There is one thing you can do to build your career in this field that will help more than anything else, a secret handshake of the writing biz. You know what it is, though it may not occur to you immediately. Who wants to take a swing at it?
*a hand shoots up*
Write the best story you possibly can, every time?
Okay, two things. But really, writing the best story you can is the ante you need to pay just to get into the game. Without that you don’t even get to play. Anyone else want to guess?
I see some hands up and I’m pretty sure some of you know the answer, but since this is a pre-canned essay, I’m going to have to type it myself anyway.
I’m letting that sit out there all alone because it’s really really important. Science fiction and fantasy publishing is a business, and it’s actually a very small one at the professional level. If you were to take every single SFWA eligible writer in the entire world and put them together in one place you’d have a group roughly the size of my wife’s high school student body. Admittedly, it was a large high school, 2,000 plus students, and the group gets bigger when you add in all of the agents and editors, but due to agent-writer and editor-writer ratios that still doesn’t take you outside the large high school range.
Think about that for a moment. A large high school. If you went to a big school think about how fast information moved through the student body. Think about the way that if you did something notable as a freshman it stayed with you for the next four years because everybody knew everybody at least a little. Even if you went to a smaller school (my graduating class was 17) you probably still have a feeling for the scale just from being immersed in pop culture.
So, in terms of community size and reputation building, professional science fiction and fantasy, is basically a large high school. The plus side of this is that everyone knows everyone else, and at its best the community functions like a tight-knit village with lots of mutual support. The minus side of this is that…everyone knows everyone. If you have a public hissy fit (and the internet counts as public) when you get a particularly brutal rejection letter it may hang there in the background of your reputation for the rest of your career.
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix for reputation management. Be professional. Remember that if you want to make writing your career, it’s just that—a career. Remember whenever you post something online about writing that you’re pretty much posting it on the wall labeled “my professional reputation.” Don’t punt deadlines unless you absolutely have to, and then manage the fallout in a professional manner. Tell your editor what’s coming as soon as you can see it. Apologize. If you’ve got a fan base that you interact with online, make sure to keep them as up to date as possible.
Above all, treat people with respect and kindness as much as possible. Personally, I’ve found that this is a good idea in general for managing my life. Your millage may vary there, but it’s really important for your professional interactions because those will have a huge effect on your career over time for a very simple reason. Editors are people, and they buy stories for a lot of reasons.
Primarily, editors buy stories because they believe they will sell, but after you get over that basic hurdle (see writing the best story you possibly can every time above) other factors start to come into play and right up at the top of the list is how they feel about the writer as a professional. Does the author produce a reliable product? Do they do so on time? Is the author easy to work with? Can they be trusted not to do anything that will alienate fans? Etc.
Now, I will admit that if you sell 100,000 hardcovers every time your name appears on a dust jacket you can get away with all kinds of crappy behavior—though many will think the worse of you. But if you’re underselling and so is captain-difficult-to-work-with, I can tell you who is going to be the first cut from the list and it’s not the writer who acts professionally.
So, yes, Virginia, there really is a secret handshake. It’s called professional behavior, or more simply, being polite and meeting your obligations.