Interview with John Coulthart

Who are some artists and/or illustrators who have influenced your work? How and why?

The greatest influences strike you when you're very young. My mother was an early influence because she'd been to art school, and worked briefly as a textile designer before getting married. Having an artist in the family demystified the art world and made an art career seem like a tangible thing. She also had a few art books and magazines from her college days so I was aware of fine art from a very early age. Later influences were the covers I was seeing on bookshelves and in record-shop windows in the 1970s; the book covers being created by Chris Foss, Bruce Pennington, and Bob Haberfield weren't things I tried to imitate myself but the combination of this type of art with a fantasy, horror, or science fiction story sparked my desire to aim for doing something similar myself. Album covers were equally intriguing even if the music they packaged wasn't always very good. I urged my parents to buy me Roger Dean's first art book, Views, then began collecting the books published by his Dragon's Dream company. The album art of Roger Dean and the surreal and often enigmatic record sleeves created by Hipgnosis made music seem like another area in which it might be good to work.

The final influence from this period was Heavy Metal, a magazine, which, from the late ’70s, was reprinting in English the French comic strips from Métal Hurlant by Moebius, Druillet, Bilal, and many others. I stopped reading comics when I was about twelve after trying to get interested in US superhero comics; I didn't like the art and thought the stories were ridiculous compared to the written science fiction I was reading. Heavy Metal had superior artwork and the stories were often a lot more interesting. This made me realize that comics could still be a viable medium for an artist who didn't want to draw in the American style.

What media do you use? Do you think any media are better, or can shape, how speculative elements are depicted in a work?

I work entirely digitally today, using a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator, and a Wacom tablet. I still do sketches on paper from time to time since this is a good way to quickly work out ideas, but I only use physical media if I require a very specific effect, like an ink wash or something. With Illustrator, I like the precision it delivers, something I often tried to achieve with ink drawing.

The great advantage of digital media is its flexibility. You can refine a piece of work or try a number of variations without destroying the early stages of the piece. With physical media, you often have to live with the single thing you're creating, flaws and all. With digital art you can also use bits and pieces from all over the place, combining photo sources with original illustration to create a seamless hybrid. This is useful for imaginative work when you're often trying to create things that haven't been seen before. I'm not the only illustrator who used to hoard photos ripped from magazines to use as drawing reference. There's no need for this today when the internet gives access to images of every kind.

The disadvantage of digital art is that everyone is aware of its flexibility, so you might be asked to change something you were perfectly happy with simply because an editor or art director knows that changes can be made.

How has the field been changing in the past ten years?

The most obvious change is that you have an entire generation—maybe two generations—for whom digital art isn't a new thing at all but is the medium they grew up with. This means the standard of work from talented people is now very high; the refined finish that digital art offers has raised the bar enormously. People are also educating themselves much more, via YouTube tutorials or following artists who like to show the process stages of their work.

Another development is the visibility of artists from all over the world. The internet gives people access to an international audience that in the past would have only been available to the very successful.

What have been some challenges for you as a working artist? What have been some of your triumphs and joys?

The main challenge has always been to stay busy (and employed!) while working in the area that excites me the most. If you work freelance you often have to take whatever job comes your way; some jobs are inevitably more interesting and better suited to your abilities than others. You also have to be prepared for working relationships to run their course: publishers change their line of books or close down altogether; editors and art directors leave their jobs and leave your commissions in limbo as a result, and so on. This lack of a stable environment causes other problems since it compels you to say "yes" to whatever work that comes along, with the result that you may find yourself having to juggle two or three jobs with short deadlines simultaneously.

On the upside, it's always good to be earning your living doing something you enjoy, and I feel very fortunate to be in this position even though I'm always complaining that I don't get paid enough. I've been additionally fortunate in having the opportunity to work with people whose books or music I've admired from afar. I'm often critical of the album covers I created for Hawkwind in the early 1980s but that opportunity was a very lucky break for a nineteen-year-old, and it made me feel that I'd made the right decision two years earlier when parents and teachers were telling me I was going to fail utterly if I didn't go to art school.

I also feel lucky to have won the World Fantasy Award for best artist since I don't work exclusively in fantasy and SF and don't always feel very visible there. I've tended to dismiss the genre awards in the past for being minor things that are very US-oriented, despite their "world" labels. I changed my tune a little when I looked back over the previous World Fantasy art winners to see artists like Roger Dean and Moebius in the list. I don't regard myself as being on their level at all but it's good company to be in.

What is some advice you could pass along to people just starting out in the field? How can we work to support each other?

I'm usually wary of giving advice since everybody's circumstances and opportunities differ, and some of the things that worked out well for me won't work for others at all. I didn't go to art school for a variety of reasons but not everyone has the self-confidence (misguided or otherwise) that I had when I was seventeen. That said, it's not necessary to fret about qualifications if you're aiming for an illustration career. Nobody has ever asked me about my education in a job context, and I've never heard of any other illustrator being asked the same. When it comes to commissions, the thing that counts is the quality of your work.

Beyond education, two general things are of lasting importance: visibility and contactability. Is your work easy for people to see, and are you easy to contact if somebody takes an interest? Making your work visible is relatively easy today thanks to social media, so this isn't too much of a hurdle. I'd caution people about becoming wedded to a single platform, however. All the popular social media outlets have only been around for a short time and the less successful ones (in a business sense) like Tumblr keep getting sold to new owners. Some of these platforms may no longer be around in another ten years, so you have to regard all internet outlets as useful in the short term but not as a single place to devote all your time and energy.

The hazards of social media leads to the second point about contactability, and for the long term I'd recommend having your own website. Setting up a website may seem a daunting thing compared to setting up a profile on a free social outlet; websites cost money (a small amount but it still needs paying for) and require a degree of technical skill to set up and maintain. But it's worth the initial effort for the benefit of having your own online portfolio available to the world. Here you can have your contact details easily available and post all your work in whatever manner you find appropriate. You can still post the same work to social media, just don't regard the latter as the only outlet in the world simply because everyone you know seems to be there. Your friends may all be there but commissioning editors or art directors may not be. If someone sees a sample of your work in a web search, are you and your contact details easy to find without them having to sign up to a site or click through login notices and other obstacles before they even locate your name?

This is getting overextended so I'll make a final note that going to conventions is a good way to get your work seen and also meet people who may want to use it somewhere. I'm a total introvert so I dislike conventions, even though I used to force myself to go to them. Convention attendance can also involve considerable expense so you have to be prepared to spend a lot of money and maybe have nothing to show for it at the end. But it's a very good way to meet writers, editors, and art directors. And other artists, of course.


The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Social Media Marketing for Authors

Editor's Note: Nicole Kimberling, as the editor at Blind Eye Books, discusses how brand-new authors should build out their internet presence. While many of the specific references are targeted at writers (such as Smashwords and Goodreads) within this article, the principals discussed in this article seem applicable to all creators within the speculative arts. A simple yet effective website, social media that dovetails with one's communication styles, and connection to the larger community are all ways of creating an internet presence that can be applied to many emerging creators. 

I decided to write this series because there has been a paradigm shift in the world of writing. Whereas before it was possible for a writer to remain outside the fracas of the online world and still have some sort of career (or even meaningful hobby), now having an active online presence is as much a requirement as wearing business attire to your office job. In other words: for a writer to be taken seriously by readers as well as publishers they must participate in social media and in their own online marketing.

Right now I'm seeing a lot of really good writers who should be in their prime whose voices are beginning to vanish due to a complete lack of understanding of how to promote themselves online. Hopefully, these tips will help at least some drowned-out voices to resurface as well as help completely new authors find and maintain connections to their ideal readers. This is not meant to be some kind of masterclass. In fact, it's a little more like kindergarten.

But by the end of it—with any luck—you too should be able to engage the new digital reality of life as an author.

How To Create An Online Presence

It’s finally happened: you’ve written a piece of fiction. You’ve either sold your masterpiece to a publisher or you’ve decided to go it alone on Smashwords. Either way, the one thing you need to do now is create an online presence.

I do not care who you are, or what you write, or what problems you have—philosophical or existential—with social media. If you hope to have success you need an active online presence. Full stop.

Why?

Because this is the way readers will discover you and share their love of your work with each other and with you. And it’s also where you will reassure them that you are still alive and beavering away at your next project. It’s where you will build excitement for your creations and where your readers will share their excitement with others.

Your work will be competing with thousands of other titles. Your active social media presence is what keeps your work from being subsumed by the massive tidal (title?) wave of other works and promotional campaigns.

Social media also allows you to build relationships with other writers. It’s no exaggeration to say that your relationships with other writers will dictate the course of your career. They will inspire you, teach you, introduce you to important industry professionals and, most importantly, introduce you to new readers via cross-promotion.

The First Steps

Before you build a website or attempt to take on Twitter—the Autobahn of the social media world—you need to decide whether you will use your actual name or a pen name. I use my real name. Here’s why: my real name came with existing contacts in the form of my real-life friends. Even if they’ve never read a single word I’ve written, my real-life friends have staunchly supported my career via likes, shares, retweets and general signal-boosting. Plus, I am not the sort of person who is likely to maintain two separate social media presences (one private, one personal). I’m naturally extroverted and impulsive and having to pause to remember who I am supposed to be online vs. in real life would drain all pleasure from the experience of interacting with people.

If you are like me, using your real name—or some variation of your real name, like your initials or your first and middle names—is the way to go.

For example, if your name is Angelica June Hardesty and you decide to publish under A.J. Hardesty you just change your Facebook profile to “Public” and the name listed to A.J. Hardesty and you’re already in business.

But many authors use a pen name. There are many reasons this might be the choice for you. They range from as personal as hiding your hobby from your coworkers to as calculated as the deliberate creation of an auctorial brand identity. So long as you will legitimately post as your online persona, having a pen name is great. But it does burden you with starting from zero in terms of contacts, so you’re going to have to go deliberately court followers.

Whether you use a variation of your real name or a pen name, it’s important to make sure the associated domain name is available for you to purchase: i.e. my name is Nicole Kimberling, so I own www.nicolekimberling.com. If your name is already taken you can either choose another name to write under or you can augment it with an applicable term like, “nicolekimberlingwriter” or “nicolekimberlingauthor.” You can check if your domain is taken by using the search function at sites like GoDaddy.

One note about pen names: be aware that nowadays most assumed identities are eventually discovered, especially if you become popular. Understand from the start that your nom de plume is not an impenetrable shield of anonymity. It’s more like a business name. So remember to use business etiquette when posting.

Build a Website

Take that domain you bought and just build one. There are plenty of platforms out there. Right now I recommend Squarespace, because it’s dead-easy and has a great help section. But probably in a couple of years there will be an even easier platform to build on. If website building is truly impossible for you to understand, find a kid to help you. Like a relative. Or a neighbor. Alternately, most college students will be able to assist. Hire one to sit beside you for a day and help you figure out what you're supposed to be doing. Do not let them build your website for you. They're just there to help you learn because you're going to have to update this thing for yourself eventually, right?

To begin with, all you need are four pages:

  1. A landing page with your author name on it, plus a picture or logo.
  2. A page that lists your publications. (With buy links.)
  3. A biography with links to your social media and contact information
  4. A blog, or news section where you can post announcements or free reads.

And viola! You have built your home base. You have created an exclusive venue to post your news, updates, free reads promotions, cat pictures… whatever. Now that you have a home, it’s time to expand.

Finding Your Social Media Platform

At the time of writing this essay, the three major social media platforms of most use to writers are Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Here is an easy way to figure out which one to start using first:

  1. If you like to write letters or talk on the phone, start with Facebook.
  2. If you prefer to send postcards or texts, join Twitter.
  3. If you send blank postcards with meaningful images, Instagram is the way.

You can set up each of these social media platforms to post to the other automatically, but you need one primary mode of interaction that you can perform easily from your phone.

Why My Phone?

Because you must engage with social media every single day for the month before and one month after your release. It helps to be able to just use dead time—like when you’re in your dentist’s waiting room—to keep engagement up without cutting into your writing time. (Cause you’re already working on your next project right? Of course you are.)

One Last Thing

Set up a profile on Goodreads and link the blog on your website to it. (If you can't figure out how to do this, invite that kid back. Buy her a pizza or something for her trouble.) Now everyone, including prospective editors, agents and publicists, can easily find out about your and your work.


Not Quite Superman

When I was young, whenever I would get frustrated with something, my parents would say, “It’s hard, but you can do it.”

Throughout life, I’ve taken this to heart; I powered through and did the things, even when there was a crushing amount of work to be done. Friends called it “superpowers,” and I found myself using it more and more often. Superpowers always have their cost--get the power of the Dark Side at the expense of your morality, get magic powers when you sacrifice the thing you love most, and so on. For me, I’d be exhausted the next day, a gibbering baboon who looked like they’d stayed awake for three days straight, but the feeling was always that it was worth it because that’s what you gotta do to get it done. It’s hard, but you can do it. 

Today I both write SFF and work in a high-powered slice of tech. In tech, superpowers are the norm. Superpowers are expected. Superpowers are your basic prerequisite, because of course you’re going to work-hard-play-hard, you’re going to go-go-go and get-shit-done. (You probably have a t-shirt or mug with at least one of these phrases, possibly handed out by your employer.) There is no place for weakness in this environment. 

There is no place for disability in this environment.  

In the past 5+ years, working with a wide variety of client companies, I haven’t seen a single person with a visible disability. Any invisible ones have been carefully hidden away.

Even without my disability, I’ve never been healthy. In the past five years alone, I’ve dealt with a bizarre constellation of medical issues: car accidents, emergency appendectomy, shingles… nothing connected, but many things. Some I can hide. Some I can’t, but there’s still an expectation to push through. A regular sick day usually means working from home, smiling and cogent on the video conference, trying to ignore the fever heating my cheeks. The last time I had a real sick day, I was two weeks after major surgery and on serious painkillers. The following week, still high as a kite on vicodin and barely able to shu ffle to the fridge and back, my then-client insisted that I get some work done and I’d been out long enough. But at least all of these issues were temporary and none actually disabling.

Which brings me to my actual, invisible disability. I’ve struggled with sometimes-crippling depression since high school. I’ve checked myself into two different hospital programs, one of which included a week of inpatient care. It’s hard enough to smile and pretend I’m stronger than I really am when recovering from a physical illness. It’s excruciating while depressed. In my field, depression is an unheard-of weakness. People acknowledge that I can’t help it if I was hit by a car, but depression is still seen as a personal failing. 

I am not “out” in tech because I would stop getting business. This piece is the first and only work I’ve ever written under a pseudonym: I can’t afford the risk. Who wants to work with someone who might one day just be too sad to come in? What’s the point? Just get over your bullshit and get this shit done. Superpower your way through and you’ll be fine. So I grit my teeth and smile, smile even when my cheeks feel like they each have a one-ton weight smuggled within them, smile when it’s all I can do to keep the tears from squeezing out and rolling down my unprofessional face and dripping onto my unprofessional laptop that would fizzle and sizz in the very reaction that I’m now suppressing in myself. 

(Superpower through it. It’s hard, but you can do it.) 

Depression feels like the opposite of superpowers. Instead of being able to burst through expectations and accomplish superhuman amounts of work, I’m saddled with some sort of superkryptonite. Not only can I not do things that are super, but I find it hard to do incredibly basic things. Showering is difficult. Dishes nigh impossible. Dragging myself to work is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy because the weight of the burden wants to crush me to the ground. And I want to let it, because it would be so much easier to let myself be pulverized into mush than fight for just one minute longer. 

(It’s hard, and you might not actually be able to do it. That’s a scary thought.)

In a scenario where I have to hide my disability for fear of losing my job, I feel like a backwards Clark Kent. Masquerading amongst the superheroes, ever afraid that someone would notice that I squint a bit and sometimes bump into things and really if I put on glasses I’d look just like that non-super reporter guy. Nobody needs to bring in that non-super reporter guy to get things done.

Which brings me to the SFF part of my life. There are many issues with disability in science fiction and fantasy. Evil people are disabled or disfigured almost by their nature: see Star Wars’ Snoke, Wonder Woman’s Dr. Poison, Doctor Who’s Davros, and so on. Cons still don’t do enough for people with disabilities. I can’t count the number of times a panelist has decided they’re naturally loud enough to “not need a mic” so I can’t hear them (much less be heard by those with hearing limitations) or seen a panelist in a wheelchair struggle to get onto a ramp-free stage. There’s a lot that needs to be improved. 

But despite all this, the SFF world has been my disability salvation. This was the very first world where I was allowed to be “out” with no consequences, and met a number of folks with the same struggle. I could have depression and still be OK, a person worth working with. Hell, I could have depression because I’d been cooped up for too long dealing with yet another illness (my current situation) and still be OK. I was able to open up about my difficulties, my clashing needs to be productive and also practice self-care, in part because so many others were openly fighting the same battles. In the past few years, the SFF community taught me about the concept of spoons and saving your energy for the things that matter most. This is the community that lovingly yelled at me to stop being ridiculous while I was berating myself for taking too long to finish a novel draft. They told me to start taking better care of my mental health, which included taking breaks. 

Not only did I not need superpowers to be accepted in this community, it seemed like nobody did. The outpouring of empathy and love became one of my strongest sources of support, with the echo of “it’s hard, and sometimes you don’t need to do it. It’s OK if you don’t.” 

This contrast is startling. 

When I had a week-long crippling migraine, an editor sent me copy edits to review. I knew it would be OK to request a few more days, because I wasn’t able to concentrate very well with the pain, and they were fine with it. That same week, my tech job showed no such courtesy, and I had multiple skull-shattering, painfully loud video conferences. 

When I was depressed and struggling to make it through the day, I had another editor ask for a revise-and-resubmit for a story. I’d seen others do it, so I knew it would be OK to ask for another few weeks because I was too depressed to make progress. He told me to take care of myself. At the same time, not being “out” in my day job, I was juggling three very demanding clients with no way to get a reprieve. I dragged myself forward on each new project, each new request, whispering “it’s hard, but you can do it” as I trudged through. 

When I was extremely depressed and was in a hospital program, getting intense therapy for four hours every weekday, my corner of the SFF community sent me love and support. It was clear that all writing had to come to an indefinite halt. In fact it should’ve been clear that all work had to come to an indefinite halt. But instead I found myself dragging my wrung-out carcass directly from the hospital to a client planning session. Depression, which gives your frontal lobe a wallop and makes it hard to concentrate or think, had me scraping together my remaining neurons (already frazzled from the hospital session) to focus not on rest and my own health but on a soon-to-be-dead company’s plans for their next product launch. 

The SFF community still has a way to go towards eliminating ableism, both in its media and within its community. But for me, this has been the one place in my life where it’s completely OK that I’m not quite Superman. I can drop the fake smile and the veneer of hypercompetence, and have one less burden to lift. I can take care of myself and my health. Things are hard, and I’m OK whether I can do them or not. 

It’s good to be home.

 


We're On Kickstarter!

Let’s be really straightforward and put the main point up front: FUND OUR KICKSTARTER. Give us your money and we’ll turn it into awesome things. Period. End. Point made.

There’s more to it than that, of course. We’re still small and new and the shrink wrap is barely off our packaging. Actually, we’re more like something that comes in one of those super tough clamshell packages you have to take a pickaxe to in order to get open. It’s a lot of work up front, with incremental progress, until you split open a weak spot in the plastic and BOOM! Object obtained. We’re like that. Or like a series of packages like that, where you get a series of awesome things that combine into a gigantic super awesome thing. We’re disassembled Voltron in clamshell packaging.

We have a lot of hopes, schemes, and plans invested in this Kickstarter. The very base funding is simply continuing what the auction last fall enabled, letting us go along as we are and ensuring we get a full year of that under our belts. That’s great! But we’re a scrappy, ambitious organization, and we want to do more.

The top funding goal we’ve announced lets us run a practice version of the contest two years early. William Ledbetter and Sara Felix are on board to help us with that and make sure that we scrape every ounce of awesome out of that clamshell packaging. We’ve got a range of possibilities for the contest worked out, in part to give you something exciting to build toward, but also, to increase the chances we get to do something along those lines this year. The real mission of the Dream Foundry is the community we’re building, but the contest is what will bring people together, get them excited, give them a reason to show up and a structure that will make it easy to stay. Let’s do it!

There are a lot of important goodies in there, between those extremes. Better rates for the content we publish. Better pay for the professionals who give their time and guidance to the OMEC. More and better art, a shinier website, long-term investment in our ongoing overhead (which makes it less expensive). Also, and this is one I’m personally pretty invested in, we want to pay our staff. We have that broken out into sections across the funding tiers, too. Giving is good for the spirit, but fiscal remuneration is good for the long-term stability of an organization and for ensuring we can get input and support from the variety of people we need to have involved in order to stay true to our mission. (In other words, LET ME PAY MY PEOPLE BECAUSE THEY’RE AWESOME AND DESERVE IT AND I WANT THEM TO STAY FOR A LONG TIME!!!)

This is our first Kickstarter, but it probably won’t be our last. However, we are not planning to be an organization of perpetual Kickstarters. KS is a great tool for reaching out to the community and letting them put their money where their dreams are, but some of our dreams are very, very big. We have a strategy in place for seeking grant money and other forms of funding. That plan folds back into this Kickstarter, though, because demonstrating both that we can raise funds on our own, and what we do with those funds, are critical to being taken seriously as we pursue those opportunities. Some of the grants are based on matching funds; that is, they’ll only give us funds commensurate with what we’ve raised on our own. That means that we have to raise those funds. Because of this, the funding you give us now does so much more than pay for the specific thing we have it allocated to: it builds the case for the Dream Foundry as an organization that can deliver on its aspirations and make good use of grant funds. You aren’t just investing in the programming we run now or plan to roll out soon. You’re investing in a future where we expand beyond what any one Kickstarter can support.

Plus, we have some pretty neat backer rewards. T-shirts, manuscript critiques, fancy dinners, Charlie Jane Anders or Tina Connolly in your ears. And gratitude.

Always, for everything, gratitude. We are the people who support us. Who work for us. Who come to chat and learn and grow and stay to teach and share and advise. We are you, and we’re so grateful that you’re here helping us be.

Now let’s go crack open some plastic!


The Cone of Silence

On breaking into a creative community

When I first started writing
science fiction and fantasy stories, I was completely unaware of the breadth
and scope of the SFF community. I'd just started sending out my work, learning
what I wanted to write, and making friends who also liked to write. I started
going to conventions because I wanted to meet others like me. It was the year
that the "Sad Puppies" swept
the Hugo Awards
, the longest-running prize for science fiction and fantasy
works. When the Sad Puppies controversy hit, I remember reading Twitter as a
total outsider and rethinking my choice. I found myself asking, "Is this
really a community I want to be a part of?"

Most people who've been involved in
the SFF community for a long time don't realize how hard it is to break in. Or
maybe they do, and they're just not very sympathetic about it. 

I made a lot of normal newbie
mistakes in my first year of writing. I struggled with the convention culture
of "Bar Con" (when people gather at the bar of a convention, even if
they aren’t actually attending the convention itself). Not because I don't
drink, but because I'm an introvert, and I don't have a face that says
"Talk to me!" like some folks. I wasn't sure which events were safe.
I'd look up a con only to realize there was some controversy years ago. I
picked random events to attend and slowly realized which ones worked for me. I
made friends with anyone who wanted to talk to me about my writing. It was
exciting: Here is another person who likes the same thing as me! I fell into
friendships hard and fast, only to be burned.

Close-up image of a woman with her finger on her lips in the traditional "shhh" pose.

As we get more comfortable and become
more established as community members, we talk in code. We establish whisper
networks—useful,
secret messages between members warning others of one person who is harmful.
But communities rarely say those names out loud. Because the opportunity for
harm, harassment, and the tarnishing of reputation is very real for those who
speak up. A member of the Houston writing community I'm a part of was long
known as an abuser. But he was very well-established in the community, worked
for a reputable local literary business, and still to this day has not been
"outed." I knew of his reputation, and yet I was complacent. I warned
new writers about him when asked, but I wasn't going to be the one to tell the
world about him. Because I felt vulnerable. I didn't have enough clout to speak
out and bear the brunt of the backlash sure to follow.

I've been a warnee, too. When I became
casual acquaintances with someone who seemed like a Big Deal in the SFF writing
community, I was warned to stay away from him. Everyone seemed to
"know" this person was bad behind closed doors. But in public, they
interacted with him as if nothing was wrong. They retweeted him, celebrated his
successes, and in general acted outwardly as if they endorsed him. It was only
later when one person spoke out against him that hundreds more added to the
conversation. There was a palpable sense of relief—"Oh finally, someone else
admitted it." I was dismayed to learn of the actions of this one person,
and how many people I considered friends were mistreated by him but didn’t tell
me. I'd been warned to avoid him, but no one told me why. Many members of the
SFF community felt the same way—forgotten.

Every community has ways it deals
with dissenters, even those who are arguing for a more inclusive, transparent,
and accepting community. I've had editors block me on Twitter for disagreeing
with something they said. People have told me to my face they think my writing
isn't valuable because it's not mainstream. I've lost friends in this community
by advocating for marginalized voices, for transparency, for basic
professionalism. And I've done things I regret, too, out of ignorance. Like any
social network, the SFF community is a complex web of connections. It's hard to
navigate. It’s full of imperfect humans, all with their own goals.

There are unspoken rules in every
community. I'm a member of the neo-pro SFF group called Codex, a writing group for new writers
who need to have at least one pro publication to join. In Codex, threads are dedicated
to anonymous call-outs of problematic publishers, editors, and agents. It's an
exceedingly valuable resource for new members of the SFF community. Members
converse daily about protecting yourself at conventions, avoiding folks who are
abusers, and the general rules for navigating the SFF community. These
conversations are considered protected by the rules of the group—threads
marked with a "Cone of Silence" mean they shouldn't be shared outside
of Codex. I find myself wondering: What message are we sending by enacting
a cone of silence? Who are we leaving out of the conversation?

Image of a carving of many faces close together, all of them partly worn away.

There are no easy answers to these
questions. People create whisper networks to protect themselves. New writers
can't control who they first meet when they become a part of a community or
what people don't tell them. There are no truly useful public resources (beyond
perhaps File 770, a website which lists
ongoing controversies and news in the SFF world). Silence can harm the
most vulnerable among the community. New writers, writers of color,
marginalized writers who are often at the fringe. People often overlooked or
dismissed. At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of
community do we want to be a part of? How do we keep ourselves safe while
welcoming new members?

The truth is the solutions to many
of the problems we encounter as a community have to come from within—not from
without. Since my days as a newbie writer, I've come to be a part of a local
writing community in Houston and a bigger national community as an SFF writer.
I'm trying to pass on the lessons I've learned as a new writer to the more
established voices in the field I'm in conversation with.

The SFF community should be a place
where we look to the future and envision a better community where everyone feels
safe and welcome. New members can and will bring change. But whether that
change is embraced is what matters. 

If you’re struggling with breaking
into a new creative community, know you are not alone. Here are some lessons
I’ve learned that I hope will help: 

  • Put your safety first. As a newbie, it can be hard to tell who is trustworthy. Until you've established whether the person you're interacting with is someone worth trusting, put your personal safety ahead of your creative work. This may mean skipping that "private party" at a con because it's in the hotel room of someone you don't know. Or it could be as simple as being aware of your own capabilities and mental energy. If someone is taking a lot of your energy, it's okay to take a step back and reevaluate. A professional is not going to be offended by you saying, "I don't have time right now, but thank you," or "I'd love to talk further about this, but I'm taking a break right now." If you feel uncomfortable at an event or around a person, your brain is trying to tell you something. Trust yourself. Consider taking a friend or family member to events, meet and introduce yourself to organizers, and be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Do your research. Before you go to an event, Google it. Look up who has attended in the past. Read about the guests of honor. See what other people are saying about the event. Sadly, a lot of the onus for this falls on the shoulders of new community members. But there are plenty of kind community members willing to share with you their experiences. Don't be afraid to simply ask.
  • Be careful not to fall hard and fast. Take new relationships in the community with a grain of salt, as you do in life. This is hard because we're often trained by society that relationships don't start slowly. But the truth is that many relationships and networks deepen over time. Professional networks grow with you. Everything doesn't have to happen at once—including making new friends. 
  • Be professional. One day, you will be the person people are asking for advice. Really. So learn how to ask in a way that's kind, respectful, and patient. As you reach out to people for advice, you'll find many that say "no." There are a lot of reasons for this—people are busy, they may not feel qualified, they might not have an answer. All of this is fine. No one owes you their friendship.
  • Be the community you want to see. It sounds hokey but consider the golden rule. When I'm at an event, I try to reach out to new people. I ask them what they write and what makes them geek out. Even as a newbie, you can make people feel welcome. If you go into an event with the intent of helping someone else, it makes the process less scary.

What do you think? Do you have advice for newcomers to the genre and industry? Let us know on our forum!


Official Dream Foundry Media Exploration Club

Have you heard about the Dream Foundry’s first piece of recurring programming yet? No? Well, you’re in luck!

Over on the forums, we’re spinning up our official Media Exploration Club. We’re going to pick a theme and a variety of works from all the different formats the field covers, and then we’re going to talk about them. The discussion around theme selection is happening now; the current top contenders are “Transformation,” “Coming of Age,” and “Vulnerability.” If you’d like to have a say in that, swing by and make your preferences known.

This is a very cool and exciting project for us. We’ve been champing at the bit to launch this from the very beginning, and we’re super excited to have it be one of the first recurring programs we’re offering.  

Why are we doing this? So glad you asked!

“The arts” are one of those things where some things are universal, and some things are highly specific, and there’s a long tradition of fistfights (rhetorical and otherwise) over which is which. The fact is that all art shares a similarity in purpose and, so far at least, is by and for humans. The Romantics back in the nineteenth century all had a shared aesthetic, but they expressed it in everything from music to sculpture to poetry. The medium for their art didn’t matter so much as their interest in the way big, dramatic feelings and atmosphere can warp and shift otherwise realistic representations. The poets were talking to the painters and the composers, discussing and refining shared purpose, spurring each other on, and together producing one of the most exciting bodies of European art. (Or so says me, anyway.)

Very few people are fluent in all the mediums available. That isn’t just okay, that’s normal. But fluency isn’t required in order to appreciate a piece, even from an analytical, craft-driven perspective. A prose writer isn’t necessarily likely to have a hot tip about a Photoshop brush, but they could very well notice how the framing in a comic panel references another piece and what extra work that does for conveying the content of the panel. And if they don’t notice that on their own, they’re definitely in a position to learn a lot when somebody else points it out. After all, while the prose writer isn’t going to frame a visual image as part of their work, they certainly can echo structure and motif from prior work to good effect. Plus, they might someday wind up writing for comics, and knowing something about panel layout and design will suddenly be quite useful.

I could go on and list a dozen more scenarios for the kinds of craft discussions that could be useful to a variety of folks (narrative techniques for developing character sympathy as a template for compelling game mechanics, anybody?), but the proof is in the upcoming conversation. Come read, watch, listen, and play, then stay to talk. If the medium for that month isn’t one you can speak about, then ask questions. Insight into what catches somebody with a different background and perspective is the stuff of epiphany and inspiration. So come on, dive in, and join us for all the enticing conversation we have coming.


Inside the Dream Foundry - Auction Insight

Everything starts with spreadsheets.

I suppose, technically, everything starts with the acknowledgment that we need a spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet shows up pretty quickly. A lot of things go into building a nonprofit from the ground up, but if you want to know the engine powering the Dream Foundry, it's spreadsheets. There's a spreadsheet that outlines all the spreadsheets we need to make, with timelines for when. I've configured it to get awkward and red if we're behind, and to purr in green when we wrap things up. So when it was time to run our first fund-raiser, meant primarily as a practice run so we could make all our mistakes on something small and manageable, there was a spreadsheet for that, too. We were doing an auction. That meant we needed items to put in the auction. What were those items going to be, and where would they come from?

We approached it very similarly to how we've approached everything so far: We put out a call to our volunteers for items and help. We sent word to our various networks. And then we started putting people in a spreadsheet. But not just any people.

Auction purchases getting ready to go out to their new owners.

Moments like these are where, if you're thoughtful, you expose your core principles. Relevance is one of ours. There were a ton of things we could have put into the auction, but we didn't want to put just anything there. Or just one kind of thing, either. We're building a community of professionals who work in the speculative arts; we want things that will be valuable to them.

But we'd exposed a value before we even reached this point. We could have done a straight-up fund drive, asking people for money in exchange only for the promise that we'd spend it well in service of our mission. We probably would have seen success—people started offering us money before we'd formally incorporated—but we didn't like that approach. Inclusivity is another of our core principles, and while there's a lot that goes into fulfilling that, one of the elements is a firm stance that professionals deserve recognition and compensation for their work, even—especially—from us. There's a material difference between asking for naked donations and curating an opportunity for people to acquire items they'll treasure in exchange for their support. We care about that difference.

From the inside, the Dream Foundry is a stream of people constantly and generously saying "yes." A number of people replied to our request for something small with, "Sure, but wouldn't you like this other, better thing?" Yes, we would, thank you. People stepped up to offer items, and administrative work, and research. They spent time spreading the word about the auction and making a case for why it was worth time and attention to others. Some of them made cash donations without bidding on anything. Some of them donated and bid.

Dream Foundry's president and secretary get hands-on sending out purchases.

A lot of the founding members and early volunteers in the Dream Foundry are primarily traditional prose writers. Many of them wear other hats, too, but that was how they came to us. That meant a lot of the unprompted donations and people we were close enough to solicit had offerings relevant mostly to writers of traditional prose. We could have accepted that and been content—after all, this was our very first fund-raiser and meant to be a small, practice event—but we didn't. Relevance matters, and that means being relevant to everyone we want to include right from the start. And one of our other principles, Networking, would have been quite disappointed in us if we stopped there. In the end our inventory included portfolio critiques, art prints, and craft items.

Thank you cards for donors.

Spreadsheets proliferated: inventory tracking, bidder tracking, fulfillment tracking. Then, the really fun parts, the final tallying of what we brought in, what we spent, and what our working budget is going to be for the next few months. There's a lot more green on that spreadsheet than we expected at the beginning.

It's only been a few months since the Dream Foundry was a pipe dream without a name. It might have faded and vanished, a wistful what-if. But we are professionals working in the speculative arts. Making the what-if real and giving it power is what we do. Nothing quite like this has ever been done before, but we're doing it, figuring out how as we go. We'll learn. And then we'll teach it. After all, our fourth core principle is Mentorship.


Workers casting metal in a foundry

Coming Soon

The Dream Foundry will soon have a blog! Watch this space for exciting posts about everything related to the speculative arts.

We're also testing out options on the blog, so please bear with us if things look a little wonky from time to time.