A few weeks back I volunteered at a writing event put on by the local university in my city. I think it was called Write for a Living or something.
Anyway, it was really well attended. They were going for 20 and 73 people showed up. The event was free and there was wine so I think there was adequate motivation to fill a room.
It was an interesting event. They had a panel discussion where the attendees could ask questions, then there was a round of writer’s speed dating where small groups of budding writers could pepper questions at a professional writer for five minutes and then move to the next professional writer.
I participated in the speed dating part
Since I wasn’t part of the planning process I wasn’t sure what to expect. I sat down and tried to get conversations going with each group. Some were easier than others. And most were great groups. I met a lot of interesting people and was encouraged by the scope of writers in my city. I had no idea!
But, of course, there were some people who didn’t leave such a good impression. And the bad always sticks in your mind more than the good hey? Even though there were more good experiences than bad.
After a bit of mulling I’ve broken the bad experiences into three personas. These are people who maybe didn’t come to the event for the right reasons.
Why did they come? I can’t say. But I can guess.
- They were there to flaunt their writing success
- They came to answer all the questions, without being invited
- They were there for the food (and the wine)
I’m not trying to be mean but it didn’t seem like these people were there to get anything out of the event. They didn’t have questions, they didn’t want to talk about writing (unless it was about their writing only), and they didn’t seem interested in learning about writing professionally.
After this event I’ve found myself thinking about these people and wishing they had been open to learning from people who have been where they’re trying to go. Maybe I didn’t have advice they could use (don’t worry guys, I realize not everyone wants to be a blogger, although I don’t understand why!) but someone in the room did. The calibre and diversity of professional writers in the room was impressive. I wanted to go around to do the speed dating.
THE WRITER WHO NEEDED NO ADVICE
The first persona is the writer who showed up to brag about his or her accomplishments.
Example: One woman who sat at my table brought with her a thick paperback and placed it in front of me. I asked what it was and she told me it was her memoir. I asked what her plans were for her book and she deflected by telling me about a launch event at a local bookstore. While it was a nice conversation I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do. Congratulate her? Offer to review it on my blog? Introduce her to my agent? Honestly, I had no idea. She didn’t ask me to do anything, actually she didn’t talk to me unless I asked her a question. Since it was off topic and awkward I gave the book back and wished her well.
THE WRITER WHO THOUGHT SHE SHOULD BE THE EXPERT
The second persona is the writer who showed up thinking he or she should have been the one giving advice and was ticked about not being asked.
Example: One woman who sat at my table came with a chip on her shoulder. Towards editors. She had finished her manuscript and was trying to self-publish (I think, that part wasn’t clear because she didn’t know what “self publishing” meant). The publisher wouldn’t print her book without it going through an editor. She was incensed at being quoted $3,500 from a local editor to look at her book (most professional editors would charge a LOT more btw) and her only questions to me were redundant inquiries on how this person could possibly charge so much to edit her “perfect” copy.
This bugged me a lot because no one’s copy is perfect. Everyone can benefit from being edited and should pay for it. If you as a writer deserve to be paid shouldn’t the person who makes sure your words are as good as possible also be paid?
This person was so convinced she had the corner on writing she also proceeded to interrupt all my other conversations with budding writers advising them to self-publish as this was the secret to success.
HUGE missed opportunity.
THE WRITER WHO WANTED A YES MAN
The third persona is the writer who has already decided what he or she wants to do and is looking for support, not advice.
Example: Towards the end of the evening I met a woman who had been directed my way by another writer to get some advice about blogging. Our conversation started off nicely and she asked interesting questions. It seemed like she was trying to decide whether she should start a blog or not about a niche topic. Problem was her idea wasn’t great. I offered a few ideas for strengthening her idea and giving her topic a longer shelf-life (I even offered introducing her to some contacts I thought could help) but I could tell she wasn’t listening. In fact after a few minutes I realized she already knew what she wanted to do and was looking for someone to agree with her. Once it was clear she was only looking for support I stopped offering help and looked for a way out of the conversation.
I’m not saying I had all the answers, or even that I would have been able to help anyone. But I was there, volunteering my time and offering free advice. From a professional, working writer to people who want to be professional, working writers. I handed out about 15 cards that night and am sorry to report I have heard from no one.
This experience made me realize I can be one or all three of these personas from time to time. Because I think I should have this professional writing thing figured out and therefore can’t ask questions to other writers because it would make me seem weak.
Or maybe they would think less of me for not knowing everything. Silly, right? Networking and helping each other out is an important part of community and I joined a professional writer’s association specifically to have a supportive writing community. Yet I’m too proud or timid or whatever to actually be a part of it. Silly.
So as a reaction I decided to take a writer I admire out for dinner and ask the questions I’ve wrestled with for the past however long.
And guess what. She was willing to help me and offered great advice and support. And I got a nice dinner companion out of the deal too.
So thank you writers who missed opportunities. You motivated me not to miss any more opportunities to get better at my craft.