February 20, 2009
Today we’re interviewing a friend of many years and head of the mysterious group I refer to in these pages as the Hamsters. I’m talking to Nebula winner Mary Turzillo about what the Hamsters are, how they came about and what it is that they do. This is the point where I normally introduce my subject, but I think Mary does a better job than I would have. . .
GW: So, why don’t you tell us about yourself?
Okay, who am I? I’m this nutcase who loves science fiction, has loved it her whole life, and just wants to hurt people.
Emotionally, I mean.
That sounds bad. Let’s try again: I won a Nebula for my 1999 novelette, “Mars Is no Place for Children” and my 2007 short story, “Pride,” was on the final Nebula ballot. My novel, An Old-Fashioned Martian Girl, was serialized in Analog. My recent books include Ewaipanoma, Dragon Soup, with Marge Simon, and Your Cat & Other Space Aliens, a Pushcart nominee which appeared on the preliminary Stoker ballot. My work has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Cat Tales, Fast Forward 1, and other anthologies and magazines in English, Italian, and German.
My “Steak Tartare and the Cats of Garibabakin” is in the April Analog, and, upcoming,“Chocolate Cats from Mars”is in the revived Space and Time. I’m working on Isidis Rising, a novel set on colonized Mars.
GW: Can you give us some history on the Hamsters, how and when did the group form?
The Hamsters started after I came home from Clarion, full of big plans. I rented a conference room in a Holiday in, called some other newbie writers, and we had our organizational meeting. Our motley group included one member who didn’t even write, but liked to critique. We recruited by word of mouth and from flyers in libraries. Over the last 24 years, roughly 60 people have been Hamsters. Some of the more prominent Hamsters: Maureen McHugh, Sarah Willis (mainstream writer), Tobias Buckell, Ellen Klages, and of course you, Steve. About half of the Hamsters are in SFWA; and most have published, although there are a couple of underachievers who need a fire lit under them. Or a keg of dynamite.
The name Cajun Sushi Hamsters from Hell is so ridiculous I can’t even remember how we decided on it. It had something to do with a strange vegan dish one Hamster brought to a meeting.
A watershed moment came when Geoff Landis moved to Cleveland as a NASA postdoc. Geoff, my Clarion classmate, already had major chops as an Analog writer and Campbell and Hugo finalist. Most of us were still flailing around trying to break in. Charlie Oberndorf had a well received story in Full Spectrum, but he was busy with a new baby. Geoff had experience with two workshops in Cambridge, and with the energy and experience to attract other pros, he gave us a quality background. People who know Geoff also know he is very focussed. We quickly became a team.
Another watershed moment was when you, Steve, appeared as a dewy-eyed child with an unsold novel called Forests of the Night. I knew it was high concept. Not only could I see the cover in my mind, my hands itched to pick it up. Apparently DAW agreed, because the manuscript got snapped up. And the Jim Burns cover lived up to my expectations.
Another early triumph was Charles Oberndorf’s Sheltered Lives: quirky, charged with a sexually intimacy more disquieting than blatant.
Sarah Willis, also a former Hamster, turned to literary realism. Her Some Things that Stay, became a movie. Brett Wagner turned to moviemaking after Cleveland, with Chief and Five Years, also some TV work.
Maureen McHugh’s genius for hostessing became legendary. How did she create all those fabulous feasts while winning Hugo, Tiptree, Lambda, Nebula and a zillion other awards? We think she has a clone.
When Toby Buckell made his first sale, he was too young to buy the traditional champagne. Now, his Halo: the Cole Protocol, is on the New York Times best seller list.
Hamsters have won Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards.
GW: Can you give a quick overview of the mechanics? How the group meets? The critiquing process? How do new members join?
I’m painting a picture of Hamster success stories. But how does the group function?
After a years of chaotic meetings with seventeen Hamsters critiquing nine stories in six hours, we decided to make potential members audition. Two of the applicant’s stories are juried by four Hamsters. Once accepted, if newbie likes us after a trial meeting, she or he is in.
We use Clarion round-robin method. As Algis Budrys pointed out, less assertive voices are lost in the cacophony of unstructured discussion. Sometimes we limit critique time with a stopwatch.
We meet in each others’ homes. Monthly. We have a meal. We do short stories. Novels are done by agreement only, and in segments. All of these variables can change.
GW:Any suggestions to people who want to form their own group on how to keep it running smoothly?
My advice to anybody who wants to start a critique group? Keep your priorities straight. The point is to improve over-all skill and help the writer polish a story. Some tips:
- Critique is not an opportunity for grandstanding. One snarky writer in another group pelts each writer with risible barbs, destroying the story while displaying his own pyrotechnic wit. Everybody laughs, and those with thick skins survive. But what of those who wilt under ridicule?
- Focus on the story, not the writer’s personality. There are exceptions to this rule. One Hamster, call him Alan, had a depressive streak, and his work wasn’t getting accepted. It was just too dark and moody. Should we have said something? But then he got married, and started publishing again.
- Abrasive people destroy a group. One published but insecure writer attempts to turn a writing group into a cheering section for his own work. I’ve also seen writers engage in behaviors — nagging others to read excessive pages, even semi-stalking s— that could kill a group. Figure a way to get them to leave.
- Get as many good writers as you can. Avoid weak writers unless they show some genius. (Geoff Landis defines genius as devoting ten hours a day, every day of the year, to a skill for ten years.)
- But stay open to diamonds in the rough. A writer with bad spelling and punctuation might, motivated by belief in his own talent, smooth the jagged edges. But don’t let the critique group become a school taught by the best for the benefit of the rest.
- Develop a thick skin. Don’t cry openly during critique. It’s bad form.
- If you can’t find a good critique group, form your own. Get a peek at the SFWA directory for writers in your area. Ask around at cons. If all else fails, post notices in libraries. Take a local con ed or college course in writing. Heck, try Craig’s List.
- Organize. People need each other’s addresses, cell phone numbers, and e-mail addresses. Meetings can be canceled for blizzards or hurricanes.
Finally, what does a critique group do for you?
- It helps you improve a story.
- It provides support and networking for market news and research
- It motivates you to produce.
- It’s fun.
GW:Anything else you want to say about your experience with the Hamsters?
I love the Hamsters. They are treasured friends and allies in a hostile writing world. And all of this would never have existed without the seed being planted by Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, and Kate Wilhelm. I recommend her book, Storyteller , for more insight.