Listening to Your Elders

getoffmylawn I spent the past five days in a whirlwind of speaking, transit and moderately heavy drinking…all thanks to having been invited to give four presentations in three days at two conferences in Northern Washington.

They were great cons: Write on the River in Wenatchee and the Northwest Travel Writers’ Conference in Spokane.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn I like cons. They’re a chance to talk shop and visit in a job where we spend most of our time by ourselves. They’re also a source of real inspiration as you talk to other people who are doing it right.

But my favorite part is talking with the elders. Like any other tribe, our clan of writers includes those who have gone further, done more and been around longer than me. When I can find a quiet corner and a few pints with one of these people, I do not miss the opportunity. Here are a few hints that have worked for me for making the most of these conversations.

1. Don’t Be Shy

It doesn’t matter how big a shot this person is, he or she is at a conference and fully prepared to talk with people lower on the totem pole. Walk up, say “Hi, I’m Jason.” See what develops. Unless your name isn’t Jason. You should never lie to these people.

2. Be Prepared

Know a little bit about that person before coming up to talk. It’s common courtesy, and lets you ask specific questions about their expertise and experience. No, looking this person up on your phone during a break isn’t cheating.

3. Stop Talking About Yourself

You love talking about yourself, but so does this other person. Ask five or six questions for every statement you make. The target will like you better and more of the conversation will be about stuff you don’t know rather than stuff you already do know.

4. Compliment (Without Kissing Ass)

Say kind, sincere things once in a while. If he gave a presentation you attended, mention a specific useful fact you gleaned from it. If she wrote a cool blog post, mention why you thought it was cool. Compliments are also a great way of transitioning into asking for advice — “Hey, I loved your article in National Geographic. How did you break in?”

5. Buy a Round

It’s the rules. Mentee pays for the drinks.

6. Ask for Mentoring

Don’t take up somebody’s total time and attention at a con. Make your interaction short and sweet, and end it with asking for a business card and permission to reach out for advice in the future. Everybody successful in writing is in part successful because somebody mentored him earlier in his career. Most are happy to pay it forward.

What’s the best/most interesting/weirdest mentoring story you’ve heard or had?

3 thoughts on “Listening to Your Elders

  1. Jason, why is it; after all these years, I never tire of reading anything you write?

    You always give such excellent and concise advise. Thank you.

  2. My New Year’s resolution in 2013 was to choose one of my manuscripts and by December 31, have a complete book in hand. I had no idea what to do, but I began by finding great books about editing while trying to find an editor. In July, I went to a music festival on the Washington/Oregon border and met up with a long lost cousin. After talking non-stop for hours, I was getting ready to leave and I had one proof copy of Utopia, Oregon in my suitcase. I handed it to him and said that it was still just a proof, I needed an editor. He took the book and said he had extensive editing experience and had a degree in film-making and would edit my book!
    What a satisfying experience this has been to have my own cousin mentor me this last year as we get to know each other and benefit from our new found relationship.

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