Self-promotion during self-doubt - the writing edition
March 29, 2013 9:23 AM   Subscribe

I started freelance writing recently and have met a couple of people who are dream contacts -- a literary agent who's reached out to me for book ideas, and an editor who offered to have lunch with me to see what else I might contribute to their publication. The problem is, I'm very new to this and, though thrilled to be able to write for an audience, am really struggling between courageous ambition and compulsive self-effacement. I know creative producers go through this all the time. However, my question is: how do I take advantage of these opportunities ASAP in spite of it?

I'd also appreciate advice on the nitty-gritty of networking for writers. What do people talk over lunch conversations of this kind? I don't have huge stories to contribute, I don't already have piles of stuff written. I just have potential, which is what they see, too, I suppose, but how do I produce conversation when the real material is pending?
posted by taramosalata to Writing & Language (5 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Word from the experienced: Be careful of flattery and write what you want to write, not what they want you to be. For example, I knew a book agent a while back who wanted me to try and be a Malcolm Gladwell ripoff.

Believe in yourself and be bold in your craft, and powerful forces will come to your aid!
posted by steinsaltz at 9:26 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Steinsaltz - thanks for being the first. Flattery does little for my confidence -- that's part of the problem. Do you think I should even be having conversations with these people, or "simply" do the writing first? Yet I do want to find a home for that pending writing, and don't want to scrap these opportunities by seeming aloof or unambitious.
posted by taramosalata at 9:39 AM on March 29, 2013

Best answer: The really key thing is to try and keep that compulsive self-effacement to a minimum. It puts the other person in a weird position -- how are they supposed to reply? -- and it undermines your own professionalism. That, good listening skills and basic politeness are enough to get you through basically any networky conversation.

Other than that, honestly, networking conversations aren't that much different from any other conversation you might have with a coworker or a boss, or maybe a teacher if you're not in an office job. You want to be friendly and personable, but don't stress out about being perfectly clever or poised or well-spoken. These are people who are used to talking to new, nervous authors, so let them steer the conversation. Ask any questions you have, then listen to what they say without interrupting too much. If they ask YOU a question you don't have a good answer for, don't be afraid to say so -- don't feel like you need to make up the perfect answer on the spot. If they make a suggestion you don't agree with, you don't have to argue with them -- just nod and tell them you'll keep whatever it is in mind.

When you're through, send a quick follow-up email. If there's anything they asked you to send them, try and do so by the end of the day if you can. If they said they'd send you something and haven't done so, wait a day and then send a quick email asking about it -- editors and agents are busy people with insane inboxes and sometimes they forget things.

Don't read too much into small things people say, particularly when you're talking in person. You can drive yourself absolutely crazy micro-analyzing every part of a professional conversation.

I actually just had a series of phone calls of this sort earlier this week. They're almost never as bad as you think they're going to be, I promise!
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:58 AM on March 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I may be so bold: I am regarded among my circle as a great hustler for freelance projects. I've been earning a living more or less steadily for about 7 years now. And my trick is that I never, never go looking for projects; I just go out of my way to try to make friends with interesting people who it's plausible I might work with one day. Sometimes that results in work, and sometimes it doesn't; either way, I now know a lot of people in my business I respect the hell out of and who would probably think of me in a second if they suddenly needed someone with my skills.

Meet people for coffee. At that coffee, talk about what they do, what you do, what you're both excited about and are working on, what mutual friends in the business are up to. Everybody there knows it's about business, it's not a date, so of course the question of "Hey, I'd love to do something with you," will come up. But don't feel like you have to put on the hard sell. It's important to build a relationship with the person across the table from you as a human being, and not as an interchangeable cog who happens to hold the key to Magical Publishing Door #3.

Some years ago, a friend of mine kindly gave me these words of wisdom: Nobody gives you money just to be nice. These people are reaching out to you because they think you can put money in their pockets. Here's the thing: If all your networking results in a project, you're doing THEM a favor just as much as they're doing you a favor. You are performing a task they could not do themselves. The best business relationships are equitable ones.
posted by Andrhia at 12:56 PM on March 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think that at the lunch, you might come with some ideas of what you'd like to do for the publication--the editor wants to meet you and see how you two will mesh, but also if you're going to be a good source for stuff that fits their needs. You don't have to have a huge list of stories with sources all ready to go, but do have some ideas as to what you'd want to write about. And, while not being bombastic is good, don't be so self-effacing that the editor wonders exactly you do bring to the party. And being game to take on a topic that the editor has in mind is good, but don't let them try to snag you into doing something that's so far out of your experience or interest that you'll flounder. (I had to turn down an assignment on a hard science topic which was just way beyond me, but I pitched the editor an alternative take on the same subject.)
posted by Ideefixe at 1:36 PM on March 29, 2013

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