Who the hell are you and why should I care?
Why should I trust your advice?
Why are your thoughts valuable?
If I'm 100% honest, that's what I think whenever I click on a link to an article or blog. From the pitch to the website to the actual words, I want to know that the information is coming from someone I respect and trust. That that person has... if not credentials, then experience and knowledge that will help me move forward. Every person has their own standards and built-in prejudices, but I remember well what it was like when I was first blogging and pursuing agents in my career as a writer. Cred felt like the job market: You need experience to get the job, but you need a job to get the experience. I felt totally screwed.
This, then, is a quick guide on how to get cred as a writer. And how to *lose* cred.
1. Get short stories published in recognized outlets.
I would call this "starting small", but getting your stories published is a big deal. I didn't sell a short on submission until this year, which means I had 8 book sales before 1 short story was accepted from the slush pile. The idea here is to hone your short form and sell your work to increasingly more well-known and well-read magazines or outlets by including previous sales in your bio, thereby giving you the cred that editors want to see. Not only does selling your work make you a "professional writer", but it starts to build your CV while upping your skill level. This also includes flash fiction, novellas on fiction websites, and stories in anthologies. Every line in that bio helps.
2. Get an agent.
Yeah, I know. Sounds easier than it is. I received over 80 rejections on two books before I got an offer of representation. But I can tell you this: When you add "agented by A. Agent" to your Twitter bio, your Follows magically double. People assume that if an agent sees promise in you, you're going places. At the same time, I've gone on record saying that having a bad or disreputable agent is worse than having no agent, so make sure you check out someone's credentials on Preditors and Editors before you sign a contract. Money flows to the writer, which means that if an agent charges you a reading fee or any kind of agenting fee before selling something on your behalf, they are not legit. Unfortunately, there are tons of people waiting to prey on authors desperate for an agent and the cred that goes with it.
3. Get enough self-published sales to impress.
We've all heard the pie-in-the-sky stories about writers who do so well with self-pub that agents and editors knock down their door. But we also know the hard truth, which is that these fine folks are outliers who worked long and hard to get there, and that you have to hustle for every sale. That being said, selling over 10,000 copies of a book all by yourself is a major achievement that speaks well not only to the quality of your writing but also to your tenacity, salesmanship, attitude, and willingness to work. "Amazon Bestseller" in your bio won't impress, but "Over 50,000 copies sold" will.
4. Find something unique that only you can teach or contribute.
If you're just starting out, this might be your way to elbow your way in to the mess. After all, you can't blog on How to Get a Literary Agent if you don't have one, nor will people read your article on Plotting if you've never completed a novel. But there *are* things you can contribute that no one else is currently writing about.
Are you a forensics specialist? Do you have experience working with people who have a unique disease? Do you know tons about the legal side of contracts? Did you get a bronze in the Olympics? If you have something unusual in your job or background that you can speak on regularly and help other writers or attract a niche selection of readers, then use it. The thing is, there are a million people blogging about getting an agent or how to plot a story, but there's no one else blogging about captive tiger breeding genetics while writing their zoologist mystery. If you want people to read your blog posts or articles, you must say something useful that no one else is saying, and you must say it well. This is also a great way to get on panels or give workshops at professional events-- they're always looking for a new window on writing that no one has heard before.
5. Volunteer/work in a professional organization.
Whatever you write, there is a unified group for people in your genre: SCBWI for kids' fiction, HWA for Horror, SFWA for Scifi and Fantasy, RWA for Romance, and so many more. Each of those organizations has a world-wide or country-wide board as well as smaller groups based by area, state, or city. Go to meetings and see if they need a Secretary. Volunteer at their conference. You'll not only build a reputation as a helpful person, but you'll meet a wide range of other writers from seasoned pro to younger hopefuls, and that kind of networking is invaluable for learning about open submissions, finding critique partners, finding writing groups, and meeting people who might reveal some great tips at the bar. If you have nothing else in your query bio, "Secretary for Georgia RWA and runner-up for 2012 Unpublished Maggie Award for Historical Romance" tells an agent that not only are you giving and working on your writing, but... you're not insane. And that goes pretty far.
Also included here: Start a convention yourself, like the lovely Jennifer Morris who took that photo above. She runs Coastal Magic Convention, volunteers as a moderator on panels at Dragoncon, and blogs. Or Carol Malcolm, the moderator in that pic who runs the Urban Fantasy Track at Dragoncon, runs the Dahlonega Literary Festival, does the Horror Track at Anachrocon, and goes to every book signing in the tri-state area. Every writer I know thinks these women are wonderful people. They always get hugs, and we'll bend over backward to help 'em.
6. Make your website/blog as clean, clear, and professional as possible.
Time for some more tough love: 99% of the time, sidebars full of blog awards turn me off. If your blog auto-plays music, has animation, or has white print on a black background, I immediately X out. Not only because I find these things personally annoying, but also because I assume that if you make these choices, we're not going to see eye to eye on what works. Those are my personal bugaboos, but the commonly accepted advice here is to make the website that represents you as professional-looking, unoffensive, and simple to use as possible. Imagine an agent being interested in your query and clicking on your website link. Are they going to like what they find? Will they be able to easily find your bio? Are they going to see an inflammatory or unprofessional blog post filled with hate or hopelessness? Basically, what someone sees on the landing page of your blog could be what makes them want to work with you... or what makes them X-out and send a form rejection.
7. Name drop-- in the right way.
Name dropping is a slippery slope, my friends. The possible outcomes are:
1. I have not heard of the person's name and am not impressed, and I think you might be a blowhard.
2. I have heard of the person and don't like them, their writing, or their reputation.
3. I have heard of the person and I know them, at which point you must be very, very careful, because I can easily confirm if you are lying.
So if you're trying to gain cred by name dropping, make sure you know what you're doing.
Good: My friend Amazing Writer met you in the bar at the RWA Conference and said you were looking for ghost-themed Romance stories, and he recommended I send you a query. (But it only works if you're actually friends with Amazing Writer and Amazing Writer actually had a conversation with the agent at the RWA Con about ghost Romances.)
Bad: Forgive me for name dropping, but I just spent the afternoon playing golf with Stephen King, and he said my personal memoir about fly fishing was so amazing that he wished he'd written it himself and suggested I send it directly to you in its entirety, skipping your typical 5-page sample. (If you were friends with Stephen King and he read your work and loved it, we all assume that you would be speaking directly with his agent/editor, not sending condescending slush letters, bro.)
That being said, I've made some amazing connections because my friend Writer A said, "Oh, you're going to WriteCon? You MUST meet my friend Writer B!" And I shyly introduced myself to Writer B as a friend of Writer A and we became great friends. If you're name dropping to make a genuine connection with a friend's friend or someone who shares your interests, that's great, as long as you're not assuming that they owe you anything or will instantly give you access to "pick their brain". Which, by the way, is a phrase that terrifies most agents and pro writers, as it's code for "I will tell you my entire book and wait for you to give me a publishing contract," which we can't do.
8. Go to cons and conferences and become a known quantity.
Here is the crux of the matter: whoever you are online, there is no connection as strong as those you will develop hanging out with other human beings and having legitimate conversations in person. I have social anxiety, so I had to learn how to hack this sort of interaction by "meeting" people online, chatting on Twitter or Facebook, and then feeling like they are already friends when I meet them in real life. When people are sitting around a table with drinks, their badges tucked into their pockets, they stop being Amazing Author and start being Ann, the girl who likes Empire better than Jedi. And you stop being That Guy on Twitter and start being Toby, who rescues preemie kittens and is working on an Orc Romance. Of course, you still have to be respectful and not creepy and not treat the bar like a place where you can corner famous writers and bombard them with your pitch, but you know that. Be Toby, Kitten Saver, not Toby, Jesus will this guy ever quit handing out business cards and loudly proclaiming that the world needs more Orc Romance.
9. Read slush.
You get double points for this one, because not only are you helping an agent or magazine find the best stories, but you're also learning a hell of a lot about writing a good query letter and first page. The thing agents truly want to find is a compelling, sellable story by someone who isn't insane, and if you show that you can work well with an agent or editor, you have proclaimed yourself Officially Not Insane with trusted references to back up that claim. And if you're a reader, as all good writers are, you'll get to read tons of great stories and subconsciously pick up tips on becoming a better writer. Win-win-win, as Michael Scott of The Office would say.
10. Become known for something helpful, positive, and uplifting.
The whole point of cred is to get people to trust you by showing yourself worthy of their trust. By adding value, helping out, and being a good person who also happens to be an amazing writer. Just look at Ben LeRoy of Tyrus Books and Be Local Everywhere, one of the best people I know who recently committed to doing community volunteer work in every state. He regularly offers to buy books for people who want to read 'em but can't afford 'em. All that, and he's a great editor and ambassador for books. That's the kind of reputation that draws me in.
The thing is, writing can feel very solitary, even on the internet--just you and your laptop, battling the hordes for some small slice of readership and control. And screw that. You don't have to be alone. It's not just about getting your stories read. For me, the writers I admire most, whose books I want to read and whose social media feeds and blog posts I read without fail-- they're good people who want to help others. Yes, their blogs feed into their readership, but they're not charging anyone for their information. They give back. They donate books. They waive their speaking fees. They volunteer to give critiques for auctions. And I'm not saying that that's what you have to be to find success as a writer, that you must dedicate your life to philanthropy. I'm just saying that if you don't have anything in your bio that counts as writing credentials, you could do a hell of a lot worse than volunteering with a writing organization, running the registration table at a con, or heading a charity auction to get books for an underserved library. Until you're known for your books, you might as well be known for being a good person that other people are always glad to have around.
11. Have social media interactions that are genuine.
More tough love: Writing professionals can tell when your social media is faked, forced, or bought. If you follow 50k people on Twitter with 49k followers, I know that you aren't genuinely interacting with 50k people and either follow everyone who follows back or paid for some of those followers. If you claim 100 comments a day on your blog but over half of those comments are you, we're not fooled. When you have nothing but 5-star reviews on Amazon from accounts that have only ever reviewed your book, we notice. You can't fake being genuine. It's either there or it's not. If you think such fakery impresses agents, editors, and professional writers, you are only fooling yourself.
But--if you focus on real interactions and conversations, we can see that. If you curate great articles and share them, we appreciate that. If you invite guest blog posts and post reviews and generally seem involved and focused on interacting with other people, it shines through. And just as being real is what we appreciate in our friends, that's what we appreciate online.
What else helps someone build cred, for you?