In acknowledgment of the recent passing of Gardner Dozois, today’s Story Time is “Laying the Stones,” the very first story Gardner ever bought from me (and my second ever pro sale), breaking a long and very burdensome drought on my part. It appeared in the November, 1994 issue of Asimov’s SF and, as you can see, in very good company.
As many of you may or may not know, the writer, editor, and reviewer Gardner Dozois passed away yesterday (May 27th). Of course, anyone involved at all in the field of Science Fiction knows that he was a lot more than that. He was the center. If the field had a heart, he would have been it. People who were closer to him personally will have to talk about Gardner Dozois the man. I can only speak to his effect on me.
I actually “met” Gardner online back in the early 1990’s, in the relatively early days of what was almost but not quite the internet. Before FB and Reddit there was Genie and Delphi, “bulletin board” sites where you logged in through an analog modem to argue and chat with friends. A lot of the sf/f field hung out on Genie, but on one night a week a smaller, very lucky group came together on the sf/f board on Delphi. Membership varied, but at one time or another there was Janet Kagan, Pat Cadigan, Lawrence Person, Jack L. Chalker, Eva Whitley, Mike Resnick, Susan Casper and yes, Gardner Dozois. And me. I wasn’t the only nobody there, of course, but on the other hand there weren’t any nobodies there. It was a friendly group and everyone felt welcome. I certainly did. At the time I had only sold one story, several years earlier, to Amazing SF, and while I was still working hard, I was beginning to think that was it. And even though talking business was generally frowned on, it was there that Gardner broke the news that he was taking a story of mine, “Laying the Stones,” for Asimov’s SF. Now imagine yourself drowning, not for a minute or two but for months, years, and somebody finally throws you a lifeline.
For me, that somebody was Gardner Dozois.
It was the same for a lot of other people who Gardner plucked from the slush pile and helped make their starts. He was unfailingly enthusiastic and generous as an editor. Not in the sense that he would take a second-rate story, of course—he was picky. It was more that he loved the field and it showed, and you knew when he chose a story from you it was because he enjoyed it, and believed his readers would too. He made you want to be a better writer, just to know you passed that test and belonged in that place you wanted to be.
I don’t pretend to know what, if anything, happens when our time on earth is up. I have my beliefs, as I’m sure you have yours. I still think of Susan and Janet and Jack and now Gardner holding court and swapping stories and wit for as long as it suits them.
I’ve heard it stated that “no one should give writing advice unless you’ve written at least ten million words.” The number of words varies sometimes, but it’s always high. Then there are other caveats attached, such as “unless you’ve had some measure of success” or “you’re known for a type of fiction/nonfiction” or…”<insert caveat here>.”
Now and again I’ll talk about writing on this page, and frankly after thirty plus years pushing words together I have no idea how many I’ve written. It might be fewer than ten million words. It might be greater. I don’t really care, as this never had much to do with the way I kept score in the first place. I always leaned more toward “Is this story better than the last one? Is it different? Is this progress or am I treading water?” Treading water was a sign of the dreaded plateau, where you know you’re writing at the top of your game, and it’s all at least good, probably publishable…and you are not getting better. Someone, possibly Gardner Dozois, once described writing progress as a series of plateaus. If you’re lucky and work hard, you eventually break through. Perhaps a new direction. Perhaps you simply get an order of magnitude better at what you’re (to whatever degree) known for. Then comes the next plateau, and eventually you reach one where you cannot break through no matter how hard you try, or you simply do not live long enough to find the next level.
Grim? Not really. There’s a lot to be said for doing what you love at the top of your game, whatever that level happens to be. You understand that this is not the goal, but a natural result of reaching for the goal. So long as you understand the difference, you’re doing it right.
So. Was that writing advice? I maintain that it wasn’t. Almost anytime you hear a writer talking about writing, all they’re doing is laying out their own understanding at whatever stage they happen to be, or in essence, talking to themselves. Sometimes it is helpful to other people. In workshop settings, it can be extremely helpful with the right student and the right teacher. But at heart, that is all it is. If what you hear makes no sense to you, there’s a reason, and that reason is you’re not at the right place in your own progress to understand it. That is not a problem unless you turn it into one by trying to apply it as advice to a situation where it is neither appropriate nor even advice. It is a statement of understanding, and that understanding might not be yours, because we may all be in this together, but we’re together alone, and that is grim.
At least, in my current understanding.