This is the first installment in a new post series I’m trying out. Every-other Thursday I’ll be sharing a “Dear Word Nerd” letter that first appeared in the DIY MFA newsletter. If you’re already an email subscriber, you can help me select the letters that get featured here by replying to the emails you loved most. If you’re not on the list, but want a sneak peek at this column before it hits the blog (and want to help crowd-source this column), go here to sign up.
Dear word nerd,
Most creative fields have a certain mythos surrounding the notion of “overnight success.” Every niche has its own legends, those unlikely success stories about how people got their big breaks. Charlize Theron was discovered by an agent while arguing with a manager at a bank. Billy Joel started out playing in a piano bar. JK Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in a coffeeshop. There’s something very Cinderella about these overnight success stories where artistic geniuses “come out of nowhere.” One minute you’re a starving artist struggling to make ends meet. The next minute *poof* you’re the belle of the ball.
Of course, this idea of overnight success is an illusion, a myth. No one is going to pluck us from obscurity and shove us into the limelight. The onus is on us to make that success happen. What is more, when we buy into this notion of “overnight success,” we fail to do the necessary work that helps us reach our goals. If you’re looking to make a lasting impact with your writing, follow these steps, put in the work, and in a few months (or years, or decades) you’ll have “overnight success.”
Step #1: Lead with value.
One of the best ways to get help on your way up the artistic food chain is to start by helping others first. There are a lot of writers who gnash their teeth at the idea of “writing for free,” and I don’t blame them. No one asks dentists or plumbers to work for free, so it stands to reason that writers should get paid just like everybody else.
At the same time, though, some of the biggest “breaks” I’ve gotten in my writing career came from doing work as a volunteer first. I met my agent while interning at a literary agency. I got my first speaking gig after volunteering to help out at a conference. I built up my writing credits by contributing guests posts to well-respected websites. This was long before I started pitching freelance pieces to magazines, writing that actually paid me in dollars rather than “bragging rights.”
When you lead with value–i.e. give first, ask later–people are much more likely help you out when you really need it down the road. These volunteer projects can also help you build credibility, especially if you’re trying to break into an area where you have no experience yet. This is not to say that you should give, give, give and never ask for anything (that’s called being a doormat and it’s not a healthy approach to writing or to life). Instead, be strategic about how and where you volunteer your time and keep your eye on the endgame.
Step #2: Monkey-proof it.
Sometimes you need a favor but you don’t have months or years to build credibility and lead with value. You just have to ask someone for help. This is when monkey-proofing is key.
When you monkey-proof a request, you make it so ridiculously easy for the other person to help you that it’s almost impossible for them to say no. I call it “monkey-proofing” because even a well-trained monkey could do it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing “important people” to monkeys (OK, maybe just a little…) but let’s face it, the more clout a person has the more likely it is that they’re insanely busy. I’ve found that most people–even fancy-pants bigwig influencers–are not jerks. They’re usually kind and generous, when they have the time. The easier you make it for them to help you, the more likely they’ll be to say yes to your request
Step #3: All you need is one.
Peer pressure is a powerful thing. You would think that most humans would’ve stopped being susceptible to it after middle school, but no. The minute you can point to one credential or endorsement for your work, everything becomes so much easier. That first nibble is always the hardest; after that you have peer pressure on your side.
For example, it took me years to get my first speaking engagement, but the minute I could point to my resume and say “I spoke at X conference,” booking subsequent gigs became a lot easier. I went from giving zero talks per year to giving about ten talks per year, practically overnight.
Similarly, the first few authors I interviewed on DIY MFA Radio were writers I knew personally or were friends-of-friends. Once I could point to a few great interviews, though, it became a lot less daunting to approach publicists or big-name authors. At this point, we have so many interviews lined up that we’re booked out well into September. I’m even already penciling in some folks for 2017. How crazy is that?
Whether you’re sending out your first freelance pitch, trying to land your first speaking engagement, or hoping to interview someone who’s “way out of your league,” take a deep breath and just go for it. All you need is that first nibble. After that, it gets a lot easier.
Step #4: Put on your big-kid pants and own it.
When you treat your writing (and yourself) like a legitimate entity, other people will see it that way too. I learned this when I first started going to book industry trade shows, back in 2011. This was when DIY MFA was nothing more than a teeny-tiny blog and I had no business playing in the big kid sandbox with all the major publishers and other important folks at the show. But when I approached people at the various booths I held my head high, smiled, and politely introduced myself.
“Hi. I’m Gabriela Pereira, Creative Director of DIY MFA, the do-it-yourself alternative to an MFA in writing.”
Nine times out of ten, the other person would immediately nod and say: “Oh yeah… DIY MFA, I’ve heard of that.” This, of course, is kind of hilarious, especially when you consider that DIY MFA had all of twelve followers at the time, so they probably hadn’t heard of it. But that didn’t matter. That simple introduction gave me the opportunity to talk to some great people and make connections that have lasted to this day.
Take-home message: all too often, we undersell ourselves as writers. We downplay our abilities or our accomplishments because it’s the polite thing to do. The problem is that holding back and not being honest about what we have to offer actually denies value to the other person. Remember step #1? We’ve now come full circle, because false modesty and hiding our achievements is the exact opposite of leading with value.
Step #5: Rinse and repeat.
At this point, all you have to do is keep repeating steps 1-4 for months, years, even decades, until you reach overnight success. Easy-peasy, right?
Here’s the thing: Writing is not about success it’s about survival and the folks who are able to make careers at this are not the one-hit-wonders but the ones who stick with it for the long haul. Writing and publishing a book is one of those universal aspirations that many people want, but few ever actually achieve. The writers who do accomplish this tremendous feat are not necessarily the most gifted or most literary, but they are the most relentless in their perseverance. Writing and publishing a book is like a war of attrition: the only way to “win” is to be the last one standing on the battlefield.
For now, I’ll be mucking through the trenches, fighting my way to “overnight success” right alongside you. And who knows… maybe in another ten years we’ll actually get there. In the meantime, know that I’ve got your back.
One word nerd to another,