April 17, 2018 / 9 Comments

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 demandmy 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.
            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.
            First off, some amazing news.  I’ve got a four book deal with Crown Publishing, a division of Random House.  Depending on your views and opinions, this may be complete and inarguable validation of everything I’ve said here, or it may be proof that I’m a sellout hack who knows only slightly more about writing than the average chimpanzee.  I leave that decision up to you.

            And now, on with our regularly scheduled rant…
            After hearing a few stories from friends, I thought I’d step away from the how-to aspect of writing for a week and talk about a recurring problem.  I’ve seen it happen to other writers I know.  Over the past couple of years, it’s actually started to happen to me, so I guess there’s an argument to be made that on some level this is a bit pre-emptive.
            Anyway, the best way to talk about this is to tell a story…
            About two years ago, screenwriter Josh Olson (who adapted A History of Violence and the new Jack Reacher movie) got a lot of crap for a piece he wrote for the Village Voice, telling would-be screenwriters to… well, to leave him alone, to put it politely.  A few days later David Gerrold (writer of some well-known original Star Trek episodes and the War Against the Chtorr books), chimed in as well, and he was even a little more pointed with his words.  He also added the topic of litigation.  Dozens of aspiring writers called these two men jerks, asses, and threw a lot of other labels out there, too.
            What were they talking about?
            Would-be writers who tried to take advantage of established writers.
            Honestly, it amazes me how many vague acquaintances and complete strangers think if they can dig up your email address or a social networking page that they have now “networked” with you.  Which can really suck if your name and email address was posted in a prominent writing magazine every other month for a few years.
            But that’s a gripe for another time…
            I probably get at least one request every month from complete strangers or vague acquaintances.  People send me requests all the time and almost seem to be proud of the fact that there’s no connection between us.  As a matter of fact, one stranger on Facebook once sent me a stilted letter explaining that we didn’t know each other, then told me about where he grew up, and then asked me to read his screenplay and help him get it in front of producers and agents.
            Y’see, Timmy, one of the rudest things I can do is ask a professional writer—especially one I don’t even know– to take time out of their workday to work on my project.  It doesn’t matter if I want a co-writer, an editor, or a mentor.  I mean, what do you think would happen if I asked a professional carpenter if he’d like to work with me on building the house I’ve designed (well, sort of designed—I’ve got some cool ideas)?  Should I catch my local mechanic on his lunch break over at Jack in the Box and ask if he’d be interested in helping me fix my car when he gets off work?  What do you think would happen if I bumped into Gordon Ramsay and said, “hey, I offered to cater my friends wedding and I was wondering if you’d be interested in helping me cook the dinner?”
            Seriously, what do you think these people would say?
            Well, we can all guess.  These people do this for a living.  Asking the tech support guy at Buy More for help with my computer is not the same as asking my friend Marcus.  I mean, none of us would show up at the garage out of the blue and ask the mechanic if he could give us a free oil change, right?
            Well, not without hunting him down on Facebook and sending a friend request first…
            Now, this isn’t to say a professional won’t help anybody.  I’ve got several friends who help me with projects and I’d gladly help any of them with theirs.  There are people I’ve known and worked with for years and I often offer them tips or suggestions.  Heck, I’ve got two manuscripts I’m looking at right now for friends even though I’ve got a serious deadline to meet for my new publisher.
            To save everyone some time and effort, here are some of the signs I will gladly look at your writing and offer some form of honest critique.  And while I’m saying this about me in these examples, it really holds for pretty much any professional writer.  For any professional at all, really.
You are literate.
            If, u no, I cant understan half ur mssg to me bcuz its incode or txtspk or u just have now ideal how to spill, there is little chance I’m going to risk my sanity n numerous full pages of such gibberish. LOL THX!!!!

            Think about it.  If I’m trying to convince my mechanic to work with me, what’s he going to think when I tell him the engine’s having trouble because the hobgoblins from the muffler have stolen all the pixie dust?  If I tell Ramsay that my secret burrito ingredient is yellow snow, do you think he’s going to listen to me for much longer?  If you want help from a professional, you’ve got to show you have at least a firm grasp on the basics of your chosen field.  For us, that’s spelling and grammar.

We have known each other for several years 
            Just to be clear, if we shook hands and said hello at a party three years ago, this does not mean we have known each other for three years.  Neither does being part of the same Facebook group.  Same for following the same person on Twitter.
You actually want to hear what I have to say.
            As Olson noted in his editorial, many people send out manuscripts saying they want feedback, but what they’re really looking for is to get back tears of joy, glowing endorsements, and promises they will be passed on and up to producers/publishers/ J.J. Abrams.  In my experience, very few people actually want honest feedback and criticism (even if it’s constructive).  They just want the praise.  I don’t want to waste my time reading a hundred pages and writing up three or four pages of comments, suggestions, and corrections just so you can say I’m a jackass who doesn’t understand your writing and judged you unfairly…
We have shared several meals 
            This does not include eating in the same food court while you stalked me in the mall.  This is repeatedly sitting down and talking over drinks and appetizers or even just pizza and a bad Netflix movie.
We communicate with each other (via phone, email, message boards, or chat) on a regular basis
            Note that communication is a two-way street, and spamming me with messages through multiple channels every day does not count as communicating.  Being someone’s friend on Facebook, Google+, or MySpace doesn’t qualify, either.  Check the terms of agreement—these websites do not come with a “guaranteed friends with benefits” clause.  If they did, I would do whatever it took to get a number of women on my friends list.  And I’d feel shortchanged by a few that already are.
We’ve lived together 
            Not in the sense of “on the planet at the same time,” but more in the “sharing rent and chores around the kitchen for several months” way. 
We’ve slept together
            In any sense. Hopefully this is self-explanatory.  If you’re not sure, the answer is no. Unless you have photos to prove otherwise…
            For the record, this is probably the only case where deliberate “networking” is effective.  If there’s a writer you really want an opinion from and if they’re willing to sleep with you, they’d have to be a real jerk not to look at your manuscript afterwards.
            So just be sure your networking target isn’t a jerk…
I’ve offered before you asked. 
            A very, very few people have caught my attention while chatting about their ideas.  They didn’t ask me to look at their writing.  I just read it because I wanted to, and asked later if they wanted comments.  Some did.  Some didn’t.
You’re not asking for something you could find out on your own.
            Not to sound old (he said, stroking his long white beard), but 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.  If you’re emailing me, posting here on the ranty blog, or sending social network messages about agents or places to send your manuscript, that means you have access to Google.  Do it yourself.
You’re willing to pay my hourly rate with a four hour minimum.
            If you’re at all worried about what my hourly rate as a story editor may be, you probably can’t afford it.  I’m a professional writer.  I worked very hard and made a lot of sacrifices to become one.  Like any professional, my time is worth money.
            If you can claim a few of these (or just the last one, really), you’re in.  Feel free to drop me a note.  I’m sure most professionals would feel the same way.
            If not… please reconsider that request you’re about to send out.  Save yourself some time that you could use to polish your writing.  At the very least, don’t be surprised or angry when your chosen author doesn’t write back.
            Next time… well, I may need to skip next week.  As I mentioned, I’m on a bit of a tight schedule these days.  But next time you check in, I’d like to tell you a fun story about the X-Files and punching Rick Springfield.
            Until then, go write.