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.