Get out there and either teach a class or take a class ... preferably both!

There’s an old saying: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This is crap.

Though there are people in this world who would not consider me particularly old, there’s another old saying: “You’re only as old as you feel.” If that old saying is true then most of the time I’m in my mid-nineties. But in actuality I’m 48. Maybe that’s not so old, and then I’m a person, too, and not a dog, so maybe it’s this: “You can teach a middle aged man new tricks?”

My new trick, developed over the past couple years, is teaching writing.

For years I worked as an editor and actually put some effort into flying under the radar. To me—and I still feel this way—the best editor is invisible, not forcing himself into the mind of the reader, but acting as an individual mentor to the author. So for a very long time I avoided the “spotlight.”

I only grudgingly attended conventions, as my former bosses at TSR and Wizards of the Coast would attest. I didn’t mind being a sort of emcee on a panel, but I didn’t like the idea of revealing the man behind the curtain.

It even took some doing for my former boss and current friend and editor Peter Archer to talk me into writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. We both knew that I would have a lot to say on the subject, but part of my reluctance was this idea of “coming out,” of stepping out from the anonymity of the editor’s desk. I was particularly reluctant about the inclusion of the R.A Salvatore short story and any sort of revelation of how we worked together when I was his editor at Wizards of the Coast, and I sort of danced around that even in the final published book.

And then I was laid off—thrust out into the cold, unforgiving landscape of post-Republican America, staring down the barrel of a thirty-year mortgage and, well, a certain level of “sink or swim” that I hadn’t had to come to grips with in a while.

I also had this new book out, and I knew I needed to be the point person if it was going to get any kind of attention, let alone any sales.

This blog was born, and I took to it like a fish to water. I’ve posted here every Tuesday since June 15, 2009, and it’s become such a part of my life that of it gets to be noon on Tuesday and I haven’t posted anything I start getting all twitchy then start really freaking out, until I sit down and write something.

I started a Twitter account because I was trying to get in touch with someone—a work thing at the time, not worth going into detail about—then found myself actually tweeting. Now I’m this itinerant tweeter, posting nonsense sometimes, snippets of shameless self-promotion other times, and in general throwing myself out into the world 140 characters at a go.

Then, again in an effort to sell the book, I started doing convention seminars of my own. I started small, at Steamcon here in Seattle—a small, but terrific steampunk convention where I spoke to about six people, one of whom was my wife. Then I flew down to San Francisco for Wondercon and did the same seminar, what I lovingly refer to as “my dog and pony show” to about 200 people. I was floored by the crowd in that room. Really? That many people to hear me talk about writing fantasy and science fiction? And they laughed at my jokes and asked smart questions and listened attentively to the answers and clapped for me when it was over?


Well, that was all it took. I was off to the races then and have been going to as many of these things as my limited budget will allow.

Weekend before last I made my second appearance at Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon, and for the second year in a row the organizers had to cut off the line and some disappointed people didn’t get in to see me. I have to admit that for me that’s half impossible to believe and half dangerously ego-inflating.

And somewhere along the line, as I was studying up on how to make a living as an independent consultant/freelancer, it was suggested that I teach a class—suggested in that, “everybody who’s reading this book should teach a class” sort of way.

I thought, gee, I do like doing my dog and pony show, and get frustrated that I only have fifty minutes to try to teach people anything about a subject that, well, let’s just say requires more than fifty minutes to learn. Maybe teaching a class would be my way of drawing that dog and pony show out for a smaller group of people, and I could actually read what they’re writing and answer very specific questions, and, oh, what the hell, I’ll pop on over to the web site for the local community college.

Before I knew it I had signed on to teach a continuing education class at Bellevue College called, wait for it . . . Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction. Then I was invited back to do it again, then I suggested a class on Worldbuilding, which I’m teaching right now, and a one-day seminar called Living Dialog, and here I am, getting ready for my third term at Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, and I’ve suggested a class on editing fiction that the college is considering.

And in the meantime, more conventions and writers conferences.

And I love it.

It never occurred to me I would like it as much as I do, even when I first signed on to teach. It’s long ago stopped being a way to sell the book, which is now plugging away just fine, though truth be told it’s probably plugging away just fine entirely because I’m “out there.” This old dog, closer to 50 now than 40, has learned a new trick, and part of what I love about it is that I haven’t learned it all the way yet.

Every term the Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction class gets a little tighter. I learn as much from my students as they do from me—another old saying, this one entirely true at least in my experience.

And in answer to a few on the Twitterverse who’ve seen me plugging my Bellevue College classes but who live outside the Seattle area, I have been trying to get out there online, too, and here’s one that’s enrolling now:

The First 10 Pages: Science Fiction & Fantasy Boot Camp from Writer’s Digest University. Author Jay Lake and agent Carlie Webber and I will be talking about the all-important first ten pages of your manuscript and will be doing hands-on critiques. I recorded the presentation yesterday and can’t wait to dive in to the rest of it in a couple weeks.

Most of the rest of my day today will be spent getting ready for tonight’s Worldbuilding class, where we’ll be talking about geography. Me in a room with a handful of like-minded individuals talking about fantasy maps, and I only have three hours? Not enough time!

What I’m trying to say is this:

If you’re an experienced author or editor—or have something to say about any subject—find a way to get out there and teach. If you’re an aspiring author and you’re looking for ways to improve your craft, invest in yourself and your career and get out there and take a class.

I’ll admit to a degree of cynicism—we all suffer from it from time to time—and I went into the first continuing ed class terrified that I would be confronted with a classroom full of psychotics. I can’t even tell you the nightmare scenarios that played out in my fevered imagination.

But then from day one what I was confronted with was hardly a room of crazy people but a room full of smart, creative, energetic minds coming from all walks of life, ranging in age from teens to sixties, and every one of them with something interesting to say and real talent and drive for writing.

It’s been amazing so far, and I hope to keep doing it forever.


—Philip Athans


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