When I wrote the first draft of The Princesses of Iowa, I knew one other writer. We would meet at the Flying Star Café once a week, chat briefly about what we were working on that day, and then get to work. Instead of a critique group, I had friends who didn’t mind when I emailed them new chapters. Instead of industry knowledge, I had a friend that said, “You should get an agent, I think.” When I asked how I might do that, he shrugged. “Google it?”
In the five years since I moved to Chicago, I’ve gone from having one writer friend to being a part of a large network of writers across the country, many of whom have become close friends. I definitely prefer the latter to the former (no offense to my former writing buddy) – having a whole community of writers means having feedback, support, advice, and the occasional shoulder to cry on as you make your way through the writing and publishing world — not to mention a huge group of people to help promote your book once it comes out!
So how do you build that community?
Take a Writing Class
Within weeks of moving to Chicago, I’d enrolled myself in the Advanced Fiction Workshop at StoryStudio Chicago. In addition to helping me improve as a writer, the class introduced me to a whole group of people who cared about questions of voice and POV, who understood the joys and challenges of the writing and revision process. After class, we’d head to a local bar to continue the conversation.
Attend a Writing Retreat or Residency
Writing retreats come in all flavors, from totally unscheduled to highly structured. I met some great writing friends at Ragdale, but the potential for new writing pals doesn’t end with residency – I’ve also met writers at Ragdale events and by sending facebook messages that say, basically, “You went to Ragdale? I went to Ragdale! Don’t you love it? Let’s be best friends!”
Go To (or Participate In) Local Readings
What better way to find writers than to attend local readings? They’re a great way to hear from other writers and learn who’s out there. Even better: be a part of a local reading, and get your own name out there!
Everyone talks about social media in boring, self-promotional ways – use it to build your platform! Use it to push your events! Use it to promote your author brand! – but look, the best part of sites like Twitter and Facebook are the ways they allow you to goof off with other readers and writers, sharing jokes, gossip, interesting links, and (of course) pictures of cute animals. Stop thinking about the internet as a way to promote yourself, and instead consider it a place to meet new, interesting people (who might just happen to be interested in you, too). Start by following your local bookstores ( @bookcellar, @unabridgedbooks,@WC1stBooks), libraries (@chipublib), the authors you love (@rberch, @erikamarksauthr, @joannelevy, @linda_grimes), and literary organizations (@NPRbooks,@PublishersWkly, @The_Rumpus).
Build Your Non-Writers Network
Most of the non-writers in your life will be just as — if not more — excited for you when your book eventually comes out, and they’ll be eager to help you get the word out. Remember that some of the things that seem obvious to you — support your local bookstore! Write nice reviews of the book on websites! — might not be obvious to them. Social media is a great way to keep the people in your life up to date about your book, your events, and your news, but you might also want to send out an email to family and friends with suggestions of ways they can support you. And if, for instance, your book ends up as a finalist on a list of NPR’s Best-Ever Teen Novels, your writing friends might be too busy trying to get their own votes to hustle for you, while your non-writing friends are happy to vote (and encourage all their facebook friends to vote as well!).
Do Unto Others…
When thinking about building your writing network, worry less about what other people can offer you, and more about what you can offer them. How can you support other writers? Can you go to their readings, write good reviews of their books, organize a critique group, promote their work on your blog or facebook page, or offer advice about local events or classes? Work to generate good writer karma by helping others, and you’ll find that most people will be happy to help you in return!