Friday, 10 February 2012

Hello, I’m Here to Help

Getting Started in Non-Fiction

 by Dan Holloway

I wanted to write something marketing- and/or social media-related in this issue for all the non-fiction writers out there. But for several weeks now I’ve been having one of those authenticity crises. You know the kind. Where you want to say something but you feel anything you say will be a fraud. I mean, I’m a novelist. And when I’m not writing novels, I write poetry. Or short stories. I’m not a non-fiction writer. Only...

Well, I had a think. What was the last thing I had published? Um, that would be the review I did for The Guardian website. And the first thing? Oh yes, that travel piece I wrote for The Observer. And the biggest audience I’ve ever had (or ever will I dare say)? That would be the 140,000 circulation for the booklet on debt and mental health I worked on. And the biggest paycheque for a piece of writing? Ah yes, the mental health article I wrote a couple of years ago. Oh, and I guess there’s that column I write for a really rather fabulous writing magazine.

So maybe I’m not such a fraud after all. Maybe I’m actually more of a non-fiction writer than a fiction writer. I’ve certainly written more non-fiction pieces in more respectable places than I have fiction. Or poetry.
So why do I still feel a bit of a fraud? I think it has to do with how I “got the gig” for my various non-fiction pieces. I wrote a blog post more than two years ago called “Chutzpah, Cheekiness, and Chance” which I opened with the lines, “I wasn’t expecting to write something about, essentially, online journalism, and how to break into the field. It’s something I know very little about.” I think I still feel the same, and if someone pushed me into a corner at a party and demanded I unburden my wisdom to them, I think I’d still quote those three words.

But chewing a little more of this particular cud, maybe there’s actually more than a little method behind those three little words. What you actually need is “the right kind” of chutzpah, “the right kind” of cheekiness, and “the right kind” of chance. And in that “right kind” there’s a surprising lot you can learn.


I want to take this little sucker first, because it, and its stepbrother, Luck, are so frequently misquoted. The thing about luck, of course, is that there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s what makes it luck. A lot of people who say you make your own luck have led charmed lives or are simply not particularly empathic. The rest actually mean, “Make sure you put yourself in a position to make the most of your chances.”

And putting yourself in a position to make the most of chances that come along is something you most definitely can do something about. It was chance that first got me in touch with the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), with whom I’ve gone on to do lots of very rewarding work on debt and mental health, and through whom I’ve met many other people and organisations I’ve worked with. I was in the middle of writing a travelogue, and had started a blog to go with it that combined travel exploits with mental health and financial troubles (my wife and I had coinciding “ups” during our bipolar cycle, and ended up travelling to 23 countries in a single year on budget airlines). One of the researchers at the RCP was looking for people with mental health and debt problems. And Google did the matchmaking.

For me it really was luck. But the principle I learned has stayed with me. If someone’s looking for the thing you can do, make sure you’re the person they find. That’s the real knack to what people call platform-building. Whether it’s Google or a friend, if someone with stuff that needs writing asks “Who can write this for me?” is your name the one that’ll come up?

It’s worthwhile remembering that “Google or a friend” are quite different things though, and that people may go to either. For me, what comes first is a blog that has regular posts about the things I want to be asked to write about by others, and which you have carefully tagged and filled with the words that people will search for. Aside from being Google-friendly, this is your calling card.

There are many ways to make sure people know about you, but ultimately they will all point back to your blog (when someone asks, ”Can I see an example?” or some such, it is there you should be able to point them), hence the priority of starting by blogging and building out from there . But once you have that base, the next step is to research the places where other people talking about the things you are talking about hang out. If these are online places, you can go and interact on forums and blogs. I’m never a fan of the “look at me and this is my fabulous blog” approach. It is far better to offer help and insights, and link back to your blog subtly. If you are regularly helpful, witty, and wise (and if we’re not then you probably don’t deserve that gig in the first place), it won’t take long to get a reputation.  And then you’ll be the name on the tip of real people’s tongues as well as Google’s.

“Once You’re In”

There are lots of helpful tips about getting noticed, and making sure people come to you for the things you can do best. But there is one golden rule to transcend them all like some bad Tolkien rhyme:
Once you get your break, don’t blow it.

Simple, really, but we spend so long thinking about how to get that all important foot in the door that it’s all too easy to get it caught and end up with nothing more than an almighty blood blister. The thing is, once you do have a piece of work out there, that’s what people will be looking at, regardless of what’s on your blog or anywhere else. So make it an absolute zinger, because however hard it is to get a first chance, a second chance is ten times harder to get. But if the first piece you do is great, more offers will start to come very quickly.

The other thing about chance is that you can tune yourself to be aware of it. Look out for stories about your area of interest in the news. Have a press contact sheet ready to go that you can tweak ever so slightly to make it relevant to this particular story, then fire it off straightaway. Make sure you follow all the organisations and publications that might be interested on twitter, and tweet them offering a story the moment the news breaks (and make sure you regularly search key words on twitter so you know when the news breaks). Then, two minutes after the news breaks (because minute one was firing out that contact sheet and those tweets), write a short, crisp, informative blog post about the story with a very heavy angle, and post links to it on twitter. I had a huge spike in interest and contact when I managed to post an article about Stacey Slater being revealed as Archie’s killer on EastEnders – I almost burned my fingers getting a post up within 20 minutes lambasting the BBC for undoing all their good work on sensitively creating awareness of bipolar disorder through Stacey’s storyline, and by getting in first, my article was the one that everyone re-tweeted on the subject.

Cheekiness and Chutzpah

I often joke that 90% of the things I end up doing happen because I stuck my hand up at an (in?)opportune moment. Only it’s not really a joke. Unless you’re interested in the paints used on 1986 computer keyboards, then the chances are there are organisations and magazines and events going on around you all the time that relate to your interest (with apologies to anyone interested in 1986 keyboard paint – there may well be conferences held on a weekly basis, and I’m sure there’s more than a passing forensic interest). Go along as often as you can. And offer to do things. That’s what I mean by sticking your hand up. Could you write an article for the UK Stapler Appreciation Society? Why not go along to one of their events, join in the fun, and then offer to write something. Or go along to a local history group and volunteer to organise a day trip to London Stapler Museum for them?

The problem is this all sounds a lot like cold calling. A lot like those annoying people on twitter who are always spamming agents saying “look at my fabulous book!” Have you ever noticed that there are two kinds of people, and they seem to ask the same things and say the same things, but one group’s treated like needy pariahs whilst the others are welcomed with open arms? That’s where cheekiness and chutzpah come into their own. Always be helpful, always be kind, always be warm and witty, and always, when you’re asking something, do it with both conviction and your tongue firmly in your cheek. Even online, people can spot someone who’s self-serving as opposed to someone who’s genuine.

And remember, the very best question you can ask, and one you should ask as often as you can: Can I help? You’d be amazed how many doors it will open. As well as being immensely rewarding in its own right.

To Summarise:

Make yourself easy to find through Google by having a regularly updated blog filled with all the words people are likely to be looking for.
Make yours the name everyone knows by offering interesting, helpful comments on blogs and forums.
Make sure you have an interesting take on things – make people want to get your opinion.
Once you get your foot in the door, make it count!
Look inside, find “your” voice (using twitter a lot, and letting yourself emerge, is a great way to do this), and turn up the volume
When an opportunity comes along, ask!

Be courteous to everyone; be helpful to everyone; act like you belong; never be arrogant; don’t take yourself too seriously.

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