Everything’s Illuminated from Multiple Angles

Jeff VanderMeer • January 24th, 2009 @ 12:12 pm • Writing Tips

Update 3pm-ish: I’m feeling pretty sick right now, and although about to try to finish off my Kierkegaard 60 in 60 am going to take the day off and regroup tomorrow. My abject apologies. Probably do two tomorrow to make up for it. Great, astonishingly lyrical book, though, Fear and Trembling.

The word “network” means “a complex, interconnected group or system,” but writers often forget the “interconnected” part in their zeal for self-promotion. If you build a “network” that’s all about you, then you don’t really have a network. Instead, you have a way to send people electric telegrams, and you may be perceived over time as white noise, or as always carrying a megaphone.

That’s why you often see writers engage in ineffectual communications—like emailed requests for some sort of action sent indiscriminately to everyone on their contacts list or yet another Facebook request to attend some arbitrary event. If this is all you ever do, you ignore one of the cardinal rules of new media, and forget a basic human principle. Every contact is about community, about the personal, and the impact of connection often produces all kinds of unexpected collaboration and creativity.

Another way of putting it: If you are on task 24-7 getting your “message” out rather than using your message to form relationships and to meet interesting people, then you’ve got a backwards idea about “networking.” The best networkers, and thus the most effective advocates for their own work, love people and love to communicate with people—and love to find talent in other people. I cannot tell you the number of times my query to someone to tell them about one of my books resulted in something remarkable unrelated to my original purpose.

This process of discovery lies at the core of what makes the Internet so wonderful. Being open to it is paramount. If writing is a kind of sustained creativity, then inspired networking is a narrative about sustained, creative relationships. You are both a message holder and a message receiver. You are both a conduit and a destination.

(There’s also a continual re-evaluation at work here, because we all lead such busy lives we can forget the basics and lose sight of what’s important. I know I have, many times.)

Things to Keep in Mind

- Everyone you know is a potential contact. (Now more than ever, because everyone is literally connected in a myriad of ways not possible before.)

- Everyone you know is more than one thing. (Listen to what other people are saying.)

- Every book or other project you create is about more than one thing and thus can be perceived by readers in many different ways. (Find relevant communities and subcultures.)

- Every person you know knows hundreds more, and they know hundreds more as well. (The cliche “seven degrees of separation is more like “three degrees of separation”.)

- Everyone has a different comfort level with types of contact. (For example, on Facebook you don’t have to give someone your email address to communicate with them; this makes some people more willing to talk to you.)

- Everyone has a doppelganger. (Go to Google.com and perform a search on the successful writers whose careers or creativity you’d most like to emulate. Take notes and make conclusions based on your research that will help you going forward.)

Simple Human Decency

- Be concise and precise with people you don’t know, especially if using a method of communication like email that strips out nuance.

- Really listen to what the other person is saying and try to understand their perspective. (Visualize their response on a physical level–imagine the context of their job, their surroundings, and in general empathize and give the benefit of the doubt.)

- Do not engage in any behavior that would irritate you if you were on the receiving end; politeness and respect are paramount.

What’re your own thoughts about this subject?

28 Responses to “Everything’s Illuminated from Multiple Angles”

  1. Jessica Reisman says:

    My thought is, I agree with you very much, particularly on your things to keep in mind, but I must point out that introverts–who like people and connecting, but like it selective and fairly low-key, and who often do not have the massive output of persona and self that graces and enlivens the pages of some–can end up kind of overlooked and drowned out in this model.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I agree. The problem is–it’s not the model, it’s the methods of communication available that create a context that rewards certain kinds of behavior. I suppose the caveat should be: if you’re going to engage in these kinds of activities, think about these standards. If you’re not, you don’t need to worry about it. What I find worse than not engaging are people who engage incorrectly or do it by half-measures. But note that someone like Kelly Link can quite happily have no internet presence whatsoever, for example. And may not even think about this particular model. And be quite successful–although on the other hand, I’m fairly sure her husband does engage in something approaching this model, if for no other reason than to sell Small Beer books.

    The approach above, though, can be a sublimation of self to the idea of work or creativity. In an odd way using promotion to further creative linkage. Nor am I suggesting a 24-7 perpetual campaign.

    Jeff

  3. Natania says:

    I’m in agreement here, and it’s astonishing the level that the internet has changed the way writers are connected. I think, at first (speaking as a fledgling) it’s a little overwhelming. You move from your own space, your own work, your own thoughts, to a world of such dynamic complexity and variety that it can often cause a bit of paralysis, both creatively and from a networking aspect. You don’t know where to go–there are just too many options. And, unfortunately, good advice is just as plentiful as bad advice!

    The problem is shaking the paralysis, letting your personality shine through, and simply making friends. You can’t be a dick. I mean, of course you can–but it’s a bad move. And unfortunately there are a great deal of megalomaniac jerkface writers out there who just like to say awful things to get attention, and think that their work is the be-all end-all of their genre! Fun times.

    One thing I would add from personal experience: consider giving before you get. Has a published writer on Twitter asked for critique on a new short story? Offer your set of eyes. It’s not magic; you have to give to get. Just like any good relationship. Many new writers are looking for handouts and publishing miracles, but aren’t willing to do the legwork when it comes to nurturing their network.

  4. Jessica Reisman says:

    The approach above, though, can be a sublimation of self to the idea of work or creativity.

    Interesting food for thought…and yeah, still agree with you.

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Natania: It is overwhelming. I think I was actually somewhat overwhelmed this morning, and wrote this to kind of put everything in a few easily defined boxes for awhile. I also think that there’s a little bit of a frenetic quality to what I posted. As if I was trying to convince myself that this is all a good thing. Giving myself a little food for thought.

    Yeah–I agree re giving before getting. What bothers me is a newbie who seems to presume that I should be willing to spend the time and if I don’t, I’m somehow not doing my job. It bothers me because I understand so well that yearning, more than because the writer’s being a little pushy.

    Jeff

  6. Matt Staggs says:

    So are you and Jay sharing the same cold now as part of the collaborative process?

  7. Natania says:

    It’s a very different world for a writer these days, that’s for sure, and I can totally see what you mean about convincing yourself that it’s a good thing. Take a deep breath, step back. Because of accessibility and the quality of your work–and the fact that like a surprising numbers of writer out there you write transparently AND respond to first-time writers, etc–people think, “This is the guy I need to write to to get me my big break!” or whatever. So it’s like a compliment wrapped in a vortex of responsibility, understanding, and obligation.

    I don’t envy you that.

  8. Larry says:

    Must be some sort of cosmic alignment happening recently, Jeff, as I have been thinking for the past few weeks about something somewhat similar to what you describe, but from the opposite side. I recently decided that certain “boundaries” were being intruded upon by my being so active with forums as well as blogging that I found that when I cut out one forum completely almost two months ago and reduced my activities to all other internet things to either commenting on a few blogs or sticking strictly with book discussions on the two forums I now permit myself to visit, that things improved.

    It sounds as though what you describe above (and with which I agree completely) could be prefaced with this: Know Your Boundaries and Respect Them.

    Hope you feel better and that this isn’t a nasty illness being spread via electronic communication overloads!

  9. jeff vandermeer says:

    more like I think our local ihop which we treated ourselves to for the first time this morning sucketh.

  10. Sandra Ruttan says:

    I agree with what you’ve said. And although I take Jessica’s point about introverts being overwhelmed, I think that’s why every individual needs to consider what does and does not work for them, and then act accordingly. Not every writer can be a shining web presence. Not all want to be, some don’t need to be, and some recognize that they can’t be good at it precisely because they can’t engage in the social interaction needed to network effectively.

    On panels at conventions and on posts online I’ve said myself that if you can’t chat with strangers, if your body language is going to speak of distance and discomfort you either need to take some public speaking classes and join a few groups where you have to work on interacting with people, or you should seriously consider not attending conventions or doing book signings. There is something worse than not doing an event, and that’s being there and doing it terribly. People will notice, and they’ll remember, and they’ll tell other people.

    A few years ago I was at Bouchercon. I was leaving an event with another author when we were intercepted by a blogger. The person automatically engaged in conversation with the author I was with. I hadn’t met the blogger, but knew who they were from the internet, so extended my hand and said, “I’m Sandra Ruttan” and they said, “I know,” didn’t shake my hand and just carried on with their chat. And boy, did people talk to me about how I was snubbed later.

    On the other hand, I met Lee Child that weekend, he took the time to talk to me about my web presence and at Bouchercon this fall, walked down the hall, saw me for the first time in two years and said, “Sandra Ruttan. How are you?”

    Lee Child, bestselling author, not a snob, great at remembering people and taking the time to say hi. And on the other hand, blogger with a handful of short stories published… I tell the story for one reason, and that’s to illustrate that how you treat people matters. Others notice.

    I understand some authors are painfully shy, but that hasn’t kept Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos from learning to be witty and fun in interviews, from working on their people skills so they can be effective at in-person events. When asked what someone who’s just signed the first deal and has 18 months before publication should do, other than keep writing one of the main things I recommend is to take a public speaking class or volunteer to do the Q&A at in-person events – anything that will help get you comfortable in front of an audience and dealing with thinking on your feet in a live setting.

    When it comes to the internet I think it’s important to understand how it works. My blog was initially very effective because I tried to respond to every commenter, and also to visit several other blogs daily. I have had problems along the way, with people outright admitting they were trying to befriend me for help with getting published, and that kind of stuff is always a potential issue, and I’ve also had times when I haven’t been able to be as active online (ie: divorce). I know that when I don’t interact as much, my blog hits drop, which only supports Jeff’s points. If you make it just about you, there’s minimal interest. When you make it about interacting with others, there’s more lively interaction and it attracts others who’re looking for that.

  11. brendan connell says:

    Some comments on networking:

    I think it can be very positive. I have certainly come in contact with many people through the internet. But on the other hand it also has some major dangers. I think many writers, especially those who might have started after the internet age really took off, run a huge danger of taking “networking” and blogging and emailing to somehow be the same as “writing”. When, in fact, writing is something totally different than marketing. A book is 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 hundred pages of words. Words that actually mean something and God willing will mean something 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 hundred years from now. Networking is a drop of dew on a blade of grass. Some intities send me literally an email a week promoting their latest projects. People who I really feel no connection with. What a waste of energy.

    That said, the manority of the things I have had published has been the result of some sort of “networking”. So it is a good thing. It is just a bit of a double edged sword.

  12. Alex Carnegie says:

    Hope you feel better soon, Jeff.

    I’m a little bit baffled by networking. For a start, I never really know what tone to take, which is I suppose an easy enough predicament to understand given the nature of Internet correspondence. I’m loathe to be too formal as I’m naturally quite an open, friendly person, but then I’ll tend to express myself too informally to people I don’t really know, and the chattiness often means a general lack of conciseness, which leads, I suspect, to people wondering “who the hell is this guy?” Politeness of course goes without saying, and I do try not to irritate, but irritation is a subjective thing and sometimes difficult to predict. Which sounds like something an annoying person would say.

    You definately have to take note of personalities & environment you’re dealing with, and as ever remember the old adage: “respect has to be earned”

  13. jeff vandermeer says:

    One problem with talking about any aspect of a sustainable creative career is that if you separate out something like networking as I have done here, it can seem both more artificial and oddly enough more daunting. I also didn’t say anything about how much time writers spend on the wrong kind of networking–tactical not strategic. like, a newbie writer nudging me to read his/her work is better off putting all of their effort into simply becoming a better writer, which translates into more visible fiction sales and then a position from which a more established writer may be of help. the problem with blogs is *it makes you a published writer by default* and it can make a beginner focus on leveraging something that isn’t real. a lot of times beginning writers are mostly desperately seeking affirmation. the only problem is that there isn’t true external affirmation except through building things and having them published and read by people. and still many writers continue to seek somewhat destructive kinds of validation. destructive in that they lead to chestbeating on blogs or time and energy taken away from what’s important: the writing.

    and of course the bottom line is that if the writing isn’t the best you can make it, no amount of networking matters. again, the hazard of taking any writing related subject out of a larger context.

    I am thinking deeply about many of these issues in finalizing the booklife: strategies and survival tips for 21st century writers book I am currently working on. it’s important to get the emphasis right.

  14. jeff vandermeer says:

    One thing that helps approaching people you feel are unapproachable is to stop thinking of them as either larger than life or somehow inhumanly devoid of insecurities and foibles. we have a real problem that’s gotten worse of being unable to divorce the work from the person. this manifests then in non-concise communication with our heroes or those we just see as further up the food chain–we prevaricate, add disclaimers, and in general undermine the recipient’s belief in our professionalism by in a sense dissolving our true personalities right in front of them. confidence, whether real or assumed, is generally the antidote to indecision and prevarication.

    but i’m still ihop sick so my worldview may be skewed by the ghosts of sausage, eggs, hash browns, and weak coffee, garnished by the only digestible thing in the place: the waitress’s smile.

  15. Alex Carnegie says:

    “a lot of times beginning writers are mostly desperately seeking affirmation. the only problem is that there isn’t true external affirmation except through building things and having them published and read by people.” – There’s a great deal of truth in that I think.

    I think the transition for many is quite disorienting, from the world of writers’ groups / forums / deviantart / personal blogging into the “real world”. None of the same rules apply, and it’s not something that, I’m realising, you can jump headlong into. Going back to what I quoted, there’s definately a sense that you have to “bring something to the table” – and this would be the same in any other kind of art or industry. In conclusion then, an agreement once again: write more, worry about the other stuff a bit later, think it all through (especially before clicking ‘send’ or ‘submit’) and do everything in a measured way.

    By the way, it’s interesting that I’ve only ever seen the International House of Pancakes in the USA. A bit like the Word Series really.

    I tried going to a restaurant once and ordering only “the waitress’s smile”. They threw me out.

  16. Charles Tan says:

    Hope you feel better Jeff!

    I also want to highlight what you said in the comments: “destructive in that they lead to chestbeating on blogs or time and energy taken away from what’s important: the writing.” I think that can be a problem as some writers blog more and start writing less (and also the reason why some writers actually blog less… so they can get more writing done).

    Also, could you clarify the “Everyone has a doppelganger.” part? I get the doppelganger part, but I don’t immediately see the relation with Googling the authors whose careers you want to emulate. Do you mean to say that the path you’re striving for has already been mapped out by someone and it’s best to do your research by learning from them? Or simply that there’s another person named Jeff Vandermeer somewhere in the Internets?

  17. Tia Nevitt says:

    I run a blog called Fantasy Debut, and in my interactions with authors, it is usually an “all about them” sort of thing. And that’s fine; my blog is about debut fantasy authors, not about me.

    However, every once in a while, one of those authors will ask me about me. It’s always surprising when they do. And it makes the author more memorable to me because didn’t want to make it all about them. Whether they really give a damn or they’re just being good communicators–it doesn’t matter. They took the time for a personal touch. Such authors will always have a fond place in my memory.

    And because I remember them, they’ll get more coverage on my blog.

    I understand authors who want to keep a bit of distance. If you have thousands of fans, you can’t get close to them all. I respect authorial boundaries. However, in two or three places–perhaps four–true friendships have emerged. I am now even in the position of providing feedback to an author as he writes his book. Which, to me, is very cool.

  18. Wordstudio: The Gist says:

    [...] Jeff VanderMeer is meditating about networking for writers, and it’s good stuff. [...]

  19. jeff vandermeer says:

    Charles: re the googling, you will find out where the writer you want to emulate has and hasn’t been reviewed and interviewed, where they’ve been welcomed and where shut out. you can then determine at least two things by inference: some of the writer’s tactical decisions and those areas where your own work and efforts might also pay off.

  20. jeff vandermeer says:

    meant to also thank sandra, tia, and brendan for interesting insights.

    one further note: the balance btwn real world/electronic world is crucial here. one hour of walking in the woods resets the fragmented, overstimulated mind wonderfully well. we also don’t as writers enhance our skills of observation and intuitiveness by sitting in front of a screen 24-7. so an hour in the woods or out among people is about a hundred times more valuable than telling yourself you need an extra hour for networking or related nonwriting activities.

  21. brendan connell says:

    Thanks for thanks Jeff…

    Actually, I plan all my writing while walking… usually in some natural setting.

    I once read that Dickens would plan his novels while walking also. I think movement and seeing things outside is very beneficial for the mind.

  22. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’m going to be up against a deadline soon, so I’m just going to say: I may use some of these comments in some form in my Booklife book. If you’re not okay with that, let me know. If you are okay, let me know, too. vanderworld at hotmail.com. If I don’t hear from you, I will contact you but this may save some time. Much appreciated.

  23. eric orchard says:

    It is much the same for artists. The internet has been a huge help to me but I am constantly trying to put it into context and minimize it’s effect. I like to think of it as a way to speed up correspondence. The danger in promotion on the internet is that my blog could too easily become an advertisement for a brand. I find the more attention becomes focused on me the more I want to deflect it.

  24. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Not Me: Well, honestly, you are very new to this world and you probably shouldn’t be giving out advice. You should be tending to your own house. Ambition without experience by its side is like vinegar without oil.

    Jeff

  25. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Also, your icon is showing, Not Me….

  26. Not Me says:

    Not Me’s Original sans icon (to protect his anonymity):
    I’m not posting this under my name (but you can probably see my email Jeff, so you’ll know it’s me) because I’m going to say some things that I probably shouldn’t, but I think are pertinent. I’ve been slowly growing my presence both online and off, and I’ve gotten to the point of where I’m getting fans and other newbie writers emailing me and asking me for help and advice.

    I don’t mind this- I’ve had a lot of help over the years (including from you) and I really like being able to pay it back by helping out others just starting out.

    But- (isn’t there always a but?) I’m very uncomfortable in the mentor role. I’m not good at critiquing, my ideas on writing are a tad unorthodox, and my knowledge of the whole market is slim but growing. I have this fear that I can’t help them as much as they need, and this fear manifests itself constantly. Of course, I shove that fear aside and try and help as best as I can.

    One thing that bothered me the most was trying to help some fellow writers out placing their stories in markets. I’ve actually got a knack for helping others find a good market for their story (yet completely suck when it comes it my own). I’ve helped out several writers make sales to various markets just by saying, “submit here” and watch it get published almost on the first market I suggest.

    One writer decided to ignore my suggestion when I told him not to send it to a market. It was a market I was a slush reader for (but not anymore) and I really understood the head editor/publishers tastes, and knew right away he wouldn’t buy it (for various reasons). Said newbie writer sent it anyway, and then I had to reject it. When I rejected it he sent me several emails demanding why it got rejected and wanting the exact “reasons for rejection”. I wouldn’t give him those- the editor was not kind about his rejection at all.

    So I felt taken advantage of and pressured, and I think he was expecting me just to accept it because I knew him. And that hurt. A lot.

    I also know I’m very bad about this networking thing. I’m terrible at communicating with people, tend to lecture and toot my own horn and suck at listening. But I’m trying, I’m trying.

    Although I must add- I really miss the Lotus Lyceum some days. Now that was a fun network :)

    Not Me’s Current: Yes I know- I emailed you wondering if you could do something about said icon. But I guess it doesn’t matter, since It’s already too late.

    And you are absolutely correct. I shouldn’t be giving out advice, and I have been tempering myself as such. It’s odd though, people emailing me, asking me for such. I feel at such a loss for words.

  27. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    If you go upriver, you’ll see I’ve just deleted Not Me’s post from it’s original position and reinstated it with his second comment. Thus, be not mystified by my first mention of Not Me, seemingly now out of the blue.

    We’ve just witnessed a small example of how internet communication can go horribly wrong.

    Dear Not Me–Now that you are anonymous, what do you do with that terrible burden? Well, say what you know absolutely to be true and punt on the rest. As for the rejection situation–that’s just an argument for editors, in this age of the instant impassioned response, not giving comments in rejection. And you don’t have to feel taken advantage of–you can just not deal with that person again, or just tell them you’re not going to give them a reason for rejection and that you told them in the first place not to submit that story to that market. Tend to your own garden, show us by your work, and by the products of that work, that you can be trusted and then let fall naturally what may.

    Much love,
    Jeff

  28. Links for 26th January 2009 | Velcro City Tourist Board says:

    [...] Everything’s Illuminated from Multiple Angles [...]

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