The Hardest Part: M. David Blake on the 2013 Campbellian Pre-Reading AnthologyPosted: 27 February, 2013
M. David Blake, whom I know simply as Marc, has the deepest memory for fandom and sf of just about anyone I can think of. He keeps up with novels, with short fiction, and even the fanzines. And! He’s currently in his second year of eligibility for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as I was lucky enough (very lucky!) to publish “Absinthe Fish” in Bull Spec #5 back in 2011, easily the most critically well-received short story from Bull Spec’s run so far. He’s also taken up editing, including Stupefying Stories 2.1 last November. But! His most recent, and fairly Herculean if not downright Sisyphean, project was putting together a massive anthology of Campbell-eligible authors, The 2013 Campbellian Pre-Reading Anthology, “Containing 80 complete short stories by 43 different authors, as well as additional information about another 58 potential candidates, the 2013 Campbellian Pre-Reading Anthology is your guide to the newest science fiction and fantasy writers who are helping to define the future of the genre.” It has introductions from Marc, and from (among others) Spider Robinson and Lev Grossman, primarily talking about what the Campbell means to them. Here, Marc writes not so much about the award itself, but about the process of hunting down and wrangling these stories and authors together into one place.
By M. David Blake:
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is one that seems both especially meaningful to me, and especially problematic.
New writers are only eligible for a two year period after their first “pro” sale — defined by the award administrators as being at least three cents per word, for a total of at least $50 — and the clock automatically starts ticking at that point… but a very large percentage of them never realize they are eligible, and so they don’t bother to tell anyone. And every time I run into a new writer, or discover that an acquaintance has nudged that little tick-tock timer enough to start it running, I get excited and tell them about the award.
Sometimes their responses surprise me. “Oh, I’ve not had that many things in print yet.” “Oh, I’m not well-known enough for anyone to nominate me.” “Oh, I’ll wait until next year when I have <awesome project> out, and then I’ll say I’m eligible.”
Each of those approaches is a passive form of self-rejection. If you tell me that, you’re essentially saying, “I’m not good enough (yet).” And from a certain perspective, self-rejection is sort of understandable: as writers, we all battle with a little inner voice that undermines our confidence, and the rejection letters that almost invariably accompany our career choice don’t do anything to stifle it.
The problem is, your timer really does start running down, whether you’ve announced your eligibility or not.
Over the past two years I’ve gotten to know a lot of eligible writers. Some of them stand a really good chance of being nominated this year. Some of them didn’t know about the award, or their eligibility, until I explained why it mattered. Some of them really were still “unknowns,” because their stories appeared in venues small enough that they didn’t attract much attention. Some of them knew they were eligible but assumed they didn’t stand a chance of getting on the ballot, so they hadn’t even tried to publicize their work.
A week and a half before Christmas I asked a group of them, “Assuming I can talk Bruce into letting me put it together, how many of you would be interested in contributing to a reprint-only, free — and no pay in this case, since it would be all reprints and basically a way to ensure distribution for as many eligible writers as possible — Campbellian “Spotlight” super-deluxe issue of Stupefying Stories presents…?”
With very few exceptions, they wanted to participate. The few who didn’t either couldn’t obtain their reprint rights in time for inclusion, or else had very good reasons for electing to not share their limited works that freely. We spread the word, and soon new writers who had completely evaded my radar began to contact me for details.
A handful even offered exclusive previews of upcoming, not-yet-released works, and I wound up having to set a rule that hadn’t even been considered when conceiving the project: No writer would be allowed use any story that had not yet been published, or anything that fell outside of the two year window around which their eligibility was calculated. (I hated having to make that rule, because it meant I had to turn away some incredible stories. Fortunately, each participant who offered a preview was also able to supply an alternate selection.)
Knowing so many eligible writers led to a few small challenges. How should an anthology of this nature be structured, to avoid any appearance of stacking the deck? I wanted each participant to be presented in the best possible light, and without any perception of bias. Alphabetical order was one simple solution, as was making sure each participant’s website had been listed. I also didn’t allow myself to comment on any of the individual writers, despite the fact that there were wonderful things I could share about a few of them, and several whose careers I enthusiastically follow.
Simply putting each of the participants on equal footing wasn’t enough, though. For a project like this one to have any value, it couldn’t simply focus on the writers who had chosen to participate, while pretending they were the only viable candidates for the award. A fair amount of additional time went into tracking down other eligible writers, locating the details of their qualifying sales, and getting links to their websites for any who had an online presence. I wanted this anthology to be as all-inclusive as possible, and tried to make it so.
Ultimately, that was the hardest part… because despite my best efforts, I was still learning about newly-eligible writers for several weeks after the anthology was released.
This year we managed to assemble eighty complete stories and two novel excerpts, from 43 of the eligible candidates for the 2013 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. We managed to track down a supplemental list of another 58 writers who either elected not to participate, or who we didn’t learn about in time to approach for the anthology. There are even more names listed at Writertopia.com, because none of us knew they’d qualified until after the 2013 Campbellian Pre-Reading Anthology was out the door, and I would encourage anyone who is able to nominate writers on this year’s Hugo/Campbell ballot to investigate all of them. Readers and writers need each other, and the window of Campbellian eligibility is an excellent time for the two to connect.
As for next year, I’ll get an earlier start on tracking down names.