On Sending the Elevator Back Down

I tweeted this out last week:

I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then. This was in response to a specific person who I’m not going to put on blast here, although I have tried to promote them where I can and give them props publicly in other places. They’re not someone I’ve ever met and not exactly in spaces I work in although I’ve seen them help my friends and it warms my heart.

I was introduced to the phrase “send the elevator back down” probably about ten years ago now. A friend and I were talking about a specific person of enormous power and status in the industry. They also came from a marginalized background. I’ve never seen this person speak on being a person of color in the industry. I’ve seen no efforts at their house to hire more widely. To see their experience reflected in their acquisitions or their publishing. I’m sure their experience shaped them in the ways it has shaped everyone who comes from a marginalized group. One of the ways it seems to have shaped them is to participate fully in the power structures of the privileged without a lot of reflection on what responsibilities they have to their communities or other marginalized communities.

My friend and I were literally in an elevator having this conversation and she said something to the effect of: “yeah, they got to the top and then just never sent the elevator back down for anyone else.”

I never want to be that person. I want to be the person who looks out for younger talent and tries to build a better safer industry for folks coming up through the system now.

It’s not easy, though. I can feel my attitudes calcifying — a rigid old man shell forming over my intentions, wrapped in a cantankerous frustration with the successive waves of new generations of young editors and agents. It’s hard seeing people leave the business, pursuing other opportunities, better work hours, fair pay for their labor. I get it, lord knows I’ve tried to leave publishing once or twice.

There’s that voice though that says: kids these days don’t understand what it takes. I worked hard coming up. I did a lot of grunt work. I have been unusually lucky in bosses, but even so there was so much extra labor I did in pursuit of the career I wanted. Hours and hours of extra reading, editing work, getting coffee, hunting down packages, booking personal travel, redecorating apartments even…

All of my friends that I came up with have horror stories. Bosses that screamed at them. Cruel, pointless insults. Staplers thrown. Work they were promised pay for that never materialized. Late nights and weekends while working three side gigs to make rent. I’ve been paid cash under the table because the partners thought it set a bad example to have something resembling a living wage salary. I’ve been paid in bottles of wine. A nice note. A Starbucks gift card. Those proposals and manuscripts sold in part because of the work we did on them. What percentage of fifteen percent of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a bottle of budget prosecco? I didn’t even drink wine.

This industry has gotten better over the years. There’s less abuse. Less overt racism. Less screaming and things thrown at assistants. More protections. Fewer unpaid internships. Less reliance on free labor. So it’s hard for me, sometimes, to sympathize with the ways in which it is still deeply, deeply flawed. The way my friends were treated when we were coming up should never have happened. And it’s hard not to mythologize it. To say: we’re tougher, smarter because of it. We know how to fight for what we deserve. We know how to grind to do the work no matter what.

That’s bullshit though. All we learned is that sometimes people take advantage of you. That sometimes decency isn’t the currency of success. That power and privilege leads to thoughtless exercise of both. That cycles of abuse lead to the kind of thinking I resist, that lead to us perpetuating the same mistakes through inaction if not active participation.

And so, I spend a lot of my time trying to find ways to send the elevator back down. To quietly offer mentorship and assistance to those interested in it. To try and spot someone in a bad situation and match them to an opportunity that will get them farther down the road. I get rebuffed as often as people accept advice or help. Which is fine. I’m not here to tell anyone how to live their lives or what choices to make. But this last week three different younger PoC have reached out to me for advice or a reference or an introduction and for a second, I take joy in knowing that I’m doing a little bit of the work that needs to be done.

We can do better as an industry towards the brilliant minds and talent who will be our future. We need to stop driving them out of our business because we forgot how hard it was to get started. It may be better but it’s still tough out there for PoC. It’s still hard for queer folk to be forced to justify their stories. For disabled folk to get the accommodations they should be afforded. For people who can’t weather the six months of slinging coffee while eating through your savings just to survive in NYC until you finally get that publishing gig you’re desperate for.

I’m trying to do my part. It’s so so little compared to what we need. And I wish I could look around and see more of us doing the work. But those of you who are, I see you and I applaud you, and I aspire to be you.

The Writing Game: Have An Agenda

Like books, all games have an agenda. Sometimes they're subtle things that lie in the gaps of things. Lines of power that run from rule to rule to player to GM. Sometimes it's in the worldbuilding. What is an orc anyhow? What is the agenda of your game if all your others are monstrous?

My favorite games wear their agendas on their sleeves. They give an agenda to the GM to be read at the start of every session and increasingly I'm just making ones up if the game doesn't provide them. Monsterhearts, a game by Avery Alder, has an agenda that's so good it makes my heart hurt to think on it. There are lessons to be learned here beyond how to tell a story but they were made to tell a story so that's how I want to talk about them.

  1. Make each character's life interesting

    This one is deceptively difficult. I think of it in two ways. One you need to keep your protagonist’s life interesting and dynamic. This isn't about action. This is about tension and tension is about stakes. What does your MC want? Why don't they have it? What will they have to sacrifice to get it? Why isn't it what they actually needed.

    Tension is between two characters (or the character divided against the self). So this applies in a second way. Everyone's life is interesting. Dungeon World by Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel has an agenda item that every NPC have a name. This is similar. Your villain, your MC’s little sister, their high school best friend— what do they want? Why are their lives interesting not just to us, the reader, but to the characters.

    Make all their lives interesting and we'll be interested too.

  2. Say what the rules demand

    Storytelling has rules. It has patterns and structures and violating those will feel wrong to your reader. People understand story in their guts. They may not be able to articulate it but if you break rules without careful planning and intention it will just feel wrong to readers.

    Mostly when people say writing is “bad” what they mean is: you violated my expectations. Which doesn't mean you have to only do the expected, you just have to understand what the rules are so you can speak to their demands when the time comes.

    Authority in the prose comes from understanding and communicating your deep awareness of the rules and patterns of storytelling.

  3. Say what honesty demands

    What does honesty demand in fiction? I think of this as speaking to what the character would do in a moment, your outline, your plot be damned.

    Be honest in how your represent your characters. Be honest to how they feel in the scene.

    But also speak what honesty demands is a command for you, the storyteller. Speak your truth. Write something that matters to you and pull no punches. Speak honestly and wait for the world to flinch because you have the full firm footing of your truth. Write what you feel needs to be said and damn the rules, the market, and the critics.

  4. Keep the story feral

    I think the best stories have a wildness to them. I’d much rather see a flawed, ambitious swing than the careful execution of a safe concept. Push the boundaries of what’s expected of you. Don’t restrict your concept of POV of tense of structure of character. Lean in to the savagery of fiction. Don’t be afraid of writing difficult things — both technically and emotionally.

    Feral is different from the demands of honesty. Feral is being open to chance, to listening to a sneaky instinct in your gut that says your plans are too rigid, that says your outline is limiting. Feral is being ambitious and reaching for something too big to fit in the boundaries of convention.

    This can lead you into danger, of course. Take a big swing and sometimes you’ll miss even harder. But I don’t think you achieve greatness without at least striving for the hard ambitious thing.

    Make space for the unexpected. Cultivate a wildness in the heart of your book. Let things grow and hunt and thrive in the scary, dark corners of your story.

Whether or not you agree with these points, the larger thing is to have an agenda at all. Have guiding principles in your art. Know why you write and what you want to achieve. If you’ve been reading these newsletters at all, you know I believe in intention first and foremost. I would rather see someone deliberately reach and fail than take a blind swing and succeed.

Decide what you want to do in the world. Then do that thing. And do it well.

The Writing Game: Prep Work

There are lots of ways to write books. There are lots of ways to run games. I listen to a lot of actual play podcasts, well three, but it’s a lot of hours: Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, and Friends at the Table. All three of them provide such radically different models of how to run a game. To be clear, I enjoy all three of these shows very much and I think they’re all varying degrees of brilliant in different ways. That said, I’m going all in so, if you’re a huge critter or love those good good boys or just believe in interaction between good friends, then remember this is gentle criticism and analysis given with love for the purposes of instruction.

I’m going to walk through these and talk about some lessons you can pull from them.

The DM to Guide You

Matt Mercer works in the classic mode of dungeon mastering. He spends hundreds of hours setting up intricate worlds, inventing reams of NPCs, scenarios, building battle maps, all for the purposes of making a world that feels rich, textured, and lived in. He’s describing a world with the goal of convincing his players that the world actually exists and is populated by an infinite variety of sentient beings with personality, voices, and distinctive characteristics. He’s making sure that at every point a player can walk up to a guard and ask a question and a character will appear, fully formed, with a sense of history, place and purpose. It’s an incredible feat that’s equal parts careful preparation and in the moment improvisation.

But, for me, it always feels a little flat. The world feels like a brilliant clockwork mechanism, the plot ticking forward bit by bit as the players make their way down a well defined track. There are major decision points that will be influenced by the players, for sure, but once you’ve built a three tiered wooden pirate ship, a fight is going to happen on that ship.

More to the point, it’s Mercer’s call what the world looks like. What the religions are. What the cultures are. There are certainly conversations that are happening behind the scenes where the players are collaborating with Mercer on the cultures the PCs come from and of course there’s improvisation in the moment. Sam or Laura (them in particular it seems) zag when everyone was expecting a zig and suddenly Matt’s spinning whole new sections out on the fly.

And this, really, is where the writing insights really come in. There’s a way to approach your novel that relies on this rigid backbone. This is the outliner’s comfort zone. Build out the structure. Have a worldbuilding bible. These are the tools that will save you and give you the path to walk as you hit your daily wordcount.

But don’t forget that these are tools that will let you run into the wildlands of your novel when the moment calls for it. The pre-writing work is a guide, it’s the thing that shapes the world, it’s Mercer’s voice in your ear reminding you that you know what the church hierarchy looks like and you have a document with titles and possible names somewhere in that one folder in Scrivener. And that gives you the freedom to make unexpected choices, knowing that you have that safety net to catch you.

Pre-writing is writing. Outlines are doing the work. Worldbuilding is doing the work. But remember that those elements aren’t the thing itself. You can make different choices depending on how that die role goes. Listen to your characters when they say, actually fuck this, I’m quitting the party.

Next time: Those good good lads and the power of the rule of cool

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