Tuesday, April 17, 2018

We’ve Never Met, But...

            I wanted to take a brief moment to re-address an issue I’ve seen pop up a few times recently.  It’s happened to me, it’s happened to friends, it’s happened to acquaintances.  Josh Olson and David Gerrold have both written impassioned pieces about it in the past.
            So let’s talk about bad networking...
            Yeah, this is going to be one of those divisive posts.  I’m betting a third of you walk away thinking I’m a jerk, and another third (possibly some overlap) walks away thinking this was aimed specifically at you. Very sorry in advance.  It's really not aimed at anyone, just general observations from the past... oh, thirty years or so.
           These days it’s almost too easy to get in touch with people.  Especially famous (and semi-famous) people.  Email.  Social media.  Appearances.  It’s not uncommon to get a like, a response, maybe even a follow from somebody you admire.
            Of course, it’s important to be honest about what kind of relationships these are.  Mark Hamill’s liked two tweets I wrote, but I don’t think he’s going to be showing up to offer friendly support at my next book signing (even though we’re in the same city). Hell, Leslie Jones follows me on Twitter, but I’m pretty sure it’s just because I replied to a comment she made about Timeless and made her laugh.  That’s all it is.  I’ve gone to three Bruce Campbell signings, and the last two he pretended not to know me.
            Sounds a little creepy, that last bit, doesn’t it? 
            That being said...
            At least once a month I’ll get contacted by complete strangers or vague acquaintances, asking if I can read their manuscript or just a few chapters or maybe the final product for a blurb. Most of them are polite.  Some are... not as polite.  A few are flat-out arrogant.  I had one person demand my time—insisting that I owed it to people to help them out.
            Actually, let’s talk time for a moment.
            I write full-time.  It’s my job.  It’s how I pay for food, rent, bills, everything.  I work forty to fifty hours a week.  Sometimes closer to sixty as deadlines loom.  I don’t think I’m terribly unusual in this.  I know a few professional writers who still have unrelated full time jobs, and then they’re still putting in twenty or thirty hours writing on top of that.
            Plus, there’s probably another ten or fifteen hours of various social media things mixed in there.  Posts, answering questions, chatting with folks online.  Tossing up random tips and ideas here.  It’s fun, and I enjoy talking with people, but that visibility is also part of my job.  Yeah, even when I’m drinking and ranting about bad movies on Twitter. Yes, I’m drinking on the job.
            And I get sent stuff professionally.  We’re just barely into the fourth month of the year and I’ve already been sent half a dozen books by editors, publicists, and my agent.  That’s part of the job, too.  Blurbing books helps out all of those people, so it’s just good office politics to read them.
            So—even on the very low end—we’re looking at a 55-60 hour work week.  I don’t think that’s out of the ordinary for a professional writer. Heck, it might be even a bit sub-par, by the standards of some folks.
            When someone asks me for a favor, they’re asking me to cut into that time.  To cut into the “this is how I make a living” time.  Oh, sure, I could cut into my free time instead, but... well, I don’t get a lot of it, so I tend to be protective.
            This isn’t to say I—or any professional—won’t help people.  I’ve got several writer-friends who help me with projects and I’d gladly help any of them with theirs.  There are people I’ve known for years and I often offer them tips or suggestions, when they’re wanted.  A few folks have standing offers from me to read their hopefully-soon-to-be-finished manuscripts.
            Again... I don’t think I’m out of the ordinary here.
            Alas, there is still this school of thought that successful writers must help less-successful ones.  Under any circumstances.  Bring their careers to a dead halt and do absolutely anything they’re asked to do.  Countless gurus push this idea, and spin it so the professional’s the one being rude or unhelpful is they don’t immediately leap to assist.  Especially when I call them on it in public.  Heck, if they don’t go above and beyond to help me... well, it’s just proof of what a selfish jackass they are. 
            But, hey, if I never ask, I’ll never know, right?
            Well... maybe, I should know.
            Here’s a handy checklist of things to keep in mind before I start asking favors of people.  If none of these apply to me... maybe I’m being a little forward asking a professional to give up part of their work week.
            And, yes, I’m mostly basing these off my own criteria and experiences.  But going off other interactions I’ve seen... I think most professional writers would agree with these.

[  ] I’m literate.
            If I’m trying to convince a chef to take me on as apprentice, what’s he going to think when I tell him my secret pizza topping is iron filings?  Or if I tell a doctor my last patient’s midichlorian count was super-low because Mercury’s in retrograde?  If I want help from a professional, I’ve got to show them I’ve got a firm grasp on the basics of my chosen field.  For us, that’s spelling and grammar.
            If I send a letter to pro-writer Wakko full of txtspk or weird references or just tins of spelling mistakes, I’m showing him I don’t know what I’m doing.  I don’t know the basics.  If I’m telling him this right up front, why would I expect him to spend several hours wading through my manuscript?  Or even part of it?

[  ] I’ve known them for several years 
            Just to be clear, if I said hello and shook hands with Wakko at a party three years ago, this really doesn’t mean I’ve known him for three years.  Do you remember that guy you met at a party three years ago and then never spoke with again? No? Odd that...
            This also holds true for being part of the same Facebook group.  And for following the same person on Twitter.  Or shopping at the same stores.
            Wait.  How do you know what stores they shop at...?

[  ] I’ve shared several meals with them 
            This doesn’t include me eating in the same food court while I stalked Wakko in the mall.  Again, what is it with following people around stores. Cut it out. That’s just creepy.
            No, this means me repeatedly sitting down with Wakko and chatting over drinks or maybe pizza and a bad Netflix movie.  What does it mean when I say I grabbed a bite with one of my friends?  Those are the same conditions I should be applying here.  That’s what real networking is.

[  ] We communicate with each other (via phone, email, social media) on a regular basis
            The key thing here is I need to remember communication is a two-way street.  Me spamming Wakko with messages and responses through multiple channels does not count as communicating.  Just being someone’s friend on Facebook, Twitter, or Mastodon doesn’t qualify, either.  No, really.  Check the terms of agreement—none of these websites have a “guaranteed friends with benefits” clause.  
            (If they did, we’d all probably be a lot more careful about accepting friend requests...)

[  ] I’ve lived with them
            This should be self-explanatory.  Not in the sense of “on the planet at the same time” or “crashed on the couch for a week,” but more in the “sharing rent and chores around the kitchen for several months” way.  After living in the same apartment/house/hostel for six months, I shouldn’t feel too much reluctance about asking Wakko to take a quick look at something I wrote. 
            Unless I really screwed him over on the last month’s rent or was a serious nightmare roommate

[  ] I’ve slept with them
            In any sense. Again, this should be self-explanatory.  I’d very much advise against making this an active networking technique, though.  For a whole bunch of reasons.
            But if I’m already sleeping with someone and they won’t look at my writing? Wow.  There’s some issues there I might want to address...

[  ] I actually want to hear what they have to say.
            Okay, here’s one of those ugly truths, and if you’ve been listening to me rant for any amount of time you’re probably already aware of it.
            Lots of folks say they want feedback, but what they’re really looking for is to get back wild praise and promises their manuscript will be passed on and up to agents, editors, publishers, and whoever makes the big Hollywood movie deals.  In my experience, very few people actually want to hear criticism of their work (even if it’s constructive).  They just want the fan mail and to skip to the next step. 
            Reading takes time. Writing up notes and thoughts takes time.  Honestly, if all I want is the praise and the handoff, I’m wasting Wakko’s time asking for feedback.  And he’s a pro, so his time is worth money.

[  ] I haven’t asked before.
            When I was in the film industry, there was kind of this unwritten rule—if you had some passion project or low budget thing you wanted to do, you could ask your professional friends to help out.
            Once.
            The idea is that I’m acknowledging their skills and experience, but also that I’m calling in a big favor asking them to work for little or no money.  So, again, the quiet, unwritten rule.  You got one. It would be tacky and unprofessional to ask for more unless a lot of time had passed.  Like, several years.
            And since everyone knew and understood this, people were much more cautious about asking.  They’d make sure their project was solid and ready to bring other people in on, because nobody wanted to waste their one shot.  It would suck to get Wakko on board and then realize my script needed another draft.  Or two more drafts.
            I don’t want to waste that opportunity.

[  ] I’m not asking for something I could find out on my own.
            Look, when I was starting out as a writer you had to dig through magazines, make phone calls, send request letters, then go dig through more magazines, make different phone calls, and send different letters--and keep track of all of it. 
            These days all of this information is available with a bit of thought and a few keystrokes.  Really, there’s a huge amount of information I can get all on my own without bothering anyone else.  Honestly, the fact that we’re all right here looking at this post means we all have access to Google, yes?
            I think a lot of time when this happens, people are looking for the “real” answers.  They don’t want to know someplace to sell short stories—they want to know the ‘zine that pays a dollar a word and always gets the Edgar/Hugo/Stoker Award for short stories and inevitably lands their contributor with a big five publisher within a three-week window.  They want to know the agent who has a direct line to Simon & Schuster and takes unsolicited submissions.  Because there has to be one out there, right?  Surely all those big authors didn’t spend time in the junior leagues.  They just leapt from obscurity to six-figure incomes... like I want to do.
            If I want to make writing my career, part of the work is... well, doing the work.

            If I can tic off a couple of these boxes, I’m probably in a good place.  I'd feel pretty good about dropping someone like me a note, so to speak.  Again, I can really only speak for myself, but I think most professionals would feel the same way.
            If I can't put any check marks up there... maybe I should reconsider that email or tweet I’m about to send out.  I might be burning a bridge—perhaps even a couple bridges—before I get anywhere near it.  And if I try anyway...
            Well, I shouldn’t act indignant or surprised when things go up in flames.

9 comments:

  1. It feels like one of those horrible Facebook apps from a few years back where you answer a load of questions and then it tells you what X-Man you are.

    I could only tick one of the above so I got back "You are a Strange Man from a Strange Land and should not consider yourself a friend of Peter Clines".

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    1. "You are Silver Samurai."

      "No, he's a mutant. Really. Mutants are cool, right?"

      Delete
  2. I checked "Literate" because I spell real good.

    Occasionally I have a brief exchange with a writer I admire. (Peter Clines, David Gerrold, even my Evil British Twin, Neil Gaiman.) These are folks who talk with lots of people, in and out of the field, and I don't expect them to remember my name, let alone do me a favor.

    As far as helping less-successful writers goes, I think you're doing it by having this blog. At least, I know it's helped me.

    (And personally, I don't ask *anyone* to look at my work, until I submit it. Then the editor can look at it, but I don't really want feedback. It's mostly shyness. I need to get over that, especially now I've finally started on a novel.)

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    1. And, see, that's where I think the gurus go wrong. Most writers I know are very willing to help, but people don't really think about the levels of help they're asking for.

      It's the difference between me asking to borrow $10 and me asking you to co-sign on a house loan. :)

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  3. Thanks to Audiobooks, I now read your blog and hear Ray Porter's voice in my head. Is that weird?

    As to the post itself - I feel it is the same as asking your "photographer" friend to take photos of your wedding for free. Or the really great band you heard to play for "exposure." It's all fine and good, but you can't live on exposure and wedding cake won't pay the mortgage. And all of the time spent learning the trade/skill add up. It's a job, not a hobby. And asking people to do work for free is just rude...

    I feel the internet has made us all feel a little too familiar with people we don't really know. I am guilty of it myself at times - like right now, commenting on here as if though my opinion matters to anyone other than myself.

    Where do we draw the line, though? "We" as the public and "we" as the online personas of famous people (writers, actors, directors, presidents...). Social media is such a strange and relatively new thing, societally speaking, that it's a very awkward interaction between the two groups. Being on social media, unfortunately, means the good, fun commenters come hand in hand with the ones wanting that leg-up or that handout from the people they’ve come to follow online.

    Personally, I've enjoyed my online interactions with people such as yourself. You respond to comments and take the time to address issues such as this - which I think is great. If people ever think you're coming across as a jerk, my guess is those people don't see the amount of little red numbers on your "notifications" icon every day. The fact that you seem to look through those notifications is pretty cool.

    So... yeah. Now I'm rambling. Thanks for the posts and thanks for your works!

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    1. You're very welcome.

      (and, geez... I wish sounded like Ray Porter in real life. He sounds cool just standing around talking to him.)

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  4. I'm pretty new to the writing game, relatively-speaking, but my main gig as an artist means I know exactly what you're talking about. Boy-howdy, do I.

    When non-artist types see a finished piece, they are all agog "It's like magic!" This is very much a double-edged statement. On the one side, they are full of awe and appreciation. On the other side, "magic" means the artist only has to snap their fingers or wriggle their nose and the art appears. Why should they pay for something that I can do without apparent effort and in less than an hour? Because behind that pointy pencil tip is a culmination of years making it look "easy".

    Some of these folks ask "What's the secret to becoming an artist?" Simple. Go back in time to when all little kids, including you, were happy colouring and messing around with crayons. When the other kids, for whatever reason, put their paints and crayons away, you keep going. A decade or two later, shazam, you're an artist!

    Have I wandered away from the topic? Anyway, I've been asked for free art so many times. Free lessons, free advice and free secrets not as often, but often enough. I have been lucky in that none of them got rude and/or demanding that it was my "duty". Wow. I'm not sure I could remain diplomatic in the face of that twisted arrogance.

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  5. A great post. I'm a newbie writer (the author part of my blog name is wishful/forward thinking) and I had visions of me contacting various authors whose work I admire and getting them to retweet my book (out soon!) to their followers. However, I'm glad I stopped and thought about what I was asking before I leapt in feet first. This post backs up that decision. I think I'll rather just continue to be a fan, rather than become a nuisance.

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  6. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "Surely all those big authors didn’t spend time in the junior leagues. They just leapt from obscurity to six-figure incomes... like I want to do."

    Because so many people don't discover a writer until they are famous and successful, the assumption is they just started recently. You don't see the years of work it took to get to that point. I like what Jim Butcher has said on the subject: "None of you knew who I was before the Dresden files; because everything I had written before hand was complete and utter drivel."

    He also has many cute stories about taking a writing class from a published writer and how he(Butcher) was an obnoxious know it all in the early days because he had a degree and the writing teacher had merely published twenty or so books.

    Anyways, just wanted to say great post. Very inciteful and helpful. Thanks for showing frankness and honesty when you know it can cause a negative backlash from people.

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