi – Author of last year’s winner of Hugo and Nebula for Best Novel for The Wind Up Girl (which if you haven’t read, what are you waiting for? it’s amazing!). For being the current rising star in the genre of SF/F (nominated again this year for best YA novel for Shipbreaker), he is incredibly down-to-earth and has a great sense of humor. I talked with him about his writing process.
Also Connie Willis, John Scalzi, Joe and Gay Haldeman, Michael Swanwick, Rachel Swirsky, Kij Johnson, Jennifer Jackson, Barry Deutsch, Lawrence Shoenn, Alethea Kontis, and many, many more!
4. Nebula banquet
This, for me, was the highlight of the weekend. After running down to the parking garage and changing into a suit in the back seat of my car, I hurried into the banquet reception. All the men were in suits and tuxes, all the ladies in gowns. Gay Haldeman (Joe’s wife), long involved with SFWA, decided that since I was the “new guy” that she needed to run me around the reception, introducing me to anyone I hadn’t met yet. Lawrence Shoenn, and enormous bearded man, owner of the indy press Paper Golem, asked me to write him a story about watermelons, turtles, and sex workers. These are the kind of people you meet!
The awards banquet was fantastic. Dinner was great, but the real delight was watching these people who I had met throughout the weekend, people who felt like new friends. I was rooting for them all! Universally, everyone in their speeches (and elsewhere throughout the weekend) expressed how honored they felt to be nominated next to the author authors in the category. It was incredibly humbling to listen to speakers like Michael Swanwick, Joe Haldeman, Connie Willis, Kij Johnson, and Jack McDevitt.
And sitting there, watching these people who, all weekend, had treated me like a friend and a colleague, I realized that this was exactly where I wanted to be, both right at that moment and in the future. I understood, in a crystal clear moment, that this was what it was about – not selling books or winning awards, but this community. I think it’s what keeps you writing the other 51 weeks of the year – the energy and enthusiasm about writing, and the sense of participating in something larger than yourself, the sense that all of these other people believe in the worthiness of what you’re doing and the necessity and importance of devoting yourself to it. I could suddenly see where exactly I was as a writer, and where I could be, and how to get there. The question of how much to dedicate myself to this passion, of where it would take me, and how to do it, were questions I had wrestled with for a long time, and in a moment, between one handclap and the next, the answers all snapped into place. Here – now – with these people – writing – growing – improving, because you need to do the best you can for the sake of the writing itself. It sounds corny now, but for about a half an hour, I had one of those “one with the universe” moments that you occasionally experience in life.
Like the icing on the cake, after the reception, I met literary agent Linn Prentis and her co-agent, Trodayne Northern. We did an extensive pitch session to discuss Song of the Ziggurat and they both liked the concept behind the book. We talked extensively about the plot, theme, and characters as well as marketing, editing, and a target audience. Linn was incredibly sharp and Trodayne extraordinarily friendly.
Then, like the frosting on the icing, Nathan and I had the privilege of talking with Connie Willis for the better part of an hour. Connie is this year’s Nebula (and, most recently, Hugo) winner for Best Novel for her two-book opus, Black Out/All Clear. It was an enlightening and humbling experience. Connie reinforced how friendly and supportive everyone is, and how there are no egos (or at least, not many). When I talked about how friendly and respectful everyone had been, she explained that everyone of them had been where I was and had relied on other writers to welcome them into the fold and to help them, the same way that she came in under Robert Silverberg. And she talked about how the writing is always a struggle, how you never become perfectly confident in your own abilities, how during 8 years she spent writing Blackout/All Clear she wanted to give up, often though she should give up and move on to something else. But you never do. You just rely on those friends and fellow writers to support you and to help you see with clear eyes.
It was a completely amazing weekend. I have been writing my entire life – I wrote my first story in second grade. I had been writing seriously for over ten years – producing over sixty short stories and a novel. And for all that time, I had doubted whether or not I had the “stuff” to be a writer. I had begun to tell people, when they asked me what I do, that I was a writer, but I never really believed it myself.
But now, seeing this community, feeling a part of something larger, I’m renewed with an excitement and urgency. And for the first time in my life, when people ask me what I do and I tell them that I’m a writer, I believe it myself. I know that I have a lot of growth and development ahead of me – that process never stops – but for the first time I feel like I have an understanding of what that means.