There you are, squatting naked in your Unabomber shack and typing the final page of your midget zombie splatterpunk story, "Knee Knibblers." It's edgy. It's innovative. It will rock the foundations of horror for all time. All you need to do is sell it.
So you modestly daub a carapace of moose dung over your crotch, hop a bus to the World Horror Convention, and seek out Ellen Datlow so she can help you find the perfect market. You see her getting into an elevator and you skitter over to her, your crusty feet dragging across the tiled floor of the hotel. She frantically jabs the Close Door button, but you wedge your arm--scarred with the defensive wounds of a dozen murdered hookers--between the doors and shove it open. You grin, maggots writhing between your teeth.
And what do you say? You're at a loss. So you swallow nervously and say, "You edit good."
Now you've blown it.
Who hasn't read an article about successful networking? About the art of schmoozing? About how to promote your work, get your name out there, and be part of the community?
Sadly, there are people for whom networking is an advanced step to conquer after learning how not to frighten away people in the first place.
My friend Chris Harben says it best: "The greatest thing about genre fiction is that it welcomes everybody. The worst thing about genre fiction is that it welcomes everybody." Ply any editor or professional in the field with enough beers, and he or she will tell you amusing stories about awkward introductions and terrible cover letters, not to mention outright rudeness. Ellen may read this column and mutter to herself, "Jesus. Who told him about the moose dung dude?"
It's easy to think when you send out your stories from the safety of your lair that you are anonymous. It's also easy to hope that even when you're no longer anonymous, the genre community will welcome your quirks and lunacy with an understanding grin of acceptance.
That's not what I've heard from editors.
So today, we're taking a step back from proper manuscript formatting, cover letters, and effective networking to the more basic principles of not scaring the ever-loving shit out of people. If you merely wash yourself, wear clean clothes, and avoid sniping at children from a bell tower, you'll be several steps ahead of your competition. If you follow the additional principles below, you'll be on your way to the Stokers.
1. No amount of glad-handling, ass-kissing, brown-nosing, or savoir faire is going to be as effective as just writing well.
The good news for wallflowers and the truly disfigured or insane is that you just might be able to fake it if you quietly write works of genius from your padded room. Write us a few "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" stories and we'll let you put a trademark symbol after your name with a minimum of snickering.
If you are genuinely terrified or hopelessly awkward in social networking situations, focus your energy on the writing. Let it be your ambassador. Let people assume you write your stories while wearing a smoking jacket and swilling a snifter of brandy without giving them evidence to the contrary.
If all else fails, shut up and write. It may or may not work, but it will be far better than doing active damage to your credibility by trying too hard.
2. Listen and pay attention first. Then speak when you can contribute to the conversation and there is an invitation to do so.
The World Health Organization says we could prevent over ninety percent of all kookiness by encouraging the quiet, empathic observation of our fellow man before leaping headlong into a scary personal interaction.
At a convention, drift towards someone you want to meet. Look for signs that he or she is open and available--facing you, smiling. If the person is talking to others, listen and pay attention to cues that you might be welcome to join, like someone directly facing you or asking you a question. Look also for cues that you're not welcome, like lowered voices, turned backs, or awkward silence. When you've gotten some invitation, offer an insightful opinion. Better yet, ask a question.
Pay attention to other people. Try to read their signs. We're communicating all the time in ways far more complicated than our words. Kooks are too worried about their own signs to notice those of others, and it makes them easy to spot.
Think outside your own head and into someone else's.
3. Respect time, space, and other personal boundaries.
Use some of that writerly imagination to think about what it must be like to read hundreds of insane letters a month or fend off dozens of creepy aspiring writers at conventions. Consider just how disconcerting it must be to have someone corner you in a con suite or an elevator or on the way to a hotel room with a tattered manuscript in hand or a lengthy pointless anecdote.
Be brief. Be friendly. Be modest. Be accommodating, ready to back away if someone is busy or uninterested.
4. Being deliberately weird, surly, combative, or "artistic" will indeed get you remembered--for all the wrong reasons.
If you're reading this column, I can assure you that you are already sufficiently weird so as not to need anything contrived to be "different." The leather gimp mask, the dog collar, the cavalry sabre, the affected British accent...you will not need those here.
The measure of your uniqueness is not your naked Drow tattoos or your swastika cowboy hat but your stories. They'll long outlast your affectations, and they're a far more portable and wide-reaching venue for your spirit than any other. Express what you love and hate and fear with passion and verve, and you'll be plenty weird enough compared to the thundering, spirit-drained herd.
You are your interests and passions, not your costume.
5. Choose your battles wisely.
There's a time-honored tradition in most genres of dueling someone established for a little notoriety. Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas seem to be the most popular targets of late, but the various professional editors often take a few kook shots too, especially if their guidelines are considered "elitist" or "snobby." Some fumbling Don Knotts figure gulps an out-sized Adam's apple and shuffles into the middle of town, hoping to take down the sheriff.
When you do this, nobody is thinking that you're a bad ass finally putting an arrogant professional in his or her place. Legions of that person's fans and professional colleagues are thinking, "Who is this screwball?" And when your name crosses a desk atop your manuscript, one of that person's colleagues is going to say, "Hey, look! It's that screwball. Let us file that in the convenient repository for screwballs."
I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you that being called a screwball will NOT help your career.
Genre professionals talk. They share stories, particularly ones about kooks. They read a surprising number of message boards. They pay attention to the rumblings of the field, though not too much attention--just enough to know who behaves with a level of professionalism they'd find appealing, and who does not.
There are indeed plenty of good fights left in genre fiction: the discussion over minimum rates for professional sales, the rumble over associate and professional members. But you'd better be familiar with the debate so far and confine yourself to the subject instead of the debaters, or you'll out yourself as a kook more focused on making a name for yourself than contributing to the conversation of our genre.
You don't make a name on message boards. You make a name on tables of contents.
6. Make friends with content, not obsequiousness.
If I could have any superpower I wanted, I would take the ability to teleport a professional out of an elevator or from behind a signing table so he or she could avoid the inevitable creepy amateurs saying things like, "I like...you." Nobody should have to endure that stomach-knotting awkward silence while a nervous person wrings his or her hands waiting for a validation that will never come.
Compliments are always welcome, but they only go so far. If it's all you have, say it and move on.
But if you want to make a longer impression, you're going to have to say something substantive. You'll have to make an astute observation about the writer's work or the editor's magazine. You'll have to ask a question with a complicated answer. You'll have to be interested in the answer.
Questions are the fuel of conversation, not statements. Not weirdo questions like, "Are you part white man?" which was once asked of Owl Goingback when we were on a panel together. Real questions like, "What's coming up in the next issue that you're most excited about?" or "I notice you publish quite a few stories about archaeologists. Is that a subject you find interesting?" Or something better.
You'll never connect with another person unless you genuinely care about what he or she thinks and learn it by asking questions. Then you ask more questions to go even deeper.
7. Keep your professional relationships symmetrical: don't become frighteningly personal.
The error I see in this regard most often at conventions and other gatherings is the Creepy Personal Story: "I'm a writer because I was violated by pigs on my family's farm twenty years ago." It also appears in cover letters: "I can write knowledgeably about schizophrenia because I suffer from it and please stop sending messages to me in your editorials."
Kooks seem to struggle with an insatiable desire to be known and appreciated as efficiently as possible. Hence, they assert their personalities aggressively, dumping as much data as possible to explain their neuroses. The rationale seems to be that if only an editor or writer knew the true contents of their souls, they'd finally break in. Implicit there, too, is the idea that as people who share our interests, we should share our feelings, too.
Slowly escalate to your creepy stories, watching throughout the process just how your acquaintance is responding. Look for warning signs like side-stepping, looking over the shoulder, and wild gesticulating to a friend for help.
A conversation goes better when you realize it isn't all about you.
8. Knock off the hard sell.
Somehow certain genre personalities have circulated the idea that shameless marketing is a virtue. "Buy my book!" they cry at every panel discussion or dealer's room table or street corner.
Even hookers keep their hot pants on until AFTER the money changes hands. Can't you have the same dignity as a crack whore?
Yes, you have a book to sell. Yes, it probably won't sell itself. But at least try the approach of just talking about what the book is about and letting people think, "Gee, I'd like to buy that," instead of "Good God, this guy's going to sell me some real estate if I'm not careful."
Let your work do the talking. With great subtlety and discretion, encourage people to read it. In the end, though, none of your stunts and arm-twisting will make you fans you haven't earned by being talented. At least it won't keep them.
Sell your book by talking about it with the same eloquence and passion with which you wrote it. Everything else will follow.
Addendum for online communities: I will cite what I have come to call Geoff Cooper's Law (articulated by him ages past in a blog entry or message board post): "If your signature line for any online post is longer than your actual post, you're being a self-promotion whore."
9. Failing all of that, shut the hell up.
When in doubt, look sagely observant and pensive. Watch and listen. Convey the impression that beneath your quiet facade, you are contemplating the deepest mysteries of the universe. Do not shatter that impression by opening your mouth to explain that the Jews are censoring your blog.
The principle is simple: if you don't have something interesting to say or ask, wait until you do. You know you have something interesting to say or ask when you're focused enough on other people in the conversation to be confident that they'll be interested in it, too.
If you do that--pay attention to people and their cues, responding accordingly--you will escape a significant risk of being labeled a kook.
10. Finally, there's the ultimate Will Law of Writing: You are a writer when the work is more important than you are.
You want to be professional and respectable not merely because you want people to like you but because you want to best serve the stories that matter to you. They're going to have a hard enough time finding their way in this world without an insane parent to make it worse. Don't be the scary soccer mom throwing her feces from the stands when her little boy gets a red card.
When you suppress your ego and smother your aching need for validation, you can focus on what will best get your stories noticed and appreciated. Usually, that's quality writing. Sometimes your own professional demeanor helps. Either way, the less your writing career is about being noticed and loved, the better off you will be.
Save your zany disregard for decency for your work.
The irony of Will Ludwigsen writing anything about manners or etiquette is probably worthy of a lightning strike, but so far, so good. He's sold a story here and there, and you can learn more about him at his website, www.will-ludwigsen.com.
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