Writing Excuses 16.4: Networking
Key Points: Networking isn’t just getting to know editors, agents, and publishers. It’s also how you relate to the greater community, and how we all build that community. Volunteering lets you see how it works, and lets you shape things, too. Conferences, writing groups, anthologies. Remembering names! Don’t just try to imitate other people, think about how you normally relate to people, and then expand on that. To meet an author, start with common ground, small talk, and pay attention to what is interesting about them. Don’t just chase famous authors, watch for peers, too. Editors and agents? Remember, the work comes first. Be aware of the demands on their time. Pay attention to them as people. Let them pitch to you! What are they working on, what are they doing that is exciting to them? Be ready to talk business if they ask. Practice your pitch, your elevator talk. Make genuine friends, don’t just follow your task lists. If you aren’t comfortable, walk away.
[Season 16, Episode 4]
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses.
[Mary Robinette] Networking.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re part of a five person network.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] We are going to talk about networking today. We are delighted to have both Erin and Mary Robinette with us, instead of switching back and forth like they have been throughout this course. Networking is a really valuable part of any business, and certainly also of our business. Brandon, this was… This is your class. This was your suggestion. What do you think we need to know about networking?
[Brandon] Well, I thought I was good at this until I met Mary Robinette.
[Brandon] Right? Like, for me, networking was getting to know the editors and keeping my little black book of editors and agents and publishers. Then I met Mary Robinette, who introduced me to the idea of networking with the greater community and building the community. I knew I wanted to have an episode on this in the Master Class, even though I don’t consider myself an expert in this particular area.
[Mary Robinette] That’s very flattering, Brandon. I think one of the…
[Brandon] Mary Robinette, you know everyone.
[Mary Robinette] Here, I’ll put in a plug for being on the board of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. But in all seriousness, volunteering is one of the best ways to network within a community. It allows you to see how things are working. But it also allows you to shape… And this is not just the random plug that it seems to be. One of the things that you will hear across organizations is that when you want to get involved with something, one of the best things you can do is to volunteer. It’s because of what I just said about the… Seeing how things… How the sausage is made, but also getting to shape the sausage. This metaphor is going downhill very fast.
[Dan] Delicious shaped sausage. One of the things, because we also… I mean, one of the reasons that our podcast is what it is, is because of networking. We all met each other… I’ve known Brandon forever, but the rest of us met each other through various professional outlets and conferences and book tours and things that we started doing together.
[Brandon] How did we meet, though, Dan? We were both volunteering.
[Dan] We were both volunteering on a science fiction magazine. That’s true. It was a student run magazine, so I guess it wasn’t professional, but even so, we met through the industry. Then, because this podcast became what it became, we started doing our own writing conference, the Writing Excuses Retreat, that happens every year. Erin is the person that we have asked to kind of lead that, because we met her when she was a scholarship recipient at that conference. She’s incredible, and impressed our socks right off.
[Mary Robinette] I met her…
[Dan] Now she’s kind of running the show for us in a lot of ways. And, to bring this back around, the most valuable thing that our students get out of the conference that we run is not us, it’s the opportunity to network with each other. We have seen so many writing groups form, we’ve seen anthologies come together, we’ve seen people get married because they met on our retreat. There’s a lot of really great networking opportunities at every level of this industry.
[Howard] The value of networking is something that we could all anecdotally establish and reestablish and reestablish. I don’t think it’s in question. For me, the hardest part with networking is… Was, I’m better at it now. I had a terrible problem remembering names, and I’ve been to three or four GenCon Indy events where I was sitting next to Tracy Hickman, so there were bazillions of people at the booth. I kept introducing myself to people who I’d met last year. I realized every time I was doing that… One, every time you do that, oh, I should already have remembered your name and I’ve forgotten it and I feel bad, I’m actually micro-aggressioning all over them by having dropped them into this index space in my brain that says well, clearly, you weren’t worth remembering. I hated that about myself. So I started trying to find ways to make my brain work differently. The tool that I picked was back in the before times when I went to restaurants all the time, looking at my server’s name tag and using their name and conversation and just teaching myself new name, new face, might never see them again, but the name is important. I got a lot better at it.
[Mary Robinette] I dealt with the same problem from a totally different way, which is that I just removed the pieces of casual small talk from my conversation that would betray whether or not I remembered someone.
[Mary Robinette] I no longer ever say, “So nice to meet you.” I say, “It was good talking to you.” The reason is because I, at this point, meet so many people, and have learned that my brain just… Like, I have made efforts. But I don’t hold them… And I’m starting to learn that I have a little bit of face blindness. Not terrible, but enough that I will see someone that I have spent… Like, had dinner with. I met my assistant three times before I remembered her. Not as my assistant, I want to be clear.
[Mary Robinette] But… One of those included a multi-hour dinner. So… It’s… I find that the way my brain works, it’s so contextual that I have better success at modifying my language than at modifying my brain. Erin, what are the tricks that you use? For networking and moving around in these social spaces?
[Erin] Well, the first thing I’d say is that what I love about both of the examples that you all just gave is that they’re all about knowing yourself. I think that one of the biggest pitfalls of networking can be the assumption that there’s like a way that you have to do it. You see other people networking in a certain way and think, “Well, I need to replicate that. This person’s shaking everyone’s hands in the place. I’m going to do that.” Instead of thinking, like, how do you relate to people normally when you’re not trying to do anything, when you’re not trying to get anywhere careerwise, just in your life. And then figuring out how can you slightly expand that. So, like, how can you work on that in a bigger space? So I am a slightly extroverted person, which in the writing world makes me an extremely extroverted person.
[Erin] So I… And I love karaoke, so I will go to karaoke bars and talk to random people. So I know about myself that I’m okay with just going up to a stranger and making conversation and am pretty nonthreatening. So, because I’m a small person in my face somehow says I won’t murder you, I’m able to go up to people and kind of just strike up conversations at a bar or at a reading, in a way that others may not be able to.
[Mary Robinette] And then later murder them.
[Erin] Mary Robinette…
[Erin] Well, now it’s going to be harder.
[Dan] Thriller warning.
[Howard] Later step in the business relationship.
[Mary Robinette] Murder them with song. Murder them with song. That’s what I meant.
[Dan] I have personally been murdered by Erin’s singing at least twice.
[Mary Robinette] But murdered in a good way.
[Dan] A very good way.
[Dan] I want to pause here for our book of the week. Mary Robinette, you have that. It is The City We Became.
[Mary Robinette] Yes, I do. Yes, I do have that book. So, The City We Became is N. K. Jemison’s latest, as we record this. I went in not knowing what to expect. It is a love letter to New York and all of the boroughs. It is a coming-of-age story about a city. Also, intrigue and… Just, it’s social commentary and action and magic and it’s so good. Very much its own book. But it’s also… One of the things that I love about it, and one of the reasons I suggested it for this, is that it is very much about building your community and found family.
[Dan] Wonderful. That is The City We Became, by N. K. Jemison.
[Dan] So, as we continue our discussion of networking, one thing that I know our listeners want to know is how to do it. How do they approach authors? How do they approach agents? How do they approach editors? Let’s start with authors. Somebody wants to meet an author. How do they do that?
[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things that I always suggest is a lesson that I learned from my mom. Which is that when you go up to someone, her philosophy… She was an arts administrator. Her philosophy is that the other person is always more interesting than you are, and that when you begin a conversation, you shouldn’t begin it with business. That you should begin it with some common ground, some small talk. Small talk exists to basically say, “Hello. I am not a threat.” So, what I do when I’m approaching someone or when someone is approaching me, the thing that I try to do is find that common ground. So it’s things like, “Oh, the elevators are running really slow.” Or, “Man, how’s the…” I will actually now, especially when we are all in Zoom land, say, “How is the weather where you are?” We have a conversation about weather. But it gives us this moment when we are people and we are not doing business. If I know anything about the author, or if I hear anything in their conversation that I am also interested in, I try to steer the conversation in that direction. Because saying the other person is more interesting than you are does not mean that you have to fawn over them. What it means is that you live in your own head. You experience it all the time. Anything that’s coming from them is new and interesting. You can… Like, if I know someone has an interest in cars, I don’t have an interest in cars, but we do have a 1952 MG-TD that I have a great deal of fondness for. So I steer the conversation towards classic cars. Then we have some common ground. Then, afterwards, I become the one person that they didn’t talk about the publishing business with, and I stick out in their brain more.
[Dan] Brandon, what are your thoughts on this?
[Brandon] I just wanted to throw in the reminder that getting to know authors does not… The best thing that I did, early in my career, was identifying people that were writing great books who weren’t published that I could make a bond with and that could be my… Ended up being, like, my friends for life in the business. I’m kind of talking about Dan. Right?
[Brandon] But people like Dan, where both of us were in the same state in our lives. But Dan was writing these really great stories, and I knew Dan was somebody I wanted to know because I thought he made my writing better. Knowing people like that in your… Like, it doesn’t necessarily… Networking with other authors doesn’t have to mean going and approaching famous authors. It can mean knowing people from your community so you have a group to grow with as you all kind of start to learn these things together.
[Erin] Yeah. I’d say it’s important to put as much time into like networking and building community even more with your peers as your heroes. Because ultimately your peers are going to grow with you in the field, but also, because in a group, there’s… You don’t want to be known as the person who’s like looking for, like, oh, who can I network with that’s going to like move me up in the world. You want to feel like you’re genuinely interested in other people. A lot of… I’ll say, I didn’t set out this way, but I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities in my own career from friends and peers who I just met because I wanted to meet them and they were interesting and I liked what I knew they had written. But then, later on, as careers start to develop, you never know when somebody might be able to, like, throw something your way that they’re not able to do, for example. So I think it’s really important to, like, just care about the people around you and not get too much in your head because you’re in a professional writing space and forget who you are as a person, which is a cool person who, theoretically, knows how to relate to at least some other people in the world.
[Dan] Yeah. That’s my kind of primary source of author networking right now is throwing people jobs. If somebody comes to me about a freelance thing, I need someone to write this RPG adventure or whatever it is, and it’s not a job I can take on, I will always try to suggest three or four other people instead. So instead of just saying no, I do this, I’ll say, “Please go look at these people. They do excellent work and you may not have heard of them.” That has been really valuable as a way of kind of spreading that love and building relationships both with the authors I’m recommending and with the publishers that are talking to me.
[Dan] Now, what about with editors? This is something that is maybe a little more immediately valuable to an aspiring author. How do you build networks, how do you get to meet editors and agents? Let’s throw them both in there.
[Mary Robinette] So, ultimately, I’m just going to remind people that in terms of selling a book, it still comes down to the work.
[Mary Robinette] So, what you’re looking for with these conversations with agents and editors is a better understanding of the field. It’s not… You’re not going to make a sale because of your relationship with an agent or editor. It might help a little bit. It might cause them to do a more sympathetic read, but the work itself has to be there. But when you’re talking to an agent or editor, there’s something that I call the hierarchy of time, which is the idea that how many people want a piece of you affects how valuable your time is. It has nothing to do with your actual merit as a human being. It has nothing to do with any of that. It’s not that some people are worth more than others. It’s just… The hierarchy of time is someone who’s… As Brandon was talking about earlier in a previous episode, knowing how much your time is worth. Some of that is how many people are trying to take that. So editors and agents have a lot more people wanting pieces of their time than an early career writer. So they stand higher in the hierarchy of time for that reason only. So when you are talking to them, I think it is helpful to remember that. So that when you are having a conversation, that you are contributing to their enjoyment. And I don’t mean sucking up, it’s just that… Because everyone is trying to get a piece of them, it is useful if you can share… You can be amusing. I don’t mean like, “Hello. Here is the joke that I have prepared to tell this editor.” But actually paying attention to them as a person and as a conversation.
[Brandon] One of the things that Dan and I found is that if you’re doing this at a convention, which is where we normally did it, actually going to that editor’s panels and going in afterward and approaching, at appropriate places like at parties or things, those editors to ask them about the panel, things that they said. That was really handy, because, number one, it gave us more information. This is what we were looking for. These are the experts in the field. Number two, it was a conversation starter about something we knew they want to talk about, and it is a way into a conversation. The other big one was always we wanted to know what books the editor was working on and why they were excited by them. Because this, number one, gives us information again about the field, but it also is something that every editor I’ve met wants to talk about because it’s exciting for them. Because they love these books. Because they want to sell these books. You’re actually letting them pitch to you in that case, which is helpful for them because maybe they’ll get a sale off of it. But it’s also helpful for you because you probably should go by those books to find out what the editors in the field are really excited by right now.
[Erin] I think it can be very inspirational. There’s nothing… I love hearing editors talk about the books that they’re working on and how much they love them. At a time… If you’re like in the slog of writing and it’s like oh, it will never end, seeing what the part of the process that you can get to and thinking, “There’s so much excitement. Editors want to be publishing great work.” is a great way to, like, for me at least, give me a little boost and get me back in front of the computer or the page.
[Mary Robinette] One thing that I also want to say in terms of agents and editors is, while you should go in and plan to treat them like a person, and they are your peer, they’re not a target… Is the thing we say on the Writing Excuses cruise all the time. At the same time, be ready to talk business if they ask. So have practiced your sales pitch, your elevator pitch. Know what you are actually writing. Do that homework so that when it comes up, you can talk about it without going, “Well. I mean. It’s kind of a… Fantasy…”
[Dan] She’s saying that because she’s heard me pitch books before.
[Mary Robinette] I have. Hey, I’m really loving Ghost Station, by the way, which is not a fantasy.
[Dan] Thank you very much.
[Mary Robinette] Hey, look at me networking. So, that’s the kind of thing that you can do, is just be prepared. What’s Ghost Station about?
[Dan] Ghost Station is a Cold War spy novel about cryptographers who are on… In West Berlin about two months after the Berlin Wall was built in 1961. So, that’s what it’s about.
[Mary Robinette] Good job.
[Dan] Thank you.
[Howard] Ghost Station is a cold start to a good pitch that… Okay, I’m on my game.
[Dan] That was awesome.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you for demonstrating, Dan, why it’s important to practice your elevator pitch so that when they ask, “So, what are you working on?” which will inevitably be a topic of conversation, that you can actually answer it smoothly.
[Dan] In my defense, if you ask me what I’m working on, I’ve got a much better answer. I haven’t had to pitch Ghost Station to anyone in a year or more. But, yes. These are all good things to remember. Howard, you’ve got something? Looks like you want to say?
[Howard] I may be coming at this from an established position of luxury or whatever, but I find that networking as a I am networking is really arduous. I’m an introvert, I’m not an extrovert. I like having genuine friends. I find that the most… I make friends by meeting interesting people and talking to them and listening to them and I love that. I have… Lately, anyway, I have zero task lists in my brain. No must meet the following people, they must be able to do the following things. None of that is present. I just… I like having friends and being genuine and meeting people. I think it was about 15 years ago, I was at Comic Con and got to meet Steve Jackson for the first time. It actually would have been more than 15 years. 17 years ago. He was a fan of my work. Suddenly we had conversations that had nothing to do with what we were doing. Then, at one point he talked about online sales, and I realized, “You know what? I was talking to Scott McCloud the other day, who is a web cartoonist and who… Understanding comics,” and I said, “Steve, Scott McCloud is the expert, and I think he’s right here at this convention. Let’s go find him.” So I got to introduce Steve Jackson to Scott McCloud. What did I get out of that? Well, my friend Richard took a picture. It made it look like I was in the middle of a brilliant discussion between these two luminaries in their own fields. But, ultimately, what I got out of it was this is a fun conversation. Steve talked to Scott talked to Steve, and I was kind of in the middle of it. They’re just… They’re good people and I like them. If I ever need, really need to meet an editor, what will probably happen is I’ll talk to Erin, Mary Robinette, and say, “Geez, I’ve got this thing, and I don’t even know what to do with it. Maybe it needs an editor.” One of my friends might say, “Oh. There right here at this event.” And walk me over and introduced me, because we’re friends. It’s nothing… It’s not transactional at all.
[Dan] That is…
[Mary Robinette] All of that is…
[Dan] One of the things I love about the publishing industry is that for the most part, it is a friendly industry full of people who want to help each other. Having worked with Hollywood, I could tell you how rare it is to be in a friendly industry full of people who want to help each other.
[Mary Robinette] I actually want to say that that is something that is very true of science fiction and fantasy, and some of the other genres. There are genres that that is not true. So just take that under advisement a little bit. Erin, did you want to chime in on that?
[Erin] Yes. Just one other thing to take under advisement, not to put a bad negative spin on anything, but also remember that, like, networking is great, but you are important and your own safety and comfort is important. When you get into things where there’s hierarchies of time and power, sometimes people… If something is making you uncomfortable, if you don’t feel good about a conversation you’re having, you can walk away. It will not kill your career. It won’t do anything. The most important thing is for you to be okay with what you’re doing and the people that you’re around.
[Dan] Yes. That’s a wonderful note to end on. Thank you very much for that.
[Dan] Mary Robinette, you have homework for us.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So the homework that I have is that I want you to think of… Think of and do five things. I want you to think of five things that you can do to help someone without getting credit. It doesn’t have to be completely anonymous. But I’m talking about doing things like quietly signal boosting something, a donation, fulfilling a wish, beta reading for someone. You get thanked for beta reading, but you don’t get like big public credit for it. So things that you can do to help other people. Because the biggest thing with networking is the old aphorism, a rising tide raises all ships. So how can you help that tide rise?
[Dan] Fantastic. Thank you very much for that. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.