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Guest of Honor speech

Delivered at Ambercon 3
Wichita, Kansas
May 31, 1981

Today I am going to tell you what every fan wants to know.

No, wrong. I am not going to tell you how to get laid at a con. I’ve been watching this weekend, and some of you have figured that out all on your own. Shame on you. And the rest couldn’t be less interested. SMOFs and former worldcon chairmen would rather talk about ice machines anyway, and hucksters would rather count their money. Besides, what makes you think I know?

I’m not going to tell you how to play poker against Mike Glicksohn either, or discourse on how to win the coveted Balrog Award, or reveal the secret handshake that will get you into the secret pro parties of the Hugo Losers Club. Hell, I can’t even get into those any more. They threw me out because of some small technicality about Noreascon II.

And I’m certainly not going to tell you how much money my good friend Ken Keller really spent on that play at MidAmericon.

Lots of fans want to know these things, to be sure, but not nearly as many as want to know what I’m going to tell you. You may claim otherwise, but I know the truth. What all of you really want is to be a big-name sci-fi guy, like me. So I’m going to tell you the secret of my success as a writer!

Some of you may think I do this because I want to help you, just as older writers helped me. Wrong. Nobody helped me anyway, did it all by myself, and besides, who needs more competition? Some of you may think I do this in order to enrich the field I love, which has been so good to me. The more good new writers we have, the better SF will get. Wrong. The worse SF gets the more my stuff stands out. Some of you may think I do this because I was hard up for a topic for my Guest of Honor speech. No comment.

Actually, I can tell you my secret with impunity, because it’s too late for you, all of you. You’re too old. To use my secret as it have have to start real young. So maybe you people can’t be big-name sci-fi guys, but you can bring your children up to be just like me if you follow my instructions. So listen carefully and take notes and maybe some year you can sit beaming In the audience as one of your offsprings carries off a Hugo, a Nebula, or even the coveted Balrog Award.

First, you have to have children. I won’t discuss this procedure much. The first step here goes back to that other question — getting laid at a con.

Secondly, you must bore them. I was born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, queen city of the east coast. Bayonne produced Sandra Dee, Ed McMahon, and me. Bayonne is very close to sinful Staten Island, vibrant cosmopolitan Newark, and the swinging streets of Jersey City and Hoboken. I never got to see these hot spots, however. I never left Bayonne until I went away to college. This was essential for my development as a writer. You see, all of us have a deep inner need for stimulation, excitement, adventure, especially when we are growing up. Some of us do exciting things, meet exciting people, go to exciting places. These poor chaps get used to reaching outwards for excitement, and grow up to be normal human beings, instead of writers.

I was luckier. In Bayonne, the most exciting things you could do were watch the oilslicks float past on the Kill Von Kull, or play stickball in a parking lot. The most exciting place you could go to was Secaucus, where they were rumored to have pig farms. As for meeting exciting people, well, there was Ed McMahon, Sandra Dee, and me, and nobody was much impressed by me when I was only twelve or so. I did see Sandra Dee drive by once in a big limo with a police motorcycle escort, when she was in town visiting her mother. Luckily I didn’t get a good glimpse of her, or the sheer thrill of it might have entirely burned out my budding talent.

Being thus denied the adventures that others found in the world around them, I reached in instead of out, and found adventures in my own head. This is a very scientific principle. People in sensory deprivation tanks fantasize more than people driving in the Indianapolis 500, with the possible exception of Bobby Unser. Growing up in Bayonne, my head was positively yeasty with daydreams. All writers have minds that are constantly in ferment, bubbling away back there, inventing things and people and sagas. We have a technical term for this. We call it imagination. People are always saying to me, where do I get my crazy ideas? From Bayonne, that’s where. These days, most people are on completely the wrong track. They buy their kids creative playthings and television sets and stimulate the hell out of their little kiddy minds, and what do they get for their trouble? Accountants! No, the way to start a little would-be writer is first bore him or her silly, so if you want to raise a big-name sci-fi guy, you must not live any place like San Francisco, or New Orleans, or Paris. Instead, go directly to Bayonne. Do not pass GO and do not collect $200.

Or, come to think of it, stay in Wichita.

Boredom being satisfactorily accomplished, we can move on to the third step: reading. Reading is not as essential as boredom in the childhood of a writer, but it is recommended. Like riding a bicycle, it is something most easily accomplished in childhood. I never learned to ride a bicycle until I was 25 or so, but I did learn to read. My decade of professional experience in the field has convinced me — although I will confess that I don’t have the hard statistics to back me up — that most writers have learned to read at some point along the line. A few have only learned to read wiring diagrams, but this is a broad field, so what the hell . . .

Learning to read didn’t come easily for me, though. I went to school, of course, and there at Mary Jane Donohoe School we had teachers who were supposed to teach us how to read. They were tough teachers too. One of them, I remember$ had her desk at the back of the class, so we faced the other way and we never knew where she was. Today, when you flunk a test, teacher maybe puts a frownyface on your test paper. Back in old MJD, they sent you back to the previous grade for the afternoon, to sit with the babies, and there was a punishment to reckon with. No, the problem wasn’t the teachers, it was the books. The Readers.

Why they called them Readers I don’t know; Non-Readers would be more accurate, since that’s what they produced. Dick and Jane and little Sally, that’s what we read about. Who the hell wants to learn to read just so you can find out what happened to Dick and Jane and little Sally? They lived in this house. I don’t know where the house was, but it certainly wasn’t in Bayonne, New Jersey. Maybe it was in Wichita, come to think of it. They were three of the most goddamned boring kids you’d ever want to know. Probably they all grew up to be writers. I remember one story when they made boats out of wood and sailed them in this pond. Their pond didn’t have any oil slicks, so it couldn’t have been Bayonne. I think Dick had a blue boat and Jane had a yellow boat and Sally had a little red boat. Little Sally’s boat sank. She was real upset for a while, and then they all went home to watch Spot run.

Years later, I remember seeing Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, drowning that little girl in a pond. I loved that scene. I pretended that the little girl was Sally. Now If they’d put Karloff into those Readers, they might have had something.

Clearly, then, you can’t rely on schools to teach these prospective writers to read. You’ll have to do it yourself. Fortunately, there’s an easy way. Comic books.

Every would-be writer needs comic books. I certainly did. I can still vividly recall my discovery of comic books, followed closely by the revelation that this reading stuff was actually good for something. Comic books had it all over Readers. Comic books had pictures and so did Readers, but in comic book pictures somebody was flying or punching somebody, while in my Reader little Sally was crying about her little red boat. Batman dressed much neater than Dick did, and even in my prepubescent days I had this vague feeling that Wonder Woman had it all over Jane, although I couldn’t put my finger on the reason. I did know that watching Spot run was a real drag when I could watch Krypto the Superdog fly instead. Besides, I knew that if the two of them ever met in my neighborhood, Krypto would bite Spot’s goddamned head off.

Comic books were my salvation. I read all of them I could get my hands on, and my reading got better and better, and my teachers soon began to marvel that I read with such “expression” while the rest . . . of . . . my . . . class. . . read . . . like . . . this. I could have told them the reason. You need a lot more expression for, “Aha, Superman, now my red kryntonite will turn you into a BOILED EGG!!!” than you do for, “See Spot. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.”

So if the schools don’t do it, remember comic books. Maybe your kid won’t be as quick as I was, and regular comic books won’t do, but even that’s no problem in this day and age. There’s always the undergrounds. Tales of the Leather Nun should do it every time.

Now we are three steps down the road. We have the kid, and the kid is bored, and the kid has learned to read. What’s next?

Turtles!

Turtles are the key to the whole process, really. If there is one absolutely indispensable ingredient, it has to be turtles. Accept no substitutes. Let me tell you about my turtles. From age four until I went away to college, 1 lived in an apartment In a federal housing project. The project had rules. One of them was NO PETS. No dogs, no cats, no parakeets, no canaries, no ferrets, no ducks, none of that shit. Is that fair, I ask you? Letting all those little kids grow up without pets? Certainly not. Later on, birds got OKayed, and I had a couple of parakeets, but not in the beginning. So I had to make do with what was allowed. You know what was allowed?

Turtles.

So I had turtles. I had lots of turtles. Now, if you are going to get turtles, be sure you get the right kind. Mike Glicksohn had a turtle, one of those big box tortoises. For all I know he has still him. What have you seen Mike Glicksohn write recently? No, if you get the kid a box tortoise it’ll grow up to publish fanzines. What you want, for a future fiction writer, is a bunch of those little green turtles they sell in dime stores. You remember the kind. People used to paint flowers on their backs, and they sold them in these little round plastic bowls with a divider down the middle. Half of the bowl you filled with water that turned scummy the minute you added turtle food, and half you filled with colored gravel (I liked blood red gravel best), and in the middle there was this plastic palm tree.

I understand you can’t get that kind of turtle any more, by the way. The government prohibited their sale. They say they cause all kinds of plague and fungoid rot and such, but I think that’s just a front. What they really do is turn people into science fiction writers, and the feds decided they had to put an end to that.

To get back to my turtles, I kept them in this toy castle on a table. The castle yard was just big enough to accommodate two of those plastic turtle-bowls side-by-side, and the walls were high enough to keep the turtles in when they climbed out of their shallow bowls, which they were doing all the damned time. Keeping the turtles confined was very important, because if you didn’t they would invariably crawl under the refrigerator during the night, and six months later you’d find them there, all black with their eyes sunk in. Why they always headed for the refrigerator I never could fathom; you’d think every once in a while one might crawl under a bed, or under the stove, or under your kid sister, but it never worked out that way. The turtle food wasn’t even refrigerated, so that couldn’t be it.

You may be wondering what small green turtles have to do with writing. I’m getting to that. Turtles are great creative aids, you see. Especially lots of turtles kept in a toy castle. For two reasons. One, they are very boring pets. Turtles never do anything, you know. Sometimes they pull their arms and legs and heads into their shells. Sometimes they stick them out. This wears very quickly on even the least imaginative child. They sleep a lot. About the most exciting thing a turtle ever does is crawl under the refrigerator, drawn there like a swallow to Capistrano or a lemming to the sea or Ed Bryant to a shark, but they always do that at night when you can’t watch ‘em. If you had a dog or something, it might jump on you, or bark and leap around until you followed it to where somebody was stuck in quicksand, but you never have to worry about that with a turtle. If you ever get stuck in quicksand, don’t send a turtle for help. He’ll head off and get distracted by a dump and crawl under an abandoned refrigerator. So turtles are real nothings as far as entertainment goes.

Also, second key attribute, they die a lot. My turtles died all the time. And I never painted them or carved my Initials into them or anything like that, I swear it! I think it was that damned turtle food they had to eat. Or maybe it was just boredom. Maybe outside Bayonne turtles live longer.

So there I was, you see, with a brain feverish with fantasy from years of living in Bayonne, a reader despite the best efforts of little Sally, with these boring pets that never did anything but die. I didn’t want to take the blame for them croaking, so I had to think up some other reason to explain those deaths.

Well, it was real simple. They lived in a castle, didn’t they? So clearly they were all kings and princes and knights and stuff like that. And they died in swordfights!

And that was how I started writing.

I had that castle for years. A lot of turtles came and went. They all had grand adventures, intrigues, duels, feuds. They vied for control of the kingdom of the turtles. They poisoned each other. They formed alliances with neighboring kingdoms, and conquered neighboring kingdoms, and led revolutions. They started a turtly space program. They had great kings and weak kings, noble warriors and cowards, all that good stuff. Every one of them had a role in the saga. Well, after a while, it got hard to keep track of all this stuffs so I started to write it down. My first epic. Pages after pages after pages of turtle sword and sorcery. The manuscript still exists, by the way. I never throw away anything. And no, Ken, you cannot publish it in TRUMPET, though I have no doubt that should I die an untimely death it will see publication. Lin Carter will find it in my trunk and finish it as a collaboration. And hell, maybe I’ll finish it myself. WATERSHIP DOWN was big, DUNCTON WOOD was big, why not TURTLE CASTLE?

Turtles, you see, are just what is needed for a young writer to put it all together.

Now the job is almost done. The bored kid has started putting words on paper. He’s a writer. Or she’s a writer. In time, they’ll get better. If they ever slow down and stop writing, just buy them some more turtles. Still, one more thing is needed. A lot of writers write only for themselves. You know the sort. They keep journals, they live in little private fantasy worlds, they never think of sending anything out to an editor. This will never do. You can’t be a big-name sci-fi guy unless you begin mailing stories to editors and getting money for them. Usually, this last stumbling-block is caused by a lack of confidence; the neophyte writer doesn’t think his or her stuff is good enough, so the years go by, the decades go by, and the writer stays at home, polishing, revising, honing.

You know why? Because the poor fool has started reading good books, that’s why! If you’ve got him reading Tolkein and LeGuin and Jack Vance, John Irving and Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and William Shakespeare, you’re doing him in! The kid will read all that good stuff and know he can never measure up. I read LORD OF THE RINGS early in high school, and didn’t write for a year. No, giving a child writer, or even a childish writer, good books to read is a literary crime of the first magnitude.

If you want to help, give him trash. He needs to read really poor stuff, derivative, clumsy, amateurish, stuff with idiot plots and thin cardboard characterization and stiff wooden dialog. Give him stuff with wiring diagrams in it, and expository lumps, and lots of adjectives. It may take a while, but sooner or later that kid will sit straight up, throw the book across the room, and shout, “I can write better than that!” Then he will mail his first story to an editor. It happened for me just that way, when I read a really godawful piece of amateur superhero fiction in a comic fanzine. Fan fiction will do it every time. If you can’t find any fan fiction, try a box of old Roger Elwood anthologies, the complete works of John Norman, or a subscription to ISAAC ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE.

And who knows? A year or so later, you may find yourself at Ambercon, proud parents of a Guest of Honor!

Shoe Inside
© 2014 George R.R. Martin. All rights reserved.