Friday, May 02, 2008

Peers and the Healthy Writer

I've been doing a lot of travelling lately, giving my standard inspirational talk to newbies (if you've seen my tattoos, you know the talk I mean) and a topic that keeps coming up is the importance of peers to today's writer.

Peers are both the most and least important people in your career. It all depends on what you use them for.

Here's a quickie rundown of everything peery.

Herding Instinct. If you're a newbie writer who lives a Unibomberish existence off the grid, you aren't reading this. For the rest of us, seeking out like-minded folks is part of our genetic code.

Since writing is a solitary profession, meeting other writers--both online and in real life--is a way to reassure ourselves that we're normal after all. Most writers have the same concerns, problems, and fears. Depending on your experience, there's always more to learn and tales to share.

This is good. Networking offers opportunities to question, evaluate, test, and explore the reasons we work the way we work. We all can learn a great deal from each other, and Internet forums, blogs, bulletin boards, groups, and discussions, along with writing conventions and conferences, book fairs, and literary festivals, are the perfect way to do this.

You obviously read this blog, but do you contribute to it? Do you ask questions, offer advice, and communicate? Communication is a two way street, and you learn more from give and take than you do simply lurking and watching.

Critiquing. While trading insider secrets is a great reason to hang out with other writers, the best way to use your peers is as readers. If you haven't ever joined a writer's group, you should consider it. If you're already published, offer to trade manuscripts with your peers before your agent or editor has a look. I do this with many different authors, and I always learn a lot.

While it's always nice to be praised, it's much better to seek problems with your work, so those can be fixed before the book reaches the street and the hate email starts pouring in.

Critiquing goes both ways, and you can also learn from reading a peer's manuscript and articulating what can be made stronger, and possibly how.

Approval. While I endorse forging some ties with a few close writing friends, for the most part you don't need to worry about the acceptance of your peers. While a certain percentage of them--especially if you do a lot of appearances--will buy your books if they like what you have to say, the fact is that your peers aren't your main audience.

Worrying about who is saying what about whom, feeling snubbed because you never got that nomination or award, and wondering why those cliques of popular authors never seem to include you--that's all wasted effort on your part.

You don't need to be accepted by the writing community, the genre community, the awards committee, your local writing organization, or any other group of individual in order to be happy or successful.

The opinion of your peers, as a group, simply doesn't matter.

High school was a long time ago. If you like yourself, and have at least one person in the world who also likes you, that's all you'll ever need.

Blurbing. Try to blurb everyone you can. When asking for blurbs, don't be aggressive, or disappointed if it doesn't work out. That's all that needs to be said on the subject.

For an alternate viewpoint of this, check out Barry Eisler's blog post over at MJ Rose's Buzz, Balls, and Hype:

Commiseration. Hanging out with writers, talking the talk, is always helpful. But sometimes you need something deeper. Things happen in the career, both good and bad, and often we don't know how to react to them. Sometimes we need a peer to offer their perspective. Sometimes we just need someone to bitch to.

This is where the line between peer and friend begins to blur. Try to keep them separate.

A peer is a fellow writer.

A friend is a favored companion.

All peers are not friends, and all friends are not peers.

If you can land one who is both, cherish that relationship, because you can benefit greatly from it. Just remember to put back in what you take out.

And remember to never air dirty laundry, yours or anyone else's.

Advice. As you move up in the writing world, more and more people will ask you for your advice because they want to get where you're at.

Offer that advice, but always make sure they know that your way isn't the only way, and that just because you're a so-called expert doesn't mean you know everything.

And make sure, when you hear expert advice, you remember that as well.

There are few universal truths in writing. Learn what you can, test things for yourself, and discard what doesn't work.

Support. We need to help each other, not hurt each other.

That involves two basic principles.

1. Not thinking or acting like you're better than anyone else, and never publicly criticizing other authors.

2. Being friendly, accessible, and professional.

Treat other writers like you want to be treated, no matter their experience level, or how incredibly obnoxious, small-minded, or oblivious they are.

Being right is not an excuse for being mean. Being successful is not an excuse for being self-important. Being honest is not an invitation to getting attacked.

Help others and keep the negativity private.

That said, I've officially declared tomorrow, May 3 ,to be "Hug Another Author Day."

Tag, you're it. Spread the word. Virtual hugs are okay too.

And, as always, thanks for reading. Hugs to all you folks. :)