I hate networking. I hate small talk, I hate getting business cards I'll never use, and I hate feeling like I have to "connect" with people just so I can use them to further my career.
Thing is, that's the exact opposite of what networking is.
Networking is making friends. It's connecting with people and learning what they do. It's being yourself with others who are being themselves too.
Networking is following a contest winner because you really enjoyed their entry. Commenting on their blog because they're also into zombies and ninjas and pirates. Entering contests they run and discovering that you like each others' stories enough to swap critiques.
Networking is following an author whose book you enjoy. Friending them on Facebook. Discovering that you went to the same college and share a mutual friend. It's just talking.
Networking is following an agent's assistant on Twitter because they're funny. It's replying to their tweets in a (hopefully) funny, professional manner that gets them interested in your tweets. It's caring about their lives, even when things don't go well or they cease to work for an agent.
Sometimes I get a new critique partner out of networking. Sometimes I get someone willing to spread the word about a contest or a short story I got published. But whether or not they choose to be helpful to me, I always get a friend.
And sometimes I befriend someone who goes on to get an agent or a book deal, someone who--theoretically--could give me that Holy Grail of the unpublished: a referral. But here's the thing: if I did all this networking just to get a referral, I'd never get this far. People can smell Self Serving, and it stinks. Even now, I would think long and hard before asking for such a thing, simply because the friendships are more important to me than the (supposedly) quick path to getting published.
And that's the point. Networking isn't about using people. It's about finding friends. And the thing about friends is, when you really need them, they're there for you.
So that's my advice today. Be kind. Be funny. Be clever. But mostly, be a friend. Maybe that friendship will be useful to you some day, maybe not.
Hopefully, by then it won't matter.