Picture yourself taking off in a Conestoga wagon, heading for an unknown destination in the West. Or maybe you're starting across the Sahara, hoping to find treasure or happiness or simply a better life. Maybe you just need to know what's out there.

Anyway, you start on this trek with some trepidation. The territory is foreign, it's scary, and you don't know the dangers so it's hard to watch out for them. But suppose you meet people along the way who tell you, "Here's something you absolutely have to do," or "Watch out for this." They even mark the trail as they go so you can follow more easily and stay on the right path.

You'd be grateful for the help, certainly. And you might marvel to yourself, "That person didn't have to do that. He certainly has enough worries of his own out here." But there have always been people who don't mind taking a moment to help those who come after. That's true in the writing profession as well as in the wilderness.

Writers might consider each other as adversaries, competing for the paltry advances and shrinking audiences that exist today. They might try to discourage new entries into the field or at the very least ignore the newbies, hoping they go away. But this isn't the case. Writers love to help each other, and they use this glorious Internet thing as a venue for exchanging information, encouraging those who are taking that first step of the journey, and building networks to accomplish together what we can't do alone.

There are forums for discussion, groups for promotion, websites for perusal, conferences for networking, and email addresses for contact. I've yet to ask a question that someone hasn't answered honestly and earnestly, from Laura Lippman and Barry Eisler to a whole lot of people you haven't heard of yet but will someday. In all likelihood next week some aspiring writer will ask the same question, and they'll answer it again.

Why do they do this? One might say it's flattering to be asked advice, a sort of admission that the adviser knows some things others don't. That's true, but a writer always has lots of other things that he could be doing (like editing one more time), so flattery is only a small factor.

I think it's mostly that writers are the sort of people who like to help others. Since we're not on the prairie or in the desert, we can't offer you a sip of water or a map to the treasure you seek. But by sharing what we've experienced, we can still point you in the right direction.

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