How to find the right door to knock on

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What does a music producer know about writing? You might be surprised by the excellent advice he can offer to writers looking for the right door….

If parenting infants is like completing a triathlon without a wink of sleep for, oh, say, six months, then parenting teenagers is like navigating a boat in the dark — without any radar. As the mother of triplets who are about to turn 17, I’m now in the super scary phase of trying to help them sort out their plans for <drum roll> after high school.

In the case of my son, it’s pretty clear his career will involve music. You may recall the melody he wrote for my quick flick on writing. He’s equally good at technology and now thinks he’d like to be a music producer. (Yeah, I’m aware this is a bit like saying he’d like to be an astronaut or an NHL player.) As part of trying to teach my kids the value of networking, I found a local music producer and took my son to meet him.

The totally charming producer, whose name is Paul Airey, was a mentor to jazz singer Michael Buble and was musical director for the 2010 Paralympic Opening Ceremonies. During our hour-long chat, he shared an image he often gives to aspiring musicians/producers:

Imagine you’re standing in a luminous white space that seems to stretch on for infinity. In front of you are sixty doors, all also white. But in front of one of these doors, there are thousands of people lined up. The lineup twists and turns, snaking around the space, in order to jam in as many people as possible.

But, still, everyone is standing in front of the same damn door! Why doesn’t someone — anyone — just try a different door?

That’s an excellent puzzle to present to aspiring music producers. And an equally terrific one to ask of aspiring writers.

Because if anything is clear about writing these days, it’s that the “traditional” routes to success are badly blocked. The faltering economy has made corporate writing jobs hard to find. The book publishing industry –- which was never an easy nut to crack — is in even more chaos than usual as it works to deal with the impact of digital readers. How can anyone make money at this business?

My advice is to stop standing in front of the same door as everyone else. Here are five ways to find different doors:

1) Specialize: There are lots of writers around. But there are fewer who specialize in writing about financial services, applied sciences or other “niche” areas. You may hesitate to make this choice because you fear it will limit your choices. Paradoxically, it will widen them! You’ll not only be competing against a smaller number of people but you’ll also likely to earn more money. Remember, a brain surgeon makes more money than a GP.

2) Do some work for free: I charge healthy fees but I also do a lot of writing for which I don’t earn a nickel. This newsletter is but one example — I also write for other websites and blogs simply to get my work in front of as many eyeballs as possible. It’s time consuming but, ultimately, it pays off — for me, in terms of book sales and reaching potential customers.

3) Self-publish: In the old days, self-publishing was an expensive, risky proposition for writers who weren’t quite good enough to get published in the traditional way. Now it’s a thoroughly respectable business. Funnily enough it can also lead to traditional publishing. In fact, blogger Brunonia Barry initially self-published her novel The Lace Reader and then William Morrow picked it up and the book turned into a bestseller.

4) Write faster: Make sure your writing skills are well honed and fast. If you’re ever paid by the word (as I am, by some of my clients) you can double your money by producing twice as quickly! Even if you’re not paid by the word, a fast writing speed will impress most clients.

5) Sell: I know, I know, writers want only to write. But as I’ve said before, the best writers don’t always get the most work. Writing goes to the people who know how to sell it. So teach yourself to become a better salesperson. Take a course, read a book and most of all, practice!

While you might not want to be knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door, you do want to try a place that everyone else isn’t attempting to squeeze through. Choose a door with fewer people behind it and you’ll increase your chances of success.

Photo courtesy Rochelle et al, Flickr Creative Commons