Advice for Writers. No. Seriously.
I first met my agent at World Fantasy in Madison, in 2005. Actually, that's not strictly true. When I initially decided that I wanted to be a writer, I also decided that I should go to some conventions, and the first con I went to was Worldcon in Toronto. That was 2003. And I went to a panel, the sort of panel that aspiring writers go to. I don't even remember what it was about. But Joshua was on that panel, and the things he said impressed me. I was making myself go around and talk to people, seeking advice for my budding (really, at that point still buried in the dirt and wondering which way the sun was) career. You know. The kind of this aspiring writers do. I approached a number of writers that weekend, but Joshua is the only agent I talked to. I think I asked him to extrapolate on something he said in the panel. Honestly, I don't remember. I remember being scared, and nervous, and hoping that he would at least talk to me. And he did. But I'm sure he doesn't remember that.
No, the first time I really, really talked to Joshua was in Madison. We met over a can of Sundrop at, I believe, the Tor Party. If you saw Joshua on Saturday night in San Diego at WFC, you might have heard this story, or at least part of it. And to be honest it wasn't a hugely complicated conversation, but it ended with him asking for a sample of what I was working on at the time. Like everyone else, I was working on a YA fantasy novel. And then over Christmas while I was visiting my in-laws, Joshua requested the full manuscript.
In February, he sent me a letter. Three pages, single spaced, typed. I actually carry that letter with me everywhere I go. It's on my desk right now. I keep it in my bag. If you asked to see it at WFC in San Diego, I could have showed it to you.
It's essentially a rejection, but not really. It points out, in grim detail, everything that's wrong with the book. There are some specific suggestions on what to fix, and some general suggestions on ways that I need to think differently about writing something like a novel. And then there's a great deal of encouragement.
Today I'm working on how to improve the new work. I think it's good, but I think it can be a great deal better. And after conversations with Joshua, I realized that I'm kind of slipping into some of the mistakes I made with that first book, and forgetting a lot of what I learned with the previous three. I sometimes look at the sales numbers for those books and wonder if the things I learned while writing them were good things, or bad things, but I'm coming to grips with it. So this morning I got to work and took out that letter, and left it on my desk. Because now, almost six years after the fact, it's still an insightful letter. There is still instruction, and still advice. And still encouragement.
This is why I'm careful with what I say to other writers, especially young ones. Because it can mean so much, for so many years. You can shape a career or ruin one. And I'm always grateful that so many of the people who have had contact with me over the years have all done so much to shape, in such constructive ways.