by Tim Waggoner
"It's not what you know, it's who you know."
That bit of conventional "wisdom" is often cited by writers to explain everything from rejection letters to the lousy state of publishing. It's not my fault, they think. It's the publishing good-old-boy network keeping me out.
There's no denying that networking is important -- perhaps even vital these days -- in creating a writing career. But too many people hold a narrow view of what networking is. They imagine standing around at a publisher's party at a conference, free drink in hand, schmoozing with editors and agents, regaling them with wit and wowing them with a verbal description of their latest (planned) 300 thousand word opus. But in its purest sense, networking is simply about making connections, and you don't have to be a mainstay of the New York publishing scene to do it effectively.
One of the first ways that writers can start making connections is by taking classes. Creative writing classes are offered through colleges and universities, of course, but they are also sponsored by adult continuing education programs, libraries and local arts organizations. Taking a creative writing class can provide an excellent opportunity for feedback from a (hopefully) skilled instructor, and from other student writers. But it can also provide the beginnings of a writer's network. Your instructor will be able to point you toward resources -- reference books, writing programs and conferences in your area -- which can, if nothing else, decrease you writing career learning curve.
Your instructor should be able to give you advice on publishing, perhaps even provide you with some contacts. But the truth is that many creative writing courses are staffed by instructors who've published little, if at all. Always try to learn something about an instructor's credentials if you can before signing up for a class. Ask to see a bibliography of the instructor's published works, and try to track down and read some of them. Caveat emptor.
But even if the instructor is far from a best-selling author, that doesn't matter much. Because the most important networking opportunity is the chance to connect with your fellow students. From creative writing classes, writers' groups are born. Groups which can continue providing feedback on your work long after the class ends; groups which also can pool their knowledge of marketing and submission strategies.
But what if there aren't any creative writing classes offered in your area? How can you establish a writers' group then? By advertising, naturally. Put up notices in libraries and bookstores. WANTED: ONE WRITERS' GROUP.
Author readings and signings are other excellent networking opportunities. You might be able to chat with the author for a bit and ask questions. (Maybe even more than a bit since signings and readings are notorious for being poorly attended. You may well have the author all to yourself.) You can also meet other beginning writers. Take a notebook with you and, at an appropriate time, announce you'd like to form a writers' group and pass the notebook around for interested parties to write down their addresses and phone numbers. You can also pass out business cards if you have some (and you should).
The Internet has been a boon to writers. You can take classes online and connect with other writers via newsgroups and chat rooms. You can exchange stories for critique through e-mail and of course share those all-important marketing tips.
Author web pages are also wonderful resources. Not only do authors sometimes post articles on how they got started or offering advice to newcomers, often authors' e-mail addresses are also provided. Got a question or two? Go ahead and e-mail an author, though don't be surprised if he or she's too busy to respond. And don't bombard them with "where's my reply" follow-ups. Annoying people is not an effective networking strategy.
Writers' organizations are also great networking resources. Often, you need to have only one pro story sale under your belt to join as an affiliate member. You won't be able to vote in officer elections or for awards, but you'll be entitled to receive the organization's publications, such as handbooks, newsletters, even directories of members (with those handy e-mail addresses). Even if you haven't made a pro sale yet and don't qualify for membership, you can still often purchase and subscribe to an organization's publications.
Conferences and conventions are prime networking opportunities. Not only can you attend workshops and informative panels on writing, but you can often speak with program participants -- authors, editors and agents -- in the hall after a panel or at other slow times during a conference. Come prepared with questions and always bring along a manuscript or two. Never thrust your work upon someone, though. Always wait to be asked.
You can also become a program participant yourself with only a few sales to your credit. I began sitting in on panels at Science Fiction conventions after only having sold a handful of stories. All I did was write the conference's director of programming, introduce myself as a local writer, list my credits, and relate my desire to be on a few panels.
My first convention as a program participant made all the difference in my career. Not only did the other writers see me more as a peer, I was able to find a writers' group which counted several published novelists among its members. I can't begin to tell you how much I've learned from them, and far more important, I made some great friends.
And that's what networking is all about, really. Not cold-bloodedly using other human beings to advance your career. It's about making connections, making friends. I began this article with a bit of writing wisdom. Let me close with another: Good writing happens when good people get together.
Good careers can happen, too.