Networking

Does it seem like a lot of the advice I have been posting here is about promoting yourself as a writer? Have you noticed that a lot of the authors who have been interviewed talk about web pages and Facebook and conventions and such?

That’s not by coincidence.

For years, I wrote … and sent query letters and wrote … and read books about writing and wrote … and while I did get better at the writing part, I wasn’t getting anywhere professionally.

The sad fact is that talent will only get you so far. You need a certain drive and promotional zeal to take it to the next step. You need to make connections and use every avenue at your disposal. And this applies to even published authors.

One way is to attend conventions, which I blogged about previously. You also need to take advantage of all the social networks available to you, such as Facebook, My Space, Twitter, Good Reads, and so on. (Note that my web page has links to all of these.) And of course, you need a professional web page of your own.

I’ll discuss those in more detail in a future blog post, but for now, let’s talk about actual writing groups, where you can meet people face to face.

Jonathan Maberry and his friends in the Philly Liar’s Club (including Gregory Frost, Dennis Tafoya, Marie Lamba and others) set up one such group, called the Writer’s Coffeehouse. I first attended about a year ago and have tried my best to never miss one since. I drive over 75 miles one way to go there once a month. It’s invaluable for many reasons.

First, you get to meet professional writers who have experience in the business. They can tell you what has worked for them and what hasn’t. They can help you draft the query letter and maybe even introduce you to agents and editors. They can answer your questions and help steer you away from the rip-offs and traps that plague many starting writers.

Second, other unpublished writers like yourself will have useful connections and relationships. They might know of other groups in your area, for instance. They also want to network just like you. (A quick aside: In case you don’t realize it, you are not in competition with other writers. This is not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s success does not mean your failure.)

Third, you can also learn some writing skills. At the last Writer’s Coffeehouse, there was a nice discussion about voices — how important it is to make sure that each of your characters speaks in a unique way. Ideas were thrown about as to how to best achieve this, with the understanding that what works for one person may not be universal.

Fourth, you can get valuable networking advice. This blog came about because of the Coffeehouse. Jonathan mentioned keeping a public presence and said that interviewing other authors was a fun and fairly easy way to make a weekly post. I decided to gear this blog for aspiring authors and toned my interviews accordingly, starting with Jonathan. It’s been great! I’ve been able to meet many of my favorite authors (albeit mostly through emails), and every time I post another interview, these authors mention it in their Twitter posts and Facebook status updates, and the blog gets visited. Every visitor reads my name over and over again, and quite a few have started following me on Twitter and Facebook as well. It’s a win/win. And it’s an idea I would not have come up with on my own.

Finally, you can promote yourself. It goes without saying that writers are also readers, and maybe they might take an interest in your work, give you valuable comments, and maybe even buy your book once it’s published. Writers I have met at the Coffeehouse have invited me to participate in book signings, interviewed me on their blogs, and otherwise helped expose me to a broader audience.

The Coffeehouse is a great resource, and I am very happy that Jonathan has organized it. He is a tremendously busy writer who has many projects on his agenda. So why does he take the time to meet every month with other writers and writer wannabes?

Haven’t you been paying attention? Networking! Even successful professional writers want to meet others to share ideas, discuss the craft, and see what others may have learned about the trade since the last meeting. Plus they want to promote themselves. I mean, look, I’m writing about Jonathan Maberry, aren’t I? You’re reading it, right? Aha! It worked!

Finally, an obvious disclaimer: All the promotion and networking in the world won’t help you if you are a terrible writer. Work on your craft! You need something to promote, after all.

Interview with Agent Mike Kabongo

Over the past month or so, I’ve posted interviews with authors, but let’s get a perspective behind the scenes this week with Mike Kabongo, whose OnyxHawke agency represents authors like Dave Freer and James Enge. His web page is http://www.onyxhawke.com/index.php

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Michael, unlike most agents, you prefer to read the work before the query letter. Why is that?

MICHAEL KABONGO: Cover/query letters are interesting, but they are not the same type of writing as a novel. Some people will tell you that if you can write X you can write Y; I think the best thing that can be said for that point of view is that it is more aggressively optimistic than is wont in anyone old enough to cross the street by themselves. That said, they do serve a purpose, and they tell their reader far more about the writer than their fiction may.

I think that on the whole the best effect a cover letter can have is a null effect. I doubt any novel has sold purely on the basis of a cover letter, I suspect that many make it no further based on them. No agent, no editor wants to work with someone who is going to take an inordinate amount of their time and energy. That said, I don’t always skip the cover letter, it’s something done almost at random. I tend to read a bit of the novel, and if I make it through a couple chapters and haven’t read the letter I’ll go back to it.freer

A writer who is an energy sink could be one in several ways, among them: A) higher than average need of editing; B) constant need for attention of some sort; C) inability to stay on task; D) inability to write something marketable; E) emotional maintenance.

VENTRELLA: Can you usually tell within a page or so whether you might be interested in representing a particular author? Anything that makes you immediately toss a manuscript in the “rejected” file?

KABONGO: I can usually tell if I’m not interested well before I can tell if I might be interested. I have had a few books that I thought “Hey, this person can actually write and not just string words together, but I think they started in the wrong place.” I’ll usually keep reading these even if the first chapter is subpar. I’ve signed one or two clients with books that started that way. I don’t think I’ll give any direct examples, but when the science is worse than BRAVE NEW WORLD or I can hear the author’s voice over the character’s, or they have done something completely counter to a character’s established character, yes I’ll toss it quickly.

VENTRELLA: At the Ravencon science fiction convention, you humorously summarized your advice to aspiring authors as simply “Don’t be an asshole.” This is, of course, good advice for anyone, but for authors, how is that rule usually broken?enge

KABONGO: Well, it’s broken in a number of ways. One of the most disgusting acts I’ve seen lately was an author who publicly told their fans (or if one is being less charitable, “sycophants”) to attack someone who had given them a bad review. Another is being (needlessly) rude to people who they encounter in public places. Towards the people in the inside of the industry, the other writers, editors, and us invisible agents it is often worse. The infighting that goes on publicly in the SF/F community is startling to me. I can’t possibly imagine the heads of new products at ATT Wireless and T-Mobile or Samsung and LG engaging in the sniping that goes on as a matter of course in our commuinty.

VENTRELLA: Do you feel you can adequately represent an author whose work doesn’t really interest you yet in whom you can see the business potential? Or do you have to love the work in order to sell it?

KABONGO: I would really, really like to love the work I pick up, or at least the writing potential of the writer, and I can’t see myself picking up any work I don’t see strong marketability in. I’ve never accepted anything I hate for sale, but I suppose if someone who’s been on the best sellers list for twenty five years came to me and said they need a new agent I’d probably say yes. This is a business after all.

VENTRELLA: Now that vampire books are on the way out, I have of course started work on mine. How much do you follow and to predict trends in the market when deciding which books to push?

KABONGO: I pay attention to what the editors are saying about stuff they reject and what they are buying. I think that is a better set of indices than what is in the bookstores now.

VENTRELLA: What’s the biggest misconception new authors have about what agents do?

KABONGO: That an agent can sell something the market won’t support.

VENTRELLA: What piece of advice do you think is imperative that never seems to get mentioned in any of the standard “How to attract an agent” articles that populate the web?

KABONGO: First: Write well. Second: Be patient.

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