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7 Ways To Make Your Own Luck

Serendipity may be unpredictable by nature, but there are ways you can prepare for it and even help to “create” your own serendipitous moments.


Column by Paula Whyman, author of YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER
(May 2016, Triquarterly). Paula Whyman's fiction has appeared in many
journals including McSweeney's Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Virginia
Quarterly Review, and in anthologies including Writes of Passage: Coming-of-Age
Stories and Memoirs from The Hudson Review. Her essays have appeared
in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and on NPR's All Things Considered.
Paula is a Fellow of The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, and a Sewanee
Scholar. Follow her on Twitter

1. Make a plan.

Before you attend a conference, look at the schedule. Who is speaking? Whom do you most want to meet and why? Make a list of five people you hope to connect with. Is there a journal editor to whom you’d like to be able to address your cover letter when you submit your next story? Is there an agent you think could be a perfect match for your new novel? How are you likely to encounter them? Are there pitch sessions, or will you need to find a way to approach them during an unstructured moment? Choose the panels you’ll attend based on what you want to learn, and based on the goal of meeting people. Do you know other attendees who might know the people on your list? Ask in advance if they might introduce you to a Well-Respected Editor. That way, you’re instantly vetted. Maybe you’ll achieve one of your goals; maybe something completely different will happen. Everyone starts somewhere. Attend as many relevant events as you can. Be open to the unexpected.

(When will an agent want to be the ONLY one reading your work?)

2. Be informed.

Read up on the people you want to meet. Go to an event knowing something useful, and be ready with a conversation-starter. Are you hoping to approach an editor for advice on submitting to a journal? Familiarize yourself with the submission process. Read the last couple of issues so you can say you loved the essay or the poem by so and so. Always be sincere about this. If you can’t find anything to love in that journal, why are you submitting there in the first place? Sad fact: Most writers who submit do not read the journal first. Show an editor you’ve made the effort. Which leads to the next step…

3. Show an interest.

One of the editors you want to meet is giving a talk. Pay close attention and take notes, and when you approach her after the lecture, you can refer to something she said that struck a chord. And if nothing did strike a chord, don’t pretend—it’s transparent. Don’t go into the conversation with the idea that you need to get something from that person. If your approach comes across as single-minded, it will backfire.

Same rules apply as at a cocktail party. Be curious about the other person. Don’t talk about yourself the whole time! Speakers are used to being buttonholed by goal-oriented writers who want something from them and think the best way to get it is relentless one-note badgering. Don’t be that person—be the one the editor wants to keep talking with.

And don’t forget to show your face—is there an agent there you once queried? An editor who has published your work? You’ve probably never met her in person. Now you can. Say hello, thank her, and compliment her on the issue. Ask what’s coming up in future issues. One conversation I had like this led to an invitation to read at a festival. My only goal was to say thank you. You never know what will happen.

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4. Be normal. 

Be delightful, not creepy. Whoever your publishing rock star is, she’s a real live human, like you. Follow rules of etiquette: Don’t interrupt two people who are talking closely, unless you’re invited. If the person you want to meet is by himself, or in a loose group of three or more, you can probably join in. Talk with everyone in the group—not just the person you’re aiming to speak with. First, you don’t want to be rude. Second, those other people may be at least as interesting as Publishing Rock Star. Third, most people who do the real work in publishing are not familiar names. You never know whom you’re going to meet. Pay attention. Google them in the bathroom later.

5. Be open to serendipity.

Make chance work for you. Know your goals, but let go of preconceived notions and expectations. I met my agent when I took a workshop with him. I hadn’t finished writing my book, and I didn’t know he wanted to be an agent. I asked him for advice after class. My only goal was to learn from him. One thing led to another, and he signed me as his first client.

6. Follow up.

Collect cards. Write a note to yourself on the back (or in your phone) about where you met and what you discussed. Send a brief “nice to meet you” email, reminding the contact of who you are, and what was discussed, as appropriate (eg. "Thank you for the advice. I look forward to submitting my next story to you at Journal X. I hope your parakeet is feeling better…"). One email. No more. If there’s no reply, chalk it up. Later on, if you have big news (“I won X award!”), you could send one email letting that person know. You might get a reply where you didn’t get one the first time. Editors’ inboxes are unwieldy. If there’s still silence, maintain yours, too.

(Exclusive Requests From Literary Agents—What Are They and How Do They Work?)

7. Find your community.

A famous writer told an audience of students that if they really wanted to write, they shouldn’t be at his reading—they should be home, writing. I disagree. The importance of community can’t be overstated. Once you start looking around you may be surprised how many writers there are in your town, and how happy they are to meet other writers. Support your fellow writers by helping to spread the word about their events, by attending their events, and by telling others about the books you love by local authors. This is called being a good literary citizen. When members of a literary community show up for each other, that enthusiasm transfers to the community at large. It also makes good networking sense. When you support others, they will support you. Try it and see.


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