Writing: Creating a better route for emerging SF/F writers in The Netherlands

Breaking through

The way forward for emerging SF/Fantasy writers in The Netherlands is one with a lot of gaps and holes. To emerge from an aspiring SF/F writer to one who masters the craft well enough to break through to national and international media takes persistence and a lot of self-study and determination.

Things might be better for the genre if we had something like the equivalent of the 6 week intensive Clarion workshop and pro- and semi-pro magazines inviting writers to send short stories :

  1. Allowing writers to learn directly from already successful writers
  2. Giving writers several diferent stimuli to write and several platforms to write for
  3. Giving writers more places to become visible to their potential audience
  4. Allowing writers to meet (and work with) fellow writers

Why create a better route?

In short: to help (emerging) SF and Fantasy writers from the Netherlands to edit, revise and write professionally, to get them ready for national and international pro- and semi-pro publication and bring them to the attention of editors, publishers and the SF/F loving audience at large.

Stagnation

When I look at the past 30 years in the sense of Dutch SF/F writing, I mostly see things at a standstill. Specifically:

  1. Hardly any support for emerging writers – Sure we have contests like the Paul Harland Prize and Fantastels, but those are one-shot cases: You send in your story, You get some feedback and that’s it. No (or hardly any) stimulation like: “I read your story and I liked it. Let’s work together to make your writing even better for next year”.
  2. Hardly any opportunities for short story publication — Let’s say you write (outside the contests as well). Like a lot. Where do you publish? Where can you make your work visible when you are still developing your style and your craft? Where will you find a proper reader-base larger than 600 people to start with? Holland-SF? Wonderwaan? SF-Terra? (the now terminated) Pure Fantasy?
  3. Old-fashioned and hardly any reach – Most Dutch publications/magazines/books are still paper-based. Either spread to subscribers (Wonderwaan/Holland-SF, SF-Terra) or to buyers (Zilverspoor, Books of Fantasy, Verschijnsel). Most of it is “for pay”. Most of it reaches on average an audience of roughly that same number of 300 to 500 people.

Progress

But let’s not be somber. A lot of progress has been made as well.

  1. Two pro-publishers openly interested in aspiring writers – People from both Luitingh Sijthoff and the Boekerij are reading the stories sent by contestants of the Paul Harland Prize: offering some opportunities for aspiring writers to be read and seen
  2. Three active semi-pro publishers – There are three publishers in The Netherlands actively publishing books written by Dutch-language writers. The books themselves are professionally printed and look good enough to be in book shops: Zilverspoor, Books of Fantasy and Verschijnsel.
  3. Over 100 active genre writers – This year more than 200 stories were received by the Paul Harland Prize, sent by over 180 writers,
  4. 3 to 5 SF/F related festivals visited by 1000 to 30 000 people each – Offering a potential place to become visible for SF/F writers.
  5. At least 3 different writing workshops — Done by experienced people from ewithin the genre like Tais Teng, Thomas Olde Heuvelt and Maartijn Lindeboom

Solid footing

It would be nice if the Netherlands offered a more solid footing for emerging SF/F writers. Where do you go to find proper guidance? Proper feedback? A proper place to develop yourself as a writer? And how do you break out of that possible deadlock of stagnation to create something that might work?

Making things work

It is easy to take things on and get lost in the countless things that might need to happen. It is also tempting to look at all the things that did not work and use that as a benchmark.

So:

  1. Focus only on the people who can and want to — Work primarily with people who are able and want to improve things, build stuff, create a better future; who say “yes”, who have an open mind, who like to work to make it work and who like to work with others. This includes the emerging writers.
  2. Create a simple system — Create something that works even with the simplest means.
  3. Break it into simple pieces — You need ten steps to get from A to B? Define each step clearly and find ways to make each of them work without too much monetary investment.
  4. Avoid dependencies / create clear focus — Make sure A is not dependent on B. To coach writers you need coaches. To publish writers you need publishers. Coaches coach. Publishers publish. Coaches can coach without being in contact with publishers. Writers simply need to write (damn) good stories. That kind of stuff.
  5. Work together — Are there already certain platforms? Other people doing similar things? Focus on that. Do not try to create what already exists. People already giving workshops / publishing books / publishing things online / have a huge user base? Make use of that.
  6. Only create what is not there yet — No proper way to help writers emerge? Build it. No proper platform to showcase them to a huge (Dutch) audience? Create it.

10 parts

I think there are 10 parts of the puzzle that need to be connected:

  1. Talent – New, young, fresh and talented writers
  2. Filters – A good filter to filter out bullshit and bullshitters. To put it bluntly, : people stating they want to [whatever], but will not make the effort.
  3. Coaches – Experienced editors and writers to coach the new / emerging talent
  4. Teachers – Experienced writers and editors willing to give workshops to the emerging talent: teaching the basics and advanced techniques and theories
  5. Theory – Good books to use as starting points
  6. Challenges – Contests, goals to work towards to (including getting published in specific places)
  7. A platform – eBooks, websites, other sites to promote those ebooks and websites. Short stories, longer stories, local and global. This is also not under our control
  8. Hooking into existing activities – Why re-invent the wheel when others are already doing certain things and reaching certain audiences? This includes contests, places to get published, existing workshops and so on.
  9. Access to professional publishers – Via possible mediators (like the coaches or editors), via certain types of platforms. This we can’t really promise, can we?
  10. A clear distinction of quality levels – From fun-fiction to proper to good to awesome writing

What else? (And summarizing)

  1. Purpose – To help (emerging) writers to edit, revise and write as professional writers, get ready for publication and bring them under the attention of editors, publishers and the audience at large.
  2. Working with and within limitations — It is nice to go all ballistic on future ambitions, including a more “professional” or “American” system, but a lot of things are simply not there yet. The best solution now is to work with and within these limitations instead of trying to try and create entire mountains before doing what is actually needed (creating a better space for emerging writers).
  3. Contests — The best way currently to discover new (Dutch-language area) talent is through the contests held each year by Fantastels and the Paul Harland Prize.
  4. Experienced writers — There are several experienced SF/F writers in the Netherlands probably able and willing to coach and support emerging writers to become good. Why not utilize that in a way that makes sense? What would happen if each of those writers would take one or two emerging talents into personal care?
  5. One year intensive — In my opinion each program with new writers should last one year and include all basic elements of “writing as a pro”. After that, new writers should be drawn in. The ones from previous programs are naturally not forgotten and stimulated to continue the routine built up in their one year intensive; even help new writers.
  6. Move talent around — One way to give a writer more access to different sources is to move them around from one coach to another. Taste, different styles and different views.
  7. More on filters — My own experience with Ator Mondis and those of the people/publishers I spoke with in the past year is that there are roughly 3 types of writers. The idea is to focus and filter only, only, only on the third and last category:
    1. The ones who think they want to write, but actually think it will happen without any work what so ever.
    2. The ones who think they are awesome, hate everyone else, are not willing to listen to feedback and are not growing or developing in any direction
    3. The ones who really, really, really want to; really, really try to, who show talent, work hard, are already visible AND/OR have no real basis right now to break through
  8. More on coaching  – In short: I believe one effective way to learn to write better is by making the writer write, correct, study, understand, apply, edit, implement, correct, revise and deliver. The most effective way  to do this is — I believe — by coaching those writers. Either through a set of workshops, through buddy-systems, by having more experienced writers adopting them.
  9. More on challenges: setting clear goals — To grow, to improve, things need to be done. This is a short list of what I think writers could set as bare minimum goals:
    1. Writing X amount of stories in Y amount of time, which are thoroughly edited, structurally solid, exciting and readable
    2. Getting published at very specific places
    3. Entering at least two major contests with the aim to win the first prize
    4. Getting noticed by professional and semi-professional publishers and editors as “someone to publish” and “someone to keep an eye on”.
  10. Visibility to the audience – 1) Paper is dead and 2) To kill any access to a mass audience, asking payment is exactly the perfect thing to do. Instead:
    1. You work together with people who already succeeded in reaching a huge audience
    2. You use the internet in any way possible
    3. You use the most common electronic formats: ePub, PDF, HTML, readable online
    4. You offer ALL the work FOR FREE, anywhere possible and with a clear reference to who published it and where it came from
    5. You make it count. You go for audiences of 10 000, 100 0000, 1 000 000 people.
  11. Representing (young) talent — A writer usually overestimates or underestimates his or her own talents and skills. So what if someone or a group of people represent the (young) talent? First to help them become good enough? And second by pushing them forward when they reached this moment where a publisher might be willing to consider them for publication?
  12. Diversity — The Netherlands is not a mono-culture. For other voices to break through and be heard might take more effort due to the topics they touch and write about and which have to — usually — pass through several filters of misinformation by the readers. Especially those voices are the most interesting and most refreshing (to me at least) and I hope to see them emerge.
  13. Opening the way to professional publishers — There are at least two professional publishers (Luitingh and De Boekerij) who have proven to be interested in the Dutch SF/F market. To get a good chance as a writer you need: 1) to understand what it means to write as a professional 2) to deliver stories that connect to an audience. It also helps to have someone:
  14. Representing (young) talent — A writer usually overestimates or underestimates his or her own talents and skills. So what if someone or a group of people represent the (young) talent? First to help them become good enough? And second by pushing them forward when they reached this moment where a publisher might be willing to consider them for publication?

End

It takes a first step. It takes several phone-calls and e-mails and meetings to connect the parts already there so that something emerges that will produce a new line of writers that will deliver work of professional quality: good enough for publication in the Netherlands and abroad.

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