3 of the Most Helpful Writers You’ll Ever Meet

Yesterday, I came across an article on the 13 most annoying writers you’ll ever meet. It was an amusing article and for the most part, I recognized most of the stereotypes listed therein. I even recognized a few of them1 in myself. Posts like these are funny because we probably all know a writer (or wannabe writer) who fits into one or more of these categories. But the same article could be written for just about any profession out there, using the template,

The [n] most annoying [profession] you’ll ever meet.

where n is a number and profession is any profession you can imagine, lawyers, doctors, baseball players, teachers, taxi drivers, retailers, salespeople, welders, fishers, ranchers, plumbers, IT workers. You get the idea.

I thought it might be interesting to flip the notion of the article on its head and write a post about 3 of the most helpful writers you’ll ever meet. In doing so, however, I am using my own experience, and that means committing the sin of writer No. 32. I hope you will forgive me.

1. The mentor

This writer takes you under his or her wing out of the kindness of their heart and their desire to pay-it-forward. They offer career advice, offer up their experience and wisdom, and introduce you to other people, writers, editors, agents, publishers, and fans. I have been very lucky in this respect, with not one, but three writers who have mentored me to various degrees through my writing career.

The first was Michael A. Burstein, who is my longest-standing friend in the science fiction world. Michael was offering advice and introducing me to people even before I made my first sale. His writing and process served as a model for How to Do It, and his easy camaraderie  and they way he introduced me (and others) to people, provided an example for how I try to do that today. The first phone call I made after finding out I’d sold a story to Analog was to Michael.

Allen Steele has also acted as a mentor to me. (And I met Allen Steele only thanks to the introduction I got from, you guessed it, Michael Burstein.) We are both collectors of old science fiction magazines, we are both non-scientists who occasionally write hard science fiction, and I think we have similar styles of writing. Allen has offered me incredibly valuable career advice. And aside from being a great, long-standing writer in the field, he is also one of the nicest people you’ll meet, in or out of the science fiction world.

A constant mentor behind the scenes has been Barry N. Malzberg. I first read a Malzberg book in my senior year in college. It was Herovit’s World and I was hooked. What I learned from his books is that the writing can be just as important as the story. I got to know Barry (once again through Michael Burstein) and he has been a kind of guiding light behind the scenes. He reads my stories and offers some of the most brutally honest critiquing I’ve ever gotten. I love it because I learn more from those critiques than from an entire semester of creative writing.

2. The open book

These are the writers who attempt some level of transparency in their work with the thought that maybe others can learn being seeing how it is done. Isaac Asimov stands at the top of the list for me in this regard. I’ve read all 3 volumes of his autobiography3 16 or 18 times. In the introduction to the first book, Asimov writes that part of his intention is to show “how he did it” because other would-be writers might find it useful. I certainly did. It is from Asimov that I learned, right or wrong, that the editor is the boss. Not everyone agrees with this, but I think it has given me a good working relationship with the editors that I’ve worked with, in fiction and nonfiction. I also learned the value of diversifying my writing–that is, not being a one-market writer, or even a one-genre writers. I’ve sold stories to Analog, but I’m not a typical Analog writer. I’ve also sold stories to many of the major science fiction magazines. I’ve sold nonfiction to the science fiction magazines, and have recently branched out into nonfiction outside the genre entirely. All of this comes from Asimov’s influence, his “open book” that allowed me to learn how to be a writer of anything.

Stephen King, through his On Writing book, but also through some of his other writings, has also acted in the “open book” capacity. And I’ve learned a lot from John Scalzi on his Whatever blog. One important lesson I took from John is that he started writing his blog in order to keep in practice writing short nonfiction pieces. I didn’t start my blog for the same reason, but it eventually evolved into that. I have nearly 6,000 posts of today and all of those have shaped my nonfiction writing. I directly attribute the fact that I was asked to write a column for The Daily Beast on the blog writing, and I have John’s “open book” to thank for that.

3. The constant professional

The story of the whiny, grumpy, suffering artist has become such a cliche that I sometimes wonder if such writers really exist. I have certainly met writers who seem more pretentious than others, but I can’t think of a single example of a writer I’ve met who meets the stereotype of a suffering artist. Indeed, many of the writers I’ve met fall into the category of what I call the “constant professional.” These are writers who know that writing is about telling stories that people want to read. They don’t complain unduly about rejection. They don’t speak badly about other writers behind their backs. They are, to the writing world, what a professional baseball player is to the baseball world: that is, they are professionals.

The list of constant professionals that I’ve met over the years is a long one. It includes writers like Ken Liu, Jay Werkheiser, Mary Robinette Kowal, Damien Angelica Walters, Juliette Wade, Bud Sparhawk, Robert Silverberg, Andy Romine, Liz Argall, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro. It is not limited to writers, either, but includes editors like Edmund Schubert, Stanley Schmidt, Trevor Quachri, John Joseph Adams, Kate Baker, and Tessa Miller to name a few.

These are people you can talk shop with. There is an easy camaraderie among them. You can ask one of them for a critique and get the detailed comments back within a day or two. And of course, you do the same for them. Despite the throws and controversies that rock the genre world from time-to-time, the constant professionals are the ones keeping a stable center. Each and every one of them inspires me to try to achieve the same level of professionalism that they make look so easy.

That’s my list for the 3 most helpful writers you’ll meet. I hope the name-dropping wasn’t too annoying. After all, I owe much of what I have been able to do with my own writing to their example.

  1. Nos. 3 and 12, if I am being completely honest with myself.
  2. Name-dropping.
  3.  In Memory Yet Green (1979); In Joy Still Felt (1980); I, Asimov (1994).


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