Hello, readers —
Yesterday, I wrote a rather long and impassioned piece on the vital importance of making friends with other aspiring writers. It’s a great way to help keep you from feeling isolated during the long, slow writing process, the often as long and even slower revision process, and the can-I stand-another-day-of-this querying process. When each of us is barricaded in her own studio, revising like mad and mailing out queries, it feels as though each of us is fighting a singular battle. We’re not — there are literally millions of aspiring writers out there, and getting to know a few dozen of them will help you sort out what is genuinely unique to your experience and what is just a trend in the way agents are reading queries this month.
Today, I would like to talk about other means of keeping your spirits up, but most of them will tend toward the same message of yesterday: become part of a community of writers in some manner. Not everyone is an organization-joiner, writers perhaps less than most. We’re a cussedly independent breed, and there’s a certain satisfaction, isn’t there, in starting from a blank page and running all the way to publication alone?
All right, go ahead and finish that chorus of “I Did It My Way” that’s floating in your mind right now. Be my guest. I’ll wait.
Alone is appealing as a concept, but to paraphrase Laurence J. Peter, author of THE PETER PRINCIPLE, push is usually not as effective as pull. Most of us have had the fantasy of meeting a famous author or hotshot editor, being quietly impressive, and having our work lauded by this influential individual. A sort of literary Horatio Alger story — John Irving drops his briefcase in an airport, you pick it up for him, and the rest is literary history, right?
In real life, the writers who are probably going to help you most are not the super-famous ones (they’re too busy, and besides, there are probably throngs of aspiring writers lunging after Mssr. Irving’s every dropped crumb these days), but the ones slightly more experienced than you are at querying. These are the people who can take a quick look at your query letter and point out that you left out your most impressive credential altogether. These are the people who have already gone to the conferences you are thinking about attending, and can tell you which speakers suck and which speakers sing. These are the people who know from experience which agent only speaks to authors under 40, which tends to use conferences primarily as singles bars (yes, it happens), and which will be happy to refer you to other agents, if they are not interested in your work themselves.
I like to think of this blog as providing such an experienced friend’s voice to my readers, but the more friends, the merrier, I always say.
Don’t make the mistake, though, of finding the most important person in the room at a conference and latching onto him as though you are his long-lost dog. For one thing, there are always a lot of people suing for the attention of a conference bigwig, and for another, over-eagerness can make it appear to said bigwig that you are offering something you are not in exchange for a little professional advice, if you catch my drift.
I once made the tactical error of striking up a conversation (about Charles Dickens, as I recall) with the book review editor of a major East Coast newspaper, only to spend the rest of the conference dodging his suggestions that we visit his room for a little in-depth editing. All I did was express an opinion on A TALE OF TWO CITIES, for heaven’s sake! Once I made more experienced friends at that conference, I was able to learn that this well-respected journalist habitually dons his black leather jacket and trolls writing conferences for Sweet Young Things, promising fame and fortune to those too inexperienced to know better. Now, whenever I spot him on the speaker’s list for a conference I’m attending, I make a beeline for the nearest Sweet Young Thing and mention his, um, editorial preferences.
That is what being a good community member means.
Most writers, even well-established ones, are genuinely nice people, interested in others and happy to help those whom they like. I once had a tremendous conversation with Jean Auel (of CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR fame) about guerilla marketing, full of tips I cherish to this day. If you’re polite, there’s no reason not to walk up to a famous writer at a reading and strike up a conversation. However, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.
RIGHT: Hello, I’ve read several of your books, and I love the way you handle dialogue. How did you train your ear so well?
WRONG: Hello, I would like to be as successful as you. Give me tips.
The first is a compliment; the second is a demand, and it’s important to remember which is which. Being specific in your questions helps:
RIGHT: Hello. I’m delighted to meet you, as I am a big fan of your work. (Insert conversation here about why.) I write work similar to yours. If you had to do it over again, would you pick the same agent? Are there other agents specializing in our area whom you would recommend to a writer just starting out?
WRONG: Hello, I’ve written a book, but I can’t seem to find an agent for it. Will you recommend me to yours?
Or, the granddaddy of all wrong approaches:
WRONG: (Pulling 500-page manuscript out of backpack.) Here, I wrote this. Read it and tell me what I should do with it.
Writers tend to err more on the side of shyness than of boldness, in my experience, which is why it is a great idea to get in the habit of going to public readings (which are usually free; check your favorite bookstore or library for calendars), so you can learn how to walk up to an author you admire, stick out your ink-stained hand, and say proudly, “Hi, I’m a great fan of yours. I’m a writer, too.”
I just felt a great shudder go through some of you, but trust me, the average author is flattered when people recognize her (yes, even at a book reading, where she will be pretty clearly marked). Every established author I know has a cocktail party story about some wonderful encounter with a fan at a signing, a real tear-jeaker about how some total stranger walked up and said exactly the piece of praise the author had been waiting since the age of 8 to hear.
Go for it. Don’t start out with your favorite authors, if it makes you too nervous — head on down to Elliott Bay Books or Powell’s and listen to a reading by an author whose work you don’t know. Ask an intelligent question about the reading. Heck, if even that seems too threatening, turn out for one of the PNWA’s The Word Is Out events, where members read their work, and get some practice talking to authors after readings that way. Work your way up to when you will really need to be charming; really charming takes practice.
If this sounds too public for you, take Carolyn See’s advice (if you haven’t read her marvelous MAKING A LITERARY LIFE, run, don’t walk to your nearest bookstore or library and nab a copy) and write letters to your favorite authors. Compliment them; tell them a little bit about your work. If you’re nice, they’ll be thrilled — trust me, the vast majority of letters a well-known author receives are a trifle creepy, so a sane, polite missive from an aspiring writer might well make the author’s day, too. A surprisingly high percentage of them will write back — and believe me, the day you find a handwritten postcard from someone you’ve admired for years in your mailbox is sure to be a red-letter day.
If all of this seems a bit pushy to you, well, we’re in a business that rewards polite pushiness. It’s also a business where established authors are expected to be nice to their fans. When’s the last time you heard about a writer punching a photographer in the face? We almost never even overhear them saying to the last person in line at the bookstore, “I’m sorry, but I’m pooped. Sign your own damned book.” (Hemingway and Mailer don’t count; I have always suspected that they got into barroom brawls with critics primarily as a means of boosting their reputations as he-men.)
In fact, a habitually stand-offish writer will garner a negative reputation at bookstores and conferences with a speed that the Pony Express would have envied. Moral: never, ever be snappish with anyone who works behind the counter at a bookstore where you’re reading. That person might well be a writer — either of books that will one day be successful, or of blistering e-mails sent all around the country. Legends are made this way.
Be kind, be respectful, be polite, and you might just meet a friend with some real pull. However, don’t assume that a nice conversation at a conference or a bookstore means you’re suddenly the best of friends; don’t push for favors unless you actually establish a relationship. And, of course, be sensitive to hints to back off.
Remember that whenever you are around writers, established or aspiring, you are walking through a community. Be a charming addition to the community, not a liability, and other writers will always be glad to see you. Behave yourself, because your reputation now may come back to haunt you later on — or perhaps even sooner. As my good friend Philip K. Dick used to say, never be gratuitously nasty to a living writer. You might end up reincarnated as the villain in the insulted party’s next book. Or as the corpse in her next murder mystery.
Actually, come to think of it, that book critic would make a pretty good character in my current novel…
And, again, try not to become so focused on the famous person at the front of the room that you forget to introduce yourself to the people seated to your left and your right. If one of them is another writer, you may make another useful friend.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini