Kage Baker regarded writing as a natural art, one she was compelled to follow. Whether or not she had had any talent, whether or not she had ever collected an audience, she would have been a writer. She started writing in 4th grade, and never stopped until, literally, the day she died.
It was her natural state. She was permanently in a switched-on creative mode, though; and in fact tried several other arts along the way. She sketched, she painted murals and signs and water colours, she illuminated and did calligraphy; she embroidered, and designed sets and costumes. She carved wood, made stained glass, did copper enameling; and longed all her life to try her hand at blacksmithing. Never managed that last one, and while she went at all the others with her habitual ferocity and single-mindedness: none of them lasted. Ultimately an idea for a story would begin to haunt her, and she’d lay down her brush or her needle or her wire tool and return to the pen.
When she set out to become a published writer, though, Kage realized she was entering a trade. She approached it with a solemnity and professionalism that was almost medieval in its formality; there were duties and obligations attached to being a writer, and she took them all seriously. There were implied contracts far and away beyond the boiler-plate she signed for publishing houses. There was the compact with the readers, which she took as a sacred duty – to tell the story as well as she could, every time. And there was a compact with the future of the craft, as well: to pass on the help she received from older writers, when first she ventured out into the world.
From her very first sale, Kage was offered invaluable advice. That first time was from the godlike Gardner Dozois: who kindly told her that when he returned a story with notes, it meant he wanted to see it again! That had never occurred to Kage. Her first editor, Michael Kandel, gave her copious notes on how to improve her writing. Older writers sent her notes, praising individual stories. Harland Ellison called her, live on the phone, to frighten her out of her mind and tell her he bought every Asimov’s with her stories in them, and his wife made petit-pointe covers for them … it made Kage determined to pass on the favours when she was one of the Elders.
She didn’t really live long enough to become an Elder in her chosen genre; but her reputation was wide, honourable and exemplary. And every time she got a request from a younger writer, she made sure she answered it. Her advice was given carefully, with auntly care and caution: Don’t pay “agents” up front; money flows from them to you, not the other way. Don’t tell me your story ideas – someone unscrupulous might steal from you. Do pay attention to spelling and grammar. Do your research.
Here’s who to talk to if you want representation; here’s what to avoid if you don’t. Yes, I know someone at such-and-such; here’s their name. Yes, I’ll blurb your book.
People did these things for Kage. She passed them on to other writers. And she made me promise to do the same, should I be asked. I’d have done so anyway, of course, because these are the guild courtesies and charities of writing. What goes around, comes around. Do unto others, and cast your bread upon their waters.
Next weekend, I am going to BayCon – an annual SFF convention in Santa Clara. Kage went every time she could, because it’s run by really good people and is also a good time: and those don’t always go together. They are most politely taking me seriously as Kage’s amenuensis, and have assigned me to several panels. They’ve also invited me to take part in the Writers Workshop, and so I will be critiquing 4 manuscripts by brave souls who really want to be writers. At this task, I have 30 years of hard experience. I was Kage’s first copy editor on everything she ever wrote, and went over every professional manuscript she produced. I have a red pen and everything.
And besides, and most important – I owe it to them. I owe it to the wonderful people who put on BayCon, and the brave-as-nails writers who’ve given their precious babies into the hands of strangers for criticism. I owe it to Sally Rose (Hi, Sally Rose!). And I owe it most of all to the spirit of Kage Baker. I saw how this sort of kindness and care nourished her like rain on roses, and if I can pass on any of that to someone new – well, I’ll be paying some of my karmic debt.
If any of you, Dear Readers, make it to Baycon (http://www.baycon.org/2013/) next weekend, come look me up. We’ll have a seat in the bar, and raise a glass to the scrupulous spirit of Kage Baker, and to paying one’s debts to the future.