Monday, December 28, 2015

Five Things I Learned From Working at Amazon

So as you may have heard, I picked up a seasonal gig working at the local Amazon fulfillment warehouse. I know, I know. As an author and a humanist, Amazon is my natural frenemy: unavoidable, yet never to be trusted.

But now I can say that I've been inside the belly of the beast - and lived to tell the tale. Here's what it taught me.

1. Most work stress comes from trying to manage other people's emotions and/or behavior.

Seriously. You know what I'm talking about. And that's exactly why I wanted to work in a warehouse. There are no customers to wait on in this magical land, no phones to answer. The human beings we serve are distant, unseen entities, their dreams and desires reduced to a list of items on a scanner gun.

And it is wonderful. How delightful to go to work in casual grungewear! How divine to blast "Turn Down For What" as you blow through the aisles at breakneck speed, snatching the ordained goods off the shelves like a coke-addled Supermarket Sweep contestant! This was everything I loved about working in a kitchen, back in the day: it's just you, the food, and your fellow knife-wielding menials, all waging the eternal war against time and hunger. It's not that you don't care about the customers - after all, they're your entire reason for being there! But my god, work is so much easier when you don't have do it under the critical eye of the people you're working for.

Sorry I don't have any relevant photos - you can't bring your phone onto the floor.
Let's enjoy a tub of sweetcorn ice cream instead.

2. It's good business to take care of people.

I was well warned about this job beforehand. Amazon would use me up and spit me out, grind through me and every other disposable human cog with soulless, ruthless constancy. After all, isn't that what evil empires do?

Answer: that's what the stupid ones do. The smart ones know that every time you hire a new person, you have to pay: for their background check and drug testing and all the rest, but also for their slowness, their newness, all the mistakes they make and orders they botch while they're learning the job. So the smart thing to do is to minimize newness: hire the best people you can, train them up right, and then do everything in your power to keep them from getting sick or hurt or fed up and quit.

And Amazon is really, really smart. There are hand sanitizers and water stations and safety checks galore. There are literally laminated color charts in every bathroom stall for you to check your pee and make sure you're not getting dehydrated. More than that, there are arcade consoles and free snacks in the breakrooms, a super-futuristic automated scheduling system where you can request extra work and/or time off, gift card drawings and other perks for the people who are working the undesirable shifts. You know how Amazon became this world-crushing corporate monolith by being the absolute easiest, most customer-friendly e-store out there? Let me tell you: they have serious game on the back-end, too.

Here is some German peanut butter. We don't sell this, but I wish we did.

3. It doesn't cost you anything to listen.

This is the one that really gets me. All that fancy stuff I just listed above is great for the aforesaid corporate monoliths, but you know a mom-and-pop shop could never implement it. But the most amazing invention I've seen at the warehouse is just a whiteboard with a marker. It has a space for you to write down your name and your request/concern, and another space for management to write down their response, and the name of the manager responsible. In the short time I've been there, I've seen requests for everything from more stepstools to better-quality TP in the bathrooms. They are always answered with either a "yes, we can do it, and here's who's going to handle that", or a "sorry, here's why that's not feasible." And this board is IN PUBLIC, for everyone to see. The accountability is amazing. The culture of transparency this creates - from what little I've seen of it - is wonderful. And I wish more businesses would do this.

Here is a book. We sell this, but I really, really wish we didn't.

4. New things are ripe for misunderstanding.

So at one point, we were watching a training video, and it got to one of the "inspirational" bits. Jeff "The Godfather" Bezos came on the screen, talking about the launch of Amazon Prime, and how people thought it was so crazy/stupid/unworkable to offer a subscription-based free-shipping service. And I'm not a big fan of The Beez by any means, but he said this one thing, which was seared instantly onto my heart:

"Whenever you do something new, you have to be prepared to be misunderstood for a long time."

And oh, friends, what a truth that is. I think it was the last bit that hadn't quite clicked for me yet - like, just how long and how consistently you have to Do Your Thing (whatever that is) before people even begin to sit up and take notice. This is... not comforting, exactly, but really puts this past year in perspective for me.

This is a sculpture in Saratoga Springs, New York.
It's also my first-ever opportunity to write the words "fettuccine toe shoe."

5. You can't buy give-a-damn.

Heartwarming story time. So it's 10:30PM on Christmas Eve, the last of our orders have gone out, and everybody's packing up to leave. Then the bell rings. We have another order: somebody paid for special rush delivery, and now we have to make it happen. Everyone is tired and wants to go home, but the manager himself - who by this point has been at work for 16 hours straight - goes through the aisles to get the item, and personally wraps it and packs it for loading into the driver's truck. It's a Fisher Price toy. When somebody grumbles about people's failure to plan ahead, the manager says "Hey. This is what we do. This is why our business exists: to make sure a kid doesn't miss out on Christmas."

$6.50 plus shipping; colors and styles may vary; Riesling not included.

And like... if they put that in a commercial, it would be unbearably schmoopy. But it was real and it happened, and it made me think about this bit from Cracked's article on the Monkeysphere (thanks, Frank!):
Listen to any 16 year-old kid with his first job, going on and on about how the boss is screwing him and the government is screwing him even more ("What's FICA?!?!" he screams as he looks at his first paycheck). Then watch that same kid at work, as he drops a hamburger patty on the floor, picks it up, and slaps in on a bun and serves it to a customer.

The kid will protest that he shouldn't have to care for the customers for minimum wage, but the truth is if a man doesn't feel sympathy for his fellow man at $6.00 an hour, he won't feel anything more at $600,000 a year.
And there's the world in a nutshell, yeah? Zillionaires and menials. Some care, some don't, and it has nothing to do with their job title or their tax bracket. I don't think you can teach give-a-damn, at least not to adults in the working world. But you certainly can select for it, and encourage it, and equip your employees so they can actually use it to good effect.

And if you're lucky enough to find a job that does all those things - man, hold on to it two-handed. I certainly intend to.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Papercrafts and Podcasts and Book News Galore!

I have it! It is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.
-Iago, Othello

Yes, lovelings, you heard it here first: the last book of Children of the Drought is written, submitted, and green-lit. Now we're just awaiting copy-edits and the Mom seal of approval. Lord willing, Dreams of the Eaten will hit the shelves within the next year-ish.

And here is proof: Vanna Brown showing off the only printed copy!
And oh, I wish I could tell you how good this feels. Like... it's always great to finish a book, but now the story is done. This thing, this epic, ridiculous thing that's been living in my head for the last decade-and-a-half, is finally real. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I'll meet that big yellow bumper head on, because the story isn't in me anymore. It's out of my head and onto the page and safe.

I thought I would be sad about this. I read that JK Rowling cried when she finished the last Harry Potter book. Maybe the catharsis is still in the mail - or maybe I'm just super-efficient and do all my crying while I write :)

Honestly, though, my only real sadness is for everything I neglected while I was working on this. I've left a lot of people in the dirt over the past few months, let a lot of things slide. Part of that's probably inevitable - I have always been a serial monotasker - but I really need to learn to handle the production side of this job without going dark for months at a time.

So today is the day to start putting things right. Here is a short catalogue of some of the wonderful people who have been talking me up and showing me off while I was overcome with the word-sweats.

BAM. Yes. Right there, in your face. My amazing artist-friend Flea made this for me, apropos of sweet FA. Is it not cool? Is it not neat? I tell you what, y'all: my little construction-paper Elim has been hanging up on my wall for a month now (you can even see his shirt in the cat-and-book snap up above!) and I am just wildly in love with him. I've said it before, but it is just a special kind of special whenever your imaginary friends make the journey from your headspace to somebody else's fingers. Now go treat yourself to even more of Flea's amazing papermancy!

Upgrade Your Story - Episode 76, Episode 82, and Episode 92

Okay, so this is a series of podcasts that I've done with Ally Bishop (and by "I've done with" I mean "she has completely inspired, organized, produced, and promoted"). And y'all, she is just so fun. More than that, she's seriously the hardest-working writer I know - not just for herself, but for the entire writing community. The episodes above are a kind of audio workbook for authors who are struggling with self-promotion (me!), with homework and activities assigned by a real promotional pro (her!) Come follow along, and DEFINITELY follow Ally!

The Reading and Writing Podcast - Episode 188

Yeah, that's me - sandwiched somewhere between Dean Koontz and Lee Child. Why? Because Jeff Rutherford is a splendid human being who has built an AMAZING library of podcast interviews with every author of every size and genre under the sun. His archive is huge, and ranges from the biggest of the big airport bestsellers to enterprising nooblets like me. Browse the archives and treat yourself!

William Galaini - Hybrid Vigor in Genre Fiction

Okay, so of course you remember William, my excellent co-blogger and pen-genius friend who wrote that great guest post on marginalized voices in fiction. But now he's let me return the favor at his place (and he even made me my very own quotable graphic, too!) This article is just what it says on the tin: how combining genres can improve the end-product, specifically with SFF and Westerns. It may also feature an extended Toy Story analogy. You are welcome. (Also, if you haven't yet availed yourself of Hephaestion's big gay road trip through steampunk hell, you're gonna want to get on that, like, yesterday.)

Ben Galley - Westerns and Western Fantasy

So I don't know if you guys know this, but there is an alarming surfeit of British people writing Westerns. I met a few of them at FantasyCon this year, and briefly considered telling them to get their posh toffee-smeared mitts off my genre ... and now I'm so glad I didn't! Ben Galley has been just tremendously fun to get to know, and I'm going to have to hold off on plugging him at LEAST until he finishes his fairy-gunslingers trilogy. And while we wait, you can enjoy this wonderful roundtable discussion on fantasy and Westerns and fantasy-Westerns!

Red Sofa Literary - Keeping Your Writing House in Good Financial Order

Because apparently that sounded more professional than "Make Money; Get Bitches". But whether you're a writer who's already started earning or are looking ahead to your eventual first paycheck, here is a handy-dandy guide to building your massive money-vault!

Also, speaking of Red Sofa: did you know that we are doing book giveaways all this month? Truth! Go check out the goodie-catalogue and get yourself something nice - I promise they read well on a couch of any color!

My God, that was a lot. See what I mean? The backlog has been egregious. Thanks y'all for all your patience and cheerleading and support while I've been so far deep in the trenches this year - I can't wait for you to read Dreams of the Eaten, and am so looking forward to catching up on life!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Secretly Mastering Fandom

So I haven't said anything about this yet, partly because I was tired and lazy, and partly because I wasn't sure whether this was supposed to be an actual secret. But this past weekend, I got to go to SMOFcon in Fort Worth. The SMOFs, of course, are the Secret Masters of Fandom - a grand confederation of shadow-dwelling arch-nerds who have devoted themselves to running the non-profit conventions of the world. SFF literary cons, anime cons, gaming cons, you name it. If it doesn't have the word "Comic" in it, these guys are probably at the helm.

And my god, what ferocious captains of industry they are!
Needless to say, I am a tiny, soft-bellied smofling at best - but after hitting up so many conventions this year, it was a huge treat to get to meet some of the people who mastermind them, and spend a weekend talking shop: who's working on what, how the next WorldCon is shaping up, what's dying or coming back or getting good again. It was a convention planner's conference, so I packed my weekend with panels about hotel relationships and guest policies and scheduling apps, and took copious notes at every one (and I realize that probably sounds boring as hell, but let's just say it's been awhile since I've been this excited about programming.)

And yet there was a tension to it all that I didn't expect - maybe the love-hate culmination of a whole year's worth of con-going. My new friend Linda Deneroff expressed it best, I think, when we were talking about the difference between our community and the big media cons: she said, "we operate on a different economy." As in, ours is a culture of volunteering: we're not in the business of charging for autographs or herding 20,000 people through the turnstiles, and except for whatever premium we pay to get George R. R. Martin on the premises, nobody involved nets a dime.

Part of a tribute to Peggy Rae Sapienza - our fannish bodhisattva.
You won't see this at Comic-Con.

That is an amazing thing. I am just absolutely overjoyed and delighted to belong to a community of giving - to be surrounded by people who donate literally years of their lives to creating something for everyone to enjoy. I love our culture of generosity and camaraderie - how we set out free hot dogs and bowls of cheesy-poofs in the consuite so people can eat without killing their wallets, how you can meet The George in the bar or at a panel or wherever and just hang out, how people will host room parties to advertise their con/event or just for the hell of it, and throw the doors wide open for anyone to come and enjoy. It all makes for this delightful, hugely addictive atmosphere, and I'm just massively in love with it.

This was part of the video archaeology project - restoring footage from years past.
The panel on the screen was from a discussion on feminism at the 1976 WorldCon
- which inspired the creation of WisCon.

But the thing is... it's one thing to donate your time. It's another thing to rely from top to bottom on a comprehensive system of unpaid labor. (And I'm not singling out fan conventions here - writers conferences do it too.) From organizers to boots-on-the-ground henchpeople to guests and presenters - nobody gets paid. Ever. And I mean, I get it: that's what keeps the cost down, so the event stays accessible to everybody - or at least as many people as possible. But here's the kicker: we're kind of failing on the 'everybody' front. Those corporate big-box media cons beat the pants off us here. Comicpalooza and A-Kon and Dallas ComicCon are full of young people, small children - whole families. And they aren't nearly as monochromatic.

Maybe it sounds crass to count census demographics. It's a little hypocritical to criticize a surfeit of squishy white people when you are one. But the town, city, and state I've lived my whole life in are all 40-50% minority, and it never stops feeling weird to go from the huge mix of everyday folks around me to a con, or to workshop, or to a writers conference, and find myself in a venerable white wonderland. It feels like the other half of the world just got quietly filtered out while I wasn't looking - like they just disappeared.

Which is a big reason why the 1956 Hugo Awards...

...still look a whole lot like the 2013 Hugo Awards

More importantly, and more to the point: this is SUCH an awesome community, and I really want it to become as inclusive as it's trying to be (and it IS trying). I want it to be a place by and for all the fans, not just one where they're all theoretically welcome.

I don't blame the SMOFs for that (though I wish there had been some substantial discussion of these things at the con). Honestly - it's a weird, broken world out there, y'all, and not surprising that our social microcosms still reflect that. Race and age and money and the luxury of time - they're all part of the same big ugly muddle that's still tripping up our whole society, and sometimes it's hard to have any hope for improvement. Sometimes you just get so swept up in the joy of seeing the people who ARE there that you don't notice or think about the ones who aren't.

But I tell you what: the power of nerd-love built this house, and I believe it can open the doors even wider. The people I hung out with this past weekend raised this community up from the foundation - from the first tiny Star Trek conventions and fanzines to the massive, million-dollar WorldCons we put on today. They've done phenomenal work in forging this space, and wide-eyed nooblets like me have already benefited enormously from their efforts. If we carry the torch even half as far as they have, we'll have something even more incredible - a worthy legacy for their work, and a community that continues to honor the forward-looking dreams of all the best science fiction.

After all, we're nerds. The future is what we do.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Faking It, vis-à-vis Making It

Sorry, y'all. I've been behind.

It's a funny thing about being behind, though. When you're really in the weeds, you don't have the time or energy to notice other people like they deserve to be noticed. Emails and messages and callbacks and check-ins - all your little thoughtfulnesses choke down to a trickle, and the ones from other people pile up unreturned. It's not a good feeling - but it's not one I'm unfamiliar with either.

I tell you what, though: there's a weird extra dimension to it when you're playing in the pro leagues. When you can't promote other people properly, it feels doubly greasy to go on promoting yourself. So you stop doing any promotion at all... which means that all the people who are out there promoting YOU get utterly shafted, because spotlighting their efforts means spotlighting yourself, and since you just absolutely can't bring yourself to do that, you end up doing nothing and helping nobody.

Look, I never said it wasn't dumb as hell.

Here's the thing, though. The longer I play this game (and granted, it's not been long at all), the more I notice the reputation I'm garnering - and honestly, it's a prize in itself. I love walking into a room and instantly getting hollered on (which, for those of you unfamiliar with redneck prepositions, is totally different from getting hollered at). I love it when somebody I don't even recognize holds an elevator door for me and says "get in here, Tex!" I love, love, love being the kind of person people want to glom onto. More than anything, I love sucking up all that energy and blasting it back out, like the sea receding in the moments before a devastating tidal wave of enthusiasm.

But the thing is, that only works because it's REAL - and because it involves feeding off the realness of other people. I am 100% legit psyched to be there, and it's the easiest thing in the world to reflect that back on other people. Much harder to feel that joy when there's nobody around to draw from, and it's just me alone in a room with a blinking cursor and a to-do list.

I'm still working on that.

And I know that no job is fun all the time, and that sometimes you just have to fake it 'til you make it. But man... as dumb as it feels to write this, I just 100% seriously don't want to end up like one of those plastic talk show hosts - you know, always SUPER PSYCHED about how whoever/whatever is their FAVORITE BEST EVER, even as that weird dead-eyed expression sets in and rumors swirl about a secret drug problem. Enthusiasm is a sacred thing, at least to me. It feels like a special kind of wrong to fake it.

Or better to say, I know I need to do better at this - be more present and consistent, especially online - if I'm serious about getting somewhere. And I am. But there's got to be a way to do it that doesn't involve selling out my one special mutant power. I don't want to get better at pretending to be excited. I want to find new ways to actually get excited, and do a better job of expressing that, especially here in cyber-land.

So I'm going to take this week to do some visible and long-overdue appreciation of the people whose work I am genuinely enjoying. I'm also going to play board games and eat ridiculous things with my family and read books in the bathtub and enjoy the little quiet spaces in between. Enjoy the reprieve, citizens - next week, we're getting back on the wagon!

Monday, November 9, 2015

No Longer At Ease

Well, it's not quite official yet: as I type, I'm sitting in seat 22F, watching Tom Cruise get the stuffing knocked out of him by Russian heavies on an 8" screen. But if you're reading this, it's safe to say that after three weeks, eight flights, four time zones, and more wonderful people than I can count, my grandiose gallivanting is finally over, and I'm home again.

I'm really, really glad I got to do that.

I really, really should not have done that.

But let me back up.

I spent the weekend at World Fantasy Con in Saratoga Springs, New York. Getting there was an adventure in itself, but I'm so glad I got to go: WFC is the first "all-pro" convention I've attended, and spending a weekend at what feels like the ends of the earth, stuck in with a few hundred of your peers, is a real experience.

I'm calling it "Still Life in Hilton Bathroom: How To Tell Your Roomie Had a Great Night."
I got to sit in on some TERRIFIC readings – truly, you don't know how badly you need psychic elephant-men, wind-tunnel aerial knife-fights, or grade-school taxidermists until you finally get some – and meet wonderful new people and have tremendous conversations. There were shenanigans and shoe-hunting expeditions and the most lavish ice cream bar I've ever seen.

And this guy. THIS FRICKIN' GUY.
Then on Friday night, a funny thing happened.

There was an "all-call" mass autograph session, which if you ask me, is a really great idea: they just filled up a ballroom with tables and chairs and invited everyone who wanted to (not just the people on programming!) to find a seat and sign their books.

And boy, it was the best kind of bedlam. I had never seen so many people rushing around with armfuls of books – not comics, but actual honest-to-god novels to be signed. It was glorious!

Look at it! Isn't it the most stupendous sight?
It was also kind of a mess: since it was open seating, there was no alphabetical order – no order of any kind. You had to cruise the aisles one at a time, angling to try to get a glimpse of the little printed name-cards – not an easy feat with people clumped up and queuing in front of the tables. After I'd looked and looked and still couldn't find the author I wanted (one of the guests of honor, no less!), I decided to go find a staffer who might be able to direct me.

That's when I realized that I hadn't seen any staffers. No volunteers at all – not one in the entire weekend.

They were there, of course. Handing out packets at the registration desk, flashing five-minute signs at the panels, setting table tents between each of the readings. But they weren't marked at all: no vests or shirts or colored badges. Just the same street-wear (okay, nerd-shirt-wear) as the rest of us. If you weren't actively watching them at work, they were invisible.

And that's when it hit me: what would I do if there were an actual problem? Forget missing out on an autograph – what if I got the bad touch, or watched it happen to someone else? What if there were a fight, or a theft, or a creeper?

Look again: which of these people do you go to for help?
Graceful segue goes here.

One of the readings I went to was Mike Underwood's. Well, tried to go to: I showed up, along with a few other people. Mike never did. That was unusual: we knew he was at the con, and he's not one to flake on a gig.

When I caught up to him later and gave him grief about it, I found out what I would have known days ago, if I'd been paying literally any attention to the digi-sphere: he'd declined his programming as a matter of principle – as a way of protesting WFC's disaster of a harassment non-policy.

And like... I did know about that. I wasn't so completely up myself that I hadn't learned about the controversy. But I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until that moment in the autograph hall that I actually felt it: that it finally occurred to me that I might not be in a safe place.

I'm not proud of that. I don't like to think of myself as a person whose empathy doesn't extend past her own nose, whose concerns stop at the boundaries of her own experience. I've been doing this convention thing for two years now – more than enough time to catch wise to the serious, pervasive behavior issues that have long festered in our backyard.

Reminders of which were literally spelled out for us this weekend.
And I wonder if it's easier to dismiss those issues when it's "just us". Just us pros, or just us fans, or just us girls, or just us anything. It's easy to drop your guard around people you've known since forever, easy to forget the duty of care we accept when we undertake stewardship and hospitality. Much harder to see your community's potential for causing harm and distress, especially when you yourself have such generous intentions, and have benefited so much from the generosity of others. And downright impossible to know who's missing – who you're missing out on – because you were so caught up in the camaraderie that you neglected to take on any accountability for your guests' well-being.

I'm not sure what the right answer is for those of us on the attending side of the table. There's not a firm consensus, even among the leading lights of our community: John Scalzi has implemented a standing boycott of conventions that fail on this front, while Kameron Hurley has critiqued this approach as unfeasible if not blatantly counterproductive.

Regardless: I know what the ancient Greeks said about hosts who disregarded their sacred duties. I know we can work harder and do better. And with all my '90s-kid heart, I know I wanna be like Mike.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Bold, the Beautiful, and the Badass

Oh, friends. Oh, blog. Where do I even start?

Well, let me start back at the beginning of this trip. Earlier this year, the fantastic Dr. Maslen invited me to speak at the University of Glasgow, which was a huge honor, and turned out to be an amazing time. I'd asked to do more of a discussion than a lecture, and he kindly rounded up a conference room and as many willing bodies as would fit in it (and then some!) It was a terrific conversation, and a phenomenal evening.

As you would expect, given that he's one TARDIS away from world domination!
A few of the hardiest souls joined us for drinks afterward, and then I learned an amazing thing: of the students at our table, none were from Scotland – and most had only been at school for six weeks. We had students from China, from the US, from Italy and Greece, all packing up their lives – sometimes on less than a month's notice! – and moving to Glasgow for the promise of a first-rate education.

That was nearly two weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it. Like, I just can't fathom what kind of guts it takes to do a thing like that.

Nor am I a very good photographer for the people who are actually doing it!
I guess I've been thinking a lot about bravery this year, and on this trip in particular. Since I left Dallas, I've done things that my soft, doughy soul couldn't have contemplated five years ago. I sang karaoke, badly and stone-cold sober. I went by myself to a country where I can't even read the alphabet, nevermind speak the language. I held a baby. I let myself get lost. I ate horse meat and beef tongue and things I didn't even think to ask about. By the time I go home, I'll have solo'd New York City public transit, shared a room and a bed with someone I haven't actually met, and probably racked up another couple of firsts along the way. And while I'm proud of all those things, I still don't feel even half as brazen as those students, some of whom are at least ten years my junior.

For the record, this is свински късчета по кметскн, or "pork nibblies in the mayoral style." I didn't meet the mayor, but let me tell you - she's got serious swagger.

While I was in Bulgaria, Evil Dan and I had a great discussion about this, because (as someone who likewise packed up his life and moved halfway around the world) he's also high on my list of unfathomable badasses. His theory is this: a badass is someone who's been through something worse than you have. When you're five and the worst thing you've done is shut your finger in a door, it's the kid who broke his arm falling out of a tree. When you're twenty and just moved away to college, it's the student who spent two years living on the street. When you're thirty and just had a baby, it's the parents who had preemie triplets and lost one.  It goes on forever, because there's always someone who's had it worse than you. 

And of course, we all have to deal with something sometime. Badness happens, and you just have to suck it up and handle it somehow. So what really stands out to me at the moment are the people who have actually volunteered for that up-suckery - who willingly put themselves out there for something that they knew was going to be tough (even if it's also worthwhile, because why else would you do it?)

Because you can't get to the land of immaculate patisserie by staying safely in your house, that's why!
Actually, I didn't intend to talk about book stuff here, but that's one reason I'm so glad that Pamela Skjolsvik asked me to edit her first book, Death Becomes Us (which I just finished last week!) She's a friend of mine from our writers' workshop, and she's a lot like me, bravery-wise: we both feel like sheltered little homebody hobbits for whom the wizard never came calling. The difference is, when she decided to hitch up her britches and do something about that, she really went the whole nine yards.
Hello, my name is Pamela Skjolsvik and you don't know me and neither does your son, but he agreed to talk with me the day before the State of Texas kills him, so um, can I take the 9 to 10 slot or would you prefer if I spoke to him later in the day?
And yes, she is exactly as awkwardly, sweatily badass as she sounds. You'll be hearing more about her before her book comes out on the 13th, but don't wait on me – check her out and then get you some.

I mention awkward and sweaty because I think that's what really holds us back, most of the time. There's the brain-stem fear, sure (what if you get lost and mugged and eaten?) – but past that is that insidious fear of failure, of humiliation, of looking foolish and feeling ashamed. It's SO hard to do the hard things, not just because they're hard, but because you know you'll do them badly (at least at first). That's probably killed more dreams than anything else: whatever you do, your first efforts are going to suck – and it takes real courage to be okay with sucking. Or as they say in Saga, "You have to be brave before you can be good."

So whether you're doing NaNoWriMo, moving to the other side of the planet, or just trying to work up the guts to say hello – go bravely, y'all. Goodness awaits.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Notes From a Nottingham Laundry

Hello, friends! Tex here, reporting live from a laundrette (=laundromat) somewhere in Nottingham. I'm pleased to report that the spin cycle is proceeding industriously, and that the lone sock dangling from the dryer opposite has been rescued by its owner.

Needless to say, it's been a hell of a week. 24 hours of planes, trains, and my saintly mother-in-law's automobile got me from Dallas to God's Own Country (as my dad calls it), where Dr. Robert Maslen hosted me for a discussion on "The Changing Faces of Fantasy" at the University of Glasgow. And that was... friends, it was entirely too much. More on that next week – if I write it now, it will be nothing but Oscar-clutching tears and snotters.

Right now it's pretty much just wall-eyed vegetative stupor.

But let me tell you about FantasyCon. And maybe extend that to the wonders of British SFF-lit cons generally (as I am operating on about 18% over here, and couldn't rake my fingers through this one with my usual hair-pulling intensity.)

This was my third UK con – after WorldCon in London last year and Eastercon back in April – and while that's not much of a sample size, I'm noticing a pattern. FantasyCon in particular was just astonishingly organized: every panel (that I saw) with exactly five panelists plus a moderator, every moderator prepared with questions, every panelist enthusiastic but mindful in their contributions, keeping up the conviviality without running roughshod over their colleagues. They all took questions from the audience. They all ended on time (thanks in no small part to con staff at the back of the room, flashing "five minutes" and "end now" signs as appropriate). It was like a party in a pocket-watch – and a huge departure from the wild, improvised scrum that seems to be the hallmark of so many American cons. ("Moderator? We don't need no stinkin' moderator!")

Which is not to say it wasn't spontaneous or fun. Around midday on Saturday, the fire alarm went off. Everyone dutifully gathered their things and trooped outside to the parking lot, waiting under the overcast sky with tea and portions of chips still in hand.

It was a social event, of course.
After we were allowed back in, the warm, brassy curls of a Midlands accent came on over the intercom in perfect deadpan:

"Would all FantasyCon members please be advised that the 2:00 barbecue has been cancelled."

We thought it was a pretty good joke :)

And speaking of food, it's an odd thing here. Unless someone is throwing a capital-P (usually) by-invitation-only Party, you don't see free food or drinks anywhere. Sometimes you can't even pay for it (which is more about the venues than the cons – even their sandwiches keep bankers' hours.) It's made me realize just how odd it is to expect to have food available anytime, anywhere.  No wonder the French think we're savages.

But that also means there's no culture of room parties here, at least not any that I can see. It's a huge part of the US con scene: people will spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars to spill-proof and then decorate a hotel suite, setting out a whole smorgasbord of free food and booze, and then advertise to all comers. Sometimes they're small and simple, sure – you can throw a room party with just a bag of Doritos and a cooler of beer – but they're as much a part of our conventions as league sports are to our schools, and Greek life is to our universities – and it probably looks just as frivolous and bizarre to the rest of the world.

And speaking of frivolous and bizarre, can I just say how proud I am that my publisher was the one hosting the karaoke?
So what do you do when you don't have room parties? Why, you follow standard British procedure, of course: you meet at the pub!

And god, what a great idea. Instead of wedging ourselves awkwardly between hotel beds, circulating through a stuffy, overcrowded room to try to reach the snacky-cakes on the nightstand, let's just meet at the bar and buy each other a round. Everyone's there. You can scan the crowd and find your crew and introduce people to each other in a space custom-made for the purpose. Now, if the hotel bars of the world could just be persuaded to serve cupcakes and Cheetos, we would truly be living in a utopian age...!

Well, I'm taking matters into my own hands, and heading off for the post-Soviet paradise that is Bulgaria. Wish me luck, friends:  if I can survive the customs interview, there will be a grand time waiting for me on the other side!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Great Trans-Atlantic Tour of 2015: Oh-My-God-Whytinerary!

Holy mackerel. HI there! It's been ages. How the dickens are you?

No, wait, don't tell me – I'll just come find you. I mean it. I'm mustering my all for one more grand tour this year, sowing my sunny oats all the from Eastern Europe to Newer York.  So if you live within global-melting distance of the Atlantic Ocean, there is a 30% chance of me being within 30 miles of you at some point in the next three weeks, and I vote we take advantage of it.  Here's what I got!

10/21 - 23 Glasgow, UK

You know, there used to be days when I doubted myself. Then one day, Dr. Robert Maslen invited me to speak to his Masters of Fantasy Literature students at the University of Glasgow, and I forgot how to angst. The big day is tomorrow! So, so looking forward to this – it's going to be such a good time!

10/23 - 25 Nottingham, UK

It's a myth! It's a legend! No, it's FantasyCon, which together with Nine Worlds makes up the crown jewel of the British SFF con scene. This is the nomadic home of the British Science Fiction Award – and this year, the circus has come to Nottingham.  Look me up – schedule is below the cut!

10/26 - 30 Bulgaria!

Yes. Because BULGARIA IS NICE, dammit! Actually, this leg of the trip is less of a professional venture and more of a moral obligation. From their secret underground fortress in the Balkans, 'Evil' Dan Bensen and his fiendish family are plotting world domination and eating cake – and I get to help!

10/31 - 11/3 London
Someday, I will be a big and famous author who does big and famous things in this biggest and most famous of cities. Until then, I roam wild and free: streaking through the tubes, crashing bookstores, and inveigling dinner invitations out of the locals. Watch out, London: I got an Oyster card, a Blackberry, and a penchant for misbehavior!

11/3 - 5 – Philadelphia

Okay, less Philly and more Pennsylvania in general – but I'm sure I can make time to cheez-wiz the liberty bell at some point. So excited to see Ally Bishop in her native habitat!

11/5 -8 – Saratoga Springs, NY

World Fantasy Con, like the world itself, just keeps on turning. This year, it's turned up in upstate New York, which is just fine by me: this is my first time at the convention AND in New York – and in both cases, everyone who's ANYone hangs out there. Watch me infiltrate paradise and ingratiate myself with the beautiful people!

And then, of course, I will go home to sandwich myself firmly between cat and couch, to hibernate as hard as humanly possible until March. Once more unto the airport, dear friends... once more!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

FenCon Recap: Beating Back the Brain-Hamster

Okay, so this one's a little bit out of the blue. I didn't post about FenCon last week, because I wasn't even sure I would go. I didn't make it onto programming this year, which isn't the end of the world, but stings when it's one of two conventions in your own hometown (and one that's had you as a guest before.)

Yeah, I know. It's just one con, and it's not like I haven't had my share of airtime this year. I wasn't crying myself to sleep. It's just one of those irrational things that feeds the evil brain-hamster - you know, the one that runs on its squeaky little wheel of insecurities, and every squeak-squeak-squeak is another you suck, you suck, you suck.

Despite vast plastic piles of evidence to the contrary!
Well, that little bastard was only going to get louder if I sat at home, so I went to the con to drown him out. (Hamsters, being solitary, skittish, nocturnal creatures, flee in the presence of other humans. Or at least mine do.)

And man, I am so glad I did. It was so much fun to remember what conventions were like before I turned them into tax-deductible platform-building calculated marketing maneuvers. It was great to just open up the program book and see what I felt like doing - to sit back and enjoy a panel, a reading, a dealers-room stroll - to see my friends again and shoot the breeze.

Then I started to feel guilty, because I'd spent money and writing-time to be there, and I shouldn't just go to amuse myself. A local con is a valuable opportunity, and I should try to make it worthwhile for my team - among others, my agent, my publisher, and good ol' Willie Siros there in the dealers room, who lugged copies of my books all the way from Austin to sell them here. (This is the great thing about having a team, by the way: you can't blow off the people who've invested in you, no matter how fervently the hamster assures you of the foolishness and futility of your efforts.)

Basically this.

So I screwed up my nerve, mustered up my cute, and moseyed into ops to ask ever-so-sweetly if they'd had any last-minute cancellations who needed a wonder-fabulous last-second replacement.

And oh, the delight! Oh, the enthusiasm! Those beautiful people could not have been kinder or more gracious. Robyn and Meredith and Julie loaded me up with a full slate of panels and a fancy-fresh name-card and sent me straight out to play. Can anyone ask for a greater posse than the FenCon crew? I would submit that they cannot!

And somewhere in the middle of all that was an absolutely beautiful wedding up in Olympia, a little overnight sojourn in the Portland airport (planned, that is - so much better than the other kind!), and a rocket-fueled return for the end of the convention.

DID YOU KNOW that small airports are creepy as hell at 2AM? True story!

And now that I'm back home in the stillness and the quiet, the brain-hamster is running that wheel again, trying to tell me that everything I did was haphazard and self-serving and mostly-fruitless, that instead of choosing one thing to do well this weekend (go as a fan, go as a pro, skip the con altogether and go to the wedding), I ended up doing three things badly. If I hadn't asked for programming, I could have gone to my friend Shawn's first-ever reading (among other things!) If I hadn't skipped town on Saturday, I could have probably sold more books, and definitely seen more people. If I hadn't tried to work the con in around the wedding, I could have stayed for the whole nine yards - the rehearsal dinner, the after-party, around-town adventures with the fam the day after.

And if the happy couple hadn't plied us with pies, I wouldn't have had to... well, let's move on.

But when I look at it objectively, I got to enjoy a wonderful lunch with my friend Jeannette, two readings, five panels, a dead-dog drinking session, my first-ever airport sleepover adventure, 250 miles of quality car-time with my mom, and a once-in-a-lifetime barnstormer of a wedding party. Even the hamster has to admit that that's a pretty good haul.

Anyway, but enough about him. Life is good, people are wonderful, and it's time for me to buckle back down and finish this book. Big love to everybody who's folded me in to the fun (and who's been waiting eagerly to do that very thing!): you are heavenly people-grease for a chronically squeaky wheel, and the silence is delightful.

And one day we will die and our ashes will fly
From the aeroplane over the sea
But for now we are young let us lay in the sun
And count every beautiful thing we can see

Monday, September 21, 2015

10 Things I Learned About Writing From Vegas

Well, look: I've had more adventures this year than even I can keep track of. Some of them you don't even know about!

But since I'm stuck at home being responsible this week, let's revisit the Vegas wedding I attended back in March (courtesy of my un-bachelored buddy James and his fabulous bride-wife Katie!).  Here are ten things Sin City taught me about the delicate craft of writing!

1. Don't worry about asking for feedback on your work. Your audience will let you know which parts they like.


2. You gotta sell the sizzle - but it helps if there's some steak.


3. Taste is subjective.


4. Lie stupendously.

Taken at The Writers Block - Vegas' best indie bookstore!

5. Great writing is about seeing the world from a new perspective.


6. A little shameless pandering never hurt anyone...

7. ...but stick to your principles, whatever they may be.

Did I mention that The Writers Block doubles as an artificial bird sanctuary?

8. Go for crossover appeal.

9. Your audience is looking for an experience. Give it to them.

10. Subtext is everything.

I know, right? Doesn't it make you want to give your life the finger and go fun yourself to death?

Well, for those of us who have to settle for living vicariously, Jamie Wyman has it covered - her Etudes in C# series is busting out with a third book! Gods and satyrs and mayhem abound in Cat Sharp's not-so-glamorous Las Vegas lifestyle - and that's before we get into the technomage club scene. (NGL, you guys - my inner fishman got a little too excited when I got to the condo-wrecking shark-monsters.)

If that sounds like your kind of fun, start with Wild Card and then sally forth to help us Kickstart the rest of the series - we might be stuck here in real life, but by gum, we can read like shameless hedonists!

“Marius, where are my pants?”
His grin widened. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Monday, September 7, 2015

One Year Out: On Fame, Fear, and the End of Debut-dom

So about a month ago, I had a real Twilight Zone moment. See, my mom tagged me in one of those time-hop things on Facebook -

- and my first thought was, "holy mackerel - has it been a year already?"

My second thought was, "oh my cheese - has it only been a YEAR?"

But lo, it was so: Sixes launched in the US on July 24th 2014, which means I've officially been doing the published-author thing for over a year now.

Now, a whole belated month-and-a-half after the fact, I'm sitting at home in my clean, quiet little me-space, and I finally have time to think about what that means. Or rather, what's appropriate to say about it.

Y'know, I was having an email conversation with my great buddy Merlin a few months back (a terrific writer you haven't heard of yet, because he is almost-literally working in the salt mines while he composes his magnum opus.) We were discussing how the ups and downs get harder to talk about once you start formally putting yourself out there - because you need to cultivate a professional image, and also because nobody wants to hear a bunch of first-world problems (especially from somebody who's achieved something most of the rest of us would give our eyeteeth for). But he added something I hadn't thought about before, with a phrase I will probably remember for the rest of forever. He said,
I think people have a romanticized idea of what it is to write a book, to tell a story that needs telling.  And that idea gets sold again and again because that's the only way to keep people doing this difficult thing, right?  So, if folks published a book and then told everyone they knew 'It was just the hardest, saddest, most wonderful but exhausting thing I've ever done' then someone else that had a story to tell might think twice.  
And man, that's it. That right there. I'm overjoyed to have had the opportunity to put my work out into the world this way. I'm so, so grateful to everyone who's invested in me. I am also frequently sad, ruinously tired, and absolutely terrified of failure. Actually, it's fair to say that I spend most of my time feeling like I'm failing.

But the thing is, when you accomplish something, that accomplishment is defined just as much by what it isn't.  We see every newborn baby as a potential president or cancer-curing scientist - but that's because they're literally 8 pounds of raw human potential. They haven't had the chance to TRY, much less fail. We fill graduates' heads with grand sweeping commencement speeches about infinite possibility and unlimited opportunities - but that's because the little darlings haven't gotten out into the world and DONE anything yet. And whatever they do, no matter how valid and important and fulfilling it is, they have to give up a hundred thousand other possible futures to do it. Every decision narrows the field of future decisions. Every choice is limiting.

And that's a hard, scary thing. That's why we have the quarter-life crisis. That's why so many of us spend our freshman adult years in angst and insecurity. I felt it then, and I'm feeling it all over again now. My first book didn't set the world on fire. It didn't win any awards. I didn't generate a whole bunch of buzz or get featured on NPR or score a blurb from Stephen King. Those possibilities are gone.  I've mourned them more than I probably should.

Most of that is probably just the inevitable death of an immature dream. Hell, I can remember finishing my first novel at 17, and fantasizing about what it was going to be like to be a published author too young to drink champagne at her own launch party.  As the kids say, "LOL."

But here's what I've noticed. The other authors in my cohort, the ones who just seem to be busting out all over the place? They might be putting out their first novels, but they have been pillars of their communities for YEARS. Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a short-story juggernaut, not to mention a hell of an editor in her own right. Beth Cato is the most prolific human being I've ever met - the adult version of that one kid who was in every extracurricular activity known to man and still found time to volunteer at the homeless shelter and earn a perfect 4.3 GPA. Julie Murphy basically runs her own e-church - preaching the gospel of body acceptance and self-love, giving and taking heartfelt and frequently hilarious confessions, making time to have passionate, relevant conversations with everybody who darkens her door.  You might not have heard of these people, but their posters are plastered all over my bedroom walls. They are my rival-frenemy-secret-crush-golden-shining-idols - and as badly as I want what they have, I simply haven't matched what they've done. I haven't even come close.

I haven't put out a whole passel of short stories. Hell, I haven't put out one. I haven't edited anything or taken any freelance writing gigs, and my online presence is the digital equivalent of me sitting in my living room with the lights off and the shades drawn and then wondering why I'm not getting invited to parties. And the one place where I basically am Celebrity Rockstar Author Jesus? Is DFWcon - where I've been pouring in volunteer hours and workshop face-time for three straight years. Is anyone else sensing a pattern here?

So... I guess what I'm saying is, this is the year I found out that the magical buzz-fairy is not going to sweep down and bless me with a box of instant-fame potato flakes. I am not writing accessible fiction for a well-established audience. I am not (yet!) a well-known person. I do not have the marketing heft of a Big-5 publisher throwing hella dollars to promote me. Those three things together mean that if there is an easy elevator to the top, I can't count on it. I am going to need to join 99.9% of the entire rest of the world in taking the stairs.

I'm up for it. I still feel like I'm failing. I'm absolutely terrified of going out of print, of being a confirmed dud that nobody will want to do business with. (Seriously, y'all: if you've read my stuff, please please please help me out with an Amazon / Goodreads review. It doesn't need to be Shakespeare. It doesn't need to glow. Short of buying 50,000 copies of my books and lobbing them through people's windows, this is the single best thing you can do to help me not sail my failboat all the way to remainder-land.) But I can do more than I've done so far, and the game isn't over yet. 

And speaking of which... you guys.

Thank you for this.

I may not have shown up on the New York Times, but my man Merlin put me front-and-center on the company shipping newsletter. Don't tell him it made me cry.
And for this.

Yes, that is one very well-loved spine.
Yes, those are marker tabs and page notes.
Yes, this is ego-pornography for authors - and my Uncle Sanford is Hugh Hefner.
And this.

Look at you. Look at you, you goddamn beautiful disasters!
And this.
FAN ART, people. Actual, honest-to-god fan art. This is not a drill!
And this, and this, and this, and this. (I print these out and love them until they're kleenex. You know that, right?)

Oh my god, and THIS.
Because you haven't truly made it as a writer until Frank has named MapleStory characters after your fictional friends.
Seriously, guys. Thank you so much for everything you've done to help launch me out into the world. I have no idea whether I can actually fly or whether I'm just 'falling with style', but you are absolutely the reason I haven't already splatted on the pavement. And let me tell you: even when it feels like the ground is rushing up to meet you, the view from up here is still pretty damn glorious.

...but if I go cold, I won't get sold

I'll get put in the back, in the discount rack
Like another can of beans