All I learned about networking I learned from John Updike’s pants.
Pants and a very annoying bird, to be exact… The pants were pink plaid, the bird a phoebe. As I stood before this author-of-greatness, chatting robotically about what sort of bird was nesting underneath the eaves of his porch, all I could think about were his pants. They were a crazy shade of pink. Like, Jersey shore salt-water taffy pink. My mind was a disorganized jumble of nonsensical thought, staring at this man’s pink nether regions when I should have been like that damn bird.
Phoebes are little birds with big attitudes. They’re not afraid to speak up and scream their name: PHOE-BEEEE! They fly around with their mouths open catching tidbits on mid- wing and glutting themselves on the result. Their acrobatics get noticed. Their voices are heard So when John Updike smiled at me our little chance encounter, happy with the information I gave him about his phoebe; he left me behind banging my head and cursing my ineptitude for organized thought.
I had just sent out my first query letter, and here I had the chance to chat about writing with a Pulitzer winner, and I wanted to run like a damn rabbit. Pun intended. Never again. Granted, Mr. Updike probably appreciated not being hounded by a new writer, and in hindsight, I learned a valuable lesson. What was the point in keeping my writing secret? How would I ever learn to progress my career if I didn’t speak up?
At this time I had been writing for a year, and no one knew. I knew networking was going to be a significant step in the business, but I was too scared to open my mouth and scream like that bloody bird. After learning a valuable lesson, and thinking I should grow a spine, I took my first networking plunge and called the president of a major New York publishing house. I had a way to that top rung of the ladder. Here I was a new writer with an acquaintance in the business, one who I was on a first name basis with, and even he didn’t realize I was a writer. So I organized my thoughts, dialed his number and enjoyed a lengthy conversation where he told me, in polite terms, to scream like that blasted bird. Start marketing myself before I ever got published and I would be a leap ahead of the game.
He was right.
Why do unpublished writers hide in shadows cowering from industry professionals? The best thing an unpublished writer can learn is that published authors love to chat about their books and the journey into the trade. Owners of small presses are eager to discuss marketing. Presidents and CEO’s are not as unapproachable as one might think, and agents are on our side.
So what’s the first step in learning how to network correctly? Understand your GMC’s and know how to roll them off your tongue. No matter who you chose to network with, introduce yourself and ask a well-constructed question that is not only specific to their house need but your writing career as well. Don’t give them a reason for not replying; wow them with your professionalism and drive to write. Find your favorite author and contact them. It may take some time, but they may respond. List your credentials. Toot your horn. Tell them something you admire about their writing and ask that specific question. It has never failed for me. The key there is presenting yourself as someone who understands where they are going with their career and are professional about doing so. It separates the writers from the fans.
Don’t limit yourself to authors or publishing professionals. Think outside the box. Do you have your blog up yet? Your website? Establish a following with an excellent blog, and you will establish readers. I started mine with the idea of being the punching bag and guinea pig for new writers who wanted to know the dirty details of trying to publish. I promised readers I would list every triumph and every failure. It seems like a million years ago now. I was like that bird, not afraid to shout my name and admit what I was doing. My blog led to my first full request by an agent.
All it takes to market yourself correctly as an unpublished writer is a bit of confidence and the understanding that those big-wig bestselling authors were once greenhorns too. No one will get in the way of your writing career but you.
And if you love pink pants, wear them with a smile.