This is a Building Blocs piece, by Nicholas J. Johnson, on how no writing advice is as helpful as good-old contacts and cronyism.
Often, when writers festival moderators need to pad a few minutes at the end of a panel discussion, they’ll ask authors to describe their ‘journey to publication’.
I always give the short answer: Nepotism.
When pushed I might also add cronyism and preferential treatment.
Writers like to think of themselves as solitary beasts. We’re literary mercenaries, dropped behind enemy lines with just a laptop, a thesaurus and a warm cat for our laps. It’s us against the world, battling with a behemoth publishing industry that doesn’t understand our talent and an audience that would love us, if only they’d give us a chance.
We’re Jack Kerouac, locked in a hotel room, producing streams of consciousness onto a single scroll of paper before tossing our spontaneous prose to the world saying “Here, this is what I am. Take it or leave it.”
This is, of course, bullshit.
Even Kerouac tinkered with half a dozen drafts of On The Road, taking on the advice of editors, publishers and his agent before finally selling it to Viking for a $1000. The truth is, you will never be published without supporters within the industry. Even self-publishing requires advocates to get out and sell the book on your behalf.
And while professional relationships are vital, it is the personal ones that I owe the biggest debt to.
If there is one piece of advice I can give it is to surround yourself with friends more talented than yourself.
I’ve been sleeping with my editor for years.*
It was the perfect plan really. Befriend the smartest girl in my Year 12 English class, fall in love with her, trick her into falling in love with me, marry her, buy a house, have a baby and then, when the time was right, take advantage of her time in the publishing industry for my own nefarious purposes.
I’m not suggesting that you sleep with an editor. Especially not mine.
But befriending an editor will teach you more than just why a preposition is something you can end a sentence with. Editors will teach you that language is a tool, that your darlings deserve their fate. Editors are cold-hearted assassins who will not coddle you or spare your feelings.
For the most part, other writers are not to be trusted. You’re already an anxiety ridden, self-doubting bundle of stress. Why would you surround yourself with people just like you?
Remember in Season 2 of Breaking Bad when Jesse hooked up with ex-addict Jane? And they got each other hooked on speedballs and heroin? And then Jane choked to death on her own vomit? That’s what hanging around other writers is like.
Writers will keep you in your rut, surrounded by people who’ll either curse your success or excuse your failures. They’ll lie and tell you your writing is brilliant when you’ve been rejected for the umteenth time or white-ant you when you finally have a modicum of success.**
However, if you can find a published author who understands your goals and wants you to succeed, then you will have a valuable ally who knows exactly what you’re going through.
I lucked out with mine. When I had two characters in Chasing The Ace run into each other in the street randomly because I needed them to reunite, my trusted author friend wrote ‘WHAT IS THIS BULLSHIT? NOT FUCKING BUYING IT!” across my manuscript in red pen.
Like a true friend.
Publishers are the gate-keepers. The hold your feeble little dreams in their mighty hands and will not hesitate to crush them. My publisher friend had my manuscript for six months before deciding not to publish it.
That said, unlike other writers and even some editors, they want you to succeed.
The are looking for the next hit and they would love for it to be the manuscript that they are holding in their long, talon like claws. (If you’ve never met a publisher, they are not unlike the Skekses from the Dark Crystal.)
So listen to your publisher friends, they know the business (and it is a business). They know what is selling, they know what is dead. If they tell you a genre is the next big thing, don’t bother writing about it, it is already over.
I write about con artists and scams and so I can say, with some authority, that literary agents are where most authors get screwed. Writers can be asked to pay fees in advance for books the agent has no interest in selling.
Dodgy agents often include sneaky clauses in contracts that require you to use their in-house copywriting service. Or they may just add your work to the pile of signed authors they have no intention of selling.
But if you can find an agent who is a friend, who will fight for your rights, soften criticism and act as your advocate to publishers, then they are more than worth the 15%. Mine once bought me tacos. She’s the best.
Spending time with literary agents, even if they don’t sign you, is an excellent barometer for the industry. They can tell you which publishers are buying and which to avoid. They are networking guns. Stand next to them at parties and you’ll find yourself introduced to every important person in the room.
None of this is to say that we should cold-heartedly befriend publishing figures for our own nefarious purposes. Instead, develop personal relationships with creative people who understand how the business works.
Regardless of whether you sell your manuscript or not, you’ll find your life and your writing enriched.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a melbourne author, magician and expert on con artists and scams. He is the author of two books, Chasing The Ace and Fast & Loose.
*This piece has not been edited by my wife. I’m on my own with this one.
** That includes me. I wouldn’t take my advice, I probably want you to fail.
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Nicholas J. Johnson
Nicholas J. Johnson is an author, magician and an expert on con artists and scams. His first novel, Chasing the Ace, was nominated for the Ned Kelly Award. His second, Fast & Loose, is available now. www.conman.com.au