Americans believe that individual effort trumps all, but to be(come) a successful writer, in whatever medium, and to nurture a long career in this highly competitive a field requires much more.
It takes a village.
Of course youll need stamina, luck, hard work and the ability to achieve some of your goals, whether your first by-line in a national consumer magazine or getting an agent to read your book proposal(s). Maybe its finally winning a job interview at a publication youve long admired.
A strong, supportive network can help, and you can start building it even -- if youre sufficiently ambitious and focused -- while youre still in high school; I hired one of my assistants as a high school senior, later recommending her, successfully, for her first post-college full-time job.
Some suggested members of your village:
It took several disappointing false starts, trying three other well-recommended agents, before I found the agent who sold my first book, William Clark. I started agent-hunting the way many established writers do, by asking friends whod written books to recommend anyone they thought a good fit.
Every agent, while offering skill and contacts and a frank appraisal of what you each might bring to the table, is an individual with their own quirks and personality. In deciding to work together, you both enter a personal and professional relationship involving trust and vulnerability, putting years of your, and their, hard work on the line. Like dating, it can take a while to find a good fit.
And sometimes you have to move on. I had to find a second agent after William and I, painfully, agreed things werent working out the way we needed. I found this one (not a typical approach!) on my local pickup softball team.
Read the acknowledgements page of books like yours and approach the agent(s) thanked therein. Ask authors you know for their recommendations.
Ive used the same accountant for more than a decade, whether I work freelance or staff, and his wisdom, humor and advice are worth every penny. Tax laws change all the time and youll want to claim every possible deduction while maximizing your savings.
Its not easy to find one you like and trust, but as you put away 10 to 15 percent of your income (you do, right?), you may need someone to help you determine what investment mix can help you achieve your long-term goals. Find a fee-only planner and share your dreams and goals.
No one really wants an attorney in their career plans! But if things at your workplace start to get ugly, having a legal advisor can save you money and heartache even as your situation worsens; someone determined to shove you out the door may slow down, or at least discuss a reasonable severance package, once they realize youve hired a lawyer.
I found my webmaster through someone I sailed with, who recommended him enthusiastically. A former architect, Yujin helped me think through what I wanted to communicate, visually and editorially, offering me three possible choices after grilling me with smart questions. I put the caitlinkelly.com website up in 1999, long before writers sites became the norm, and it paid for itself with assignments within months. Its not cheap to hire someone else to create or maintain your website, and some people are happy to do it themselves. Id rather outsource it to someone with vision and expertise.
If youre lucky, youll make friends at almost every job. Im still close with several colleagues I worked with at my first newspaper job even though they live in my hometown, Toronto, and I moved to New York in 1989.
Seek wise colleagues of all ages. Theyll help you figure out who to trust and who to avoid, wholl process your expenses quickest and wholl lose them. Theyve seen others come and go, rise and fall, and can offer helpful perspective.
It takes time to suss out who that person may be, and you cant rush it.
And never assume, just because someones got a job you think uninteresting or low-level, or looks and behaves very differently from you, thats the sum total of who they are, want to be, or always were. People bring a wealth of life and work experience with them into the workplace, whether their knowledge of the Dalmatian Coast or a great hairdresser, or what its really like to work for the Miami Herald or the Associated Press.
Wherever I work, I try to get to know, and enjoy knowing, people in every department. At the Daily News, I talked soccer with our janitor and softball and travel with our librarians. Not every conversation is going to offer a Big Insight or leg up the ladder, nor does it have to.
Ive gotten some of my best career advice from people Ive never seen, or didnt meet face to face until years later. Madeline, for example, found me through our shared membership in WriterL, an international writers listserv, as I was gearing up to publish my first book. Calm, experienced and kind, full of detailed knowledge from her former life as a publicist for a major publisher, she got me through those nervous months with ever-helpful advice.
When another members non-fiction book came out, now experienced in the process myself, I offered her several marketing ideas she found useful. Ive mentored others, and been helped, through such on-line bulletin boards as mediabistro.com, the ASJA forum and WriterL.
A caveat: if someone flames you, (and they well may), ignore them or stay civil. No public duel is worth it, and if youre using your real name, as I do, you never know -- and might be shocked to realize -- whos reading those boards.
No matter how short your tenure at a job, its a chance to expand your network. When you leave, whether you quit or are terminated, reach out to anyone youve made a good connection with. If youve been fired, an assistant or colleague may act as a reference.
You never know where people will end up and how much help you can offer one another. Journalism/publishing remains a small, volatile industry; your assistant, if ambitious and successful, may one day well become your boss.
Dont be embarrassed to let people know -- vendors, suppliers, editors, PR folks, sources -- that youre leaving and where they can find you now. Being terminated is not unusual in journalism and publishing. Emotional support, and maybe a few helpful job contacts, can get you back into the game.
Of course, youll do the same for them.
Interns and Assistants
If youre now an assistant or intern, all that faxing, coffee-fetching and photocopying may be driving you mad. Whats the point?
To impress the hell out of your boss(es) and colleagues so they hire you fulltime and/or tell their friends who can hire you.
The stupidest little tasks -- when well/quickly/gracefully/resourcefully performed, over and over -- send a powerful and indelible message about your future potential. (See [dont read] The Devil Wears Prada.)
And its not just your skills were watching.
I spent a long hot afternoon working a competitive story with a young intern at the Daily News who whined for hours about how smart and talented she was -- then watched her behave so unethically I wouldnt now give her the time of day. Another young woman working that assignment impressed me equally with her humor, daring, and quick thinking.
Ive been delighted to help two former interns find their first post-graduate jobs, both in their field of interest. Be the person people want to help!
Ive been a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors for more than a decade and recommend it highly. After you meet their entrance requirements, (visit www.asja.org), and pay $200 a year, youll have access to a 1,000-member directory, monthly newsletter, on-line forums read by/written by experienced writers across North America, insider advice on markets, fees and editors, and even offers for freelance work.
Others find Freelance Success, mediabistro.com, ed2010.com, the Authors Guild and the National Writers Union helpful.
The annual ASJA conference, held every April in New York City, offers a great opportunity to meet many accomplished writers and assigning editors face to face. You can also sign up for free one-on-one mentoring sessions. (My mentee from a few years back remains a good friend and successful freelancer.)
The annual Neiman conference, held in Boston in November, is another popular, information-packed event.
They dont show up with harps and haloes, but along the way youll likely meet a few people who have no reason to help you, whove never met you before and with whom you have no prior connection. But their generous, spontaneous aid can be extraordinary.
They may alert you to unadvertised and unannounced job openings, pass you onto someone whos hiring or expanding their department, or someone needing freelancers or an intern. They might have worked in a place youd like to be -- or warn you away from a place they know all too well as professional quicksand.
That personal connection can get your resume read before your competitors. And people decide within seconds if youre someone they might help, as I have many times. Ive met strangers who, after a brief conversation, have put me in touch with senior editors at major publications. I believe people enjoy being helpful, but common sense means theyre most likely to help someone whose credentials and personality deserve that break.
Help angels find you.
When youre in public and jobhunting, even on days youre not going on any interviews, dress decently and carefully: clean, pressed clothes, makeup, fresh manicure and pedicure, well-tended highlights, polished, freshly-heeled shoes.
If youre feeling really down and fed-up, (and it happens), stay home and be kind to yourself until youre ready to slay some more dragons.
Try to be upbeat and friendly, no matter how grim or lengthy your job search. No whining! Let your light shine, but dont be a braggart. Even if youre naturally shy, keep an eye out for chances to strike up low-key, friendly conversations, whether on the subway or commuter train, at a store or library, your kids soccer match. If someone seems uninterested, no matter how powerful their help might be, back off.
Studies have shown its actually most often a relative stranger, a third-person contact between the powerbroker you need and you who helps make that crucial connection.
Always carry a supply of business cards with your name and contact data on it, specifying writer, editor or whatever you do.
And follow up fast before they forget you!