Despite our best efforts, and despite that we practiced beforehand, to be sure that we wouldn’t run over our time — we ran over our time at PhilCon, and did not finish delivering our Writer Guest of Honor Speech. Several people asked and/or suggested that we post it on the web, so that it could be read.
Without further ado, here is that speech, complete with stage directions:
Choices: The Creative Conundrum
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Guest of Honor Speech
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
November 21-23, 2014
Cherry Hill, New Jersey
Thank you (intro person’s name –) thank you for that welcome. We also need to thank program Czar Hugh Casey, Convention chair Gary Feldbaum, and FILL IN NAMES.
Thank you all for allowing us to stand here today where only a select few from our community have stood in seventy eight years – I ….
FLIPS THROUGH PAPERS; LOOKS AT SHARON
I thought you were doing this part.
Nope. We flipped the coin, and you took tails. Your choice was to go first. Says so on the sticky note.
Oh. Hmmm … OK. Right.
LOOKS AT AUDIENCE; MAYBE WAVES
Seriously, thank you for bringing us all the way from the Pine Tree State on this fine fall weekend, thanks for choosing us to be your PrincIpal Speaker for the 78th edition of your fine event, and thanks for coming out when there are so many other places you could have been this weekend.
Which makes us wonder –
How many people here have ever had to make a choice?
RAISES HAND AND LOOKS OVER AUDIENCE
Wow, look at this. . .
OK, all you risk-takers out there! Who has had a choice that they made produce ….unforeseen results?
RAISES HAND AND LOOKS OVER AUDIENCE
Yeah, they’re tricky, those choices. . . Who has suddenly realized that choices made long ago — even simple, not-particularly-important-at-the-time choices — have shaped large swaths of their lives thereafter?
RAISES HAND AND NODS
That’s what we’re going to be talking about today. Choices, where they came from, and what they did for us, and to us.
For the purposes of this conversation, the very first choice Steve and I made — independently, for moderately different reasons, and many years apart. Both of us, in fact made the choice way back when we were in elementary school —
We both chose to be writers. We both even declared that choice to our own families.
It seems a small declaration, an innocent choice – and for some people, the repercussions of that first choice of vocation remain manageable, lifelong – and a matter of nostalgic regret.
. . .
We were not those people.
We’re going to cut a couple corners, here, in order to bring y’all up to speed. We may find those corners useful later – let’s remember they were there.
So we’d decided to be writers. Individually. Then, after some life happened for both of us, the next important choice in this discussion is that we also decided to move in together. Being around each other a lot meant that we got to share more ideas, and one night we came up with a good one: maybe we could open a used bookstore – a genreshop! Snd we did that, filling the shelves with duplicates from our personal libraries.
The choice to open a bookstore — that had repercussions, but they faded.
The determination that both of us had taken — to be writers — that didn’t fade.
We wrote a couple of short stories — individually, and together — and we got day-jobs, because — art or no art — cat, woman, and man must eat.
What we didn’t do? We didn’t take high-paying, fast-tracked jobs. That was on purpose. We needed time and opportunity to write. So we took retail jobs, and secretarial jobs, and when the boss started make sounds that sounded like “promotion to management” and/or “more hours,” we quickly found another job.
We wrote. We submitted. We got rejected. . .mostly. We honed our craft. We wrote, and submitted — and, occasionally, got accepted.
We wrote some more, shifted jobs. . .
And kept on writing.
Thirty years ago, right around this season, we began writing a novel. We knew going in that this was the first book in a series – a seven-book series, as we had planned it. Because we did plan it. It was a choice.
See, one day, back in the fall of 1984, Sharon handed Steve a piece of paper. On it was typed a single sentence. A – may I just add – laboriously constructed and approaching perfect sentence, the product of many hours of labor.
You laugh? Here is the sentence – judge for yourself:
The man who was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.
LOOK AROUND AT AUDIENCE
Am I right?
LOOK AROUND AT AUDIENCE
AM I right?
Of course I am.
So! I brought this sublime sentence to Steve and I said, “I think I have a novel.”
And Steve, after deliberation, said,
“No. You don’t have a novel. I think you have a series.”
So, having nothing better to do with our time, we sat down at the kitchen table, pens, paper, and lubrication to hand, and we that night plotted out in big, bold strokes – seven novels.
But we did something else, too. We shared a vision, a deep and secret soul shattering – wait, not that deep, maybe. Still, there was sharing.
See. . .Sharon had already done a lot of the legwork on Val Con and Miri – the heroes of Agent of Change, that first book of seven. She’d been a solitary kid, and she’d spent the time when she wasn’t actively engaged in reading – in making up stories about two people from a future of her own devising. The names of those two people were – Val Con yos’Phelium, a scout, sometimes a spy, from the world of Liad; and Miri Robertson, a Terran with all the Attitude in Baltimore rolled into her compact frame. Miri was – daringly, for the 1960s – a soldier. And not just a soldier, but a mercenary soldier; competent and tough.
So, Steve spent most of that evening and several after bringing himself up to speed on Val Con and Miri and the Green People, and the space they occupied. He’d been a reporter; he knew how to ask leading questions, and I was pleased to talk about her friends, for the first time ever, out loud, with someone I trusted.
So, here was a choice – an amendment – or, say!, an expansion on the first independent choice, to be writers
We could write together. Yes! We would write together!
We had already dabbled our toes in those waters — we’d written several Kinzel short stories together by then, and a strange romantic little story called “Candlelight.”
But here — we were going to write a novel together.
Neither one of us had written anything longer than a novella, so this was going to be. . .
I was the elder writer; not only a reporter, a book and music reviewer, but I’d had several short stories published in pro markets. Sharon had a few short stories published, and this universe in her head.
Do you know what adventures need? This is an important idea, and important choice. Do you know what adventures really need? Anybody?
LOOK OUT OVER THE AUDIENCE; CALL ON SOMEBODY IF
ANYBODY PUTS THEIR HAND UP.
Someone to share it with.
Val Con and Miri, now – they had adventures together. They were, in fact, partners, though, usually, at the beginnings of the stories that Sharon would tell herself about them, they didn’t know each other. Sometimes, they were actively trying to kill each other; sometimes, they were each ignorant of the existence of the other until they fell in together, and realized that each brought something of value to the task of survival. Miri and Val Con, you understand, were very dangerous people, in the way that space opera heroes often are. Men were chasing them. Women, too. Large, sentient Turtles wished to speak with them, at length. The intergalactic crime cartel – someday to become dignified as the Juntavas – wanted to talk to them. The galactic trade commission wished to be reassured regarding the whereabouts of several. . .late-arriving cargoes.
. . .and so on.
Now, just like in real life, fiction requires choices.
In fact, it can be argued that fiction requires not only more, but more diverse choices than mere Real Life ever gives us.
Of course, that’s because as writers, we’re gods. We make up everything, right? The world, the characters, their thoughts and emotions, and whether or not the shower runs hot or cold this morning.
Well. . .yeah. That’s how it is. . .sort of. Or at least, so I’ve been told.
. . .
How many people here remember the eighties? I’m talking about the NINETEEN EIGHTIES.
It was crazy, right?
The Baltimore Colts sneaking out at the dead of night to set up as the Indianapolis Colts? I don’t think I ever recovered from that one.
Ronald Regan is RE-ELECTED President of the United States, by a landslide.
“Thriller” spent THIRTY SEVEN WEEKS on the charts as Top Album. But! It was finally unseated.
. . .by the soundtrack for “Footloose.”
In 1984, for the FIRST TIME EVER, a woman was presented as a vice presidential candidate. That was, lest we forget, Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro of New York, running against incumbent VP George H. W. Bush.
In 1984, those who cared to do so could smoke in public places. Restaurants and diners put ashtrays and matchbooks on every table. Anyone could take the matches away, for free.
In July of 1984, Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and Scandal’s “The Warrior” appeared on Casey Kasem’s American Top Forty List. “When Doves Cry” was Number One. “The Warrior” was Number Forty. Probably that says something about. . .something.
Who remembers either of those songs?
In 1984, if you needed to make a call while you were away from home, you had to find a TELEPHONE BOOTH. In 1984, New York City raised the cost of a phone call made from a telephone booth to a QUARTER, having held firm at ten cents for nearly a decade.
In 1984, the top computer operating system was something called DOS THREE
. . .
Yeah. It was a strange time. The past is a different country.
There was a lot of talk about this thing called “equality” in 1984. We, as many people, were interested in what this “equal society” would look like.
So — in the spirit of What If? — we decided to make the Liaden Universe(R) an Equal Opportunity Universe. There was no “man’s work”; there was no “women’s work.” On Liad, the clan took care of the clan’s children; and each member of the clan was required to produce an heir of their body, who would be your apprentice in learning the work you performed for the clan, and who would eventually perform that work in your place.
Liadens practiced contract marriage in order to get these heirs, so no one’s potential was limited — or boosted, either — by a so-called “traditional marriage.”
Terrans — lacking the cultural stability generated by the Liaden Code of Proper Conduct — Terran worlds enjoyed wide diversity. Some were Safe Worlds, some were matriarchies; some were patriarchies; some were charter worlds dedicated to a certain philosophy or period of time; some were a mishmash of whatever seemed good at the time.
But in all of those societies — with the exception of those that were explicity patriarchal or matriarchal — everyone was equal. You wanted to be a soldier — fine, pass the tests and you’re in.
Pilot? Go for it.
Scout? Trader? Baker? Teacher? Pickpocket?
Everything’s wide open. The only requirement for a job – competence.
Now — leaping forward in time and space for a moment to talk about Unintended Consequences. . . in fact, let me say this about that. . .
Back in 2012, when Audible decided to publish every! single! Liaden Universe(R) novel! ever! written and make them available to the public in time for the hardcover publication of Dragon Ship, in September, we had a discussion with one of our four narrators, in which he mentioned the Amazing Fact that there were more females in “bit parts” — the taxi driver, the guard on the door, the bartender — in the Liaden books he narrated for us than in any of the other books he had ever narrated.
This was an interesting thing for us — and a good thing, for him, because it made him realize he needed to increase his inventory of female voices.
But — leaping back to 1984, and the choices therein made. . .
We also chose — well. Actually, they came with. So, let us rephrase.
We welcomed non-human aliens into our universe. This was, remember in 1984, before non-human aliens were FINGER QUOTESprovenEND FINGER QUOTES to be IMPORTANT VOICE Impossible, and therefore have no place in the serious business of science fiction.
We also welcomed psy characters — which is to say characters who could teleport, read minds, heal emotional trauma, see the future, and light a fire from across the room with their hands behind their backs.
Again! Recall that this was 1984, before such characters were excised from Serious Science Fiction and banished to Fantasy. Joseph Rhine, the founder of the Rhine Institute for Parapsychology — later renamed the Rhine Research Center — who had been making a case for extrasensory powers for all of OUR lives, had only just moved on to that great testing facility in the sky. The science fiction books we grew up reading — in the spirit of WHAT IF? — played with the possibilities of Mind Power being both real and potentially able to be harnessed into usefulness.
We’d seen psy, mutants, and mind-speak in Andre Norton, of course, and a great many more people met the concept through comics. The very first X-men comic appeared in 1963, introducing a whole cast of FINGERQUOTESmutantsEND FINGERQUOTES with extra-normal powers. Some dare call that fantasy …
So, yes, there were and are what are now held to be FANTASY ELEMENTS in the Liaden Universe(R).
. . .speaking of fantasy elements. . .
We also made the decision that, in the Liaden Universe(R), people would still desire, and find valuable, connections with other sentient peoples. They would seek comfort; they would fall in love.
And so that’s part of the Liaden Universe(R), too — yes, it was a push back at those science fiction books that WE grew up reading, where the hero proved his — it was almost always HE and HIS — his heroism by being solitary, and strong, and occasionally screwing some chick whose name he doesn’t necessarily recall, but who loves him, nonetheless, because who doesn’t love a hero?
. . .
We also made one more choice — No.
We made a promise — to ourselves, and to each other — and it was this:
WE’LL KEEP WRITING JUST EXACTLY AS LONG AS IT’S FUN.
So! Having made all these decisions, we sat down and wrote that novel, the first of seven, title AGENT OF CHANGE, and immediately skyrocketed to success, wealth, and fame —
SHAKING HEAD NO.
We finished the novel, sent it to ACE, where the editor held it long enough for us to write ANOTHER WHOLE NOVEL, before rejecting it. There’s more story there and if you hang around with us long enough, you might hear it. By the way the editor who did that was Ginjer Buchanan – she just retired this year.
But Agent of Change was not a book to sit dejectedly in a pile of forlorn and inactive manuscripts. Nope, we gathered together a big costly pile of stamps, affixed them to the package, and we mailed it off it off to DAW — working down the alphabet, you see — which rejected it in the mailroom. We know this because the round-trip from Baltimore to NYC and back-again took three days.
And then? Why, we kept at it. We’d decided to be pros, hadn’t we?
So, by the next day’s mail, we sent it to Del Rey — where it was purchased, after awhile, but not too long awhile.
Del Rey also bought the book we wrote while waiting for ACE to get back to us, and a third book — and we were happily on our way to writing the next four books — Seven books in series, remember? — when —
Del Rey made a choice.
We’re cutting some more corners, here, because we tell this story a lot, and many of you have heard it before.
Long story short, Del Rey cut us loose after the third novel. They didn’t want any more Liaden novels; they said “the numbers” were bad. We wrote them one more novel — non-Liaden — per contract, which was rejected and we were Washed Up SF Writers. The editor at Del Rey was even kind enough to tell us that we didn’t really have a career to speak of, and wished us well in our new mundane life.
. . .and that pretty much sums up our next 7, 8, or 10 years, depending on if you talk to Steve, or to me, and how many glasses of wine either has had when you ask.
Now, this was clearly a Decision Point. This was the place where we could have thrown in the towel and said, “Screw this. Art is hard and the pay’s crap. I’m going to TAKE that managerial promotion the next time it’s offered, and get health insurance, and two weeks’ paid vacation, and I’ll never look back.”
To be fair, we did TRY that. Sort of.
It didn’t last very long; and it turned out that neither of us was very good at being normal. Oh. we could fake normal for a job interview and even the first few months of a job, but … it didn’t exactly stick, that normal.
And see, we’d made another set of choices in between the selling of the first three books and Del Rey’s rejection of the non-Liaden novel that finished our contract with them. We’d decided that in order to live the freelance life, we’d need to live to someplace less expensive and muhc quieter than Beautiful Big Town Baltimore, and so we’d moved to Maine. Skowhegan, Maine, in fact. There’s an Indian there.
So, what did we do during those 7, 8, or 10 years, besides work as reporters, correspondence instructors, photographers, librarians, office managers, and Speakers To Computers. . .?
Why, we wrote three more Liaden novels.
Sharon — who is clearly driven – also wrote two mystery novels.
And Steve, who demonstrably has no sense of proportion — started a small press publishing empire.
SRM Publisher came into being in 1995 in order to publish two Liaden Universe(R) short stories in chapbook form. This was actually something that could be prefaced with “Back by popular demand!” since fan appetite for new Liaden material, as discovered through computer BBS and later the burgeoning interwebs, was still out there. The chapbook in question — TWO TALES OF KORVAL — was to be a one-off, of a hundred copies. One look at printing costs made it two hundred copies, because due diligence and a background in printing showed us that it would cost all of $2.32 cents more, total – not each, but for the shebang! – for 200 copies rather than a hundred copies… and that would surely cover our fans.
CUE LAUGH TRACK
Eventually, SRM Publisher came to publish many more Liaden and other Lee and Miller stories, as well as work from other authors, including Ru Emerson, Thomas A. Easton, Lawrence Schoen, David Harris, and Bud Webster.
When we made the choice to shut it down, in 2011, SRM had just published its seventeenth Liaden chapbook. Two Tales of Korval – well, in the long run, that single chapbook,in several iterations, made more money for us than the first three novels had ever made for us at Del Rey.
SRM was a good choice as a side project, as such things go — it paid our bills; it kept us in touch with our fans; and it created new fans for our work. It gave us a reason to take a table at conventions where we were under-utilized as guests, and it sometimes put us on the Locus Bestseller list, which was a real bonus.
Sharon, in the meantime, was hired by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as the first full-time executive director, and it looked like we were settling into being ALMOST normal, when, one rainy January evening in 1997. . .
The phone rang.
Another corner cut, here.
The caller was Stephen Pagel, part owner and acquiring editor of the Brand Spanking New Meisha Merlin Publishing. Stephe wanted to reprint our first three novels, the rights of which had reverted to us over those 7, 8 or 10 years.
He called them, CHARMING.
After some negotiation, we agreed to sell him the rights, and then mentioned that there were SEVEN books in total — the three he was acquiring, and four continuing books, three of which were written, one of which was vaporware.
Without missing a beat he said, “Oh, good. I’ll take them… let me send you a contract.”
Long story short, he bought all seven of them, four of them sight unseen. Meisha Merlin published Plan B in February 1988, and kept on publishing us at the rate of one book a year, until 2006, when. . .
Meisha Merlin crashed and burned.
Well, what do you know? The universe was offering us another Decision Point.
This time. . .it was a near thing.
Sharon went to work as a departmental secretary for the local Little Ivy college, for a steady paycheck and the all-important health insurance.
I — was in charge of writing and posting to the web every Monday before noon Eastern, a chapter of the Liaden novel we were writing live! and without a net!
The novel was called FLEDGLING, and it, more than anything, convinced us that, no, really, what we ought to be doing with our lives was. . .writing. And not only writing, but writing in this strange little universe that we created for ourselves and for our readers.
It was a good time, if you ignore all the crazy bits.
The fallout from Meisha Merlin fell out; we were taken on by Baen Books, to whom we had pitched two unwritten dark fantasies to be published under a pen name to be determined later. The books had names — Duainfey and Longeye. The pen names were to be chosen by dart-board divination.
Baen’s publisher offered to buy the fantasies – but they saved our dart-throwing hands since they’d take the novels only as long as they could use our real names. Times were slim, and so we said yes.
So! Adventures, right? Busy, right?
HOLD UP FINGERS
Steve was working on FLEDGLING, doing the website work for Fledgling, and running SRM Publisher’s publishing, website, sales, and fulfillment, while I got up early every day, went to the day-job and came home to write Dark Fantasy, on short deadline, well into the night.
Work is good, right?
And eventually — more corner cutting! — our previous work was cleared from the confusion of the former publisher’s demise, and went into Baen’s hands.
Can anybody guess — Does anybody KNOW what that means?
It means that As Of This Moment, talking to you as we are, and have been for the last 35 minutes or so. . .
Every! Single! Liaden Universe(R)! Novel! EVER WRITTEN!
. . .is in print, in multiple formats.
Every single Liaden novel ever written — that’s SEVENTEEN novels — EIGHTEEN, this coming June, when Dragon in Exile comes out in hardcover, and ebook and audiobook.
Not too bad, for an afternoon’s work that ended up with a waste basket full of abandoned starts and a single line to be shared. Not too bad for a series that was abandoned by the publisher as an underfed trilogy when it was meant to be more. Not too bad, even, for a seven-book series.
OK, so we cut some corners on the way here to make sure the story we’re telling here and now would fit and would be in order – or at least in an order – and now we ought-maybe to put some of those corners back, because we choose to, and because those corners can illuminate the little choices that also add up.
One of the choices we made – we’ve shown bits and pieces of here already – was to be flexible as well as practical. That means we’ve written some work for hire – that would be work outside our own universes, work that sounded interesting. One of those projects was our first run-ins with NDAs. You know, the dreaded dot.com non-disclosure agreement. So, well, other than to say we got paid, we can’t tell you more about it, sorry.
Another work-for-hire project we took resulted in the book called Sword of Orion – and our names are on that book, which I guess is technically in print. We get asked for the sequel there – but since we don’t own the rights to that particular universe, that’s not going to happen. Both of those projects, by the way, met our “will we enjoy this?” test for work – we were glad we go to do them.
Oh yes – we also, along the way, sold the novel that Del Rey – remember Del Rey? – the novel that Del Rey said they didn’t want and was proof that we had no career as SF writers – we sold that one to Meisha Merlin. It eventually came out in hardback, tradepaper, and mass market. Not a Liaden book, but you may have read it anyway – that’s The Tomorrow Log.
So we did some finagling, making choices that kept us creative.
One thing that we didn’t do. . .We didn’t take the offer a major agent made to us.
That offer was simple – the agent offered to represent us as long-term clients if we’d just stop writing the “little space operas” we’d been writing, and work on big books.
That is to say, Big Important Blockbuster Books. The agent was so sure we could do it, the offer included the information that we’d be supplied with breaking topics, pre-titled plotlines, and even character sketches sure to put us on the bestseller list. So, all we’d have to do was make our agent our boss — our creative director, actually — and we’d be fine.
We looked it over, this offer. We talked it over. We thought it over, hard. After all, we knew people who’d chosen to take offers very like this one. And we knew that this offer might be the closest we’d ever come to the Rich And Famous Contract the Muppets got …
At the same time, we had these people we’d been working with. Some redhead named Miri. A guy named Val Con. A cat named Merlin. A dragon-loving tree… heck, there was this whole universe, a community as it were, depending on us. We didn’t want to let them down.
Too, there were these other folks we’d be working with – the readers and fans who’d supported the chapbooks, who’d read the novels and asked for more, people who’d read our work and searched for us when our books couldn’t be found – found us on FidoNet and Homenet and then on the wider interwebz… a community, in fact, who’d chosen to read and enjoy our work — and to support the kind of art we did, and that we do.
So. . .choices – like deciding as a child to be a writer, deciding as an adult to trust another person, and then choosing to share another person’s artistic vision, deciding – time after time – not to give up writing this time, and to stick with the program of writing things that are fun to write…
Thanks for having us here, and thank you for helping us make and keep making choices like these!
Who has questions?