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.