Sunday, February 10, 2013

Care and Feeding of "The Little Guy"

I have a writer friend who, while waiting for her big break (aren’t we all?), writes for various local publications in order to pay a bill or two.

(Interesting side note: writer's agents are also known to work a second or -- dare I say it? -- third job in order to make ends meet before one of their clients makes it big enough that the agent can eat something other than Ramen noodles. True story.)

But I digress. Back to my friend:

She was on assignment at a local winery’s wine tasting, doing research for a small regional publication. The owner of the winery greeted her with, “Isn’t (insert name of talentless local writer here) doing the write-up this year?” Then the tasting began.

Toward the end of the interview, the winery owner began waxing eloquent on the wine tasting / chocolate party extravaganza he was planning in conjunction with the owner of our area’s world-class chocolatier. This special event was in the works in order to impress a writer for the Chicago Tribune. Local press need not apply.

This, more than anything else, left a very bad taste in my friend’s mouth.

“What am I, chopped liver?” she wondered. Clearly, in the mind of the vintner, she was.

As my friend related her experience, I thought of food critic Ruth Reichl. When she was with The New York Times, her reviews held so much import that her photo was posted in restaurant kitchens. Chefs offered rewards for information on when she might appear at their establishment.

Since her treatment was so preferential (not to mention reverential), Ms. Reichl took to wearing disguises in order to more accurately sample what a restaurant really had to offer. Often, the difference between the food the critic was served, and the food the “real person” received was so significant, that Reichl would write up two different reviews for the same place! (For some sumptuous reading, check out Reichl’s book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise.)

Back to my friend. First, let me say that she knows her wine. She grew up in California, has traveled extensively and has an educated palate. She’s also a darn good writer, with credits in national periodicals and a Masters degree in English to boot. Her current assignment may be for a dinky little paper, but that doesn’t mean no one will read it. The vintner would have done well to remember this.

As writers, too often we feel like the “little guy.” We feel overlooked, undervalued and – almost always – underpaid.

The film industry routinely pays the screenwriter pennies to the star’s dollar, without taking into consideration that great stories, great characters and great lines are hard to come by.

I might be small, but I've got big-fish dreams!
The publishing industry is built on the agent's premise that "if I like it, but don't adore it, then I won't represent you." It's easy for unrepped writers to degenerate into the most pathetic, whiny, weaselly creatures, crossing our fingers and praying to Whoever is Out There that one person will adore what we've written. As if one person somehow has the magical ability to transform us from a minnow into an enormous grand poobah of a big fish.

I have ghostwritten bestselling books for clients who literally could not be bothered to say “Hi” when I showed up at one of their public appearances. At times when people begin to believe their own press, perhaps someone should remind them who the press is.

If you are stuck in “little guy” mode right now, afraid that no one will ever recognize you for the brilliant, talented scribe you are, take heart. Then take action.

Quit waiting for someone else to make your dreams reality. Search out other people who are as overlooked as you.

Make friends with associate editors, junior agents, interns and assistants. Form alliances, exchange favors, follow on Twitter, become Facebook fans, attend conferences together... Join forces and help each other gain recognition. You will be amazed at how quickly “little guys” can grow.

A word to the wise, however:

Make a pact now to never forget where you came from and -- when you've finally made it -- to remember those who helped you get where you are.

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