By James R. Preston
I’m going to take a break from technical advice about structure or the gaming world and how the Boss Fight relates to fiction, and talk about meeting other writers and what you can get out of that. I’ll throw in some Rules of Encounter and Warnings, Scary Moments, and maybe elicit a smile or even a chuckle.
For once I know exactly where the idea for this essay came from. I have two thirty-something friends with whom I share movies and books and from whom I learn much. Driving back from a show I said something about Frank Herbert and one of them said, “Wait, stop. You’ve met Frank Herbert?”
Well, yes, as a matter of fact I have and I’d like to take a few minutes of your time to talk about that encounter because I believe it has meaning, a meaning that perhaps will help you in your writing efforts.
As writers we spend our time at the keyboard, or thinking about what we will say once we return to the keyboard, or studying ways to improve what we produce at the — well, you know where I mean. There can be an underlying, hidden assumption that somehow the big-time authors are different, that they have some secret, that they are not like us. It ain’t so.
All of us, from The NY Times list down to the newly-published writer share attributes.
We are all in this together. Meeting your writer heroes will help you to understand just how true that is, how strong that bond is,
A few of my own True Life Adventures will illustrate this point and I’ll add some Rules as well as Words of Warning.
Writing is not easy. For all of those times when the characters leap off the page and entertain you with their stories there are a lot more — at least if you are like me — times when it’s pulling teeth or worse. One of those True Life Adventures stars was Harlan Ellison and I’ll let him explain what it’s like.
True Life Adventures
You may say, “But I’ve never met any important writers or agents and don’t have a clue how to.” Part of those meetings is luck, part is persistence. Here’s how I did it, and with each example there’s a Takeaway, something to remember.
Ellison taught a UCLA class called Ten Tuesdays Down the Rabbit Hole and it was an epic event. Through a friend I was offered a chance to be a Teaching Assistant. I was working full time and taking two classes — six units — but I said yes anyway. I helped a little bit with various things and as a result got to meet Harlan and actually come to know him. I’ll never forget him saying, “Writing is easy. You just cut off part of yourself and put it on the page.”
Takeaway: Say yes. Seize every opportunity, grab it by the ears and figure out how you’ll get it all done later.
Frank Herbert lectured at Golden West college. After the lecture was over I hung around to say thanks and to tell him how much I loved Dune. I expected that he would be surrounded by a crowd of admirers but that was not the case and to my amazement I found myself sitting and chatting with a man whose work I admired. I got to tell him how I had read Dune when it was serialized in AnalogScience Fiction, and he asked about my work!
Takeaway: hang around after a class/talk. If nothing else, say thank you.
At one convention in San Diego you could sign up and submit a chapter in advance for review by one of the writers at the conference. I did and my reviewer was Paul Bishop, author of Tequila Mockingbird as well as other excellent thrillers, and career LAPD police officer. At one point in the review, I had something wrong in my description of a revolver. Bishop reached down into his boot top, extracted a small weapon, and showed me the right way. Yes, it’s true. I’ve had a reviewer pull a gun on me.
Takeaway: If you attend a convention and have an opportunity to get your work reviewed, take it! (See Harlan Ellison note.)
At a convention in Alaska I must have looked like a writer because this guy in the airport wanted to know if I’d share a cab to the hotel. It was the agent Donald Maas and I did not pitch my work In the taxi. We talked pc issues and since my contract work lately had centered around just that I was able to answer some of his questions. Later I was able to use this as the lead when I pitched my work, “We met at . . .” Ultimately his agency chose not to represent me but I had a chance.
Takeaway: take notes, keep a journal. When you submit work, lead with “We met at Bouchercon, and you said . . .” This is not an original thought on my part. It has turned up in my reading several places. One source went so far as to suggest that you say, “We met at and you suggested I send in . . .” even if you had not, in fact met them, because at a convention with thousands of people they’ll never remember.
My take on this is not to do it. One, they might remember they’d never met you. (Back to Donald Maas — this is a bright guy. He’d remember if he had not, in fact met you like you claimed. Can you spell, “Kiss of Death?”.) In addition to possibly backfiring it’s dishonest.
We all make mistakes. I comfort myself with that thought. At a Bouchercon convention my publisher had equipped me with the usual giveaways, bookmarks, postcards, and cards announcing a talk I was giving that afternoon. So I’m handing out this stuff and here’s a lady sitting in the end seat in an auditorium. I stop and hand her a card, then I realize that it’s Sue Grafton and she was deep in conversation with two other writers in the row in front of her. She was gracious. I was busy slithering away on my belly like a reptile.
Takeaway: Be observant! Pay attention to name tags. Especially pay attention to whether or not the person you want to talk to is otherwise engaged. Learn from my mistakes.
At another convention, this one in San Diego, I had studied the list of agents and identified one I wanted to meet. I found her talking to three or four other ladies. Not wanting to barge in I hung out for a while and then found a moment to step up and introduce myself. (I’d emailed ahead of time to see if she’d be willing to talk.) I said I didn’t want to interrupt when she was talking to her friends She took my elbow and guided me away, whispering, “Thank you so much. I’ve never seen those women before in my life and they would not stop talking.”
- Rule: Don’t interrupt but wait for a good moment. You might be surprised.
- Rule: Don’t hog the line at a book signing. I’ve seen this — wannabe writers standing in line and then pitching their work to an author who is signing books. It’s rude, and it is a sure way to not get your work read.
- Rule: Never, under any circumstances, hand a writer or editor a ms at a convention. Whether it’s paper or disk don’t do it. I know, you have invested years of work in this masterpiece, and you are desperate to get it read. Do your homework, make contact ahead of time and then if the person you have selected is open to looking at your work, ask them what they want to see. Corollary: Do reveal the end. Don’t describe the work, pause dramatically and then say, “And to find out how it ends, agree to publish the book.”
Strong Suggestion: thank you notes that do not say buy my book. If you meet somebody at a convention, send them a thank-you email, a “bread-and-butter note.”
A Final Word
I left home at seventeen and moved into the dorm at Cal State Long Beach. All I knew was that I wanted to be a writer. One day I wandered into the CSULB bookstore and saw this little old man (Now I’m older than he was then — yikes! How did that happen?) sitting behind a table buried behind stacks of books, looking lost and alone. Nah, couldn’t be. Books? A writer? I’d never met one. For once I wasn’t broke, so I bought a copy of his book and even a kid like me could tell that he was glad to sign it, glad to talk to me. The book was Jenny by Nature and the writer was Erskine Caldwell.
Takeaway: It works both ways. He was as happy to have someone to talk with as I was. We really are all in this together.
Writing is not easy for anybody. Talking to other writers or agents, or people who work in the industry, will make it easier for you to get back to the keyboard.
James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley.
Find out more about James at his website.