Monday, April 24, 2017

mentoring: The other side of the coin

Yep. That's right, I'm gonna be the heavy here.

Let me clarify something. I have spent a great deal of my time mentoring other authors and those who want to be authors. I've always been glad to, because, God knows, I had a lot of help when I started.

Here's the thing: I believe in paying it forward.

Now and then, however, I've run across a person who didn't understand the notion of moderation. I have had several people in the past who effectively handed me a manuscript and demanded that I read it. In those situations I've politely but firmly declined. My time is my time. I don't have time to read an entire manuscript, edit it and critique it. I have a full time job. Oh, and a career as a writer. I'm not alone in that.

I have, on many occasions, read entire manuscripts. When I was working with White Wolf Publications as a freelance writer and a few writers I knew who were not familiar with the games they created wrangled stories or novels and were not familiar enough with the materials, I did fast edits more than once and explained where they were missing important aspects of the games. Aspects that would have meant enormous rewrites, et cetera.

I have certainly offered advice on many things, like contract negotiations, first person versus third person, which companies are better to write for, which I would avoid. All sorts of advice and I'm glad to, provided I can help.

There have, however, been times where I truly wanted to help and could not spare the time. I have deadlines. I have writing gigs. I have that day job. Oh, and these days I have an editorial service and I teach classes on writing, with Christopher Golden, as the River City Writers. One of the reasons the group exists is because sometimes people want editing services that we simply cannot provide for free. I can refer people to other editors and I have and I will again. But if they want my services, most times they'll have to go through the site.

I've been at this for over 25 years now Sometimes, much as I would like to dig into a manuscript, I simply do not have the time. Of if I do have the time, I can use that time better to pay my bills, which have never quite managed to pay themselves despite my best efforts to convince them.

Here's the thing. I LIKE helping. I also like having a roof over my head. And because we both run into the same problem, we decided to work it out a little differently. We have fairly regular sessions at bookstores, libraries or cafes where we do the New England Writers Coffeehouse. These run every 2-3 months and the idea is that we spend three hours in a meet and greet with other writers at all levels of the writing career, from "Just thinking about it" to published and successful. The entire notion is to get writers, which are notoriously solitary beasts, to come out and meet each other and learn the fine art or networking. (Networking, for the record, is the ability to meet with other human beings in the same field of interest. That's really about it. You would be surprised how many people do not know that.)

I have several writers who still consult with me and I'm glad to help. I have a few more I've let down of late, because I really would LOVE to get to that manuscript, but there isn't enough time in the day. It saddens and frustrates me.

I still pay it forward when I can.

In a few weeks I'm teaching a class on world building. I've been accused of having a clue. We'll find out for sure soon enough.

So, again. I want to help. I do. But for anyone out there who needs heavy duty editing of a manuscript or a full on brutal critique, these days the odds are good I'm saying no, or possibly just showing how much it will cost.

That's that. I've now played Devil's Advocate. Now, back to that manuscript.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

When Mentors Go Bad: Writing Advice Red Flags

This clematis I planted late last summer has been early to bloom this spring. Such a lovely new visitor to the garden!

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is Paying it Forward: How We Serve as Mentors for Tomorrow's New Writers.

Those of you who've been following me for any length of time know this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm a big believer in helping out tomorrow's writers. More established writers helped me as I was coming up - and still help me today! - and I return that favor to the universe by helping others. As others have said, there's not a lot we can do to repay those higher on the ladder than us, because most of them don't need it, but we can give a hand to those lower down.

There's lots of ways to do this, and I look forward to hearing what others of the SFF 7 say they do, but I want to come at this a little sideways by giving a warning about what is NOT helpful.

This has been on my mind all week since I saw a discussion earlier this week among some authors talking about a new "writers conference" run by a guy who promises to teach how to be successful as an author. Now, I've been around a fair amount of the success-culture stuff. People close to me have been burned by it. I can promise you, falling for their shtick is absolutely understandable because they're really good at this.

However, there are many problems with what they're doing. Best case scenario is illustrated by this most recent (how's that for serendipity?) XKCD:

If you're not familiar with the concept of Survivorship Bias, he explains it here. The TL:DR is that this is a bias caused by looking only at those who made it through a selection process, and not at those who did not. By focusing on 1% who did make it through a filter, the 99% who did not gets lost, leading to false conclusions.

Even the most well-meaning people who try to pass on the secrets of their success can be giving bad advice because very often THEY DON'T KNOW why they were successful. They can retrace their steps and say, "this is how I did it," but those aren't necessarily what actually made it happen. Especially when one step is "and then lightning struck and..."

There's a great interview that's well worth watching, where Oprah Winfrey and JK Rowling discuss that neither of them have any idea why they became so immensely successful. (Transcript here.) The self-aware recognize this, how much of phenomenal success is due to a stroke of luck and can't be replicated. The well-meaning might not recognize this and earnestly want to teach what simply can't be replicated.

Then there's another type. Those who have another agenda.

And that agenda is always making more money for themselves. Even if they insist it's not. In fact, particularly if they insist that's not their reason. That's a big red flag.

Let me break down the red flags I saw in this particular case.

1. This guy is self-billed as a hugely successful author who wants to share his secrets.

Let's ask why. Because, folks, we all know that a basic ground rule of being an author is that time = words written. Anytime a "hugely successful author" is spending their time doing something other than writing books, you can guess that this thing is either

  • earning them more money than writing books, or 
  • contributing to sales of said books. 
That's simple economics.

2. He's not doing this for money. He's only charging this low price because he's doing this out of a desire to share.

Okay, look - this guy has already gone on about his huge financial success. That's what he congratulates himself for, that's where his heart is. Nothing wrong with that, but don't turn around and try to convince me he's devoting an entire weekend just because he's such a giver. He's not a yogi, he's a businessman. Look for the business benefit.

What's the business benefit? Two things:

  • Putting on a small hotel conference, especially in a place where there are few to no other lodging choices, is not expensive. If you guarantee a room block with the hotel, especially a place like a casino, they'll comp the meeting rooms. Thus the registration fee per person is almost entirely profit. 
  • It's a big commercial for his books. Possibly he'll have a success book for sale at the conference. Even without that, this is all about raising his profile and establishing himself as a success in the eyes of attendees. Even if he doesn't make a profit on the registration, this is great promo.
Also, always be suspicious if people insist they're not doing something for the money. A professional person always needs to charge for their efforts. Honest people will say, "yes, I'm charging this fee for my weekend's worth of time because that's what my time is worth." Exceptions to this are low-effort events like speaking to a school class or answering questions online. If aspiring writers want to ask me questions at conferences, I'll sit down for a few minutes, sure, or I'll say, "but me a drink or lunch and we can talk." Authors will do interviews and talks for free or minimal honoraria, but that's usually to raise their profile and to give back. In that case they won't spend much time telling anyone that they're not doing it for the money. Obviously they aren't.

3. He hints at having exclusive knowledge

This one is a major red flag. In the text this guys says that people shouldn't ask uncool questions, but that, if they hang out long enough and learn something, then they might get to the point of knowing how to ask cool questions.

Let me tell you something, people. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN UNCOOL QUESTION.

I mean, what is this, 7th grade?? Seriously, that's the last time I remember someone trying to make me feel bad for being "uncool."

The only people who pull this shit - and complete and utter bullshit it is - are those who want you to believe they're better than you are. Even if they do know something you don't, that doesn't make you somehow substandard. There is no shame in not knowing something. That's why we ask questions, to find out. I made a resolution a long time ago to never be afraid to ask a question.

And I'll tell you what: the only people who have ever tried to make me feel bad for asking a question were those people who had a stake in trying to appear powerful. And VERY OFTEN it was because they either didn't know the answer or didn't have a good answer.

Or maybe the answer is so simple that it blows their entire posture of appearing to be this magical, hugely successful author guy.

Trust me, folks - any time some person tries to make you feel ignorant, or uncool about your ignorance, they are manipulating you. I've been down this road. Like the "teacher" who says that you're not ready to understand the answer. That you've only scratched the surface of some knowledge so profound that you have all this work to do just to figure out how to ask the right question. There's some truth to this, that as you learn a subject, you get better at asking the questions that target what you really need to know. But that does not mean you're not allowed to ask ANY questions to begin with. Not unless they're trying to control you and keep you in a subordinate position.

For people like this, positioning themselves as successful, powerful, or knowledgeable depends on positioning other people as unsuccessful, weak, and ignorant. Don't go along with it.

4. Always consider the motivation.

People do things for a variety of reasons, not always noble ones. It *always* serves you well to ask WHY someone is doing something. And, while you might take into consideration the reasons they give you, don't accept those at face value. In fact, look closely at why I spent a couple of hours writing this blog post. I'll tell you what I think they are, but I also know you might see other ones. What I think:

  • I write a blog post every Sunday for the SFF Seven as part of promoting myself as a writer of fantasy, among other genres.
  • Promoting my profile as an author sells books, hopefully. I like blogging, but I don't do it out of the goodness of my heart.
  • This stuff was on my mind and so I was ready to take the topic in this direction.
  • I have experience with manipulations of this type and it pisses me off. If I can help someone else see through these shenanigans, I'm happy.
  • I really do believe in mentoring and paying it forward. There's a lot of bad information out there. Good information is needed to counter it.
  • Also, I didn't want to spend a lot of time arguing with people one by one who are enthused about this event. It (likely) wouldn't convince them, might make me a target which I'm not interested in investing my energy in, and would ultimately just aggravate me. By writing this post, I get to have my say and move on.
  • I have a good reputation for being generous and helpful (which I find immensely flattering), so I hope this post serves that. 
  • I dunno, what else? Maybe I just want you all to tell me I'm pretty.

So, what do you all think? I already went on long, so I didn't go through every red flag I can think of, because there are many. But what ones have you noticed?

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Myth or Legend I Wish Were True

When I was totally bored in elementary school one day, I created this amazing (to me) fantasy of being a long lost alien princess who was supposed to be Queen of the Universe. I often wished that fantasy was true, believe me! I daydreamed about how astonished everyone would be the day the flying saucers swooped down to reclaim me and proclaim me the ruler...well, yeah, obviously that didn't happen. Relax, you are NOT my unwitting subjects! I did find it very amusing that the movie "Jupiter Ascending" kind of had a similar plot, although wow her dress is tacky!

When I was much older, the things I wished were true tended to be the worlds of my favorite books. So, I wanted to swoop through the skies of Pern on a golden dragon, for example. Or live in Rivendell and be a tall Elf with a sexy Rohan lover who just happened to be Eomer (as portrayed by Karl Urban). The wishing wasn't connected to any one specific myth or legend, but to the place and the universe.

I think I solved that one by writing my own stories and making them feel true while I'm totally immersed in them, working my way through the plot and the events, and having everything turn out the way I want it to be.

But okayyyyy, if I HAVE to pick one to be a team player here on SFF7, I'll go with shifters. I want the shifters of either Nalini Singh's Psy-Changeling world or Patricia Briggs' Alpha/Omega/Mercy Thompson world to be REAL. Sexy, badass, smart...

There you go.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Here Be Dragons

If the tilt of reality suddenly shifted and opened the door to the improbable, what would I hope to see come through to inhabit this world with us? Easy. Dragons. Because I have no sense of self-preservation maybe. Or because I'm taken with the notion that I am a dragon (according to Chinese astrology.) More to the point, though, there's value to casting your gaze to the sky when a shadow passes over and shuddering a combination of awe and dread. It keeps the human animal humbler to be reminded that there are forces in the world that cannot be harnessed or tamed or controlled. While I'm not entirely keen on having friends and family predated by a hungry dragon, watching a massive winged force of nature soaring the skies might be worth a few 'accidents'. Certainly, I'd be one of the dumb ones going out to look for the dragons' caves/nests/roosts. Just to catch a glimpse. On par with courting a tiger.

Maybe what I'm really looking for is something to strip away the illusion of control the human race so loves to pretend to have. I have no data to back it up, but I maintain that humans are better for having something bigger and more awesome than themselves to envy. As a species we drive harder when we're challenged. And having a dragon eating your sheep and burning your neighborhood might qualify as challenging.

Dragons have good qualities, too. Some of them bear incredible wisdom and are invested in helping humans. The fun would come in trying to parse out which dragon was which. I don't know. I'm not sure I can fully explain why it would matter to me that dragons made it across the threshold from myth to real. Only that I'd love to see one with my own eyes and experience the shiver that would come from watching a majestic, enormous apex predator claim the skies of this world.

Given the forces arrayed against humans - hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquake, volcanoes and the other assorted ways the planet has to kill us, do you suppose we already have dragons of a sort?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Myths to believe in

On the whole, I'm a rational sort. I believe in a world of what can be engaged with one's senses, what can be proven.  I'm not much of a spiritualist or superstitious person.
But I do kind of believe in Borrowers.
"Borrowers", or sprites, or whatever they may be-- beings who take objects from your house, and then return them when they see fit.
Now, the rational person would say, "You're just talking about things being lost and then found again later.  That's just normal disorganization, not mythical creatures."   True.  And I'd tend to agree.
Except, I swear, I've seen some stuff.
Once a camera charger vanished.  We looked everywhere, and couldn't find it.   Then, weeks later, I woke up one morning, got out of bed, went into the bathroom... and there was the charger, literally sitting on the bathroom floor.  Just, right there, appeared in the middle of the night.
I got a stranger one.
A few years back, my wife couldn't find an earring.  She looked everywhere, and it had vanished. Then one day as we came home, I was getting out of the car, and something landed on me.  The earring.  It literally fell on me, and the only place it could have come from is the garage ceiling.
I'm not saying these things make sense, I'm just saying they happened.
I prefer to keep the fantastic in the writing, though.  So: back to it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Yup. I think aliens would be amazing. 
Ask my family. They've heard me ponder
being on a team to terracolonize Mars. 
They've been told, 
"If they ever show up and 
I get the chance, 
I'm going."

Now of course, I'm NOT talking about 
wanting the face-hugging, acid-for-blood 
nightmares of Geiger to be real. 
I don't fancy myself a Ripley in a mech-suit.

I dream of Starfleet, Starfleet Academy, 
and the United Federation of Planets.

Because I'd love to actually live in Gene Roddenberry's dream world, 
and be a crewman on a ship that explored the stars and worlds of the universe. 
This is in part because of the ship, of course, but mostly because having that 
would mean that our world as we know it now had gotten past 
all the inequalities of our present, and strived forward into a future 
that saw the potential and value in every race, gender, and age.

Bring on that dream, please.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

If Mythical Beings Really Could Save Us From Ourselves

What myths or legends do I wish were true?

Nature Guardians. 

The ones who push back when humanity goes too far. From the gnones who look after windmills and wildlife, to the dragons of rivers and mountains. The ones who guide us to live with nature, not in spite of it. The ones who can undo the horrific damage we inevitably cause, forcing us to assist them in the healing and doling out lessons along the way. Don't get me wrong, I've no interest in an autocracy of myopic mythical beings. No, no.  I'm a firm believer in balance. In my little fantasy world, the nature guardians balance out humanity.

Monday, April 17, 2017

What would I want to see?

If I'm being honest, I'd love to see the fae proven real. There are so many of them both dark and magnificent. how could I not want to see them? How could I not want to believe in them?

An interesting theory that I've heard a few times and that I give no credence to (But love just the same) is that the Fae are, in fact, the same thing as angels and aliens. Something so completely different from our world that we automatically categorize them into something more believable for us.

The legends, the lore, the regal and horrific blended into one. There is nothing about the Fae that does not appeal to me and I even wrote about them in my very first novel, UNDER THE OVERTREE. They are not the faeries you remember from your legends but they are the Fae and even follow some of the same rules.

Highly recommended read: Raymond Feist's FAERIE TALE.