Writing Excuses 16.10: Paying It Forward, with Kevin J. Anderson
Key Points: Paying it forward… helping one another out, sharing information, share what you have learned. One-on-one mentoring, and fostering a community. Forming friendships within structures. Find your tribe! One of the pitfalls of mentoring is that the rules change every week. Pay attention to the people around you. Treat them as peers.
[Season 16, Episode 10]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Paying It Forward, with Kevin J. Anderson.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Mary Robinette] We are joined today by our special guest, Kevin J. Anderson.
[Kevin] And I’m Kevin.
[Mary Robinette] Hey, Kevin.
[Amal] Hello, Kevin.
[Mary Robinette] So, Kevin has published more than 165 books, 50 of which have been national or international bestsellers. He’s written novels in Star Wars, X-Files… You may know him from Dune. Then, his original work, like the Saga of Seven Sons series, the Terra Incognita fantasy trilogy, and then he, like, edits anthologies, he has a publishing house called Wordfire. Generally speaking, he is very involved in the industry and has done a lot of mentoring as well. So we thought we’d bring him in today to talk with us about the idea of paying it forward.
[Mary Robinette] So, Kevin, do you want to describe what paying it forward means?
[Kevin] Well, I kind of want to come up with what right at this moment, as we’re recording this, if not for the pandemic, I would be in my last day wrapping up our 12th Superstars writing seminar.
[Mary Robinette] Right.
[Kevin] Which would have like 370 [garbled] on it, and we’ve done it for 12 years. It was founded with me and my wife, Rebecca Moesta, with Brandon Sanderson, Eric Flint, and David Farland. We got together because we were talking with one another about business stuff and then intellectual property and copyrights and contracts. We realize that nobody taught us this stuff. We had to learn it, and we had to make mistakes and screw things up, and then we would rapidly go, “Dave, don’t do this,” or “Brandon, watch out for this.” We realize that there needed to be some more stuff in the industry where we would help one another out, that we would go to our colleagues and our fellow writers and just kind of share information. That was what started our first Superstars. So we held it in Pasadena, then we moved to Las Vegas, and then Salt Lake City, and then we’ve been in Colorado Springs ever since. But we just felt like we wanted to like share what we learned. This would have been our 12th year.
[Mary Robinette] So, Kevin…
[Kevin] Go ahead.
[Mary Robinette] I was just… You said… Talking about sharing what you know and sharing the info. Can you talk about, like, why you felt like that was important?
[Kevin] Well, when… Every year when I do this, it feels like the greatest thing ever. Even though it really takes a lot of time. As you said in the introduction, I’ve got a lot of books I’m doing. I’ve got a lot of comics. I’m working in film and TV and all kinds of stuff. I got back to thinking about all the people who mentored me, when I was starting out. There were some big-name people who, for some reason or other, kind of took me aside and steered me in the right direction. Terry Brooks was a huge help to me. Dean Koontz was an enormous help to me. Harlan Ellison was a big mentor. I remember one time, after spending hours talking with Dean Koontz and him giving me advice, I wrote him a letter afterwards to thank him. I said, “I don’t understand why you spent so much time paying it forward in helping me. Why me in particular?” He said, “Oh, I help a lot of people, Kevin, but you’re just one of the only ones who ever listens.”
[Howard] Fun fact. On the third Superstars event, when you came to Salt Lake City, Brandon and Dan and I all came up… Mary Robinette was there. That was when we pulled Mary Robinette aside and said, “Hey. We are really, really Y-chromosome poisoned, and maybe… You’re awesome. That one episode you did with us in Season three, the puppeteer episode.” At that point, was still the most talked about episode we’d done, and we were like two seasons past it. So we extended the invitation to Mary Robinette to join us. So, Superstars, bringing people together, directly impacted what we became in the years that followed.
[Mary Robinette] Well, this is an interesting point, that one of the things that you do with Superstars is that you’re not just doing individual one-on-one mentoring, that you are fostering a community. So I think that there’s a couple of different ways that we can think about the idea of paying it forward. There’s the one-on-one, the individual mentorship thing, and then there’s also the community building aspect. I think that we’ve all been involved in that in one way or another. Amal, you’ve done some community building as well, but I’d love it if you’d share with us some of your perspectives on that.
[Amal] Yeah. Absolutely. One thing I was thinking about as you were talking to them, was just how much when I… So, I teach creative writing now in a university as well as having taught at other very community forward institutions like Clarion West or like Viable Paradise and stuff. But the first thing that came to mind as you were talking was having started a magazine called Goblin Fruit when… Many years ago now. But I started it with a close friend, partly because we had been reading poetry magazines and thinking we can probably do this thing too, and make a space for a different kind of poetry that we wanted to see flourish alongside what we were reading. But we had no idea about how to go about it. We would read them, but we didn’t know how to actually make one. Mike Allen, who was behind Mythic Delirium at the time, and who has since changed Mythic Delirium from a magazine into a small press publisher and so on, was enormously generous with his time and with his… Just kind of sharing perspectives on how to run this. Terri Wendling was enormously helpful… Someone who, like, we had been so admiring of for all sorts of reasons, and she was… Like, people who basically we had no sense of as peers, but rather of people to whom we looked up and stuff, being generous with their time absolutely enabled us to do this. Once we launched, we in this case being Jessica Page Wick, Oliver Hunter, and myself. Once we launched Goblin Fruit, this community built up around Goblin Fruit, but then managed to, within a few years, had other people decide they wanted to start their own poetry magazines, like R. B. Lemberg and Shweta Narayan started Stone Telling that had a totally different perspective. Or, well, related, but different perspective on what kind of poetry they wanted to create. Once those structures were built, they… It’s the whole thing about build it and they will come, right? So people started pinging off of each other, sparking off of each other, forming friendships within these structures of poetry magazines and reading each other’s work, and going on to collaborate in other ways as a consequence. So there’s just this feeling that once you love something and you want to share it with people, that that simple act kind of kick starts a whole beautiful chain reaction of people talking to each other and sharing with each other. That just continues to blow my mind. It’s the thing, when I talk to my students now, I say that the one thing that you can’t really be given in a class… Sorry. There’s a lot of stuff that you can be taught in a classroom that you can just kind of figure out on your own, but one of the things that is just difficult to find on your own is a cohort, or is a sense of community. So, like, actually taking part in building those structures seems like just so crucial to have in these conversations.
[Kevin] At Superstars, we call it the tribe. It’s like a tribe mentality that we all sort of get together. We very much feel that the rising tide lifts all boats, and that if we all sort of help each other, especially now, with indie publishing and bookselling and publishing taking so many different turns, that you can’t just go buy a book that says how to do it. That everything changes weekly. One of the other kind of big important ways that I’m working on paying it forward is I’m running this whole Masters degree program at Western Colorado University on getting an MA in publishing. They hired me a couple of years ago just to take this thing from scratch and create it. They gave me no curriculum. I just had to make up what I thought people needed to know in traditional publishing and in indie publishing. Look, my publishing house has released 300 books with 100 authors. In the traditional publishing, I’ve published 140 some traditional books of my own. So I kind of have the experience. Of course, I couldn’t be hired until I went back to college and got my own MFA because that’s a qualification to teach. But I did that, because I thought it was important to do this right. I wanted to have the students learn, like, practical stuff and do hands-on things so that they could actually do it when they had a Masters degree, rather than just esoteric things. So I developed the program where these… We teach lectures on traditional publishing and copyrighted bookselling and printing and distribution and cover design and all that stuff, but what they actually do, hands-on, is we get funding from Draft2Digital to have a professional anthology that they edit. So they spend… They create it, they send out their solicitation. This year, the students got 535 slush pile submissions that they had to go through. At the beginning, it was kind of funny, because they were all dedicated, they wanted to do the right thing to these authors, they wanted to read every single submission straight through…
[Mary Robinette] That’s noble.
[Kevin] I told them at the very beginning, I said, “No, that’s not going to happen.” No, they were determined. After like a month, they started… In fact, within six days, one of my students wrote back and said, “You weren’t kidding. These are terrible. Most of these are terrible.”
[Mary Robinette] Still noble.
[Kevin] So, they went through them and it really got to the point where, toward the end, when they had 100 stories piled up to read, they go through the first paragraph or so, and they’d go, “Nah, this isn’t going to make it.” They learned, as writers, what they’re up against…
[Kevin] In the slush pile. Even if you just do a polite cover letter, you’re up in the top 10%. Even if you do… Like, a thing without typos on the first page, you’re in the top 10%. So they… This was their job for their masters degree. They read the slush pile. They had a budget. They had a specific you-can-only-spend-this-much money, you can only buy this many words. Then they had to argue over the… Do we have too many funny stories or too many intense stories?
[Kevin] Do we have all male writers, or do we… All this stuff that they had to work on. They really got to the point of, like, pragmatic stuff, of we don’t just get to accept everything we like. You had to really fight over things. Then, after that, they had to write the rejection letters, and they had to write the contracts, and they had to go through the copyediting with their assigned authors. They designed the cover. They go through… They lay out the book, they release the book, they publish it. So when they graduate, that’s sort of their… It’s a one year program. So, at the end of their year, this book comes out with their names on the title page as the editorial board. We… Our first one, called Monsters, Movies, and Mayhem, got a boxed, starred review in Publishers Weekly, and they’re all thrilled about that. So it’s… So I’m really happy to be… See, it’s my cohort of students. I’m in my second one now. They have real, practical stuff they’re doing.
[Mary Robinette] That’s fantastic. I think that’s a great segue for us to talk about our book of the week. So, the book of the week is, of course, something that our esteemed guest would like to tell us about. So, I’m sorry to make you keep talking, Kevin…
[Kevin] Well, that’s usually not that hard.
[Kevin] Because when I write… I write the 700 page books, so it’s obvious I’m not a man of few words.
[Mary Robinette] That’s okay, we’re used to Brandon. These are… 700 pages is short.
[Kevin] Well, my… I call my fantasy book, this big doorstop thing, I call it one half of a Brandon Sanderson unit.
[Kevin] So it’s not quite that, but it is… I’ve got this huge epic fantasy trilogy. The first one was called Spine of the Dragon, and the second one called Vengewar, which just came out. They’re from Tor, they’re in hardcover. I have already delivered the third and final book in the trilogy. So for those of you listeners who don’t want to start anything because you don’t know if the author’s going to let you down, well, I’ve already turned it in. It’s already done. All three books are there, so you can go pick… It’s sort of… Two continents at war and dozens of different main characters and dragons and monsters and sword writing in romance and religion and philosophy and a little bit of humor here and there. So… Your typical book.
[Dan] The thing I love about Kevin is that every time I talk to him, he has a brand-new trilogy I didn’t even know about.
[Dan] Like, you are shockingly prolific.
[Kevin] Yes. Well, Mary Robinette was saying, “Is this bio still up-to-date?” It was like three weeks old. I went, “Well, it’s actually not, but I can’t spend all my time updating.”
[Dan] All right. So, that’s Vengewar, right? Is the newest one?
[Kevin] I’d like people to read Vengewar, so Vengewar together, it’s two continents clashing over stuff.
[Mary Robinette] Sounds great.
[Kevin] I also want to throw in that on my website, wordfire.com, I have a whole section on the publishing MA. So if you want to see some links, a little more background on that, that… And a picture of me with my beard, which I don’t have the full beard anymore, but since this is audio, you can’t tell that.
[Mary Robinette] It’s a very luscious full, full beard. I mean, it’s almost Gandalfian right now. That’s exactly what I’m seeing in this thing.
[Dan] Gone full [inaudible]
[Kevin] You’re looking at Howard.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, right. It’s so easy to confuse the two of you.
[Dan] Easy to confuse bald guys.
[Mary Robinette] Something that I wanted to draw attention to for our listeners that everyone has talked about in, is that there has been a mentor that has helped. Then, rather than attempting to thank the mentor through some concrete action, we pay it forward by then turning into mentors ourself. Which is the… I think at the heart of what it means to pay it forward. And very much part of the science fiction and fantasy community in particular. So, one of the things that we’ve been talking about is ways in which we’ve been helped. But if we want to turn around and help other people, I mean, not everyone can go and start a writing seminar. But there are small ways that we can help. So, what are some of the ways in which we can begin to serve as mentors, and what are some of the kind of pitfalls to mentoring, the things you have to sort of watch out for?
[Kevin] Well, one of the pitfalls to mentoring, especially when I’m talking about publishing and how to get an agent and how to break into the publishing world is the rules change every other week. So my experience when I broke in is just not relevant to anybody. So when I tell them how I got my agent, well, that’s interesting, but it doesn’t help them very much. So that’s one of the pitfalls. But mentoring is one thing, but being a tribe is kind of another thing. I think you should help one another. It’s great if you can have Terri Brooks explain to you how to deal with crowds and a book signing line, but I think more… It’s your own cohort. Find writers who are at your level of writing and then you help each other out. If things like… Like, last week, as we’re recording this, last week would have been LTUE. We… I mean, we would all go there. I’d see most of you there, and would help all these other writers, and they would help each other as well. If you hear about something new that changed on Kindle Unlimited, then share it with other people, because there is no… I mean, you can’t just get the newspaper that tells you everything that changed in publishing this week. We listen to Writing Excuses. We listen to various podcasts just to keep up.
[Dan] That’s one thing that we noticed very quickly with the Writing Excuses Retreat. We kind of went into this thinking that the instruction that we would provide to the students would be the most valuable part, and realized almost immediately that, no, it was the relationships they formed with each other and the networking that students were able to do. In the six years we’ve been doing it, our conference has spawned so many writing groups and so many different support groups. Even at least two marriages that I know of, but that’s beside the point.
[Dan] So, yes. Finding ways to support each other at your own level of skill and your own level of professionalization is still super valuable.
[Mary Robinette] Amal, you…
[Howard] A simple example that I like to share. About five years ago, I was at Gen Con Indi, visiting with my friend, Lar deSouza, who is a cartoonist of… He is an amazing cartoonist.
[Amal] He’s so great.
[Howard] I was talking to him and I said, “Yeah I… How do you do it, Lar? My hand hurts all the time.” He handed me a pen and said, “Draw.” So I drew, and then he said, “Okay, stop. You’re gripping too hard and you’re pushing too hard.” I said, “Yeah. I know that. I don’t know how to stop.” Then he handed me a brushpen that I’d never seen before and said, “Take this. Just take it. It will reward what you’re doing, you’ll figure it out.” I said, “I tried brushpens. I can’t do them. I’ve never made them work.” He said, “You’re ready for them now. Just go. It’ll make this work.”
[Mary Robinette] It’s the cartoonist’s version of wax on, wax off?
[Howard] It was the cartoonist’s version of wax on, wax off. No lie, that five minute discussion saved my hands, took my art to a new level, and it happened because Lar, in the role of mentor, didn’t expect anything from me, but he knew exactly what he was talking about. He knew exactly how to watch what I was doing and say, “Oh, this is the problem. You’re trying to make these kinds of lines with this kind of a pen and you’re working too hard at it and the fix is this and you know everything you need to know to make this work. Now go.” When I mentor others, I look for those moments. I look for the times where I can see, “Oh. Oh, you’re doing that thing that used to leave bruises on my fingertips,” or, “You’re doing that thing that made me forget names of characters,” or whatever. So I offer those little things. It’s not a permanent mentoring relationship, it’s let me give you the peace of help that you need to let you take yourself to the next level.
[Amal] So, this is super interesting to me. I feel like that we’ve been circling around something that I’d like to highlight a bit from what you’ve all been saying, because thinking of what Mary Robinette’s question was, about, like, potential pitfalls of men touring, I feel like you’ve all talked about actually addressing the thing without necessarily naming the pitfall, which is that it is very easy to kind of calcify in an idea of oneself as a mentor, and to think that your experience is going to be a definitive one in some way. So, like the fact that, Kevin, that you just recognize right off the bat that like, no, actually, things are constantly in flux, is to me something that is crucial. Recognizing that things change as… And one of the things that changes is your degree of authority, your expertise. That that’s always kind of in relationship to a landscape that’s shifting around us. I just… I love that recognition, and also the fact that a mentor relationship doesn’t need to be permanent, it can be permeable instead. But I mean, it seems to me, Howard, that, like, Lar is as much a peer as he is a mentor in so many ways. There are plenty of things that you could probably share at those crucial moments and stuff. That makes your relationship a more lateral one, rather than a hierarchical one. That also, like, I love this idea of trying to think of paying things forward as not like a top-down relationship, although often we are forced into those positions. There’s another metaphor that I’ve heard people use, which is sending the elevator back down. Where, basically, like if you have managed in your career to ascend to a certain height, then you send the elevator back down in order to try and lift somebody else and stuff. That still kind of assumes a very vertical structure of people rising through something. But when we talk about community and we talk about cohorts and relationships and stuff, it is a lot more horizontal, it is a lot more lateral. So, yeah.
[Dan] Thank you for bringing that up, Amal, because that’s really great. I wanted to talk about that, too, that, for example, Kevin and I. I met Kevin 12 years ago when my first book had just come out, I Am Not A Serial Killer. I was at the BEA in Manhattan, and we were at a signing. So I sat down for my little scheduled signing, and realized that my Tor publicist was sitting behind me, and that I was sharing a table with Kevin. I thought this is amazing. I’m going to impress their socks right off. I was just on point and I was trying to be as personable as possible and as professional as possible, just to impress them and try to build some networking that way. What I realized very quickly is that, first of all, I didn’t need to try quite as hard. Second of all, what Kevin was doing was just already paying attention. He was on the lookout for rising talent, and immediately was treating me as an equal, rather than as a student or as an underling or anything like that. That is what I have tried to do is these two things. Number one, pay attention to the people around me. And then two, treat them as peers. I have had a lot of authors that I work with tell me that I am one of their favorite teachers to work with because I treat them like A rather than like a student or a minion or something like that. Having that equal relationship and recognizing that we are all together, we are all on the same level, has… It’s not only helped me professionally, but I’ve gotten so many more friends that way.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I completely agree. That’s something we say at the Writing Excuses retreats all the time, that we are all peers, we’re just at different points on the career path. That’s something also that I think for people who are wanting to ask for help but are afraid to, to remember that people who are farther along the career path are actually helped by the questions, because it helps us to keep from calcifying, by having things pop up, it’s like, oh, yeah, I haven’t thought about things from that angle, or, I guess things have changed. The landscape has changed, or let me articulate what it is that I do, which then helps me do it better. Or sometimes just someone helped me, let me help you. So there’s a lot of different reasons and ways that this pay it forward can help both individuals and the community at large.
[Mary Robinette] Now we have some homework, which, I think is Howard.
[Howard] Absolutely. This is one of my favorite exercises. It’s a life hack, as much as anything else. Sit down and make a list of the people who have influenced you personally, who have personally interacted with you in ways that maybe it was full-on mentoring, maybe it was a kind word that pulled you out of a professional bind at some point, maybe it was someone who, like me and Lar deSouza, gave you that piece of critical information that let you take it to the next level. Make a list of the people who’ve been influential, and write yourself a little note about what they did. Then, stage three, write them a note. Maybe you’re going to email them, maybe snail mail it, maybe it’s a direct message via Twitter. But find a way to say thank you. Most times, as Kevin has pointed out, when we mentor, we’re not doing it because we expect to be thanked or credited in any way. But I gotta tell you, we love hearing from people we’ve helped.
[Mary Robinette] Just as a note. When Howard says write to someone, he’s not asking you to write to us.
[Howard] No. Nonononono. Not us. Unless… In fact, explicitly leave me off the list, so I don’t have to feel bad about making you write a letter to me. Find the people who have helped you and thank them.
[Kevin] Howard, thank you for all that you’ve done for me.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you, Kevin, for everything that you’ve done for us, too. And all of you. And thank you listeners. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go thank someone.