Breaking In (Part 3): Writing Community

So, I’ve been writing about the lessons I’ve learned about what it takes to “break in” and get published.  Yesterday I zeroed in on Novel Writing, the ultimate trajectory I want my writing career to take.  You’ve got to take these lessons with a grain of salt, mind you, because I have zero real experience on the subject.  Today I continue this mini-series on breaking in, still focusing on novel-writing.  Later, I’ll tie it all together with a summary of my writing plan, going forward.

Lesson TwoWriters have community.  By this, I don’t mean that there’s some secret cabal to which all published writers belong and admission to which is denied to all lowly writerly wannabes.  (Although I certainly can’t disprove the existence of such a cabal.)  What I mean is that successful writers often belong to a community of people involved in the writing process: be that other writers, editors, agents, and others.  Some, like the venerable Professor Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, were cofounders of reading, writing, or discussion groups (such as the Inklings).  Others may have worked on student-run literary magazines in their school-years.  Others are members of writers groups.  Others regularly attend conferences and seminars and symposia where they regularly schmooze with or rub elbows with other writers and editors. 

These communities can serve one of two (or both) functions: they can be a sounding board for the quality and progress of a writer’s work, and they can be part of the writer’s network that help connect the writer with those who are most likely to be interested in publishing their work.  Both are important in the development of a career, one somewhat moreso than the other.

The value of a trusted community of friends and associates interested in writerly pursuits, I believe, cannot be overstated: the feedback you can get from these can be invaluable in improving and perfecting your craft.  With just a couple bits of review on the short story I’ve been working on, I’ve discovered several nuances and areas in need of improvement in my skill and craft.  With more feedback, my skill could only improve even more.  This would be an incredible boon to developing my career.  When writing novels, building such a community will only grow more difficult: finding people willing to read that much unedited manuscript can be a bit of a challenge.  But having the opportunity to sound your work off such people, to help find the plot holes and shortcomings of a larger work, can only better the book.

But if your goal is to cultivate a career writing novels, I suspect the greater factor affecting success will be your access to editors and others in the industry.  This is harder still to achieve.  Sure, there are numerous conferences and seminars held around the country at various times throughout the year (Clarion is one of the most famous among fantasy and science fiction writers-to-be) where writers have an opportunity to build their networks of fellow writers and editors.  But let’s be frank: if you’re a writer-to-be or a writer wannabe, and you currently support a family with a full-time-job, it’s simply not feasible to skip out on your paternal or maternal or employee duties to pursue this crazy writing dream of yours.  Clarion, mentioned above, is six weeks long!  That’s a long time to be shirking your other responsibilities in life.  And say you’re not supporting a family, you probably still have a job – and maybe you can afford six weeks of vacation and maybe you can’t (I’ve yet to have a job that allows me six weeks of vacation).  And say your job isn’t a serious impediment, and you don’t have one.  Well, then, how do you afford to go to all these conferences?  (Continuing on the theme of using Clarion as an example, that workshop will set you back nearly $5 Grand in 2010, compared against a success rate of 1-in-3 participants going on to career success.)

Okay, so I beat that dead horse to within an inch of zombiehood.  But this is not to say that there are not those for whom this is a feasible, even critical, stop on their journey to publishing success.  My point is only that this is hard to make work; really hard.  I wish, some days, that I was in that group of people for whom this was feasible.  Given the talent that I’ve always been told I have, these would be great opportunities to meet those people who are best positioned to help catapult me in the direction I want to go. 

But, I have other responsibilities: responsibilities that I have freely chosen.  I chose marriage as the higher path to life-fulfilling happiness, and I chose to start a family.  Having made those choices, are all paths to networking with other writers and editors, and improving my craft, now closed to me?  Not all, I am told.  Some events are cheaper and shorter (and less famous for launching careers).  Lots of writers and editors apparently hang out at weekend-long conventions and the like.  I’ve read the story of one writer who apparently haunted an editor during such a conference (it may have been a Worldcon – a traveling science fiction convention – but the details of the story are a little hazy as I read about it quite a while ago, now).  The writer, as I recall, wasn’t hassling the editor, just trying to make friends and chat him up, so that when that writer’s work landed on his desk, he’d recognize the name.  And the writer in question knew the editor would be more likely to give his work a read because he’d done his homework: he knew the editor was fairly new in his own career and would be looking to establish his own stable of writers with whom he worked.  The gambit worked, and the writer is now successful and published.

I definitely want to try to develop a community of like-minded folks who I know I can trust with my work, and who can offer sound and unbiased feedback.  But it is this second community – the network of editors and industry professionals – that I struggle to figure out how I am going to build, and the one that I suspect will be far more instrumental in my eventual success, if I am to have it.  How am I going to get on the radar screens of editors and publishers?

If any of you out there have additional thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear them.  Sound off in the comments, if you can.  In the mean time, Happy writing.

Back to Part 2: Writing Novels

Continue to Part 4: What’s in a Name?