Sweating the Small Stuff

I was twenty-one when I read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  At the time, I thought it was embarrassingly obvious advice for such a supposedly renowned military mastermind.   “Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

“Oh please,” twenty-one year old me thought, rolling his all-knowing eyes.  I was set to label Sun Tzu “Captain Obvious” and never look back.  But I’m older now (just a teensy bit), and I’ve learned that when the pressure is on, we often forget the most obvious, self-evident courses of action entirely.  So it goes with war and with things closer to home for the Fictorians, like networking.

When I was younger my dad gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten.  We’ve all heard the old axiom “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” but my dad put it in more numerical terms.  He told me about the three twelves.  When meeting you for the first time, a person will be able to form an impression based on your first twelve inches (your face), the first twelve words out of your mouth, and the first twelve seconds of the exchange.  Now my dad has spent his career in the business world, and his advice was meant primarily for job interviews.  But in the writing world, when we are meeting agents and editors at conventions, what we are really doing is kicking off a sort of protracted job interview.  And first impressions can make or break you.

Writing is like any other field of human interaction.  It’s often not what you know, but who you know that’s important.  Every time you smile, introduce yourself and shake a hand at some event that brings the people of our field together, you are hopefully sowing the seeds for a friendship, but you are also adding another potential link to your growing chain of contacts.  It may sound clinical, but it’s important you keep both aspects of any relationship in mind in the early stages.

Now, my dad’s advice may need to be tweaked a little for our industry.  In the business world, personal appearance is very important and deviating too far from the standard suit and tie is frowned upon.  Writers are a little more relaxed in this regard, I think, owing to the more eccentric personalities that permeate the writing world.  Mary wrote an excellent piece detailing branding earlier this very week, in fact, so check it out if you haven’t already.   This advice applies more to those who have yet to establish themselves and who are simply trying to meet agents, editors and fellow writers.  It’s important to dress as if you are a professional who is ready, if needed, to discuss professional matters.  What that means in context is that if you are going to a convention that has a sizable fan contingent (say, Worldcon) and you want to indulge in some cosplay, you may want to set aside a day where you walk around in your Iron Man costume and another day where you dress, if not necessarily formally, at least nicely, looking like a professional, not a fan.  If you are attending a convention that is almost exclusively business-oriented (World Fantasy Convention) then it’s best to leave the Spock ears at home entirely.

You’ve heard all the stuff I’m going to say before, believe me.  Nothing I’m about to tell you is going to widen your eyes with sudden awe and understanding.  But if you clam up like I do when trying to impress someone, it helps to remember the small things.  Things like:

-Don’t dominating the conversation with talk of yourself.

-Avoid invading someone’s personal space.

-Take cues from the other person’s body language.  If you go up to introduce yourself and catch them at an obviously bad time (this happened to me at last year’s World Fantasy Convention) politely extricate yourself as quickly as possible and be on your way.

-Practice basic hygiene.

There are many others, but they all lead to the same general result.  What you want is to leave a positive impression of yourself on everyone you meet, something that says either “should the opportunity arise, that person would be pleasant to work with,” or in the case of a possible fan “wow, that person is really nice.  I should check out their work/continue reading their work.”  I hate to make it sound so clinical.  It almost comes off as mercenary.  But remember, this isn’t just a fun gathering of like minds you are attending, it’s a business trip.

And advice extends beyond the world of meeting people in person.  When you submit stories or novels to agents or editors, be unfailingly polite.  If they send you a rejection, do not respond at how only stupid people would fail to understand your genius, no matter how much your raging id may think so.  The world of publishing is a small one, and the last thing you want to do is end up on someone’s black list.

There’s another quote I’d like to leave you with, one I’ve heard attributed to many successful coaches.  “If you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves.”  So devote a little time to sweating the small stuff.  You might be surprised at what comes of it.  That Sun Tzu guy may have known his stuff after all.

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