Tip #3: Build Your Own Support Group
Historically, writing is said to be a lonely business. We’re all supposed to be depressed, nocturnal addicts angrily slaving away at our typewriters and dying early deaths. Or something like that. Except for the nocturnal part, it all sounds like a giant drag to me.
In my opinion, these days if you’re a lonely writer it’s because you’re choosing to be lonely, because the thing is, you’re not alone. At all. The reason why it’s so hard to get published is because there are SO MANY OF US out there trying to get published! Writers are not scarce. They’re not rare. They’re not exclusive. They’re not unique. Recently on a train, I asked a stranger what he did for a living. He told me he was a patent lawyer. I nodded and smiled, thinking, That sounds boring. Then he asked what I do, and I smiled even bigger and told him I was a writer. He said, “Oh yeah? I wrote a novel a few years ago. It never got published.”
WE. ARE. EVERYWHERE.
Wait! Wait. Don’t go jump off a bridge. Instead, embrace it! We are living in the age of connectivity, so connect! Find other writers and talk to them! Hang out with them! Write with them! Yes, building your own little writing community will destroy that image of yourself as a unique little writer snowflake, BUT it also makes the writing life less lonely and opens the door to all sorts of new opportunities for learning and growing in your craft.
Where to start? Well, there’s… social media, critique groups, blogs, organizations, discussion boards, meet-ups, hang-outs, play-dates, and stalking industry professionals in coffee shops. Wait, don’t do that last one.
There are so many opportunities to connect with other writers that it’s kind of overwhelming. Instead of trying to give you an overview of all the options, I’ll just tell you what my personal writing community looks like. My support groups include: two meet-ups that I attend regularly, membership in three writing organizations, participation in social media, and writer friends who I communicate with either in person or via email on a regular basis.
Know that this web didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of two years of venturing out of my writing cave and sending threads out into the world. Just like in Tip #1, I suggest you start small and find the appropriate groups and level of participation for your current situation.
Tip #4: Go to a Festival or Conference… TWICE
I remember the first time I rode the Texas Giant roller coaster (back when it was still wooden) at Arlington’s Six Flags Over Texas when I was in middle school. The wait must have been at least forty-five minutes long, plenty of time to chew off all ten of my fingernails, consider chickening out a half a dozen times, and ask my friends just exactly how scary it was about, oh, every fifteen seconds. I remember how terrified I felt on that slow click, click, click ascent to the top of the first enormous drop. I remember worrying I might cry or pee myself or fall out and die (the last of which actually happened to a woman last July—I encourage you NOT to read the horrific details if you want to continue riding roller coasters). I remember my terror quickly transforming into terror-ific thrill as I made it down that first hill and experienced the rest of the fast falls, stomach-lurching turns, and bone-rattling excitement that the Giant had to offer. I remember exiting the car—legs shaking, stupid grin plastered to my face, friends bouncing circles around me—and doing what every middle schooler does after their first big roller coaster ride. Get back in line. The next forty-five minute wait was completely different. As my stomach both settled down and churned with anticipation, I stood proudly, knowingly, and when the youngsters behind me bit their fingernails down to nubs and asked their dad, “Does it go really fast?” I chuckled and rolled my eyes and thought, Amateurs.
Joining the writing clubs and organizations available to you is only the first step. Next you actually have to participate. Read the newsletters, go to the meetings, attend the workshops and conferences. You’re not in high school anymore. (Unless you are, in which case, go do your homework.) This isn’t like joining the Honor Society just so it will look good on your college applications. If you’re going to be a part of something, then be a part of it. Get involved. (Wow, I’m suddenly sounding a lot like the mom in my middle grade novel.)
The first time you attend a conference or festival, you get to know interesting people, learn more about the topics presented, and come home with journals full of notes, new friends, ideas, and to do lists, all of which you can’t wait to start reading, contacting, drafting, and implementing.
But, as inspiring as conferences and festivals can be, they can also be confusing, humbling experiences. You don’t know where to park. You go to the wrong room. You realize you were supposed to bring a draft to work on (which you didn’t) or you notice that yours is the only laptop in a room full of moleskin notebooks and fountain pens. You nod and smile and ask “Who?” a lot. People around you hug and inquire about each other’s lives, calling children and novels drafts by first name. They say things like, “This is a nice space,” and, “Well it couldn’t really get worse than last year!” Everyone laughs and you nod and smile.
More than once during my first festival appearance, I thought to myself, Why don’t they make this easier on new attendees? And, Yes, yes, you’re best friends, I get that, but could someone just tell me where the closest coffee pot is? And, I am NEVER going to act so cliquish at a conference, EVER!
Still, the benefits far outweighed the annoyances, so the next year, I went back.
I parked my car in the free garage, knowing that they never check stickers on Saturdays. I interrupted my advice to a newbie about how to sign up for poetry readings to squeal and hug a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. And, when someone commented that the sound system made it a little difficult to hear, I caught the eye of a festival veteran like myself and burst into laughter, thinking of the rattling air conditioner that drowned out half the speakers in the venue the previous year. Then I noticed the blank look on the newbie’s face, stopped myself, and blushed.
I didn’t mean to make anyone feel left out. My actions weren’t malicious at all. I was just comfortable, confident in my surroundings and at ease about how the event would progress. I had a good time the first year, but the next year, I was in my element. That’s how it feels when you’re in the club.
So don’t be afraid to attend festivals and events. And if things don’t flow as smoothly as you’d hoped, don’t be afraid to go back. The second time you’ll be able to anticipate all the drops and turns and sharp corners, and it will be an even more enjoyable ride.
Advice for Event Attendees:
- Get as much info as you can about the location and schedule beforehand. If possible, ask someone who has attended the event what to expect.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Start by saying, “This is my first festival” or “I’m new here” and people will be nice to you.
- When in Rome… follow the social parameters of the event. If several other people are taking notes on laptops, go for it! If not, don’t be the only laptop geek. Come prepared with various materials so you can adapt to any environment, regardless of internet access, wall outlets, or available seats.
- Find other newbies and band together. Safety in numbers!
Advice for Event Organizers:
- Provide a detailed FAQ page on your website.
- On maps and schedules, avoid phrases like “same place as last year” and “the usual parking area.”
- Ask someone who has never attended the event to look over the website/information and provide feedback on omissions and areas of confusion.
- At the end of the event, ask for feedback from attendees about improvements that could be made for the future.
[Note: This June, I’ll be attending the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference for the first time. If you have attended and have any advice for me, please leave a note in the comments or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!]
- Writers’ League of Texas
- Austin Poetry Society
- Poetry Society of Texas
- Austin International Poetry Festival
- Link to many more organizations for writers: http://writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations/