Paying it Forward*

As debut authors, we talk a lot about journeys to publication and the encouragement we received along the way.

Today I’d like to talk about paying it forward.

Claws of the Cat Cover (50)

On July 25, 2013 I had a reading and signing for my debut novel Claws of the Cat, at Barnes & Noble in Santa Monica, California. The crowd was fun, and engaged. In many ways, I’d call it a perfect event.

After the books were signed and everyone left, I stayed behind to sign a few books for the store. When I finished, I noticed a shy young woman standing nearby—she wasn’t hard to spot, since we were alone in an empty room.

She approached me, shook my hand, and softly asked, “Ms. Spann, would you mind if I asked you some questions? I’m sorry, I haven’t actually read your books.”

I smiled and told her, “Don’t feel badly—this is my first one, and it released last week, so nobody else has read it either.”

She proceeded to ask me some fabulous questions about my writing process, including where I find inspiration and how I write through times of “block.” I suspected she was a writer too, and asked—and she seemed both pleased and surprised as she confirmed it. I suggested that “writer’s block” is often caused by a need to explore your characters or to make a change to the plot, and suggested some techniques for working through it. Journaling in the characters’ voices and adding “the unexpected” to a scene are two of the options that work for me.

I also told her to just keep writing. You can fix anything in editing as long as you’ve written down words to fix. Only an empty page is beyond repair.

I encouraged her to stay with it, even when the process is hard and the words don’t flow, and as I said it, I felt a sense of inverted deja vu—because it wasn’t so long ago that I was the timid writer asking questions of an author I admired.

Ten years ago, I attended the Maui Writers’ Conference and met James Rollins—then, as now, a favorite author of mine. He asked about my writing and took the time to answer my questions too. We spoke for several minutes, and though he may or may not remember the day, I will never forget that conversation or the encouragement he gave me. I hoped but didn’t truly believe I would have the chance to repay that wonderful moment.

Four nights ago, I finally paid it forward.

Publication brings an author many benefits. Some of them are financial, while others are measured in opportunity. Perhaps the most important—and among the most overlooked—is the chance to make a difference to someone else.

To readers and aspiring authors, published authors have a kind of magic. We inhabit a fascinating world that others want to live in. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve published one book or a hundred—from the perspective of those behind us on the road, we’ve seen and touched a unicorn.

That privilege also comes with an opportunity. I took it on Thursday, will take it again, and hope that others will choose to take it too. Wherever you are on the path to publication, look behind you. There are thousands of writers (and readers) on that path. When you meet one—take the time to truly listen and truly care. James Rollins did it for me, and his advice sustained me through some exceedingly difficult days. I will strive to ensure I am never too busy to listen and to offer a helping hand when I have the chance. I hope the rest of you will do the same, not only in writing but also with life in general.

Take the time to remember that people matter. Listen to them, and encourage them when you can. Not many things in life feel better than seeing your book in print, but the smile on the face of a person you’ve helped is one of them.

*This post originally appeared on Kerry Schafer’s blog, Swimming Northon July 29, 2013. Thanks again to Kerry (author of the Books of the Between) for hosting me.