Every writer is inevitably asked the same question by bloggers and peers looking for advice: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to an aspiring writer? There are a lot of different answers that I would give to this question, everything from “keep writing” to “read a lot of books” to “find yourself a good editor”. But I think the piece of advice I would give over all of that is to become a part of a writing community.
I grew up in a small community. Too small, in some ways. It was a great place to grow up, mind you. All of the neighborhood kids would run around and play after school and during the summer, riding our Big Wheels up and down the road. Our parents all had their special whistle to let us know it was time to come in for dinner. Sure, we got into some huge fights, an occasional rock was thrown. I was pushed into a pond once. But we had each other for support and entertainment. We learned a lot from those games of capture the flag and flashlight freeze tag.
The same goes for our journey as writers. Writing is a hard business. It’s competitive, requires insane amounts of discipline, and so much of our success at it boils down to luck. Luck is a funny thing, though. Sometimes you can manufacture it if you know where to look. Meaning if you have the right connections. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
When I first joined the RWA, it was with a bit of a head-scratch. Honestly, I joined because I heard that that’s what you were supposed to do if you were serious about making a career of writing. I attended a few conferences too, to get a feel for things. I didn’t know why they were so important, I just knew that I was supposed to do them.
Turns out, there are a lot of important reasons for joining a writer’s group. I’ll never forget my first Philadelphia Writer’s Conference. Just sitting there, learning craft in the workshops, watching peers who didn’t look all that different from me, and talking to other writers, opened my eyes to the fact that this was real! People actually do this! The energy in the air was a shot of adrenaline to my writing system that was sorely needed. Incidentally, that’s also where I learned about self-publishing. My eyes were opened.
I didn’t walk out of the conference that year with a list of new friends and a contract. I did end up being recognized by some of those writers when I returned the next year, however. What I left with was a buzz of possibility. That kind of buzz only comes from knowing you’re not alone.
Then came the RWA. So how could a nationwide organization full of members that I would potentially never meet help my writing career? Well, on the one hand, RWA offers a lot of classes, in live locations and online, that have turned out to be surprisingly beneficial to me. Like, a lot! My first RWA conference—the Put Your Heart In A Book conference offered by the NJRWA—was another one of those eye-opening, adrenaline-pumping experiences. It’s the first time I met one of my romance writer idols…and saw that she was very, very human. Slightly disappointing, but it also drove home the point that that could be me!
Then came my RWA chapter. I am pretty much only capable of committing to one organization at a time (a fact which some lucky man will benefit from someday, as soon as I find one I’d like to commit to), so I joined the Hearts Through History Romance Writers. So what benefit could I find from an online chapter with over a hundred historical romance writers at all levels of publication?
Honestly, HHRW has provided me with the highest highs and lowest lows of my writer community experience. I have made SO many awesome friends through interaction on the message loops. We’re talking people who have become my beta-readers and critique partners. These people have become my FRIENDS. I have learned from them, shared with them, and I honestly feel as though we have helped each other’s careers, in spite of current traumas.
Ah! But this is where the gems of having a writer community really started to pay off. I should actually make a side note here that HHRW is not technically the only RWA organization I belong to. For a year now I have been a member of PAN, the Published Authors Network. Between my two groups, I’ve learned that if you pay attention, listen hard, and play nice with everyone, there are people in surprisingly lofty positions that can help you out in ways that count.
Only in a professional writers organization can you find people who put out feelers for authors to quote in articles they’re writing for nationally-published magazines. Or authors looking for books to use as an example of a particular type of publishing or genre in a big venue blog. Or those collecting new releases for a big name new release page. For those wondering how I did certain things, the answer is simple: I listened, I offered to help, I stuck by my promises, and I was gracious after the fact. Don’t forget that one! Just like when you submit an application for a college or have a job interview, the value of sending a thank you note is immeasurable!
The point is, as easy as it may seem to fall into the trap of being a hermit writer, the largest benefits and the greatest successes come from interacting with the group. But you have to respect these people, your peers. You have to look for ways that you can help them as well, not just ways they can advance your interests. A rising tide lifts all ships. We’re in this together, and we will all do much better if we help each other. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from belonging to writing communities.
So what communities do you belong to? What have you learned from them?