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.