Sunday, January 4, 2009

It's not WHO you know...

When I started this little collection of rants, what I wanted was to present helpful tips for writers. To be more specific, for writing. I see blogs and articles and courses about ancillary stuff (getting an agent, finding a market, and so on), but very few that just deal with the act of writing. So I figure that’s covered, I’ll just dole out a lot of the basic, practical advice I wish someone had given me way back when that I had to build up the hard way. Like the tee-shirt says, experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

All that being said, a rash of recent incidents have convinced me to address one thing. Next week, back to writing tips. For now, this is going to be even more of a rant than normal...

Over the holidays I received a good double-handful of requests for me to read manuscripts or help get those manuscripts in front of people. Some here, some on Facebook, some through email. Maybe one-fifth of them came from people I somewhat know, and only two of those were from people I consider friends. A decent number of them were waves of spam, sent to every email on the Creative Screenwriting website. One guy on Facebook proudly started out declaring “You don’t know me and I don’t know you,” then proceeded to ask me to help him get his script in front of people.

Back in my day (he said, stroking his long white beard) it was simple. You went to your favorite bar on Friday and had a few drinks. You eventually became a regular. You built up casual acquaintances and maybe even loose friendships with some of the other regulars at the bar. Friday was the day you and Jason and David met up and complained about your respective offices.

Except it turns out David works for a studio. And one day, while you’re rattling on about how much better the LA Kings were back in ’97, David would suddenly say “Hey... tell me again about that script you wrote. The one about the guy with the thing and the girl with the whatsis...” You tell David. David tells his boss. David’s boss buys your script. Velvet ropes part. Champagne rains down from the heavens.

That was what networking used to be. Real networking, the type you barely see any more, came from real connections that were built over time. Someone you’d talk to even if they weren’t the assistant to so-and-so or the head of such-and-such, and someone you’d keep talking to even if they couldn’t help you with anything.

Yes, networking used to be a good thing.

Nowadays, it tends to make people cringe.

Y’see, Timmy, in the past few years the idea of networking has been supplanted by a sort of bastard, nightmare version of what networking is supposed to be. People are going out with the specific purpose of networking, which kind of defeats the whole nature of it. I blame a lot of this on gurus who don’t have any real advice to peddle, so they preach something nice and generic that’s impossible to define and easy to deflect when it doesn’t pay off.

I think the idea of networking appeals to a lot of folks because it’s the magic bullet. You don’t actually need to be able to write a novel or screenplay—you just need to attend all the correct parties, hang out on the right message boards, or be in the right elevator at the right time. Networking implies that skill and ability are secondary traits, and that to succeed you just need to know the right people.

For the record, not one of the following things count as networking. Under any circumstances. No matter what. No exceptions.

--Spamming someone’s email account.

--Spamming someone on Facebook or MySpace.

--Going to a party with the express purpose of cornering someone.

--Joining a group (real world or online) with the express purpose of cornering someone.

--Sneaking a script to someone.

--Trading two emails with someone.

--Having a phone call with someone.

--Stalking.

I have to be honest—I loathe networking. Despise it. Mostly because so many people have made it into an active thing. They go to parties and join blogs and sign into message boards for no other purpose but to find someone who will be useful to their career. And it shows. It really shows. I don’t like doing it, and I don’t like it when people do it to me. Usually when, after exchanging less than a handful of fairly standard pleasantries, they’re begging you to look at their manuscript and give them feedback.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with helping out friends. This past year, in between work assignments and finishing my own novel, I helped four different friends with novels and screenplays they were working on. Most of them got a few pages of notes, opinions, and suggestions. And I was happy to do it.

Let’s shift gears (nice lead in), though, and look at it this way. Would you try to find your mechanic’s Facebook page, insist he “friend” you, and then ask him to fix your car? Or would you search for clues about what bars or restaurants he frequents so you could “casually” bump into him there? Can you picture yourself slipping your car into his parking lot and hoping he just fixes it? Heck, imagine showing up at his garage unannounced and saying “Hey, I’ve got a car here I’d like you to take a look at. I’m sure you’re going to want to fix it once you get a look. If not, though, maybe you could spend a few hours giving me some tips and showing me how to fix it myself...”

A story...

Many years back, I prop mastered the pilot for a fairly high-profile and successful show on the SciFi Channel. During prep I somehow ended up talking to the creator/executive producer and somehow (I couldn’t tell you how if my life depended on it, but I remember we were in the wardrobe office for some reason) we ended up talking about monsters and an old ‘70s DC comic book called The Creature Commandos. If you don’t know what it is, don’t worry. They tried to do a “cool” update of it a few years back and I understand it fell flat on its face.

Anyway, said creator was stunned that I actually knew who and what the Creature Commandos were. We ended up talking a lot through the course of the shoot and becoming friends. We talked about things he wanted to do with the script and the points that did and didn’t work in the version we were shooting (I understand he even credits me in the DVD commentary for helping him work through some of the plot problems). We also talked about other stories, movies, television shows and what mixes better with tequila (we filmed for a few weeks in Mexico and, hard as this may to believe, there were one or two incidents of after-work drinking). To be honest, we’re still talking and drinking today. Well, not this actual day, but in the sense of “ten years later...”

Have I ever asked him to pimp one of my scripts? Nope. He made a casual offer for me to pitch to his SciFi show back in the day, and we bounced a few ideas off each other, but he had to leave the show early on for personal reasons and that was that. But, as I said, we're still sharing stories over our favorite poisons.
Here’s the secret to networking. Here’s why all those lunches and power hours and emails will always fail.

Let me repeat that, because I’m using an absolute, which I try not to do a lot here. Active networking will always fail.

Why?

Because at heart, real networking is passive. It’s true connections and honest friendships. You can’t force that kind of stuff. It just has to happen.

So stop wasting your time with half-assed, clumsy attempts to network and do something useful.

Work on your writing, for example.

Next week, more useful tips. With a twist.

3 comments:

  1. the best networking i ever did was at a party last year. I wore a low cut top and "networked" all over this guy from a publishing company. It was mostly spontaneous, but i DID just happen to have a synopsis and the first three chapters of a story that would be PERFECT for his company...

    Okay, i'm not particularly proud of it, but on this one occasion it did actually work (actually, i am a little proud). It's like getting a knock-back from a hot person in a club - you've just got to go and shake your thang in someone else's face. Eventually someone will be desperate enough to take you home.

    i'm sorry, this is a terrible metaphor, i'll be quiet now. ;)

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  2. I really feel I should make some respose to this besides "Pictures!" but at the moment I'm at a loss...

    No, seriously, let me ask this as a follow up. Did you go to this party just to meet this guy, wear said top specifically to get his attention, and start talking to him only because you knew who he was? Or did you just go to a party in an outfit you felt like wearing and discover after some conversation who this guy happened to be?

    See, if it all just happened, that's what networking's supposed to be-- chance meetings and connections that pay off. It's when people, from the start, are making deliberate efforts to stalk their victims in the real world or online for no other purpose bu their publishing/production ends. That's when this whole faux-networking thing falls apart...

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  3. I've actually had total strangers email me their scripts out of the blue, requesting feedback and/or a hook up with folks in the biz. I used to send a polite "I'm sorry, but my work schedule is too demanding for me to give feedback to writers I don't know," but that just seemed to encourage the "networkers" to send me zillions of emails in an attempt to ingratiate themselves. Now I just delete strangers' requests, but some of them send me hostile emails when I don't respond. One guy (? I think it was a guy) even admonished me that, now that I'd broken in, I "owed" it to my fellow writers to help them in too. Charming!

    One thing Shane Black used to tell writers at the Austin Film Festival was that they should network laterally. As you've pointed out, it's best to make sincere, mutually beneficial friendships, rather than zeroing in on successful "targets" and trying to exploit them.

    ReplyDelete