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September 07, 2006

Some Perspective on Being a "New Writer"

This thought occured to me this morning as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror: "How did I get an award for being SF's best new writer when I have so many gray hairs in my beard?" Because I do -- I'm currently wearing a beard (due to sloth), and there are a boatload of gray hairs in it, right up in front. I suspect I'd have gray hairs on my head, too, if in fact I wasn't already mostly bald.

This isn't a lament to lost youth, incidentally -- I like being 37 just fine, thanks, and as decades go, my 30s have been excellent, certainly better than my 20s (which weren't bad, mind you) or my teens (during which time I suspect I should have been slapped around once or twice). Also, of course, 37 isn't exactly old, either. It's simply weird to have a "new writer" tag applied to me when in fact I've been a full-time writer for 16 years, and I had four books published prior to my first science fiction novel.

But here's an interesting thing, which is that as far as Campbell Award winners go, getting the award at age 37 is not particularly notable. Here are the ages (give or take, I'm going off of birth years) of nine of the ten Campbell winners immediately before me, when they won the Campbell: 27, 29, 33, 38, 39, 40, 40, 48, 52. Including me, the average age of this set of Campbell winners is a shade over 38 years old. So at 37, I'm a bit below the average (and the median). Nor is this a new thing for the Campbell: Its very first winner, Jerry Pournelle, was 40 when he got his. I looking through the data, I suspect the youngest winner was Spider Robinson, who was 24(ish) when he got his. Overall the age distribution seems to be similar to the one we see in the last decade.

This is instructive, I think, for young writers -- that the folks judged by SF fans as the best new writer often have years of writing experience under their belts, in genre and (likely) outside it, before getting that title. There are other criteria that go into winning a Campbell, of course -- like any voted award the Campbell has its popularity angle, which is often independent of writing skill (I assure you I am not the most talented writer of my Campbell class) -- but it's not unreasonable to assume the majority of Campbell winners are more-than-competent writers. And as with any skill, competence in writing takes time and practice.

Yes, it's ironic that being the best "new" writer is usually founded on years of practice and experience. On the other hand, show me any skilled discipline or profession where this is not, in fact, the case.

Posted by john at September 7, 2006 12:41 PM

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John Scalzi | September 7, 2006 01:47 PM

Incidentally, if you want to win the Campbell younger than older, you should try to win it off your short stories, since the youngest writers seem to be the ones who were (at the time) best known for their short works, not novels. This makes perfect sense for the genre, in which most people do write short stories first, and then move into novels.

Steve Buchheit | September 7, 2006 02:11 PM

Good to know I'm not too old, yet. A favorite singer of mine, Susan Werner, her latest CD is titled, "I Can't Be New." I keep that on the iPod rotation list (besides being a good "standards" album) just to remind me.

Emily H. | September 7, 2006 02:18 PM

This is more encouraging than reading the blurbs on Young Adult novels and realizing with horror that the writer's only a couple years older than me, and writes much better than I could hope. Or writes badly but has a book published anyway, which is worse.

Becky Day | September 7, 2006 02:42 PM

That's very encouraging for someone like me who didn't get serious about writing till I was over 40.

Totally and completely off topic, but I got a copy of Old Man's War yesterday, am 1/3 of the way through and thoroughly enjoying it. It reminds me of what I loved best about Heinlein's work. Outstanding!

Tripp | September 7, 2006 02:52 PM

In my experience the gray hairs showed up in my beard first, long before my head, so your head hair may not be graying just yet.

And sitting here having just turned 50 I can tell you that 37 is young! If you are truly concerned with looking youthful I'd recommend diet. When your hair turns gray - diet!

The other biggies for looking young are not smoking and avoiding the sun. Many of my colleagues here look younger than they are and I attribute that to the non-smoking and the moderate sun we get in Minnesota.

Chang | September 7, 2006 03:25 PM

Well, you're my favorite new writer.

This is also heartening for us wannabe's who are also 37. It makes the fact that one is staring down the barrel of re-writing his novel that's been 2 years in the works already very heartening.


Cassie | September 7, 2006 03:35 PM

Oh, dear, I'd better hurry, I'm 47.

John H | September 7, 2006 03:37 PM

- Old woman.

- Man.

- Man, sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?

- I'm 37.

- What?

- I'm 37. I'm not old.

- Well I can't just call you "man".

- Well you could say "Dennis".

- I didn't know you were called Dennis.

- Well you didn't bother to find out did you?

- I did say sorry about the "old woman", but from behind you looked...
Dennis: What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.

- Well I am king.

- Oh, king eh? Very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.

Smurf | September 7, 2006 07:54 PM

I love you, babe... but you winning "Best New Author" with like 10 books in your resume is like giving Jethro Tull the "Best New Artist" award at the Grammys.

Chad Orzel | September 7, 2006 08:16 PM

I'm currently wearing a beard (due to sloth), and there are a boatload of gray hairs in it, right up in front.

What, no picture?

BIll Marcy | September 7, 2006 08:50 PM

Yo Scalzi, how about hooking some of us blog readers up with some pre-press copies of the Coffee shop writing book? It is getting rather uncomfortable with all this bated breath going on.

John Scalzi | September 7, 2006 09:02 PM

If there are any advance copies left after we distribute them to reviewers, I'll see what I can do.

La Gringa | September 8, 2006 06:01 AM

Perhaps the award should be called "Best New Writer Whom We've Just Gotten Around To Noticing Actually Exists."

BIll Marcy | September 8, 2006 07:21 AM

You are, in all likelihood, the man.

MikeTheLibrarian | September 10, 2006 05:51 PM

Beards can go grey long before the hair on your head. I'm 25 and can't wear a beard because it has so much grey in it.

Pat | September 12, 2006 09:45 PM

John H
Nicely played. I'm gigglin' over here.

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