Friday, February 23, 2007

You Are Not Alone

Another topic, and the one that’s on my mind today, is comparisons. Comparing your story, your goals, your accomplishments to those of anyone else can put you in the pit of despair faster than almost anything – whether it’s at work, at home, in your family, at school – anywhere in your life. But for a writer, these comparisons can be the death of your creative voice and energy. They can literally suck the life out of your writing and stop you completely. They can kill your career at any point along your path.

No matter how hard we try, we can’t always stop the comparisons. We look at what’s going on around us, at what our friends are accomplishing, and, most especially, at what the people who aren’t our friends are doing. Writer X sold to Big Name Publisher. Writer Y landed a New York agent. Writer Z got invited into an anthology.

And I didn’t. What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t the editor call me instead of them? Was it something I said? Something I didn’t say? What makes them better than me?

Guess what? It’s none of the above. One writer’s career has nothing to do with another’s career. Just as no two writer’s stories are the same, no two writer’s careers are the same. We each have a path to follow, and no two careers are the same.

I have talked to a lot of writers, and I’ve found out that we all have those moments. From the writer with a couple short stories, looking at their friend with a novel contract, to the multi-published best-seller looking at a J.K Rowling or Clive Cussler, we all do it, and we’re all wrong.

I wish I could tell you all that we get over it, that we can find a way to control this behavior. But I can't. Sometimes I think I have it under control, then I find myself spiraling into one of those "she's so much better than me" stupidities, or "he got a request and I didn't." Even when I know better.

Part of it, I think, is the nature of the job. Like I've talked about before, we sit alone at a computer and make stuff up. Including stupid comparisons.

But, if it's any consolation, we're not alone. I promise.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Don't Be A Pinhead

I spent a weekend in February at the Radcon science fiction convention, a great SF gathering in Pasco, Washington. In fact, I stole the title for this blog from their #1 rule of convention behavior. We discovered Radcon last year, had a great time, and were pleased to be invited back this year. It’s a great convention, and well worth the trip out to the middle of Washington.

Disclaimer: there will be grammar glitches throughout this rant, since using “they” and “them” for individuals is awkward. But I am trying to avoid “him” and “her” in order to protect the innocent and guilty alike.

My husband (writer J. Steven York) and I have been attending conventions for more than 20 years – a number that I find utterly amazing. It seems hard to believe that our first “con” was that long ago, in Seattle back in the early 1980s, and to consider the number of cons we have attended since.

Since that first Norwescon, we have attended as many as five or six conventions and conferences a year, and as few as one or two. Finances, deadlines, day jobs, kids, all dictate how much time and money we can put into these trips. And as we get older, the preparation, travel and recovery take a little longer, too, though I hate to admit it.

But I had an unusual experience this weekend, and it got me to thinking. Although I’ve been doing this for years, I got to watch a very talented friend go through their first con, and make some mistakes. We all make mistakes in unfamiliar circumstances, and their mistakes were different from my first-timer missteps, but the vantage point of 20+ years experience allowed me to see some of the reasons these mistakes happened.

It wasn’t just ignorance, though that’s part of it. It’s the mixed signals you get at a convention. There are many flavors of cons/seminars/workshops, and you may not know whether you’re getting Chocolate Ripple, or Raspberry Sherbet, or maybe even Spumoni. Each one delicious, each one appropriate to its own time and place, and each one incompatible with the others.

So, I’ve been thinking about what marks the difference among these various styles of gathering, and what the rules are for each. I hope some people will disagree with me, or point out where I am dead wrong, but I think this is a discussion we ought to have. And just maybe I can save someone from a mistake of their own.

Since it’s what’s at the front of my mind, I want to talk about fan conventions first.

The first writer gathering I ever attended as an adult, was a Norwescon. It was a largish (2,000?) science fiction convention, held in an airport hotel in Seattle. There were real writers in attendance, yes, but there were also thousands of fans, some in costumes (or mostly out of said costumes), an open bar in the hospitality suite, and a general air of “anything goes.”

Over the years, conventions have tightened up a little. There are no longer open bars in hospitality, although there is frequently beer, and more potent potables at the many private room parties. “Nudity is not a costume” is another rule that has come into being. There are tracks of age-appropriate programming for kids, many of whom are the offspring of people who were teens at those first conventions I attended. But there is still an attitude of “almost anything goes,” an acceptance of behavior that only vaguely resembles normalcy, and the feeling that you are in a little cocoon of fun and frivolity where most of the rules are suspended.

And it is that atmosphere that gets writers into trouble. If we, as the attending pro writers (and artists, and editors, and game designers, and so on), buy into the permissiveness and acceptance, if we suspend our rules of behavior, if we party a little too much, we are hurting ourselves and our reputations. Unfortunately, even though it feels like anything is acceptable, it isn’t. If you’re a writer, you’re at work, not at play.

Sure, you can have a drink at a party, or a beer in hospitality. But if you get falling-down drunk, people will remember. There is someone who will forever be remembered as having been found passed out in their own vomit in a public restroom. Not the way you want to be remembered.

You can hook-up with someone. One-night stands are a fact of convention life, many of them fueled by the above-mentioned potables. But be discreet. There is someone else who will always be remembered as blatantly hooking up with star-struck fans, while their spouse fumed; and another someone who told horror stories of the stalker-style behavior of a one-night stand. And there are always the gropers who, encouraged by the alcohol and atmosphere, think they have a right to grab anyone and anything that gets close.

And the costumes! Nothing says “don’t take me seriously” more than an over-exposed cleavage, fur jockstrap, or Darth Vader helmet. They have their place, and are certainly appropriate if you’re a professional costumer/armorer/FX wizard (there was one of those at Radcon, a truly amazing talent, and on him it looks real good), but for a writer, not so much. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie, or carry a briefcase – in fact, you’ll stand out if you do – but generally speaking you have to dress appropriately. There are writers and editors who have an image – loud ties, or Hawaiian shirts – but it’s a look, not a costume. Trust me, you better know the difference, and you better be able to dial it back if it isn’t working for you.

Conventions are a tiny, tiny community. While you are in the hotel, it’s like being in a very small town, with nosy, gossipy neighbors. People you meet may be long-time friends with other people, and you may not know it. Watch who you bad-mouth! Many years ago, I had one convention committee member sit down and kevetch about two other committee members – both of whom were dear friends of mine. The kevetch-er didn’t know what my relationship was with the kevetch-ees, and I will always remember them as the person who was so nasty about my friends. We are cordial, and I never brought it up, but we will never be good friends, and they will never know why.

And just like a small town, someone is always watching you. What you might think is a private misstep, an unobserved mistake, will be seen. Unless you’re by yourself, behind a closed and locked door, with no one else in the room, always assume you are being watched. Not because you have a stalker (thought that’s possible, refer back to one-night stands), but simply because this is a place where we all know each other, and we’re in a very small space 24/7. Someone will see you.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something, and that you’ll remind me of it. But consider this the beginning of an on-going discussion of conventions, conferences, workshops, seminars, and all the other Baskin-Robbins array of gatherings that are out there. Knowing when you’re ordering Tutti Fruiti might just save you some heartaches and embarrassment.

And to my friend who started this train of thought: Don’t give up. One silly mistake does not tank your career. You’ll get over it, as long as you learn from it and move on. And you’re too damned brilliant to give up now.