Starting From Scratch Part 2

by Annie McCormick

I sunbathed topless.

I ate the local fish, eyeballs and all.

I ignored the looks of disdain as I sat in a seaside café with my laptop.

I asked directions in my high school French.

And I put rough drafts of my work in front of my mentor and held my breath as she read them.

I have learned to be brave because I am starting from scratch, reimagining my career, lifestyle, family commitments and living circumstances to put my work out there for people to read. Showing something to my mentor was just the beginning and I had no idea how much courage that was going to take.

Writing? Storytelling? Grammar rules? Sure, I knew I’d need all that. But confidence? I knew how much confidence it would take to leave the top of my swimsuit on my beach towel but I was not expecting to need so much for my writing.

In my mind’s eye I thought I could just sneak in the back door of the world of writers, sit in the last row, pick up a few tips, read a few more authors to round out my exposure and then channel my inner writer and produce quality, readable work. No fuss. Low key.

I learned that it takes pushing. A lot. Pushing myself and sometimes others. And when you’re the new kid, the wannabe, the one with no creds or value at the table, you need to do that very carefully. And occasionally send flowers.

From the beginning of this journey I knew I needed a mentor and guide if I were to do this properly. For someone starting a new career a mentor is critical. In every industry. In every generation. At any age.

I found mine with a bit of bravery, a bit of pushing, some advice when asked and a beautiful arrangement of flowers.

I would have to approach this differently from the bakery (see my first post for an explanation of the bakery). But I couldn’t figure out where to start without a network, no connections at all and really, no clue about a completely new industry.

All of our careers are defined by our network. LinkedIn is a massively successful platform dedicated to that very premise. A very smart person once told me, “My network is my true net worth.”

If you have an established career then somewhere along your career path you have surely had a mentor—someone wiser than you, who has mastered the field and was generous with their knowledge. They taught you the official stuff and the behind-the-scenes stuff. They offered advice, let you stumble, then lent a hand; they introduced you to “people you really should know” and shoved you forward when they knew you were ready.

I had no existing relationships in the publishing industry. So I started with what I had—a knack for schmoozing, a bunch of people-who-knew-people and a love of going to lunch. I started talking to my friends and neighbors about this new goal of writing. People started saying things like,

“You should meet my friend from college, she does something in publishing.”

“The mom of one of the kids in my son’s class just wrote a book, let me connect you.”

“A friend of mine has a Facebook group for aspiring writers, I’ll send you the link.”

It was a start. I set up a social media platform and started following people whose work I admired. And then I followed the people they followed. And so on and so on. Some people followed back, to be nice, I think, because they were new, too.

And because any industry is a village, names started to emerge as leaders. I also began to spot the wannabes, the hobbyists, the sources of wisdom and the clueless. It was starting to shape up like any other professional group. I repeatedly came across an individual with impressive credentials. She had several published books and a website that talked about generosity and the power of smart women. I read her stuff and followed her online. I wanted to learn from her. I wanted her to be my mentor. So I had to be brave.

I composed an email with the same energy I’d draft a cover letter for a dream job, because that’s what this was, an over-the-transom, shot-in-the-dark at something I wanted and needed, that was beyond my reach.

The note needed to show I had done my homework, it needed to stand out, it needed to be short (super short) and it needed to get her attention and prompt a response. It went something like this:

Your work and your wisdom are impressive. And so very inspiring.
I’m interested in writing as a career shift and wisdom is at the top of my list of things to acquire! You have it in abundance (smiley face here!)
If you have a moment to share insights, I’d truly appreciate your time. I can make myself available at your convenience.
Thank you in advance.

My email signature had my newly set up social media and a witty closing line.

I checked my inbox daily. Hourly to be honest.

Eventually, she answered. “Happy to talk," she wrote. "I certainly do some consulting. My rate is $XXX p/hour, send me a few dates and we’ll set up an introductory conversation via Zoom.”

I replied, agonizing over a tone that was professional, a tone that didn’t sound too eager or too bored. We set up a time and she asked for the first 20 pages of my work in progress (or WIP, as I’ve since learned) in advance of our call.

I prepared in advance of the meeting as if it were a job interview. I doubled down on my research; listened to her podcasts; had short, focused questions written and rewritten; was ready with possible next steps.

During our meeting we chatted. She was nice. She had read my WIP and jumped right in. “It’s not Rom Com and it’s not memoir. It’s not anything, really. It’s a collection of ideas with no real stakes. You do have a funny, natural voice and it comes through clearly. It needs A LOT of work. You have to learn to write in scene. That’s where you need to start.”

Then she told me I’d be better suited to working with someone else and gave me his name. She waved before she closed the Zoom.

I nearly collapsed in my kitchen. It was a first step. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting but I had a next step. And a next step is the beginning of a path.

I took her advice and reached out to her guy, spent time working with him trying to wrap my head around writing in scene. 

I hate loose ends, and assumed she did too, so I circled back to her after a few weeks to report on my meetings with her colleague, I thanked her for connecting me with him and wondered what else I should be doing while I’m working on writing in scene. She offered a piece of advice and suggested I attend a (virtual) writers conference. So I registered, attended, took notes. And circled back.

I followed and “liked” her on social media. I tagged her in the occasional post. I walked a fine line between connecting and annoying. We began to exchange emails and “likes.” I had moved up to acquaintance status. She sent emails from her personal email account and I merited an invitation to her upcoming book launch.

I have said it before: writing (or owning a bakery) is creative. Everyone you know will offer an opinion. They want to be supportive. They want to encourage you, be your sampler/reader, and they will promise to buy your creations. That’s nice, but it’s a false indicator of success. This, “Oh, you can do it!” sentiment doesn’t seem to be an issue in non-creative fields. No one would encourage your mastery of the iconic 1960s game Operation and trust you with their shoulder replacement. No one would applaud the fact that you have watched every episode of Law & Order and trust their defense to you in a murder case.

No different from any other field, in addition to talent and skill, a writing career in the publishing industry is about relationships, genuine, mutually respectful, collaborative relationships. It’s about good manners and giving a damn and celebrating successes and being supportive. It requires authenticity, vulnerability and generosity of spirit.

A legit industry expert, recognized for her writing, her leadership, experience and expertise in the field, who would teach me is now my mentor. That took time and focus and preparation. And it’s the bravest, scariest, smartest thing I did.

That’s how I came to sit at this wobbly little table in a sunbeam in the south of France. She invited me along so we’d have some quiet focused time to work on my writing while she finished her book and presented at a few conferences.

Speaking of which, I have an assignment due in an hour - more scene writing. Then maybe a swim, top optional (please don’t try to imagine that).

I will pick this up next month. I have talked a bit about what I am lacking. Next time I’ll talk a bit about what I do have. Thanks for coming along!

Starting From Scratch Part 1

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