Writers in the Storm

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December 1, 2023

We’re All in This Together, Anecdotes from the Front Lines

 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. 

Big-Time Authors

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. 

Harlan Ellison

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        

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.

Paul Bishop

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.)

Donald Maas

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. 

The Horror

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. 

Rules

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.

Now it’s your turn. Who have you met? How? Any tips?

About James

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.

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21 comments on “We’re All in This Together, Anecdotes from the Front Lines”

  1. I loved reading this, and you're right. We're all alike. The "biggest" author I ever met was not face-to-face. At that time, I was not yet published and trying to learn all I could. A couple of friends and I started a blog to interview published authors so we could glean how they did it. I went to Dean Koontz's website to email him for an interview. It said to write him via snail mail. So I did. Long story short, I received a very nice hand-written note form him agreeing to the interview. He gave us so much information, we had to split the interview into two days! It's obvious he cared enough to give back to "young" writers.

    1. Ane, what a great story! Thank you for sharing it. I have read a great deal of Koontz and would relish the opportunity to pick his brain. I would not have expected the "write to me via snail mail" -- that's interesting.
      Good luck with your blog! I hope it's going strong.

  2. Hi, James. Perhaps for some of us, we left high school, went off to college, and built a career around something other than writing. I started scribbling a bit later and only published a few years ago. Around this time, one of my high school friends, I hadn't kept in touch with very many, asked if I had contacted another of our classmates, Richard North Patterson. OMG, I never made the connection. I asked about contacting him, got an email address, and have now exchanged quite a few notes. We've tried to get together live, haven't managed yet. That's a work in progress, but I've found Richard very friendly and approachable. I'm not at the level of having ex-presidents review my books but I'm definitely appreciative of Richard's support. My tip, take advantage of any opportunity that arises, even if it seems a stretch.

    1. For those of you who might no be aware, Jack is the author of the Adam Braxton series of thrillers.
      He is absolutely right -- you should take advantage of every opportunity, even if it's a long shot.
      Wow! Richard North Patterson as a classmate! Very cool.
      Thanks, Jack.

  3. Not a "together" moment like these, but worth telling, I think. Years ago I met Howard Frank Mosher at a book signing. The crowd was thin, so there was time to chat, and I had the pleasure of relating to him a personal anecdote about his book Disappearances, which our family had read years before. After I read the book, my son took it away for bedtime reading. Soon the evening quiet was broken by wild cackling laughter. I knew his reading speed, so I knew exactly what moment in the narrative he had reached. It was a joy to tell an author about this specific moment of reading pleasure his writing had inspired.

    1. Oh, Anna, telling an author a story like that means so much! In fact, that would have been a good tip. If you meet an author whose work you have read and that you have an anecdote about, by all means tell them You'll make a friend.
      Good comment, Anna.

  4. I have been very blessed by geography in terms of meeting and speaking with writers and people in the writing world. Living in Orange County and being able to travel up to Los Angeles, there have been many many luminaries available to me who have knocked my socks off.

    Here were some of my favorite wisdom-keepers, in no particular order:

    Ray Bradbury, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Rebecca Forster, Michael Connelly, Stephen J Cannell, Nora Roberts, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Julia Quinn, Jennifer Crusie, Janet Evanovich, Debbie Macomber, Jayne Anne Krentz, Donald Maass, Janet Fitch, Lisa Lutz, Chuck Wendig, Kristen Lamb, David Corbett, Michael Hague, Blake Snyder, James Scott Bell, Larry Brooks, David Morrell, Lisa Cron, and Chris Vogler (sp?).

    All of them and many more -- including all my writing pals and the contributors here at WITS -- have had a massive impact on my writing.

    1. Wow, Jenny! That's quite a roster of writers you have interacted with. I heard Jayne Ann Krentz speak at a convention and was very impressed. My wife Nancy has read everything she's ever written and I've dipped into a few books. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Jane Anne Krentz was memorable for both her spirit and her wisdom. She and Susan Elizabeth Phillips would do workshops together at RWA and they were so down to earth.

        One thing she said that I never forgot was about bad reviews. She told SEP, " You can read it once, but then GET IT OUT OF YOUR HOUSE." That means if it's electronic, you don't look at it again. Print it up if you want to so you can burn it or shred it to make you feel better, but get it physically gone from you. Never spend your energy that you need for your writing on bad reviews.

  5. Hi James!

    Theses are wonderful anecdotes.

    I attended a conference and came across the author of a book I happened to be reading, T.J. English's The Westies: Inside New York's Irish Mob. My maternal grandfather grew up in the neighborhood of which he wrote. When T.J. finished his talk he was kind enough to chat with me about his research. I was a tad awed.

    One other worth mentioning, another conference. This time I sat in on a talk by an agent who had turned me down. I smiled at her after her presentation and just said, "Thank you." Poor woman looked shocked, and then came closer. We ended up chatting for a while. She said I could query her any time, even if she wasn't accepting queries. Just make sure to, as you state above, mention where and when we met. People can be very gracious, and everyone needs the occasional thank you.

    Cheers!

    1. Great, Ellen! That part about the agent speaks to "seize every opportunity." And talking with an author whose work you are reading is a pleasant experience for both of you. I think all of these comments make the point that it's good to get in touch, however briefly.
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. I LOVED this posting, especially the takeaways. A fun read.

    I've had the good fortune to meet and chat with a large number of high-profile authors, agents, screenwriters, and producers, plus meet many other writers at various levels of their careers given the number of writing conferences I've attended.

    One memorable meeting was with Christopher McQuarrie, right after his Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay of The Usual Suspects, where I asked what his next script was going to be about, and how he came to repeat one scene. It was a funny story, way funnier than the reason why I repeated a scene in one of my books.

  7. Yes, yes, and yes! I have had the opportunity to meet a number of famous authors at science fiction conventions. It is quite refreshing to talk with the various authors and you are right, we are all in this together. Talking about their struggles and their hobbies and interests is an endlessly fascinating look at how we are all the same. My favorite famous author meeting was when I was a newbie writer and went to my first out-of-state writing conference. I had the opportunity to have my YA manuscript reviewed by Madeline L'Engle. She was charming and gave me a lot of encouragement. I'll treasure that memory forever.

    1. That's great, Lynette! SF conventions are some of the friendliest I've ever attended; a terrific place to mingle with writers and fans. (Ok, ok, you may encounter people dressed as Jabba the Hut.) Many of them will have opportunities to get your work, at least a chapter of it, read.
      Thanks for sharing!
      Best,
      James

  8. I've had such delightful experiences meeting and working with authors. When I was helping out with Lawson Writer's Academy... you can bet I met quite a few big names. Some of them before and some after they became known. Margie once arranged for me to share a ride from the airport with my dream agent - who didn't represent my work and whose advice has shaped the rest of my career. Meeting that agent and so many other writers has taught me exactly what you're saying: we're all in this together. Even big names feel angst! Even big names fight with their website. LOL Thanks for a great post!

    1. Excellent comment, Lisa. That sort of effort -- volunteering -- can pay off in many ways, some direct, many indirect. For the latter I'm thinking of the agent who did not represent you, but whose advice was so important. I'm glad you liked the post and thanks for adding an important facet to the essay.

  9. I could name drop, but I won't.

    I will be attending a writing retreat with a bestselling author this coming weekend.

    1. Denise, I hope you're having a great time at the retreat. As for name-dropping, I know what you mean, since I had that debate with myself before writing the essay. How about this -- come back on Monday and tell us about the retreat. With or without names it would be interesting and of benefit to your fellow WITS readers/contributors.
      Anyway, thanks for the comment!
      Best,
      James

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