Stories for the Future We Need: Lessons from AugurCon 2020
Image by Fallon Michael
It was awesome.
Let me tell you about it.
First of all, huge props to the Augur staff and volunteers for running a first-ever event without a hitch. Anything that runs as smoothly as AugurCon did has a heck of a lot of work behind it. Bravo and thank you.
The first sign that AugurCon was going to be inspiring was the enthusiasm of the attendees. This was a virtual conference held in the thick of COVID-19, and you’d think you wouldn’t be able to kindle the same buzzy feeling you get at an in-person gathering, but the collective excitement, ideas, and joy practically leaked out of my screen. (In fact, for many, a text-based forum is more comfortable than socializing over cocktail tables.)
AugurCon’s theme was “stories for the future we need,” so even though one of the panels was literally about dystopias (two, if you also include the discussion about CanLit), the overall mood of the conference was overwhelmingly optimistic. I walked away with facts, resources, and ideas, but the biggest takeaway for me was inspiration. Just dive right into the wondrous, varied world of spec fic. Write to your heart’s content. You’ll be in good company.
Like any good conference, by the end of the day my brain was bursting from all the rich conversation. Below, I’ve tried to summarize some of the most thought-provoking points from each panel. (FYI: Augur uses “speculative fiction” quite broadly, including all manner of sci-fi, fantasy, fabulism, magic realism, slipstream, etc.)
The bottom line, though?
If you write anything within spitting distance of spec fic… go to AugurCon next year.
You won’t regret it.
Image by Debby Hudson
Breaking Down the Gate: What Editors + Publishers Want
Moderated by Augur Magazine Editor Anna Bendiy
Featuring panellists Chimedum Ohaegbu, Jen Albert, Arley Sorg, Léonicka Valcius
There’s some advice you’ll find in any panel about publishing: read the guidelines (and follow them!), send your best work, look for the right fit, don’t get demoralized by rejection.
Beyond those solid points, I took away three major themes from this panel.
1) Know and engage with the literary community you want to publish in.
This point is an extension of the advice about looking for the right fit for your work. Read the markets you want to submit to. Know the common tropes of your genre, even (maybe especially) if you’re pushing their boundaries. Léonicka Valcius mentioned that she is impressed when she reads a piece that is in conversation with what’s already happening in the industry.
The big lesson here for me was that that you don’t just need to read widely in your genre—you need to read currently. However much you might love classics from five, fifteen, or fifty years ago, you need read what editors are choosing to publish right now. Read what your people are writing right now. Because you, too, are also writing right now.
Your work exists in an inescapably contemporary literary ecosystem, and you should know your way around if your goal is to publish successfully.
None of this should discount your own originality, though. Jen Albert cautioned against chasing trends, and Arley Sorg doesn’t like specifying the type of work he’s looking for because that can limit the types of submissions he gets.
I’m guessing that editors like to be surprised and delighted just as much as any other reader.
2) Remember that the relationship between an author and publisher is a two-way street.
The discussion about the relationship between publisher and author was fascinating, showcasing a perspective I don’t hear often. Valcius reminded everyone that a publisher/magazine/agent actually has to provide value for the writer. Too often, she said, writers give up power because they’re so eager for someone to “choose” them.
Chimedum Ohaegbu picked up on this point, saying that edits are done with the author, not to them. Editing is dialogue between the publisher and author to make the piece the best it can possibly be. An editor who thinks they’re right all the time? Bad sign.
The other panellists echoed that it’s important that the publisher values the writer. After all, your creative work is essential to the publisher’s business. Any deal where you feel stuck—with no room for dialogue or a clean exit, if it comes to that—is a bad deal.
3) You are not alone.
This was only discussed briefly at the end of the panel, but it resonated deeply with me.
Any discussion of publishing deals with rejection. Rejection hurts, no matter how you cut it, and all those politely worded form letters can make you feel invisible.
But don’t let that get to you.
You are not alone, Sorg reminded us. New writers often feel misunderstood and solitary, but there is a community of writers out there—tons of people doing exactly the same thing you’re doing.
Everyone starts out anonymous, said Ohaegbu, until they get published or join the community.
So what can we do, as writers? Join that community. Read contemporary writers and literary magazines. Sign up for their newsletters. Engage with other writers like you. Join or create writing groups.
Parting advice from Sorg: if you don’t do anything, you won’t meet anyone.
Image by Priscilla Du Preez
Building Better: World-Building from the Dystopian Now
Moderated by Augur Magazine Co-Editor-in-Chief Lawrence Stewen Featuring panellists Sarah Raughley, Rati Mehrotra, Fonda Lee, Omar el Akkad
World-building is a delicious topic for a spec fic conference, and some of the lessons here apply to all types of fiction writing (and some creative non-fiction, too). We are always, after all, building worlds for our characters to inhabit and our readers to visit, whether our stories are set in Manitoba or on Mars.
Erasing and redefining borders
A key theme that emerged from these writers was about how freeing world-building can be, especially when reality is restrictive. (Larissa Lai and Daniel Heath Justice both made similar points later in the conference.) After recounting a personal anecdote about the infamously loaded “Where are you really from?” question, Omar el Akkad explained that his fiction allowed him to obliterate the borders of the real world.
Of course, that’s not to say that fictional worlds don’t also have their share of prejudice, unjust power structures, etc.—we were talking about dystopias, after all—but these written worlds are in the writer’s control.
Where are your armored bears?
I loved this: Fonda Lee discussed the importance of the “cool” factor in world-building, referencing the armoured bears in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass. The cool factor sucks the reader in with something fundamentally fun. Sarah Raughley had a similar point, explaining that she thought of her works as adventurous rather than dystopian.
Dystopia is a matter of distance
el Akkad noted that dystopias are more a matter of distance rather than content. For example, his book American War includes topics like refugees, waterboarding, and drone killing—nothing that doesn’t exist in our present reality. But because his book is set in the future, it’s considered dystopian.
Plausibility and world-building
This panel offered good advice on making an imaginative world plausible.
Rati Mehrotra offered the solid advice the world has to be internally consistent. You can have any magic elements you want, but you need rules for them.
Lee discussed the iceberg principle of world-building: as an author, you’ve done all the work, but you are showing just the tip of the iceberg to the reader. Everything in front of the reader has to suggest that the rest of the world exists. For example, she said, the world feels fake if it’s devoid of details like sports or pop culture, which you’d find in any real society.
Raughley offered the pro-tip that you’ve succeeded in creating a plausible world if fans feel like they can live in that world.
Image by Bellava G
#CanSpec: Speculative Fiction in the Canadian Literary Canon
Moderated by Augur Magazine Publisher Kerry Seljak-Byrne
Featuring panellists Dominik Parisien, Jael Richardson, Larissa Lai, Kai Cheng Thom
The Canadian literary canon—what it is, what it should be, if there should be one at all, and who gets to decide the answers to these questions—is a huge topic.
The panel opened with a fairly rigorous rejection of canons in general, seeing them as restrictive, marginalizing, and colonialist. With that said, Larissa Lai acknowledged that a lot of activism has taken place under the banner of the Canadian canon and Dominik Parisien noted that the “Canadian canon” often means different things to different people.
Communities, not canons
This was a lively, wide-ranging discussion. Jael Richardson helped frame the discussion beautifully when she suggested that we think about communities instead of canons. With that in mind, I’ve done my best to pull out some of the key points below.
On Canada’s granting system:
Canada’s granting system often means small presses in Canada can afford to take more risks, compared to U.S. publishers. (Parisien)
However, some publishers will pick up books by marginalized authors to meet grant requirements—but then won’t give the same level of promotion to those books. (Parisien)
The strengths of the Canadian publishing system have not yet been adapted to a more diverse community. (Kai Cheng Thom)
Because the Canadian market is backed by grants, perhaps it isn’t as careful and conscientious in what it puts out—publishing too many books without giving each book enough space to succeed. (Richardson)
On diversity and the pressure placed on marginalized communities:
Larissa Lai said that she came to spec fic to get away from CanLit, and especially to escape the pressure placed on people of colour to write realism and memoir.
Writers of colour and other marginalized groups are being asked to be mentors while still mid-career because the people at the top of the system are not diverse. (Thom & Lai)
Too often, one person becomes the identity for an entire community. When there’s someone successful in a certain community, they’re invited for all the opportunities—then if they turn it down, no one else is asked. This puts pressure on that person unfairly. (Parisien)
Balance activist work and self-care. Make a long-term plan. We need to figure out how to fight and rest and work in the long term. (Richardson)
Image by Kourosh Qaffari
Problematic and/or Powerful: Allegory, Analogy, and Spec Fic
Moderated by Augur Magazine Co-Editor-in-Chief Terese Mason Pierre
Featuring panellists Daniel Heath Justice, Evan Winter, Amal El-Mohtar, Amanda Leduc
It’s not surprising that speculative fiction often deals with allegory—commenting on or evoking our real world through fantastic storytelling. I missed part of this panel as I was in the conference’s fiction workshop, but even just the second half of the panel yielded plenty of wisdom.
Use allegory to facilitate the truth
Daniel Heath Justice noted that allegory is a useful tool in particular contexts. Allegory doesn’t work when people are using it to avoid the truth, rather than to facilitate the truth. Consider: do the writers know what they’re doing? And are they writing from an authentic perspective?
Allegory should stay with the reader
Amanda Leduc advised writers to use allegory as a window in understanding a larger aspect of the world we live in. And allegory should stay with the reader: when it’s too complete, too easy, there isn’t enough for the reader to think about.
The freedom of allegory
This discussion echoed some of the earlier points about world-building: allegory is a way for writers to break free from the restrictions of the real world.
Leduc shared that allegory allows her to tell her own story but also explore other stories. Plus, it’s fun, and lets her to work without constraints.
Justice noted that many of us already live lives that are impinged upon by allegories: we are restricted by existing, often oppressive, scripts. We can use allegory in ways that are unexpected—break those existing allegories open.
Evan Winter picked up on this as well. For him, fantasy felt like coming home, since in so many stories in the real world, people like him were completely decentred. And as Amal El-Mohtar noted, the recourse to fantasy is instinctive.
The conference concluded with a featured conversation between Jael Richardson, Joshua Whitehead, and Larissa Lai (moderated by Terese Mason Pierre), but by this point my brain was pleasantly exhausted; I stopped taking notes and just sat back to enjoy the conversation.
This already-lengthy blog post only covers highlights from the day. I’ll repeat what I said in my opening: if you write spec fic of any variety, make sure you get to AugurCon next year. 💚