Sunday, January 24, 2010

Do's and Don'ts of Networking

The following is a transcription of notes I took during a presentation by Clint Johnson at the Oquirrh Hills chapter meeting for the League of Utah Writers, on January 21st.

Do’s of Networking.
  1. Do make use of every opportunity to network, no matter how unlikely you think the chance might turn into something significant later on down the road.

  2. Do be professional. Most professions require a degree, such as an AA, BA, MS, MBA, etc. There is no such thing for creative writers. A BFA or an MFA is not mean you’re a good creative writer. Agents and other professionals have nothing to go on other than your behavior and your manner of dress. Professionalism is extremely important.

  3. Do be nice. Be kind and genuine. Don’t over-do the charm. Don’t be overbearing. Don’t corner people to get their attention.

  4. Do be polite.

  5. Do be honest. Especially on your list of publications. This is a small world. Everyone is connected to everyone. Everyone is a beginner at some point. Editors and agents realize this.

  6. Do be confident. Go with your strengths. Don’t be too witty.

  7. Do be humble. Don’t put other authors down. Again, this is a very small world. Someday somewhere down the road, someone in this profession is going to be asked to do a favor on your behalf. Be humble.

  8. Do take opportunities when they come, even if they scare you. If you get asked to write something that is out of your genere, or something you know very little about, take it anyway. Opportunities are few and they are far between.

  9. Always follow up on a contact. If you meet with someone, always re-connect with them, just to keep open the lines of communication. Don’t let your contacts go stale.
Concerning #7, I was reminded of a couple experiences I’ve had professionally. The first happened in graduate school. I needed three members on my graduate panel. One would be my advisor, the second was anyone else I wanted, and the third was someone chosen for me by the department. My advisor suggested I go see a certain professor that I didn’t like at all. I thought he was an arrogant snob, and I got a C in his class—but I had been careful to not share my opinion to anyone else and I was very very very glad. I sucked it up, and when it came time to defend my thesis he gave me his shining approval.

Just sort of the way life works out. Go figure.

The second example I have seen over and over and over at work. I live by the maxim of be nice to everyone you work with. You never ever know who could be your boss. At the last place I worked, one of our testers wanted to transition into development. I was kind of doubtful at first, but I kept my opinion to myself. Again, I was glad I did because he ended up being my team lead.

Don’ts of Networking.

  1. Don’t be a fan-boy or a fan-girl when you meet an author. Don’t dress up in costume. In this world, there is a difference between fans and collegues. You want to be perceived as a potential collegue.

  2. Don’t monopolize someone’s time.

  3. Do not expect your heroes to be as interested in you as you are interested in them.

  4. Do not be scared to approach people in the right time or the right place.

Networking Avenues
Now that we’ve discussed the do’s and don’ts, let’s talk about some avenues appropriate for networking.


  1. If you’re just starting out writing, attend panels and workshops and breakout sessions that teach the craft.
  2. Keep a copy of the schedule, and mark the panels you attend.
  3. Keep a record of anything interesting that an author said, and who said it. Keep track of who you talked to, and what questions you asked, and the responses you gathered.

  4. After a while in your panels and workshops, you will start to hear the same things over and over and will get little value out of the lessons themselves. At that point, start attending your panels based on who’s speaking.

  5. Participate when you go to the panels and workshops. Get to know people. Ask good, relevant questions and offer any relevant input of your own. Again, write down anything interesting that other people say, and who said that.

  6. Be educated about the work that an author does. Be able to say what you like about it. If you don’t like it, at least demonstrate that you understand it, but you don’t need to share anything negative.

  7. Be outgoing. Talk to the other attendees. Don’t assume that the other attendees are nobodys. They could be just like you or they could be someone who is very well-connected.

  8. As you mature in your writing, and especially as you publish, you ought to have a goal of being a presenter at a conference. If you aren’t comfortable talking in front of other people, practice in smaller groups.
Book Signings

  1. You can go to the big authors, but they won’t have a whole lot of time to chat with you, and you can’t expect them to remember you at all.

  2. Go to book signings by local authors. It is always good if you have read something by them beforehand, especially their most recently-published work. Have a copy of their book of your own and ask to have it signed, and spend time chating. Local authors are a lot easier to talk to and they have contacts that are much more easy to get into than a big-name nationally famous author.

  3. When you meet with people and chat, ask if they have a business card. Find out if they have a blog. If they do, go and read it. Comment on it, and link back to your own blog.
Look for readings that have a meet-and-greet. You want face-time with the author. Other than that, readings are a rather poor source of networking.

Lectures or Workshops
This is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate your writing ability. Do participate. Look for opportunities to contribute and give back.

Your goal in networking
Your objective in all this is to become a part of the “discourse community,” part of the “in crowd”. You want to get in touch with the themes and ideas that authors are currently exploring. What do they currently care about? You are trying to become connected to the community.

Read these peoples’ blogs. Post comments on their blogs. Then when you go and see them in person, make reference to the article you commented on. What you are trying to do is match your face to your name.

Over time, you will find that your network matures. You will gain credibility among established professionals, and your opportunities will increase.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It's Just so Freakin' A

I was talking with friends at work about how 20% of the American public doesn’t believe that we actually went to the moon.

Yeah, I’m serious, there’s people out there that actually believe the whole thing was a conspiracy by NASA and the US govt. Another friend said he met a guy once who swore that aliens have taken over every level of our government. My friend asked, “Is there any data to back that up?” The guy responded, “It’s out there, man,” and left it at that. Not to be out-done, I recounted a time I hired a friend of a friend to paint my house. I mentioned The Da Vinci Code, because it had just come out in the stores, and I and asked him what he thought. Big mistake. He spent the next three hours lecturing me about how the new world order had taken over the planet and the Illuminati were the real ones running the show.

That got my friends and me wondering. When someone comes up to you blurting something totally asinine, what do you say?

You can try to argue and convince the person that they’re wrong, but have you ever gotten anywhere that way? I haven’t. You can’t win an argument with people who can’t think critically. Personally, I live by the maxim that you can’t waste your life educating fools—there’s too many of them. So, what’s the best response? I think I have the perfect one.

Freakin’ A!

Rarely in life are the answers so simple. Freakin’ A! What does it mean? Well, it really depends on what the listener wants to hear—and that’s the sheer beauty of it. It can mean anything. I got one of my friends to try it out. He went home, and for the past two days he evaded every question he didn’t want to answer by spouting, “freakin’ A!” It worked pretty well.

“Hey, babe. Let’s go visit the art gallery this weekend. There’s a new exhibit of post neo-modern expressionistic bi-cubism. Supposed to be out of this world!”

“Freakin’ A!”


Another very long pause.

(a couple days later, that weekend)

“So, are you ready to go?”

“Go where?”

“To the art gallery, like you promised.”

“Man, you heard it all wrong. I never said that.”

I did a Google search to see if anyone knows exactly what this phrase is supposed to mean. No one’s got a clue. It appears in print as early as the 1930s, but it’s probably a lot older than that. What people do agree upon is that it can mean literally anything, depending on the emotion you put into it. Let’s have a few examples to illustrate. Pretend a friend says something to you, and you want to make some kind of sympathetic response:
  1. Anger: Dude, that mechanic charged me $450 for a stupid break-job. Freakin’ A!

  2. Surprise: Check it out, I just won $20 playing power-ball. Freakin’ A!

  3. Elation: Man, the Wildcats just won the eastern division playoffs! (high five) Freakin’ A!

  4. Disappointment: Sorry, sweety, I had to cancel our tickets to the opera tonight. Boss says I gotta work late. Freakin’ A!

  5. Acknowledgement: Hey, I’m gonna bail and catch an early weekend. Freakin’ A!

  6. Swearing: $@$#-ing %$#@!-er!!! $#^ #@*$ it!!! Freakin’ A!

The politicians could sure use this. Picture Bill Clinton having to get up and address the nation over the Monica Lewinski scandal. He’s standing there, he looks straight into the camera and shakes his finger. “Freakin’ A!” The public would love it. They’d be saying to themselves. “Man, we’ve all been there. I know where he’s coming from!”

Bush, widely known for sticking his foot in his mouth, could have gotten out of so many tight spots. All he had to do was toss his hands in the air and say, “Freakin’ A!” The reporters would be in heaven. “The president, when asked today in a Whitehouse press conference about the missing WMDs replied, quote, freakin’ A, un-quote. And you know what, he’s right. Those Iraqis had it coming!”

So let’s role-play for a bit. Pretend I’m anyone. I come to you with something you feel needs a response because you’re trying to be polite, or I’m trying to back you into a corner and you want to remain non-commital. At the end of each sentence, just say to yourself, “Freakin’ A!”

  1. Dude, I swear aliens have taken over our government.

  2. Hey, can you come over this weekend and help me hang sheet-rock?

  3. Bush lied to us, man. He, Bin-laden, and the Saudis were all in it together when 9/11 went down.

  4. Son, did you mow the lawn like I asked you to?

  5. Obama can’t be our president, he’s not even American.

  6. Honey, does this dress make me look fat?

  7. Don’t buy anything from China. They’ve taken over the new world order.

  8. Honey, how do you like my new vegan recipe? It’s tofu artichoke eggplant surprise.

  9. The earth is really flat. All that stuff about the space shuttle and satellites in outer space is just Hollywood bullcrap.

  10. Gibbons, I need you to come in this Sunday and work on those TPS reports.

As a man, how often have I craved the perfect response when words failed me? How often have I been accused of not being communicative? What’s to communicate? What do I need to say? Just two simple words.

Freakin’ A.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reading for Your Writing

I once attended a class where a fellow student asked, “Should I read the classics?” She was referring to Dickens, Alcott, Shakespeare, Austin, Steinbeck, Hemmingway, etc, etc.

And I think I found the answer: not necessarily.

There’s a better question that ought to be asked, which is, “As a writer, should I read?” The answer to that is an emphatic yes! And you really, really ought to read from a wide range of genres. The follow-up question, then, is, “What should I read?”

And the answer to that is, “Only you can decide.” But, keep in mind this: you need to follow your passion. Find out what you like to read and learn what’s different about it that you think is flat and insipid or just plain doesn’t spark your interest.

You see, as a writer you ought to be reading not solely for entertainment value. You ought to be looking for two things:
Writing style.

Understanding Story
As far as story is concerned, you need to learn how to start looking at stories from an analytical point of view. There’s a whole host of things you need to ask yourself.

Theme: is there a “Big Question” in this story, or a “Big Statement” of some sort related to the human experience? Some books have a theme and some do not. Pay attention to how it is presented. A good author will take his characters through a series of experiences that will cause them to consider the Big Question from multiple angles, and leave the reader to ponder the solution on their own—or at least the author won’t ram the theme down the reader’s throat. As an example, the theme behind most Westerns is rule of law, and exploring the limits of law, and what to do in scenarios where the law is corrupt or broken down, and having the courage to stand up for your own convictions when everyone tells you you’re wrong.

Voice: this refers to the tone of the narrator. Voice is very prevalent in first-person stories, but it is also present in stories with a third-person or omniscient point of view. Think of the narrator as a character. Is the narrator’s voice happy or sad? Is the narrator’s tone cynical or hopeful? In a good story the voice will never, ever be neutral. The voice of a story sets the groove and the mood of the story throughout.

Concept: what is the pitch behind this story? What is the story’s angle that makes it unique? Look at plot devices and plot vehicles. Star Wars, for instance was about a young boy coming of age in the middle of a galactic war, and learning to use the Force as a power for good. The concept behind Treasure Island was the sea adventure and hunting for pirate treasure. The concept behind Star Trek is to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Structure: learn to break a story up into scenes. Look at the tension in a scene, is it rising or falling? Look at the emotional mood in the scene? Look at the scene from the plot perspective: are the stakes rising, broadening, or deepening? Or do we have breakthrough? Well-written scenes will have emotional tension balanced with a bit of the positive. Tension and rising stakes will be balanced with some kind of breakthrough

Character archetpes: archetypes are important to understand, because they create resonance with the reader, and they convey who each character is and their role in the plot. There are scores of archetype systems. None of them are the gospel truth, but they all have value in that they attempt to categorize characters from different stories into similar groups.

These are all very abstract concepts, but the better you understand them, the more vivid your writing will be. All of these things are very, very important, and each in its own way plays a role in the commercial success or failure of a story.

Writing Style
And as far as writing goes, there is a whole different set of things you need to be looking at, but the list is more specific:

Descriptive scenery: pay attention to the way authors describe scenery. What is the weather like? Is there a smell in the air? How do they describe physical things? Good authors will use language that conveys atmosphere, and describes what people are doing. Every scene has a vibe, an ambience. How is that mood conveyed?

Character descriptions: A good author will skip the police line-up facts (hair color, eyes, height, build), and will present details in a way that convey the character’s personality. Also, a good author won’t just paint a picture of a character, they will have the character make an entrance. What is their mood, as a character enters the scene, are they happy or sad? Do they glide in or stomp? Again, a good author will pick an action that conveys personality.

Gestures and body language. These will be sprinkled throughout dialog and action. Specifically, pay attention to how each of these conveys a character’s mood or emotional reaction within a scene. Pay attention to how it contributes to the emotional tension within each scene.

Internal emotions: This is related to the POV character within the scene (unless you’re in omniscient mode). Describe the emotions that the main character feels. As things happen within a scene there is always an emotional reaction (or there ought to be). How does the author describe it? Her heart sunk to the floor. My hopes rose like a balloon. My heart stopped, then picked up a double pace.

You see, as you read you are trying to build your own writing style. If you like a book or dislike it, or have some kind of strong reaction to it you need to ask yourself why. It is very important that you learn how to find this out, so that you can produce the same effect, or avoid it.

There are no right answers to the question of what you ought to read to improve your writing. The best answer is that you ought to read, and read a lot—but what you read only you can decide.