The Long path to SFWA

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As mentioned earlier, I began my writing career back just shy of my 40th birthday, and one of the earliest things I did was reach out to one of my heroes, Gardner Dozois.

If you don’t know Gardner, he’s won fifteen Hugo Awards for Best Editor, short fiction, and he once helmed Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a position currently held by Sheila Williams. He’s been putting out a Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology since 1984 and I’ve got every issue.

Gardner is affable, hilarious, insightful and extremely nice.  He replied to my introductory email, graciously brushed aside any fanboy gushings I’d included and invited me to meet him at Denvention, the World Science Fiction Convention in 2008.  I grabbed my first volume of his award-winning annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction and scampered on down in early August.

I met him wandering the halls and he pulled me aside to an empty table.  Realize, please, that my SF education up to that point was relegated to the classics: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Haldeman.  You know, the grand masters that, under the tutelage of John Campbell, brought SF from pulp into literature.  As Gardner signed my copy of the first Year’s Best, he casually mentioned that these editions were in short supply and that I should probably keep it somewhere safe.  He flipped through the table of contents and mentioned that some of the people therein may very well be at the convention.

“Do you know Connie Willis?” he asked. 

“Who?” (I can be very ignorant.)

“Connie Willis. She’s a multiple Hugo award winning Colorado author. Oh!  Here she is!  Connie!”  He waved over a harried woman with large, owl-like eyes and a panicked expression on her face.  “Come sign this book for Lou Berger!”

She stepped up, grabbed a pen, flipped through the volume to her story THE SIDON IN THE MIRROR and signed it.  She peered at me through her glasses and sized me up in an instant: “You’ll probably sell this on eBay.”

I bristled. “I shall do NO SUCH thing!” I retorted, but she was off to her next panel and my words fell on her departing back.  Hmph.

I thanked Gardner and wandered off to visit some panels myself, to learn about this strange culture I’d decided on joining and, perhaps, to meet fellow tribe members.  The second panel I went to had Connie herself as a panelist and I was enraptured by her sense of humor, her brilliant comedic timing, her boundless knowledge of the SF world, and her charm.  I went up afterwards, jittery with elation, and interrupted her conversation with another fan to demand that, perhaps, we have dinner together?  You know, as fellow writers and Coloradans?  She peered at me, gently inclined her head to the lady she’d been talking with and said “I already have dinner plans, Lou.”  Oof.  What a fanboy I can be.  I smiled and nodded: “Of course.”  She handed me a small green slip of paper. “Come see me at the SFWA suite later tonight.  They are having a party at 10 PM.”  I took the green slip and backed away, shamed by my insensitivity to social propriety.

Later, I went to the bar and saw Gardner in animated conversation with several ladies.  I waved over a waiter and instructed him to determine what Gardner liked to drink and to provide such a drink to him.  The waiter whispered into Gardner’s ear and Gardner spotted me, then bellowed: “Lou, don’t be shy, come on over!”

So I went over.  He introduced me to his drinking companions.  There was Ellen Klages, there was Madeleine Robins and there was a purse-lipped brunette with a twinkle in her eye named Nancy Kress.  As I climbed upon the bar stool, Nancy smiled at me and said “It’s nice to meet you.  Have you been writing for long?”

I explained that I was a naif and that I was currently working on a novel (sigh. STILL working on that novel, albeit slowly).  She asked me if I recognized her name, putting me on the spot.  I knew I had seen her name before, but I wasn’t sure where.  “Uh, I think so?”  She slowly turned to Gardner and said, in a matter-of-fact voice: “Gardner, this man doesn’t know who I am!” 

Realizing I’d put my foot in it, I stammered: “Oh, wait a second. Are you an editor?”  Her eyes widened in shock.  She turned to Gardner again: “Gardner! He thinks I’m an EDITOR!” 

Gardner chuckled.  “You’re in trouble now, young man.  You must atone for your sins by buying a round of drinks.”  Which I did.  And then again.  And then again.  Nancy decided that she was not tipsy in the least and proceeded to hop, on one foot, along a line in the tile to prove her sobriety.  She was wearing heels. I knew she was up for a Hugo that year and I said, in a loud, carrying voice, “Nancy, you better not twist your ankle or you won’t be able to fetch your Hugo on Saturday night!”

I heard myself uttering these words and marveled at how, in just a few hours, I’d been accepted into this marvelous tribe of gifted writers and characters, despite having no writing chops of my own. 

10 PM rolled around and, having taken my leave of the Gardner party, I found myself in the SFWA suite, thanks to Connie’s gracious slip of green paper.  I was picking through the cheese trays on one of the tables, Diet Coke clutched in one hand, when somebody tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned. It was Nancy Kress.  She looked perturbed.

“Lou, have you published any novels?”  I shook my head.  She pressed on. “Have you published any short stories?”  I shook my head again.  “Then how, young man, are you in this suite?  This is a private affair for SFWA members!”  I dug into my pocket to show her my green slip of paper.

“Connie Willis gave me this and invited me.”  

Nancy goggled at me.  “And how do you know Connie?” 

“Gardner Dozois introduced us!”

She stared at me.  “In one day, you’ve met Gardner, Connie and me?  You must be something special!”

Well, I dunno about that. I know that I network pretty well, but I couldn’t quite explain that MY experience with this tribe of people had been nothing but grace and welcome.  That perception continues to this day. 

A year flashes by and I’m back in the SFWA suite, sipping a drink and munching on cheese bits, sitting next to a woman who keeps glancing in my direction.  The year is 2009 and the city is Montreal, but Gardner is holding forth, making ribald jokes and grinning ear to ear.  I’m listening half-heartedly and wondering if I’m about to be thrown out for trespassing, again, into a territory where I don’t belong.  She leans toward me and says “I don’t recognize you.  Have you written any stories?”  I nod, excitedly, because I’d JUST sold a story to a Denver fashion magazine that prints a single fiction story per issue.  She demands the particulars, how much did they pay, when did it come out, what is the circulation?  I peer at her name badge: Jane Jewell.  She sees me looking and extends a hand of greeting.  “I’m Jane,” she says. “The Executive Director of SFWA.  Are you just crashing the party or are you a guest?”

I point to Gardner and mention that, due to our acquaintance in Denver the year before, he and I were now old friends.  She nods. “Do you have seventy dollars?”  I recoil.  Am I about to be robbed?

I nod, slowly, wondering where this is going.

“You can be an Associate member of SFWA, you know, based on your single story sale.”  She proceeds to explain that SFWA has an honorary membership for people who are writers and who have sold professionally (five cents a word counts and I’d made TEN cents on my fashion magazine story).  All I have to do to earn the moniker of SFWA member (Associate) is to hand her seventy bucks.  I dig into my wallet before she can even finish speaking and she accepts my cash with a smile and a handshake of welcome.  “Thank you, Lou.  You’re now an offical Associate member of SFWA.  Sell two more professional stories, for at least fifty bucks each, into a qualified market, and you’ll become a FULL member! Or,” she adds after a moment. “Sell a single novel to a qualified publisher.”

“That’s it?” I ask, once again proving what a clueless optimist I can be. 

“That’s it.”

I smile, my mind awhirl in thoughts of achievement.  Gardner was spinning a yarn about some woman’s breasts at a previous WorldCon, writers were huddled on couches and discussing, with hand-waving, scientific improbabilities and I was clutching a napkin receipt that stated I was a newly-minted member of this brilliant, welcoming assemblage of personalities.  The writers that shape our entertainment, that push the limits of genre fiction, that create the stories that make us think about “what if” instead of the mundane realities of a society consumed by self-centered greed.  Jane touches my arm.  I smile at her, my new friend, my gateway into this august collection of giants.

“Go fetch me a Diet Coke, Lou.”

I blink. “Excuse me?”

She points to a small refrigerator located across the suite, squatting against a wall. “Over there. In that refrigerator.  A Diet Coke. Fetch me one.”

“Uh…why?”

She twinkles.  “Are you not the newest member of SFWA?”

I leap to my feet.  “Yes ma’am! Right away!”  I get her a Diet Coke, glad to be of service.

 

Now it’s 2014 and, in the years between, Nancy Kress has invited me to the 2010 Taos Toolbox writing workshop (www.taostoolbox.com) in Taos, New Mexico, where she gently taught me, along with the illustrious Walter Jon Williams, how to be a much gooder writer.  I met Mike Resnick who, through Facebook texts and emails, taught me the business and how to become a professional. He sent me a list of professional markets that were snapping up good fiction.  He refused to read my stories until I’d begun writing something other than dreck. 

I have met a hundred other writers, all of whom encouraged me and taught me things and who, with varying degrees of excitement, have read my stories and offered alternatives. 

Mike Resnick finally bought a story from me for his brand-new magazine Galaxy’s Edge (www.galaxysedge.com) and included it in the inaugural issue last March.  Later, he bought a flash fiction story I’d done as a contest entry for Codex, an online writing community (www.codexwriters.com) and published that in this month’s issue. (Until May 1st, 2014, it will be here: http://galaxysedge.com/n6.htm).  He also bought another Codex contest entry and will publish it in a soon-to-be-announced edition of the magazine.

Yesterday, SFWA granted Galaxy’s Edge full qualified status as a market for short fiction, due to the professional pay rate, the circulation and the year in business that the magazine has existed.  This makes two of the sales to Mike’s magazine eligible for inclusion as my qualifying three.  Add them to the one back in 2009, and I have, for the first time since embarking upon this journey to become a writer, finally achieved full SFWA status.  Last night, Kate Baker, the Executive Director of SFWA (Jane Jewell retired in 2011), emailed me that my status is now ACTIVE and no longer ASSOCIATE.

I have arrived.  And I couldn’t be more ecstatic.

Lou J Berger
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Lou J Berger

Lou Berger started writing just shy of his 40th birthday.He lives in Centennial, Colorado with three kids, two Sheltie dogs and a kink-tailed cat.
Lou J Berger
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6 Responses

  1. I hope you will be able to mentor other up and coming writers as you become more experienced.

  2. Achievement unlocked! Gaining entry into SFWA as a full member is definitely one of those “arrival” moments in the biz. You worked hard and you paid attention to those who know. And you couldn’t ask for a better gauge of quality or competence than Mike Resnick. (raises a glass) Good on yah, Lou.

  3. I admire your cojones. Me, I am schmooze deficient. I don’t drink so I never go to the bar at cons, I never get up the nerve to talk to famous people, and I get up early so I am tired early and don’t go to parties much. I went on the cruise last year thinking I might make some contacts. Surprisingly, that actually worked. If I can become a SFWA associate based on my one sale, I think I will go do that.

  4. Congratulations, Lou.

    It is a great achievement, and one of my major goals. As of this morning, I have associate membership, and I feel as though I’m on my way.

    Steve

  5. Hey, Lou, Congrats!!!

    Now finish that novel! 🙂

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