Paying It Forward

Warning: This will be a long post veering back and forth over multiple subjects that I see as related, but you may not.

There is a tradition among science fiction writers of “paying it forward.” The idea is that you can’t pay back the people who helped you, so you pay it forward instead, by helping others. I’ve heard it said that the phrase was popularized by Jerry Pournelle after he asked Robert Heinlein how he and Larry Niven could pay Heinlein back for the extremely helpful letter he wrote them critiquing The Mote in God’s Eye (at least, I think it was Mote). Supposedly Heinlein told him, “You can’t pay me back; pay it forward instead.”

This is trotted out, then, as why established SF/F writers should help beginners — to “”pay forward” the help they received when they were beginners. It’s supposed to be something special about the SF/fantasy field.

I have a few problems with this concept.

First off, SF fandom claiming this idea as uniquely its own is, shall we say, not firmly grounded in reality. Older writers helping younger writers along is a tradition much older than science fiction, and it crops up in every genre. It’s absolutely normal practice for writers in every field to teach writing, since actually making a living writing is rare, and it’s commonplace for those teachers to recognize and mentor the most promising students.

I talk to writers in other genres — I used to be a member of Novelists Inc., which is mostly romance writers, and I was briefly a member of Mystery Writers of America — and there’s plenty of mentoring going on in all of them. Romance Writers of America seems to exist almost entirely to mentor beginners. So this attitude that SF has something special in “paying it forward” is, to me, self-congratulatory puffery.

Another issue I have with the concept is that many beginning writers seem to feel it’s necessary, that it just isn’t possible to become a writer without mentoring. You need contacts in the industry, they say. If you don’t have writers to vouch for you, or personal contacts with editors or agents, you can’t break in. If you aren’t involved in fandom, if you don’t have editors providing detailed feedback, you’re screwed. You need to have supportive elders paying it forward. They feel that they are owed support by the established writers in the field, because after all, they were helped by the previous generation, right?

And that brings me to the long, ranting part of the post. The very short version is that I don’t feel I have anything to repay.

I sold my first novel, The Overman and the Basilisk, to Lester del Rey at Del Rey Books in May of 1979. He retitled it The Lure of the Basilisk, and retitled me Lawrence Watt-Evans. I didn’t actually meet Lester until 1982.

I didn’t meet my first self-proclaimed, non-gafiated SF fan until March, 1980, when the recently-formed Blue Grass Science Fiction Association (BGSFA, pronounced Bugs-Fah; later renamed LexFA, the
Lexington Fantasy Association) saw a “local boy makes good” piece about me in the Lexington Herald-Leader and invited me to a meeting.

The first published fiction writer I ever met was Harry Stubbs, a.k.a. Hal Clement. I think I was eight. He came to the house to talk to my father about NEACT business. NEACT was the New England Association of Chemistry Teachers; Harry and my dad were both active members.

So was Isaac Asimov, and that connection allowed my parents to contact him to talk at our church when I was a teenager. At the time I was actively avoiding all church activities — at the age of eight I had rebelled against the staggeringly boring sermons of Rev. Holmes and refused to attend any services. (I wasn’t the only one; the parish committee fired Holmes not long after, replacing him with David Weissbard.) Even Asimov wasn’t enough to lure me back to church, but I did wander over to the Common afterwards and got a look at him as he was preparing to leave. I’ll count that as the second.

The third published fiction writer I ever met was me. If you don’t want to count that, then it was Stephen Leigh, at Rivercon V, my first convention, in July 1980, five months after my first novel was published. Phyllis Ann Karr was next, then Roger Zelazny, and after that I lose track; that convention had a pretty good guest list.

So much for writers nurturing the next generation in my case.

As for help from editors, the first editor I ever met was probably Carol Amick, who worked for the town weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, and went on to become its editor. We never spoke; when I say “met,” I mean she was pointed out to me when we were in the same room.

The second was a man whose name I’ve forgotten, the editor of the Bedford Patriot, the short-lived right-wing rival to the Minuteman. When I was seventeen I decided that their writing was so bad they
might even consider hiring a high-school kid; I was right, and they bought three or four feature articles from me.

My first contact with a fiction editor was a rejection slip from Ed Ferman at F&SF in 1972. It was the standard form letter, no note. I went on to collect an assortment of rejections — seventy-one before I sold anything — from a variety of editors. All of those rejections were form letters except for a handful from Moshe Feder, who was then an editorial assistant to Ted White at Fantastic and Amazing, and a couple from Hank Davis, who was Ed Ferman’s assistant at F&SF. Those came along in 1974 and 1975; Hank was sending them because Moshe had urged him to. They were short typed notes, never more than two paragraphs, explaining why my stories were being rejected and offering encouragement to try again. In one case it was because the story was deemed too much like Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; at that time I had never heard of Fafhrd and the Mouser, so that one turned out to be very useful, because I went out and found the relevant books and read them. I love those stories, but I don’t really see the resemblance other than it being sword & sorcery about a pair of adventurers.

I sold a short-short to The American Atheist in August, 1975. The entirety of my contact with them after submission was a note in May of 1975 telling me they were buying it, and a packet in August containing my contributor’s copy and my check.

The third editor to ever send me something other than a form rejection or a form acceptance and a check was Lester del Rey, when he bought my first novel with a three-page, single-spaced revision letter.

So much for detailed editorial feedback being necessary to a writer’s development, or editors only buying from people they know.

Another standard way to break in is supposed to be through writing workshops. I first heard of writing workshops in 1980, after my first novel was published. I signed up for one anyway, thinking it might be educational, and was severely disappointed — I had more professional publishing credentials than anyone else there, including the instructor. The only ones I’ve attended since then, it was as an instructor.

As far as other formal training goes, I have never taken any sort of course in creative writing, or fiction writing, or whatever. The only English courses I ever took were required ones.

Family support? My parents actively tried to discourage me from writing from 1962 until 1971. Late in 1971 my father seems to have decided that if I hadn’t given up yet, maybe I could pick up a little extra money writing articles; it was his idea to try the local papers. That was the full extent of his support. When The Lure of the Basilisk was published, a couple of months before he died, he read it and informed me that it wasn’t really very good. My mother liked it better.

I never heard what two of my sisters thought of it. Jody considered it too bloody, and stopped reading my work midway through my second novel, The Seven Altars of Dûsarra (originally The City of Seven Temples; Lester changed it), when my hero lopped off an enemy’s head. She never read anything else I wrote after that, up until she died in 1986.

My sister Ruth said that for the first couple of chapters she kept thinking, “I could have written this. This sounds just like any Evans.” Then somewhere around Chapter Three it took off, and since then she’s been a fan.

I don’t believe my brother’s ever read any of my work. If he has, he’s never mentioned it.

My wife Julie was supportive of my writing up to a point; she thought it was a cool thing to do, she did read and enjoy it, and she had no idea how difficult it was to succeed as a writer. However, she also made it clear that she didn’t intend to support me forever if it didn’t work out, and in fact by March of 1979 she was clearly fed up. I quit writing and started a mail-order collectibles business. When Lester bought the novel, though, I went back to writing with Julie’s blessing.

Right up until that first novel was published, my in-laws kept asking when I was going to get a real job.

So much for writing education or an enthusiastically supportive family being necessary.

Oh, yes — agents, another supposed necessity. I knew nothing about agents when I sold my first novel. When Judy-Lynn del Rey rejected The Chromosomal Code three years and four novels later, saying it was publishable but not right for Del Rey, that was the first time I gave any thought to getting an agent. I asked Lester for advice, since he was a writer himself and had dealt with scads of agents.

He didn’t offer any advice; instead I got a letter from a guy named Russell Galen who told me that he was Lester’s agent, Lester had suggested he contact me, and that he’d like to see a sample of my work because he might be interested in representing me.

He was interested, and sold The Chromosomal Code to Avon.

Russ has been my agent ever since, pretty much. (There was a brief interruption when he left Scott Meredith and I didn’t immediately follow.)

This is why I don’t have much useful advice for people looking for agents; my experience really doesn’t serve as a model for anyone else.

To sum up: My experience doesn’t fit any of the standard advice. I had no contacts, no training, no support; I just wrote, and sent what I wrote to editors. That worked well enough to sell my first articles when I was seventeen, my first story when I was twenty-one, and my first novel when I was twenty-four.

I didn’t talk about writing. I didn’t read about writing. I didn’t workshop my writing. I didn’t know any writers, editors, or agents.

I just wrote.

That worked for me.

And I didn’t receive any help that I felt I should repay.

If I sometimes seem impatient with needy beginners, well, that’s why.

On the other hand, I do try to help out promising beginners. I have advice pages on the web; I’ve read stories for friends (and if you have to ask, you aren’t a good enough friend); I’ve taught workshops without pay. (I’ve also taught and critiqued for money, though that’s not relevant here.)

But I’m not paying anything forward. And you don’t need help.

11 thoughts on “Paying It Forward

  1. Lester’s retitling of the books was a definite improvement (particularly for the Overman and the Basilisk), but I’m not convinced he needed to retitle the author.

  2. I know several people in the industry but I wouldn’t dream of asking them for any help. Sure, I frequent AbsoluteWrite forums, but I’d never ask anyone in the industry I know for a favor. I am confident I can succeed on my own merits if I keep plugging away at it.

    That said, maybe someday when I want a blurb for my forthcoming book I’ll ask (nicely) for one, but until that day, I’m set.

    I might be in the minority among wannabes though.

  3. I sometimes think that the problem is that many aspiring writers don’t recognize help when they see it. You’ve helped me refine my writing; so have many other writers, from Stephen Crane to Stephen King. The help comes in the form of every book, every story, every published piece that you put out. All of it says, on one level or another, “Look: here’s how you do it. This works. You KNOW this works, because you just plunked down your hard-earned money to read it in published form.”

    It’s a question of being passive or being active–of sitting around waiting for someone to tell you how to write, or going out and experimenting and learning from the example of those who have gone before you.

    You definitely don’t owe us anything, but I think you’ve helped a lot of us just the same.

  4. Some writers refuse to use pen names, while others don’t want anyone to know their real names. Me, I never cared that much.

  5. I was published once. They sought me out to write for this mag about some junk I know a lot about. I said sure and got 50 bucks. I don’t think it makes me a writer. I do have hopes of one day writing some story ideas I have. But in this day and age having a publisher is less important I would think. maybe an editor since I can’t spell or punctuate correctly. If words stories had a format and compiled I would be dangerous. Sorry for blogging on your blog.

  6. A couple of thoughts on paying it forward. Even if you do accept the concept that you are paying something forward; It is the choice of the person ‘paying it forward’ as to how they wish to do so, and voluntary on their part. Also this concept in various forms has been around a long time, in various religious and philosophical writings. An author’s only responsibility is to turn out the book in accordance with any contract they may have signed.
    Thanks for the enjoyment that you have given me over the years.

  7. Perhaps you need multiple names. Not sure if it is true, but sounds plausible and fascinating:

    ( )
    Question: Why did you change your name from Mike Moscoe to Mike Shepherd. Are you hiding something?

    Answer: As a matter of fact, I am. But not from my readers. It’s those pesky computers I’m hiding from.

    . . .

    Indeed, if a writer is doing a lot of writing, he or she may well need several names to survive in this business. For example, Harry Turtledove writes SF books with sales in the 100K. When he writes Historical novels that are lucky to have sales in the 5K area, he uses the original spelling of his name, Harry Turtalov (or something like that.) That way, those pesky computers don’t lower his SF sales to match his historical sales.

    Different genres also have different print runs. A SF novel with a 20K print run is respectable. A Fantasy usually will have a 40K run. Mystery, say 60K, and Romance 100K. Advice is if you are going to write in any of those, be sure to have a different name for each of them.


  8. The Turtledove anecdote isn’t exactly accurate — for one thing, the original is Turteltaub, which is just the German for “Turtledove.”

    I use multiple names. I’ve been published professionally under four names that I recall off the top of my head.

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