A funny consequence of having a book coming out is that friends and family (and the occasional stranger on the internet) now come to me for advice on writing and publishing. It’s weird to give advice because I feel like I’m still learning these things myself. I don’t have an MFA – I literally just learned about the concept of negative capability this summer!
But when I’m asked for advice, especially by people who are just starting out, I’ve noticed that I keep going back to the same tip again and again:
Find your people.
And “find your people” actually has 2 parts. Part 1 is that, if you want to be a writer you need to workshop your writing, which means that you need to find a group of other writers that meets regularly to critique each other’s work. It might be surprising to non-writers or to writers who are just starting out, but writing is not a solo enterprise. Unless you’re either a genius or a recluse (or both if you’re J.D. Salinger), your work can always be and should always be improved, and the best way to do this is to work with a writing group.
Your writers group should be made up of people who are as committed to writing as you are. For instance, are they serious about getting published, do they have a story to get off their chest, or are they just writing for fun? It will be a frustrating experience for everyone if your priorities are wildly misaligned. For the same reason you should look for a group of writers who are at roughly the same stage in their writing career as you. What you want is dependability and the opportunity to learn from each other.
You can join a pre-established writers group or put one together yourself. If you’re working within a certain genre you might want to join a group that’s well-acquainted with the conventions of that genre (fantasy or romance, for instance), or if you want to work on short stories or essays or memoir you might want to find a group that is specific to that format. But no matter who’s in the group, you want reliability and consistency. You want people who will turn in their pages on time, and you want to force yourself to turn in pages too. Deadlines are your friend – embrace them!
Workshopping your writing–while scary as all hell–gives you the opportunity to hear directly from readers what works and doesn’t work in your draft. It also gives you the equally important benefit of reading other people’s work and identifying what works and doesn’t work. Maybe you’re amazing at character development, but not so great at plotting. Someone else in your group who is good at plotting can identify the places where your story doesn’t come together, and you can point out where their character seems a little flat or unmotivated.
You learn as much by reading other people’s work as you do by having your work read.
This is the golden truth of all writers groups, and it underscores why it’s so important to be a good contributor even when it’s not your turn to submit pages.
Part 2 of “finding your people” is that, in addition to a writers group,
you need to find other writers out in the world and network, network, network.
I know some of you are like, “Elizabeth. I started writing because I’m a weirdo introvert Huffle-claw who prefers dragons to people. Why do I need to network?” And to that I would say, “Girl, SAME!” But unfortunately writers have to network just like everyone else. At the very least, consider this: No one but other writers can commiserate when you’ve written yourself into a corner, and no one will be as excited to talk about books as other writers.
But aside from having stuff in common, it’s vital to find other writers in your area (or on Facebook or Twitter or wherever), because other writers can help answer your questions, share information about upcoming events, and maybe even point the way to publishing opportunities. Through networking groups on Facebook I’ve been invited to give readings, have gotten published in journals, and have received a boatload of knowledge on book marketing and publicity. Back in the halcyon pre-pandemic days, I went to readings and lectures whenever I could, and I introduced myself to other writers in my community. Through this in-person networking I ended up getting a position as Fiction Editor at an online journal, and I was invited to sit on the board of a juried writers conference.
Reciprocity comes into play here too, of course. I try to give as much as I get, and more if I’m able. The writing world is small, and it’s an ecosystem that relies heavily on generosity and goodwill. I volunteer, I offer feedback, I lend moral support, I share opportunities, and I champion new writers. It’s all part of being a good literary citizen. And it’s all part of maintaining a strong connection with other writers.
So if you’re just starting out, or if you’re coming back to writing after a long absence, or if you have a bunch of pages and don’t know where to go from here, that’s my advice: Find your people. They are out there, and they want to hear from you.