18.22: On Mentorship: Sending the Elevator Back Down
How can we make publishing more inclusive? What role does mentorship play? And how can you reframe competition as collaboration? All this and more in this episode.
What’s one thing that you can do to make someone else’s path easier? Can you take a step towards doing this this week?
Thing of the Week:
Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.
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Key Points: How do you break into publishing? Well, when you do, hold the door open for someone else! Dismantle barriers. Build a cohort and take the world by storm. Get more voices in the room. Talk about the paths in the forest. It’s not just how to break in, it’s how to keep going. Listen! There may not be a solution, or a magic secret. Boost people. Share advice. Begin your practice of solidarity now. Keep an eye on your bandwidth. Practice things you’re not good at. Inspire people by pointing out what they are good at, and challenge them by pointing out things they need to improve. Be available and be excited. Recommend people! Put your oxygen mask on before assisting others. Not everyone has to be everything to you.
[Season 18, Episode 22]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[DongWon] On Mentorship: Sending the Elevator Back Down.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[DongWon] I’m DongWon.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m holding the elevator…
[Laughter. What! Wait, you’re not supposed to do that.]
[Dan] That’s a misuse of the metaphor.
[Howard] I pushed all the buttons. What are we supposed to be doing?
[DongWon] All right, we found the problem. So we solved ours. Episode’s over. No? I wanted to…
[Mary Robinette] [garbled] a time machine.
[DongWon] So, after a few episodes, last few episodes, of talking about working in publishing, what it’s like to be in publishing, one thing that’s kind of come up a few times is both the perspective of, like, how do I break into this industry as someone coming into it from the outside, but also, sort of, what is the experience of being a marginalized person working in the industry. Again, a lot of this will apply to writers. I’m talking about it specifically from the perspective of working in the industry. Obviously, I am a person of color, I’m a queer person of color, I’ve had my own experiences in the industry. I’ve been very fortunate in most of my interactions and had a number of privileges that I think helped me get ahead in certain ways. So, one thing that I think about a lot is how do we make this industry more inclusive. How do we create opportunities for people who don’t have the same backgrounds as everyone else in the business, who don’t have the same privileges as everyone else, and who may be aren’t even in New York City. Right? I mean, the geographic location of most of the industry is a huge barrier to people breaking into it. I mean, you go back to when we were talking about networking, how do you network with publishing people if you’re not in a place where publishing people live. Right? So this is where I start thinking about what are the explicit structures we could put into place to accomplish this. That’s where mentorship comes into play. This is where the metaphor of sending the elevator back down comes from. Right? It’s holding the door for the person behind you. It’s not just I got in, close the door, holding the elevator on the top floor is enough…
[DongWon] No, I know that’s not what you were saying, Howard. But it’s how do we make sure that structurally we’re not just creating opportunity, but we’re explicitly inviting people in.
[Howard] It’s the opposite of the how to break into comics metaphor that was used years ago and has stuck with me, which is, every time someone breaks into comics, everybody who’s already in asks, “How did you get in?” Then they look at wherever that hole is in their secure facility and they patch it up so no one else can use that one.
[Howard] You want the opposite of that.
[Dan] Yeah. Back when I was breaking into publishing, that was the exact metaphor that people would use. I remember David Hartwell talking about that on a panel at World Fantasy. That was a common sentiment. I take it is a good sign in the industry that that sentiment seems to be changing. That it’s more about figuring out how to let more people in rather than trying to keep people out.
[Mary Robinette] That was one of the things that, when I was on the board at SFWA… For new listeners, that’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association… Is that we made a shift in our mandate, kind of internally the way we framed it, when we were talking about the requirements for membership. That what we wanted was to be not gatekeepers, but gate openers. That meant adjusting the membership requirements to make it easier for people to join. So, like, we… That’s the point when… I just want to be clear that it’s not me that was doing that, that was a group effort. But thinking about, okay, what are the barriers that keep people from getting in? What can we do to dismantle that barrier?
[Erin] I think that one of the things with this… I love the metaphor of the elevator, but sometimes it makes you think that you have to, like, be at the top floor. You have to be in the penthouse, before you can sort of send the elevator back down. But sometimes you can just hold it for people who are coming in at the same time that you are.
[Erin] Like, actually work with your peer group as well too, like, give each other opportunities. See other people as part of a collaborative cohort of creativity that’s going to take the world by storm, not as competitors who are all seeking to get to the same place and have to drag each other down in any way.
[DongWon] Right. I mean, I think you’re hitting on one of my problems with the metaphor, as much as I do use it, is a lot of times when I’m reaching out to my peers for mentorship in some way, either me looking to someone for an assist or me reaching out to someone else to assist them, it’s not that I’m seeing myself as I’m up here and you’re down here, it’s actually ICS is peers and I want to help you out. Right? I know that if I help you out, you’ll probably help me out in the future. Right? There is that community aspect, there is that collaboration aspect of this place will be better for us if there are more voices in the room. Right? If there’s more opportunity created by other perspectives being there. If I’m the only one in the room, is so, so difficult to speak up about certain issues. I remember, back when I was an editor at Orbit, I was working with a South Asian woman, [Debbie Palai]. Just having that extra voice in the room was so transformative to me, so that when I would say, “Hey. I think this is an issue.” Or, “Hey, I think this is cool. I’d love it if we did more of that.” Even if she didn’t say anything, there was someone there who had my back. Right? So I think being the only voice in the room versus their even being just one other person, it makes such a difference in your ability to speak up, to get things done, and to make a difference in that way. So, for me, there is a self-interest in it, too. Right? I… I think I’ll be able to do my job better if there are other people I can talk to who see the world in a way that’s closer to how I see it.
[Mary Robinette] The metaphor I use is not elevator, it’s a path through a forest. That where I am in my career, I’m on a little bit of a rise and I can see back over the path that I’ve been on. I can tell people about the obstacles that they’re going to hit on their path. But everybody’s starting from a different point.
[Mary Robinette] Everybody’s coming from a different house. So if there’s two people who are coming from the same neighborhood, they’re going to be able to give each other advice that I can’t give because I didn’t walk that path. I can talk about, like, there’s going to be the forest of despair but I don’t know the specific boulders. I can give you bouldering techniques… I can’t, actually, by the way…
[Howard] I think it’s key here to recognize that… In our episode title, we talk about mentorship. The things that I, is a 55-year-old mediocre white male who landed a cartooning career through sheer luck 20 years ago… The things that I can tell you about breaking into the industry are probably irrelevant. The things that I can tell you about working every day and learning how to craft a joke and learning how to work through pain without further injuring yourself and a million other things that I learned over that time period… Those have value. As a young creator, as an aspiring creator of anything, you often will feel the need to jump straight to how do I break in. But I have to offer as a mentor would be I don’t know how to break in, but here’s what you need once you’ve cleared that. Here’s what you want to have in your backpack when you drop, Tom Cruise style, on the cable into the secure room. Whatever. So, as a mentor, I love talking about craft, and I always feel very uncomfortable when someone asks me, “How do you get to be Internet famous?”
[DongWon] Well, I think Mary Robinette and Howard are hitting on really important things. That mentorship isn’t about like teaching someone, “Here’s the 10 steps you need to do to break in.” Right? You don’t know what path they’re coming from, you don’t know where they’re starting from, and also, the paths have changed a lot. Right? What I see in the writing community mentorship is a little awry is when I see a writer being like, “This is how I did it, so you have to do it this way. These are… This Is How Things Are,” capitol letters. Right? Versus, a lot of times, when I’m in a mentorship role with somebody, so much of it is just me listening, honestly. It is transformative. This kind of is going back to what I was saying earlier about having two people in the room, it is so transformative just to be able to have someone to complain to. Right? Complaining is a huge part of mentorship. Right? Because solidarity is a big part of it. Just the emotional awareness of, man, someone else is going through it. Someone else is experiencing things like I’ve experienced. They may not have a solution, because, you know what, a lot of times there isn’t a solution. A lot of times we’re talking about big structural stuff, and there is no like, “Oh, here’s the secret. If you say this one thing in a meeting, suddenly things will get better.” You know what I mean. That just doesn’t exist. We’re working against huge entrenched patterns that have been there since… For decades and decades and decades.
[Erin] I love that you said the word solidarity, because I think mentorship is a practice of solidarity, but there are so many other practices of solidarity that you can be doing all the time.
[Erin] Even if you feel, “Hey, I’m not in a position to mentor,” you can always be bringing people’s names up in rooms where they’re not. You can be talking up what other people are doing. You can find a piece of advice and share it with someone else. There’s so much to be said, I think, about beginning your practice of solidarity the minute you are living life at all. But, in this industry, the minute you start out, be in solidarity with others some of those people may have more experience with you… Then you, some may have less. Some may have the same. But when you’re doing that, I think for one thing, it’s, like, it helps your soul.
[Erin] To be in solidarity with others. I think it helps other people to want to be in solidarity with you, and it means that as you move sort of through your career, it’s not so much like, “Oh, I’ve got to a point, how do I reach?” You’ve been reaching the whole time.
[DongWon] Some of my favorite things that I’ve managed to do on sort of that front, are things that the person who got that opportunity or got that gig or whatever it is, never knows that I was involved at all.
[DongWon] No idea that I said something or advocated for them or even just was like, “Hey, have you thought about that person?” You know what I mean. It’s my favorite thing to do. It’s just like I see somebody doing something cool who I feel like could use a boost in one way or the other, and I’m going to talk that person up because I’m excited that they’re there. Right? I think I default to mentorship as the way to think about this, which is sort of this explicit hierarchical relationship. You’re right, I want this to look as much like neutral aid as it does, and solidarity as it does, that sort of like top-down way. Corporate structures have given us mentorship, but, what I would love for us to have our stronger connections with each other, and we all help each other out in this flow. Right? The people who’ve mentored me, I have turned around and help them back. Right? That’s the thing that is beautiful to me about the system, is I have such gratitude for the people who were looking out for me, who taught me certain ways, who introduced me to certain opportunities, and then I was able to advocate for them and provide opportunities for them later. On that note, I want to take a break here and when we come back, we’ll talk a little bit more about how do you actually build those relationships, how do you actually execute on providing solidarity, providing community, providing mentorship to folks.
[Erin] So, I’m excited because this week’s thing of the week is a newsletter from, I’m going to call a frienditor…
[Erin] Someone that I sort of see as a peer, but so knowledgeable and amazing, who is Suyi Davies Okungbowa. He has an amazing newsletter called After Five. So we’ve been talking about newsletters and talking about learning and he has such brilliant things to say about craft. It’s like a once a month newsletter and you’re like, “How did I not think of this?” You can read what he’s reading and actually see his writing, but I also just love the way that he thinks about how to support each other, how to find healing and inspiration, how to, like, figure out story ideas. So, absolutely go and check out Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s After Five newsletter.
[DongWon] So, while we’re talking about mentorship and solidarity, one thing I want to focus on is how do we actually do this. One thing I want to flag is to keep an eye on your bandwidth. There have been times where I’ve gone so hard on trying to, like, help people out, producing a mentorship program, this that and the other, that I actually dropped the ball and wasn’t able to provide the support that I think some folks needed in that moment. It’s a huge regret for me of, like, I didn’t execute on the things that I wanted to be doing. It forced me to step back and really look at what I was doing and how I was doing it. I think it made me really think about, like, okay, what’s the ways in which I can be most effective at boosting the people I want to be boosting.
[Howard] In craft terms, I’m a big fan of the focused practice model, which is the idea that we tend to practice the things that we are already good at. We need to practice the things that we’re not good at. When I’m given the opportunity to look at someone’s work, and they asked for feedback, I try to inspire them by telling them this is a thing that you’re already good at, and challenge them by saying this is the thing you need to focus on. I well remember someone bringing me a portfolio and I went through it and my first thought was, “Wow, these renders are all awesome. This is amazing. What… Oh, there’s no backgrounds. Oh! Here we go.” I was able to say, “Hey, you’re doing great work, but all of these are white space pictures. You need to show us that you can draw backgrounds. Whether it’s a forest, or cityscape, or whatever it is.” So, from a mentoring standpoint, and again with bandwidth in mind, I try to come down to those two things, so that I can say something encouraging and something directional and send them on their way, so that I haven’t signed up to be their tutor.
[Mary Robinette] So I… I find… I’ve done mentoring both in a very structured formal way with puppetry we would do internships where you’d come, you would have an internship project, there was this whole thing. I’ve done the thing where it’s like you’re going to be my mentor for a year and… But I’ve also done much more informal, what I think more of as nurturing than mentoring, which is just being available to answer questions. That a lot of times if you’re like one year, even a month further along your career path than someone else, you can answer questions. Being available and being excited to share that knowledge with them, that’s a gift. The other things that I’ve found that I can do that are very low impact are introducing people to each other, who are… Would be good to have a cohort. It’s like, “Let me introduce the two of you so that you have someone to run with.” Then, I also keep, not any kind of like super formal Rolodex list, but I keep a list of people that I think should be signaled as to they’re not getting the attention that I think that they should get. Because I can’t… It shouldn’t always be me. So that I get invitations to do things, and if I’m turning it down, I’ll say, “Here’s some people that you should look at.” But also, if I’m accepting, I will say, “Here’s some other people you should think about inviting.” I keep a list for the same reason that you were advising us earlier to think about comp titles for books. Because the ability to think in the moment of who is… There’s smart people, but who are they? It’s really easy to just reach for your close friends. But reaching for someone who’s like just let me make a little bit of a gap for you here.
[Dan] Yeah. I do the same thing. I love that. One of my favorite things in the world is recommending somebody else. I said in the previous episode I get invited to a lot of anthologies. I love being able to say, no, but please reach out to these people. I keep a list because if I don’t, I find myself recommending the same two people every time.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, exactly.
[Dan] I don’t want to do that. I want to make sure that I am helping as wide a net of people as possible.
[DongWon] Essentially, after the last few years of isolation and not going to cons and things like that, because we were not able to, I find my list is getting shorter right now. I’m in this moment of like, oh, I’ve got to start reaching out to people and this is part of the cycle to, is realizing that that Rolodex of people that you’re looking to boost, who you’re like who’s coming up, who’s doing cool stuff. A lot of that requires a very active way of being in the world, of making sure that you’re meeting people and being really intentional. I think as we get farther and farther along in our careers, it gets harder and harder to make sure that you’re making that space for people and that you’re being aware of what’s going on. Whenever I send out a submission, I really try hard to keep at least one junior person in the mix. Right? As my friends become more and more senior, and as we’re longer and longer in the business, that means I’m submitting to executive editors, publishers, more. But I also want to make sure there’s at least an associate on there somewhere. Right? Somebody… It’s a way for me to keep an eye on who’s the new talent, who’s coming up, who do I like interacting with, how do they respond. Also to make sure that those people are getting opportunities. So they’re going into their editorial meetings being like, “Hey. I got this cool submission.” I cannot tell you what a difference that makes for a young editor to be like this cool project is coming to me and came to me directly. So what are ways that you can use your institutional power to make sure that other people are getting attention and… That’s not the only reason I do it, I don’t send it to people who I don’t think are interesting. Right? Like, I have to think you’re cool at the base for me to send you a project because it is my client’s work. But it is a thing that I try to make a deliberate practice as well.
[Dan] I’m in a leadership position on a huge role-playing game project right now. A couple of months ago, the kind of lead designers came into us to present their list of these are all the people that we’ve vetted and that we think would be awesome that we want to hire for this project. I thought I really want to get Erin on to this project. I’m going to make sure to take a moment and recommend her. She was already on the list!
[Dan] It was so great. They showed the list, it was like Erin Roberts. I was like, “Oh, well. My job here is done. This is wonderful.”
[Mary Robinette] Now you need… Now there’s an opportunity to recommend somebody else.
[Dan] Which I did, and now we got her on the project too. So, it’s… I love doing that. It’s one of my favorite parts of being in this industry.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[DongWon] So we spent a fair time talking about why we all think it’s important to mentor other people, to make space for other people. What’s the flipside of that? Who were the people who been toward you, how did you find that, was it a deliberate thing? Did somebody just pluck you and just be like, “Hey, I’m going to take care of you now,” or did you seek those people out over the course of your career?
[Mary Robinette] So… It’s interesting because, like, most of the… There are people that I definitely think of his mentors that were in the writing community that were in no way, shape, or form did we have any kind of formal mentor relationship. It was just someone that I looked to as … Mmm, every time this person talks about how to move the world, I feel like a better person. What I find for me is that that… The best mentors are not the ones who are talking about the nuts and bolts of the craft. The advice that I got… Like, some of the best advice that I got from my puppetry mentor, which was a formal relationship, was, again, about the way to move through the world it’s like when something goes wrong, he’s like, “Someday you’re going to look back on this and laugh, so you may as well laugh now.” That has been, like, such a part of how I move through the world. Same thing with writing. It’s like… The person for me that comes immediately to mind is Connie Willis and Jay Lake. Those two people just basically made room for me to enter a conversation and made sure that I was introduced to the people around me, and then gave me room to talk, to feel like I belonged. That was… Being able to just feel that is something that it is difficult when you’re entering a new space. I was lucky because I was coming from an established profession where I understood how to make space for myself. But if you’re coming in brand-new and much younger, or from a marginalized community, making that room for people and making them feel valued, is, I think… That, for me, has been the greatest gift.
[Dan] Yeah. At a very early World Fantasy Con that I went to, I was in an elevator with Connie Willis. She introduced herself. It was so… In hindsight, it was so clearly a I know what I’m doing, I know that your new, let me reach out and help you. I was too starstruck to do anything other than, “Hi, I’m Dan. It’s nice to meet you.” Did not do any kind of follow-up, left the elevator as quickly as I could. I look back at that and think, “Ah. What opportunities did I miss out on?” Because she was such a helpful part of the industry.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Dan] I missed that.
[Mary Robinette] She’s still… I mean, she’s…
[Dan] On the other hand, when I Am Not a Serial Killer came out, Tor brought me out to BEA. They do those huge signings where they just throw free books at people and people get in line. I was sharing the booth with Kevin J Anderson and Patty Garcia, who at the time ran PR for Tor. Had the opportunity basically to impress them both. I clearly know how to talk to people. I know how to sell my own books. Then, for the next several years, the two of them would at every opportunity… Here, let me explain something to you that you don’t know. Let me invite you to this opportunity that you don’t have. Both of them, I’m incredibly grateful for, for that.
[Howard] Okay. Dirty secret… DongWon, when you asked the question, “Who have our mentors been?” I had to think about it and think about it and think about it. I realized, “Oh. That’s why I don’t have a good answer.” Fairly early in the part of my career where I was figuring out what I was doing, I got roped into doing this podcast with Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells.
[Howard] And had Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells, and then Mary Robinette Kowal and at times… You know what, I’m not going to try and laundry list the guests, because we’ve had so many guests. Had all of those people as unwitting mentors and I’m a sponge and I just listened and listened and listened, and tried to carry my own weight by restating things in a way that was funny. I cannot overstate how valuable that has been for me. No, this isn’t a great path for you, fair listener, to go get mentors. But then again, those people that were talking during the podcast… You can listen to them too.
[DongWon] I want to… I know we’re running a little long, but I want to flip things a little bit for one last minute, which is, Erin, you were talking about framing this less as mentorship in a hierarchical way, more about solidarity and kind of a community driven approach. So, to flip the question a little bit, like, what does that mean for you, how do you find these spaces or have you found those spaces? Or is that a thing you’re still looking for?
[Erin] Yeah. Actually, I was, as you were asking that question, I was thinking, like, I feel that I’ve had a very… Like, I’ll probably insult 20 mentors right now, but…
[Erin] I don’t feel like direct mentorship relationships and a lot…
[DongWon] Especially Brad out there, who’s very hurt why you don’t appreciate his advice.
[Erin] Brad! But, like, a lot of like fairy godparents and people who have done me a solid on a particular day. I have some really cool friend groups where we all are in different… We’re doing different things within fiction writing. You know what I mean. So, like, I’m… May know a little bit more about teaching. This person’s published a bunch of novels, so they will tell me what it’s like doing a publisher. This person is, like, does a lot of audio. So, kind of similar to what Howard was saying, like, it’s by… Whenever I meet somebody, everyone has something to teach you. That’s the way that I try to approach life. I think maybe because of that, or just the luck of the draw or that I don’t look threatening, like, people teach me things. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from a lot of different people, and then try to teach where I can. Like, I think in trying to approach it that way, it’s been great. I will say the thing about solidarity is it’s amazing. It can also be, and this is just sort of a warning, especially for marginalized folks, put your oxygen mask on before assisting others. Sometimes you can want to be so much in solidarity with others that you lose yourself in the process. Because you want to help everybody, then you’re like I’m tired and I’ve lost who I am and what brought me to the table. Which is why I think it’s as important to think about what you bring to the solidarity table, and some of that is your own creative power. Which means sometimes you gotta shut the door and write the work, and then come back refreshed so that you can be part of sort of a mutual community.
[DongWon] I remember that the more that you build a place for yourself and the world, the more firm your footing, the more you’re going to be in a position where you can help people out in the future. Right? Putting your mask on first is always a metaphor that I really love, because it means that if you take care of yourself, that is an act of solidarity and kindness to other people, so that they don’t have to take care of you. That’s another part of it, too. Right? If you’re in a position where you are cared for, and in a position where you can help other people, then I think that’s a beautiful thing and that’s a way to be part of a community, and maybe our first responsibility of being part of a community.
[Dan] There’s a point I really want to make before we’re done. Going back to what Howard said about Writing Excuses. It seems ridiculous in 2023 to suggest, “Oh, you need a mentor. Just be on a podcast with Brandon Sanderson.” But you gotta remember, when we started this in 2008 or whatever it was, Howard was the most financially successful and most famous guy on the podcast. By a significant margin. I wasn’t even published yet, and Brandon only had one book out. This was before Wheel of Time, this was before everything. So, a lot of the solidarity that were talking about, it doesn’t have to only point up. Look around you at the other people that are with you. Look more for talent than for success, because you never know where your peers are going to be 10 or 15 years from now. Finding that solid support group of people who will eventually be in a different position than they are right now is a really, really, I think, crucial part of finding that mentorship and support.
[DongWon] Well, one thing is that I think you might be at home sitting there being like, “I haven’t done anything. I don’t have any experience in me yet. I don’t know what I can give back. I don’t know what I can teach at this point.” I just want to remind everyone that sometimes one of the kindest things you can do, one of the most helpful things you can do, is just sit there and listen and take in what someone else is saying, and say, “I’m really happy for you,” or, “I’m sorry that happened.” Right? I think being able to bring that into a conversation is such a thing that can be really inviting and help someone on their road in a way that isn’t about explicitly, “Here’s some advice, here’s me teaching you how to do this thing.”
[Erin] I would say, I know we’re running late, but I think that the important thing about community, too, is that not everyone has to be everything to you. I think sometimes one of the reasons I like sort of solidarity over mentorship is that sometimes a mentor, it’s like that person has to be like cheering you on and the person you can complain to and giving you a job. But, like, sometimes you can have… It’s like when you’re going out on the town, you’ve got that friend who you call up when you want to go to the club, because they’re great for that. That might not be the same friend that you have a deep conversation with over coffee the next day.
[Erin] Having all of that in your writing community, seeing what it is that you think you need out there, and then looking for people who can give that to you and who need things from you that you can give to them, I think really makes your community powerful and strong, and makes your writing career a happier one.
[DongWon] Know which group chat is for talking shit and which group chat is for advice.
[Howard] Oh, dear.
[DongWon] On that note, Mary Robinette, I believe you have our homework.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. So your homework this week is to kind of think about some of the areas of publishing. But think about one thing that you can do that will make someone else’s path easier. Something that doesn’t have to be a hard lift for you. I’m not asking you to come like, go out and start a charity or something like that. But some small action that you can take that will make someone else’s path easier. Then do it.
[Mary Robinette] In our next episode, DongWon talks about when you should tell, not show, and Erin explains how she lets her students guide the learning. Also, Howard tells you when you shouldn’t put a frozen turkey in a deep fryer. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.