I once had to present a faux writers festival presentation as part of an assessment piece. As someone who doesn’t like speaking in public, interacting with strangers, or even being seen, I was quite happy pitching the idea that writers should be read and not seen. That the golden days were when we didn’t have to be performing monkeys.
I was wrong.
I was wrong because there never was a time when we didn’t have to sing for our supper. From the troubadours and travelling storytellers to Chaucer, from Oscar Wilde to Mark Twain, we’ve always had to perform in public if we wanted attention. Hell, even Bram Stoker schlepped across the US giving readings. If we don’t perform, we don’t eat; and most of us like eating.
A lot of writers (myself included) can be described as ‘anti-social’ – we’d refer to be at home, on our own[i], just writing and spending time with people who don’t actually exist outside of our own heads. It’s like a game of Extreme Imaginary Friends. We don’t like to talk to anyone (except the furry familiars and the pretend people), and we just put the pretty words on the page.
You can get the words in the right order, you can get them to shine and dance on the page, but this doesn’t prepare you for the other part of your career: the talking to people part. If indeed you do want to be published, you will need to interact with other human beings: agents, publishers, publicists, booksellers, the marketing and sales departments, and most terrifyingly of all, readers. These are all categories staffed by humans. A writer needs to know how to talk with them, interact with them, in short, network with them.
The problem is (well, apart from the fact that many of us suffer people-phobia) that ‘networking’ seems like a dirty word. It seems to be about being shallow and venial and selfish and always looking to get something out of someone else. This makes people baulk at the very idea of networking.
We need to reframe the idea to make it less scary and also to make it more useful. To help with this, I’m going to pilfer a definition of networking from the very fabulous Lisa Butler[ii]: ‘Networking is … developing and maintaining genuinely helpful relationships with others for mutual benefit’. I think the important bits of that are ‘genuinely helpful’ and ‘mutual benefit’ – everyone wins with this idea.
With other writers, it may be sharing information about new writing markets, about an agent who may have her/his books open to new clients (especially rare in Australia), about manuscript development programs, etc. With publishers and agents, it’s about your symbiotic relationship with those entities – you help each other make a living. Just meeting people who may have knowledge you can tap into for your research – need to know about blacksmithing? Sword fighting? Someone knows someone else knows something about it – let the network help you out. In return you may be able to write/proofread a promotional brochure for the person whose expertise you want to access. It’s not all about you – it’s mutually beneficial.
Jeff VanderMeer talks about paying it forward. Be helpful to others – maybe you’ll get something back, maybe you won’t but you’re building up good stuff credit – it’s like writing career karma. Networking is a kind of barter.
[i] Or in the company of between two and nine cats, or one and three dogs, or any combination of the two.
[ii] An organisational psychologist and director with Paragon Associates who specialises in networking, and author of Networking Exposed.