Sharon Lee talk, Colby February 2010

On February 18, 2010, I was part of a panel of women who have day-jobs at Colby College, and also embrace a second career.  I talked about science fiction, and writing science fiction and how I came to work at Colby.  If you click this link:

Sharon Lee talks about science fiction

…you can hear my remarks, which were recorded later (the original panel was not, alas, recorded.  I wish it had been, because my co-panelists were fascinating to a woman), and with the kind help of Chris (Keris) Croughton edited and brought to you here.

For those who would rather read than listen, the text of the speech is reproduced below.

* * *

This is a question I don’t often get to ask an audience —

How many people here READ science fiction? (raise hand)

(punt — depending)

Science Fiction, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is the literature that asks What If?

What If we could harness some passing migratory birds and hitch a ride to the moon?

What If there were giant, sentient, space-going turtles?

What If I could download my personality into a starship?

. . .

Now, What If has a cousin — the Second Principle of Science Fiction:

If This Goes On. . .

A writer’s attention will light on something — writers, I should say, especially science fiction writers, are a lot like ravens. When we see something shiny, we can’t rest until we’ve snatched it up, studied on it, and crooned endearments over it.

So! A writer will notice something — a trend, an idea, a law — something shiny. Something interesting. They are compelled to explore this shiny thing, to take it out to its limit — or to a limit.

Cloning — if it goes on — to become human cloning.

Is my clone my sister?

My property?

Is my clone my second self, and we can sync memories and experiences?

Now, I want to be clear. Just because a writer has asked the question, What will our world look like in two weeks, three years, a decade — if this goes on?

Doesn’t mean that’s the way it’s going to go down.

It doesn’t even necessarily mean that the writer thinks it will happen that way.

Science fiction does not predict the future. Science fiction can and does test multiple possible answers to contemporary concerns. But! First and always, science fiction is a genre literature.

Which means that, primarily, it’s entertainment.

. . .

That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

One of the essential conditions that lets any form of fiction succeed is Reader belief. In science fiction, we say there is an attitude, a stance — a Willing Suspension of Disbelief — which is part of the contract between reader and writer. In essence, the reader agrees not to measure the story they’re about to hear against their real-world — non-story — experiences. The writer agrees to lie as persuasively as possible, to explain the rules of the story clearly, and promises not to violate them.

The rules of the story — that’s worldbuilding.

The inviolable rules of the story.

Now, science fiction writers get a lot of freedom in worldbuilding.

You want talking squid? You can have ’em.

You want a world in which the American Revolution never happened? You can have that, too.

A zombie apocalyspe? Hey, it’s your story.

But you have to play fair. Once you’ve established the rules, you may not violate them. For instance if one of the rules of your world is that firearms don’t work there, you can’t solve the problem of the bad guy by pulling out a revolver and blowing his head off. You have to think of something that is consistent with the rules you’ve laid down.

The point being that, as with everything else in life, with great privilege comes great responsibility.

My job, as a writer, is to tell the best damn’ story I’m capable of telling about characters who are emotionally engaging to the reader, set in a fully-realized fictional world.

. . .

In other words — I sit in front of a computer and tell lies about people who don’t exist.

. . .

It’s something I’ve been doing for a. . . little while.

One of my workshop students last year asked me when I’d published my first short story. I said, “1979.”

To which she replied, “So, you’ve been doing this for THIRTY YEARS!”

“Oh, no,” I said, “surely not!”

So, thirty years. That first sale was to Amazing Stories. It was kind of a retelling of the Moses story. With cats. It was called, “A Matter of Ceremony.”

The first NOVEL — Agent of Change, written with my partner, Steve Miller, as all of my long science fiction has been — Agent of Change was published in February 1988. Among other things, it asked the burning question: WHAT IF there were giant, sentient, space-going turtles?

Our second novel was published in July 1988; the third in late 1989.

After that, our publisher cut us loose and we were unable to place another novel for almost a decade.

In 19NINETY8, our fourth novel, Plan B, was published.

Between 1998 and 2006, Steve and I saw nine novels published. We were full-time freelance writers, making our entire income from our writing.

This is the place where I say — Kids, don’t try this at home.

In mid-2006, our publisher stopped paying us.

In January of 2007, I came to work at Colby College as a secretary for American Studies, History, Jewish Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Simultaneously, Steve and I began serializing an original novel, at the rate of one chapter a week, on the web, for reader donation — the so-called Storyteller’s Bowl model. This was a two-pronged effort to remain living indoors during a Maine winter.

Just briefly, the Storyteller Bowl model is based on the old idea of the fellow crouched in a corner of the marketplace, his bowl in front of him, a few coins in the bottom. He’s telling a story, this fellow, and he has a small crowd of listeners, bent eagerly forward so they won’t miss a word. The storyteller has just come to a point — an exciting point! — in the story — and then he tied her to the railroad track!

. . .

And he stops.

And he looks, meaningfully, at his bowl.

A few coins hit the bottom.

He yawns.

A few more coins are offered —

And the story continues.

So, a chapter a week. Piece of cake. And spring was coming. . .

In April of 2007, Steve and I sold two dark fantasy novels — Duainfey and Longeye — to Baen Books.

We sold those books on proposal — which meant that both of them had to be written.

Now, let’s pause a moment to consider our situation.

Our publisher of eight years had crashed and burned, leaving us at least forty thousand dollars in the hole from unpaid royalties. The rights to our on-going series, which had thousands of fans, world wide, were tangled up in the charred remains. I had just started a new, full-time job, we were serializing one novel, and under contract for two more, the first of which was due in four months.

Between January 2007 and June 2009, Steve and I WROTE from the ground up FIVE genre novels of at least One Hundred Thousand Words each. That’s a novel every. . .call it a novel every FOUR MONTHS. In addition to that, I revised and turned in my single author contemporary fantasy. We did all the rest of the stuff one does — proofed galleys, were guests of honor at convention or two, and did promotion, trying to bring our faltering career from its knees back onto its feet.

And I worked my day-job here at Colby.

. . .

May I just say? Five novels in eighteen months is. . .about three novels too many.

There is an upside though — look what’s happened to our publishing schedule!

This month, Fledgling will be released in mass market paperback, following the September hardcover. In April, its sequel, Saltation, will be published, in hardcover; in June there’s the hardcover release of Mouse and Dragon, AND a soft cover omnibus reprint edition of three older novels — Local Custom, Scout’s Progress and Conflict of Honors.

In November, Carousel Tides, my contemporary fantasy, will be published. In January 2011, another omnibus edition hits the shelves — this one reprinting Agent of Change and Carpe Diem.

Steve and me? We’re practically on a paid vacation.

We have exactly ONE novel due to turn in this year — Ghost Ship, on August 15, and we will have had almost a WHOLE YEAR to write it.

Oh, and we have the galleys for three novels to go over. And proposals for the books we hope to write after Ghost Ship to pull together.

We’ll be writer guests of honor at two regional science fiction conventions — and panelists at the North American Science Fiction Convention, in August.

So, yeah. We can relax, now.

. . .

Thank you all for listening.

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