The Fine Art of Not Being a Jackhole
Posted by aahabershaw
Got a nice piece of professional advice from a very successful, very popular author once. It was about professionalism, and the advice went like this:
Don’t be a jerk.
Sounds pretty easy, right? “Sure,” you say to yourself, “I’m a nice person. I’m able to converse with other human beings without making them cringe. NO PROBLEM!”
Well, turns out it’s probably harder than that. At least for me. As a traditionally published but not-altogether-well-known author who is doing his best to make connections and suss out the social contours of this new industry into which he has thrust himself, I find myself in the following situation of late:
I go out of my way to attend a social event at which there will be people with whom I ought to make professional connections. In my pocket, I have a small stack of business cards, so people won’t forget my name. I come armed with amusing anecdotes and dress professionally, but not so professionally I am mistaken for a butler or a valet. I am not attending this event to sell books directly or cultivate Machiavellian relationships with people who seem to be of use to me. I am going to make a good impression, seem like a good guy, and become a person People Know and Like and (maybe) Respect. Seems simple enough.
But then you find yourself in front of a person you admire professionally a great deal. As a large number of people in the room want to talk to this person, you realize that you have perhaps thirty seconds to a minute to make a positive impression upon them to the point where they would not object to acknowledging your existence at a future date. My question to you, oh readers, is what do you say?
The Bieber/Cera Scale
Here’s the thing: as an author, you spend equal parts of your time thinking you are the Greatest Human Intellect on Earth and also the Greatest Waste of Flesh in Human History. It goes with the territory. Therefore, when given the opportunity to make an impression on somebody you respect, you kinda have two extremes from which to draw. I choose to display these extremes as a scale of behaviors oriented between two poles: Justin Bieber and Micheal Cera.
Justin Bieber rating (or positive number on the scale) means you, sir or madam, are behaving like a self-aggrandizing ass-face. Biebers are the jerks who toss their manuscript at editors at cons and inform them they are “about to have their mind blown!” They are the people who stalk other authors on Twitter and keep insisting that they collaborate with them and to do otherwise would result in them missing a “major opportunity.” They are the people who trash other authors mercilessly online and leave one-star reviews that attempt to re-direct readers to their own work. They’re awful.
Of course, they do have self-confidence, and self-confidence is important when trying to connect with other people. I mean, you should love your own work, right? You should be able to sell it to strangers because, if you can’t, what the hell are you doing in this business?
See, because a negative rating on the scale – a Michael Cera – is to present yourself as a meek, self-doubting nobody (and by the way, I’m referring to the dramatic portrayals Cera has done – I have no idea what Michael Cera or, for that matter, Justin Bieber is like in real life). Ceras are the guys who stand in the corner, quietly sipping their cranberry juice while they watch Joss Whedon sit in a hotel lobby and never bother to introduce themselves. They are the guys who self-deprecate their own work to the point where nobody in their right mind would want to read it. They self-sabotage, they self-reject their work without ever sending it anywhere, and they cringe at the prospect of selling themselves to strangers. If possible, you could argue that being a Cera is even more destructive to a writing career than being a Beiber. I’d say, though, that in the end they are pretty much equal.
There is a delicate balance to be struck here, of course. And, in the aforementioned situation, you have under a minute in which to strike it. You shake the admired author’s hand, make eye contact, tell them you appreciate their work. They ask you what you write, and you respond. Select one of the following options:
- “I’m the next Pat Rothfuss and George RR Martin combined. I break all the rules, man, and my novel is about Vampire Sock Rabbits and how they tear down civilization and you probably have read it already unless you’re hopelessly out of touch, old man.”
- “You probably haven’t heard of my work. I write, you know, fantasy and stuff. About dwarves in space. It’s not selling well.”
- “I write fantasy novels, and have published in the following venues (etc.). My novel is about (polished elevator pitch).”
So, duh – you want to pick #3. Good luck pulling it off, though. I think, in my real-life interaction with the aforementioned admired writer, I managed to hit all three of those responses somehow. Well, no, probably not #1. I was so paranoid about coming off as #1 that I erred solidly into Michael Cera territory. I’m trying not to think about how stupid I sounded.
You’re probably wondering what a score of 0 on the scale is. Who, my friends, do you think is the person who best exemplifies the balance between Justin Bieber-esque arrogance and Michael Cera-esque self-deprecation. Well, I’ll tell you. It is Paul Rudd.
You think it’s easy coming off as the authorial equivalent of Paul Rudd? I assure you it is not. Still, I shall continue to practice being charming without being arrogant and being humble without being pathetic. Next time, hopefully, I will do better.
Or, hell, I could just be Michael Cera-ing the hell out of all of this and it went fine.