Gatekeeper Secrets: 5 Ways To Start Off Ahead

Continuing my online writer conference (since I had to miss the PNWA con this year). Day 5 — Gatekeeper Secrets

Because I interviewed a bunch of “gatekeepers,” people who look over submissions and decide if they merit consideration, I have some advice to pass along. Also, I’ve been a gatekeeper (I was once an Editor for a magazine). So I’ve had to climb Mt. Slushmore in search of gold nuggets myself.

Some of this may sound obvious. Most of it sounds obvious once you’ve heard it. But an agent at a recent conference talked about some of this stuff and it reminded me that it’s still the place most hopeful beginners fall on their climb to “published.” It also applies to other arts as well, fine art, music, acting, etc.

Even for people who have been published, it’s good to be reminded that The Basics still count. I’m trying to go from “published in newspapers and magazines” to “published book author,” so I’m climbing Mt. Slushmore again myself. Since we’re trying to climb Mt. Slushmore and reach the peak, let’s start at the bottom:

5) Don’t bother anyone until you’re ready to go. This is at the bottom not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s the first step, and you shouldn’t even attack the mountain until you complete it.  Agents want to know you have AT LEAST one book COMPLETED (or, if you’re an actor, have actually acted in something, taken classes, etc.).  You have a great idea? Good for you!

Now make it. Write the songs, paint the painting, write the screenplay, etc.  If you’re trying to get an assignment to write an article (say for a magazine), and you haven’t had anything else published, be ready to work “on spec” and get paid only after you’ve written the article and the editor has decided to buy it and run it.

I keep meeting nice people who have ideas for books, articles, radio stories, etc. that they “just need someone to write up,” or that they are writing and have yet to finish, who expect to find buyers for their uncompleted (or in some cases, unstarted) debut projects. You are up against people who are working at their craft. Taking it seriously. Developing their chops.  Be a professional.  Respect your idea by taking it seriously.

After you’ve created it… edit, revise, polish. You’re trying to convince people you are a producer of diamonds. Have at least one polished diamond to show them.

4) Get your supplies in order. Your book, your article, needs to be as good as you can make it. Professionally edited, if you aren’t an editor (and even if you are, have someone else check it, proofreading, notes, etc.).

Workshop your novel, and pay attention to audience reaction. The best advice I’ve gotten so far (regarding improving my work) was, “Read it aloud.” Mark and I started participating in an open mic night for writers, in a book store, reading our work and paying attention to the reactions, both from the other writers, and the people in the book store. If attention is wandering, make a note where it starts to drift. I have to tell you, watching people linger in the stacks, taking a book off the shelf, putting it back, repeat, repeat, to hear the end of your story is a high.

If you’re only writing for  yourself, great, you don’t need to know what people think. If you’re writing for an audience, you do.

3) Research the mountain. No matter what professional mountain you want to climb, someone has climbed it before. Never in the history of humanity has information been so easy to come by. Sure, you have to look at the source and figure out how reliable that information is… but that’s doable. And you can average. If 25 people with professional credentials tell you that you need a certain sort of rope to climb that sort of mountain, you need to look closely into getting that sort of rope.

For writers, you can go to professional conferences, join writing organizations, and yes, read. I mean, if you don’t like to read, why do you want to write? Take writing classes. Do writing exercises. In California, the California Writers Club, for example, has chapters all over the state, with workshops, speakers and sometimes even those open mic nights.

If you were an acrobat, you would stretch a lot and do muscle-strengthening exercises (or you’d plunge to your death. At least writing isn’t that dangerous).  Whatever profession you’re trying to break into has its own series of stretches and exercises. Expect to do them.

2) Don’t Be An Asshole. Good advice generally, but in the arts? Crucial. Plus, in the internet age, everything lives forever and comes back to haunt you. Be polite to the Receptionist. Don’t argue with people and get defensive (especially the people you’re trying to get to consider you. Have you ever been argued into liking someone? No, and neither have they). And every career has its ups and downs. You meet the same people going both directions, and sometimes they can give you enough of a boost to stop you from falling off the mountain entirely. It’s good ethics, good karma. Don’t fawn (don’t lick boots unless you’re addicted to the taste of shoe polish). Just be polite.

This includes other people in your field. Again, both for professional reasons, and so you can like yourself. It’s not like there are only so many cookies, and if someone gets a cookie, you get none, so don’t run down other people.  It makes you look insecure. And it’s nice to be able to talk to people who get what you’re trying to do and think it’s worth doing (because they are, too). In radio, I’ve referred other engineers and field producers when I couldn’t take a gig — and they’ve referred me when they couldn’t.

1) Follow. The. Guidelines. The most obvious advice is still the advice most people don’t bother to follow. If you’re submitting to agents or editors (or whatever is the equivalent in your art form), look at the website. Read the Submission Guidelines. Treat them like gospel.

Every publication, every agent, has The Way We Do Things Here. By not reading and following those guidelines, you come off as an arrogant amateur. It’s basic courtesy, really. If you rang on someone’s doorbell and asked to come in, and he said, “Well, okay, but we have a white carpet, so you have to take your shoes off,” would you say, “I paid a lot for these shoes and matched my outfit to them, so even though everyone else takes his shoes off, I’m special?”  If you did, you should expect to feel the door slamming shut on your snout. It’s rude. It’s inconsiderate. And it’s dumb.

It doesn’t matter how you like to do things. You are approaching that publication, that editor, that agent, and asking to be considered. You are ringing their doorbells. They aren’t ringing yours. Don’t cheese them off by swanning about, expecting them to bend the rules for very special  you.

Some agents, for example, want the first ten pages. Others want the first  two chapters. Some want a bio and a synopsis of the book. Others don’t care about that unless they like the first chapter. Some want a letter. Others don’t.  Whatever they want to see, that’s what they feel they need to see in order to get a feel for whether or not they’re interested in you.

As the agent at the workshop said, “By following the guidelines, you lift yourself above 50% of the people who submit from the start. And I’m not kidding. It might even be more than that.”

Why start climbing by stepping on your own toes?

Whatever mountain you’re trying to climb, be it Mt. Slushmore, the Hollywood Hills, or your mountain of choice, climb smart and you might just make it. I hope we both do. Good luck!

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