Stop Throwing Up Roadblocks and Start Throwing Up Bridges

By Griffin Barber


We have been talking about how we need to act on the 1632 forums of Baen’s Bar for years. You can’t have a working idea factory if the first answer is always “No!”.  Griffin Barber has written a very important piece that we would really like everybody involved with the 1632 Universe to read, and think about. And maybe agree with.

Walt Boyes
Bjorn Hasseler

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Like, ALWAYS. Funny, that, who would think a dyslexic kid with ADD[1]  would have any success at all in sitting down to write a story, let alone several lengthy novels and a bunch of short stories? Funnier still, for that same dyslexic[2] kid with ADD to grow up and eventually become assistant publisher at a small press like Ring Of Fire Press.

All I can say is that a red-hot desire to succeed can overcome a great many roadblocks, especially if that desire finds a community that shares not only that desire to succeed, but actively encourages it. I found such a community early on, in the electronic halls of Baen’s Bar, the forum created and hosted by Baen Books. I haunted those halls for a while, posting an occasional opinion or even a snippet of some story I was tinkering with for others to look at. I didn’t get much feedback, but what I did get was both commensurate with my (small) contributions and helpful in a general sense, allowing me to think I might have some chance at writing stories someone might read. I went with that small encouragement and wrote my first novel. (No one will ever see it.) I then set out to try and sell it to a publisher. I started attending conventions and meeting people. Good people. Fun people. Some were even famous, and not just ‘in-genre famous,’ either. I had various advice from those who were kind enough to dispense it.

I’ve talked elsewhere about meeting Charles E. Gannon, so I won’t belabor the point that he was one of the first people who not only saw some value in my words but offered his own hard-earned wisdom on how to move forward in my career, namely that I write a short story for Eric Flint’s Grantville Gazette.

I begged off at first: “I’m a novelist, not a short story writer.” I was sure and certain I would sell my novel in no time and never have to worry about packing so much into the confines of a short story.

 A year later, my novel still hadn’t sold, and I approached Chuck asking what I needed to read, etc., in order to pen a short for the GG. He guided me to the books first, then to, Eric Flint’s author page, the Grantville Gazette page itself, and eventually to Baen’s Bar and the 1632 forums.

It was a happy return, in many ways, to the Bar and the community there. 1632 Tech forum was rife with expertise I knew I could draw on to make my ideas for any Ring Of Fire story work. I started writing only after a great deal of research on the era and the series. I wrote most of a short story, Bank On It, but had some questions I needed to ask of a chemist in order to make it work. I rolled over to the forum and posted my partial story and, in another forum, the science question I needed answered in order to finish it. There was nothing but a, “No, you can’t do that.”

The better part of a year passed before I met up with Chuck again. He asked how the story was coming. I told him I’d asked for help, and there’d been nothing but no. He summoned the angels and, lo, an answer was forthcoming from a famous Bar’s denizen, Rick Boatright. Armed with an answer and renewed spirit (someone believed in me and my story enough to get creative with the science) I returned to work and had it submitted to 1632 Slush in a few days.

Bank On It was bought by Paula Goodlett at the Grantville Gazette shortly thereafter. It was my first professional sale of fiction and a good start to many great things for me. Within a year of publication of that short, I was writing a novel with Eric Flint himself. We’ve written another since, and we are under contract for a third one now. Each of those novels required expertise I didn’t have, and I often obtained answers from experts on the Bar or other forums where people discuss history, writing, science, or the series I was writing for. My mileage varied with a lot of experts, and their answers were sometimes very discouraging. Indeed, every answer that began with “No, because” were the most dreaded.

One thing about experts­–accredited or not–is that many have a tendency to say, “No, because X,” when someone, a writer for instance, presents a new idea which touches on their area of expertise but does not account for X. This is not a problem in most discourse. Indeed, we want our experts to tell us not to do the things that will hurt us, not work, or will damage our long-term chances of success.

It is a problem in writing, though, and here’s why: telling a writer, “No, because X” makes that writer far less likely to approach an expert with the next idea. It throws up one more roadblock to success. Of course, depending on the writer’s personality, they may just ignore the no and produce something that blatantly flouts the laws of the universe or, more often, just give up on the idea completely. Sometimes that roadblock will kill the project, even the person’s dream. Get told “No!” enough, and it breaks even the most spirited, gifted, and self-assured people.

I have watched many a writer come forth with an idea that made me wish I had come up with it. Then I’ve watched as that cool idea or story didn’t go anywhere because when the writer asked for expert advice, they were shot down with, “No, because X.” On those infrequent occasions where I felt I had the expertise to champion their idea, I did. More often than not, my efforts did not have the desired effect because I didn’t have the expertise, or the time to dedicate to overcoming resistance to the idea.

The Ring Of Fire series is, almost from the very first offering, collaborative in nature. There are so many authors, from so many walks of life, who have made cool contributions to the series that I find myself asking how many more stories would be written if we fundamentally changed how we answer questions? What could we do to invite new contributors, to foster and encourage authors in our genre and within the series specifically?

I don’t think it’s enough to remove the roadblocks in our discourse, the closed statements like, “No, because X,” from our lexicon when discussing complex issues, in 1632 canon or elsewhere. We need to cut those from our lexicon and add the building of bridges between complex ideas, to start saying, “Yes, and what if…

By saying, “Yes,” we affirm for the questioner that their thoughts have merit. By adding the “and what if,” then we ask them to continue, to collaborate, in finding a solution to the very question they asked.

Of course there will be instances where a “No, because X” is entirely appropriate, but if the experts, if the expert asks themself before responding, “Can I say yes to this and lead the questioner to a satisfactory resolution rather than seizing on this as an opportunity to act as an authority and shut down the conversation?” In short, if the experts ask, “Can I educate and help shape the next expert in my field rather than shut down someone simply because I can, and it’s less time-intensive for me to do so?” then I think we will start making amazing strides forward, together.

I think we will all be pleasantly surprised by the results–by the bridges we could build– should we all start saying “Yes, and…”

I’m willing to give it a try. Are you?

Naturally, I’m hoping your answer will be, “Yes, and what if…”

[1] Diagnosed and, since I was thirty-four or so, treated. For those of you who like to lay claim to having Attention Deficit Disorder or its more common cousin, ADHD, without ever doing anything about it, there’s a lot of resources out there to help, but a diagnosis from a licensed psychiatrist is a fundamental first step to figuring out what is actually going on.

[2] I had to retype dyslexic four or five times to get it right.