Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gatekeepers - you're one, too.

There are always gatekeepers.

I think when we writers most commonly use the term we're thinking of editors, because editors are he most famous. We think of the magazine slushpiles and those assigned to read them, whether they be designated first readers or head editors. We think also, of course, of the agents and editors in the novel-publishing world. Gatekeepers are the ones who get to say to you,


or to put it less gracefully,


Here's the thing, though. The editors and agents aren't the only gatekeepers here. Every one of us who participates in this enterprise is a gatekeeper. It's just that the job of gatekeeping without an official title is far more complex, and more likely to go unnoticed.

Say I'm online and I get approached by someone I don't know, asking to connect or even to have a live hangout with me. How do I know that person is for real, and not some sort of spammer/scammer?


Say I'm at a convention and someone wants to come up and talk to me about my writing, or their writing, or writing, or science fiction and fantasy in general. And I have somewhere to go, or I feel uncomfortable, or I've been deluged by fans (not that this happens to me!) and have had enough, etc. etc. I say no or back out of the conversation. There are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons to do this. Some of them have to do with mental bandwidth and exhaustion rather than anything else.

However, this is also where inclusiveness succeeds or fails.

Let me tell you about an experience I had early on in my writing career. I found my way to the local convention because I had started writing, and absolutely loved it, and figured that was a way to meet people in this business (guess what? It was a great one).

At my first visit, I had a three-month-old baby and was just trying to figure out which end was up, and I approached an author after a panel and asked how to get involved, and he very kindly directed me to apply to the convention's writer's workshop. It was a super-brief interaction, but just what I needed. So I went off and a year later showed back up with a story for the writer's workshop, joined the workshop and really enjoyed it... At that point, when I approached the same author to thank him and attempt to have a conversation, he didn't want to talk to me.

This is a hard one, of course. Why should he feel obligated to talk to me? Nobody is obligated to talk to anyone, are they? People have demands on their time. The better known they are, the more likely they are to be deluged with people. They might just be having a bad day. It's not all about me in this world! But the thing that bothered me was that after several consecutive years of attempting to approach him, I showed up with a copy of Analog with my story in it, and his attitude changed instantly. Suddenly he was back to being willing to have a conversation.

That's gatekeeping. Every time we are agreeing or not agreeing to have a conversation, we could be opening a gate or shutting one for someone who needs it. It's a tough responsibility - and involves tough decisions. It would be so easy to lose every moment of our time to people who won't be able to have constructive interactions with us. We have to protect that time, or we can't function as professionals.

So we are always looking for reasons to say no.

Legitimate reasons.

I'll get back to that word "legitimate" in a second.

First off, what exactly is it that says to us at any given point, "This person can't be serious" or "This person is a waste of my time"?

I come out of academia, and in that context, the best way to be taken seriously on the most basic level is to engage with the texts. Of course it depends on whom you're dealing with, but if you can come in having read something, and not just say "I read this" but express an opinion that refers to a particular part of a scientific argument, or a contentious quote, etc. then you are more likely to be taken seriously (this is obviously not foolproof!).

When I approach an author whom I want to interact with as a fellow author and not simply as a fan, I make sure to have read something and thought through an opinion about something very specific. Worldbuilding, most often, since that's my geeky thing. "I liked what you did in X book when you created Y in Z way" is something I like to be able to say. It's sort of a statement of good faith - not foolproof, but at least has a better chance of receiving attention because it's my way of saying I care.

It's important to realize the person just may not have time for you at that moment. And that's okay. They don't owe you, just like you wouldn't want to feel like you owed anyone else.

On the other hand, so many people have helped me that I always feel inspired to some degree to help people out. This is why I find my way to workshops, which are structurally designed to give me a forum for interacting with people and discovering their work. That makes it much easier than just chatting in a hall!

There's something else going on here, though, that comes back to the question of legitimate reasons to say no.

This is a place where bias creeps in. Right there, in that split second when you're turning around to see someone and decide whether to interact with them. When you're looking for a reason why you need to be off to that lunch you have, or why you are too tired to deal with anyone right now, etc. etc. Something about the person can make you say no without you fully making the connection as to why. These are little tiny moments. They pass by us so quickly, but they can be terribly important.

And they are also the places where we can make a big difference for inclusiveness. If we try to think consciously. If we give it a second or two, a word or two of encouragement.

I won't claim this is supposed to be easy. Everybody has a different balance of introversion and extroversion, a different threshold of safety - and maintaining that safety is vitally important. But I also think it's important for people to realize that we are all gatekeepers. We are all constantly re-creating the inclusive or exclusive environment of our social milieu, whenever we say yes or no.

It's something to think about.



  1. I've always lived by the assumption that nobody wants to talk to me, so I'm shocked if/when they do! I've never thought of myself as a gatekeeper — it's an interesting notion...

  2. Hayley, thanks for your comment! With all the social circles we continually participate in (from family to friends to office to interest groups etc.) it's most likely that we'll all have an opportunity to be someone asking to get in, and someone gatekeeping, at different times. It's worth considering, I think. I know it took me a while to think of myself as a possible insider/gatekeeper.

  3. After reading this, I'm struck by the thought that we're not only the gatekeepers in our own lives, but in the lives of our children as well. We are the gatekeepers for activities they participate in, the friends they socialize with outside of school, the schools they attend...just so many instances where our decisions impact their lives.

    1. Indeed, that's an astute observation, Stephanie.

  4. Juliette, your timing is fascinating and yes, Stephanie has the right of it. We are always gatekeepers and being kept by same.

    The reason the timing is on is because I just found out a friend from my childhood died. I say that, and everyone's first reaction is that he was my age. He wasn't. He believed people are all people. His gatekeeping was to hold the gate open in case you might turn out to be interesting. I met him when I was six and he was in his forties (maybe?). He was a friend of my parents and they didn't believe me when I said he was my friend until he told me something critical (that he was leaving) he didn't tell them. He told me to tell them so we would go visit him there.

    His attitude has informed my reaction to everyone, regardless of age and circumstance. And that's the true power of gatekeepers. It's not to hold people out but to inspire people to be inclusive, to have that moment of thinking yes instead of no.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought and may your words spread far and wide. Me, I'm snagging this one for my interesting links collection :).

    1. Thanks, Margaret. Interesting story about your friend. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. My problem is I'm shy! Worse yet I'm super awkward at partied! SO many conventions have been utterly wasted on me because I was too shy to talk to someone! I find I'm better off if I have "wingman". Someone who can go with me who is more outgoing than myself. Then I can talk to people. It used to be so bad I would almost cry if I asked a question at a panel!

    The weird part is that this doesn't translate to public speaking! I can talk to a group, or talk to people if I'm working a table, but just walking up to a stranger and saying "Hi I like your book" is too much for me!

    1. Yes, having other people's support can be so helpful. Every person is a bit different in the level of comfort with interaction, etc. Thanks for your comment!

  6. If you anticipate being stopped by a gatekeeper (would that be getting gatekept?) I suggest bringing along a locksmith. My writing mentor served as mine at my first conference early this year. He introduced me to panelists and other writers, and luckily for me they were all awesome people to stop and chat with. But that would never have happened had he not taken me under his authorial wing. So to other beginners out there, find that locksmith friend who has been there and let them guide you - ya know, kinda like Juliette does with each post :)

    1. Realmwright, you make a good point. This is an important part of the pay-it-forward culture in SF/F - many people are willing and eager to help open doors for you. Also, thanks for the good word.