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. :)


Carleen Brice said...

I sure am thankful for the peers I've met in workshops, conferences and through my blog!

Mary Duncan said...

Here's a hug now, since I won't be around tomorrow! Glad you take the time to encourage us all!


Jude Hardin said...

I just love the word "unibomberish." :)

Very nice post, Joe. Hugs all around.

Fake Name said...

I think this as healthy a take on the subject writers as peers as I've ever read. I'm just coming out of an MFA program which I imagine creates some of the same feelings inside of writers that an internment camp sparks in its inmates. At first, praise seemed scarce, and we battled for it like fat kids for cake. That said, I've come out with a new respect and admiration for writers. I truly do think that every good sentence that's written by anyone makes the world a better place. And with that in mind, I thank you for your post.

Jaye Wells said...

"the fact is that your peers aren't your main audience"

Thank you for saying this. I think a lot of authors waste their time pimping at writer conferences. Educate, sure. Entertain, definitely. Hard sell? Wrong audience.

Barry Eisler said...

Let's try that again... for some reason, the link won't post. If it doesn't work this time, anyone who's curious can track down the article ("Blurbersion") on the For Writers section of my website.


Momentarily abandoning my unibomber existence to comment here...

You said that stuff about blurbs just to rile me, right? ;D

Here's my contrary view, including a rejoinder from Joe:

And dude, where's the new manuscript? I'm waiting...


Robert Burton Robinson said...

Thanks, Joe! When I first started reading your blog nearly two years ago, you were kicking off your breakneck tour of 500 bookstores. Since then I've come back each week for my next lesson. It continues to be a great course for newbie's.

In the meantime I've written my first four books and posted them on my site and self-published them. I've just begun work on the first book of a new cozy mystery series. This time I will not post the book online. And when the book is perfected :) I will seek an agent.

One of the great things about this site is that you go easy on the newbies. You try to lead them in the right direction, but you don't slap their hands when they say they are going to do something that you know won't work. Sometimes people just have to find out the hard way.

This was true for me. I tried a lot of things, like self-publishing, that didn't work. But at least, in the process, I learned a lot about writing by completing four books. And I learned a lot about the publishing biz from this blog.

Hugs to you, Joe, and to everyone who contributes to the discussions here.

Robert Burton Robinson

Janet said...

I so appreciate your maturity.

JA Konrath said...

I've added Barry's link to the blog entry, because for some reason Blogger isn't letting anyone post links.

Mark Terry said...

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

Amen, brother.

And great post. And if you ever need an ms. read...

PokerBen said...

Here's my virtual hug for today...oops...I was suppose to wait until tomorrow..GRR!

Picks by Pat said...

Joe, you're absolutely right...we should help out our fellow writers with advice. When they ask me for advice, the first thing I do is take them by the arm, put their fingers on a mouse, and point them to this blog!

I think this is one of the best place for a new writer to start.

And if they still have questions, I answer them as best I can.

Lisa McMann said...

HUGS to you, Joe. Thanks for all the advice over the years.

Hugs all around as well.

Anonymous said...

I thought every day was Hug Another Author Day.

Daniel Powell said...

Another fine post, Joe, and I'm going to link to some of your work through Blackboard for a class I'm teaching on dark fiction at a small college here in Florida. I think some of those horror tales in *55 Proof* will fit nicely in the course.

We read King, Poe, Hawthorne, Oates, Perkins Gilman, Bierce and others last term, and could you guess whose work the students liked best?

They loved Cory Doctorow's "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth." It's another great reason, I think, for publishing selected works on your site.

Thanks again for all of the great advice you compile on this blog, and I wish you continued success.

Anonymous said...

I happen to like lurking:)

this is a good article, and adds in nicely to one I read by Richard Morgan recently, calling for SF writers to leave off the bitching and fighting about nothing of consequence:

Regarding workshops and whatnot - you know, it's interesting, most writers swear by them but Mike Resnick (who has made a living off writing for a quarter decade) says no. Admittedly, recently he said that it can work, under the right circumstances and with the right people.

That's always the problem though.

Thing is, I think it's good to critique and do workshops for a while but there's a point where you have to limit them, possibly leave them behind.
They're great shortcuts for learning some things, but not all.
But there's also a few fantastic "how to" books out there, dealing with specific aspects of writing craft. Some are better than others, but you can learn a hell of a lot from them.

Good advice, either Resnick or Orson Card I think, is to beware of staying with any crit group for longer than a year or so. There's a danger of complacency and not being challenged by new perspectives.

Critique groups and workshops can be stimulating to some, for me eventually they began to mentally exhaust me.
When the second guessing gets too much, I think you have to take a break and step away, until you actually enjoy critiques again. Giving critiques, not receiving them. For me, that's important, reading and critting because it provides me pleasure to do so.

Also, there is a danger in being overly dependent on critiques. There is such a fine balance between being open to feedback and knowing when you have to dig in and stand your ground, trusting yourself.

Well, this is a topic one can go on and on about, so I'll stop my rambling here, hopefully it's somewhat coherent.

As to lurking and not interacting - I agree, a great deal of the pleasure of blogs comes from interaction, rather than passive take-in. The blogger is boosted by the commentary adn the commenters get more interested when they invest time and energy.

My feeds got up to over 300 blogs, with about 200-400 daily updates. That, too, is exhausting. And stupid.
So, I cut them down to the most basic, the ones I truly enjoy the most.
of which this is one.

Last thought on crit groups and workshops and blogs - the biggest thing I get from them is a sense of community, of talking to people with the same goals and aspirations as I do.
That turned out to be more important to me than critiques or feedback, and all that.
Just hanging around with like-minded people.

Martha O'Connor said...

When I was in the BFA program, I noticed a lot of rivalries/jealousy/general nastiness.

I'm pleasantly surprised to find my current writing circles aren't that way.

Conda Douglas said...

I hugged a lot of fellow writers on May 3--I was at Maass' Tension on Every Page workshop. It's so great to know I'm not the only insane one...

Anonymous said...

The thing about peers that always cracks me up is those people who go around saying stuff like, "I don't care about awards" and "I don't care what people think about me." And then you see them kissing so much ass their lips are chapped.

If you're not a complete douche bag in the first place, you don't have to worry about your peers thinking you're a douche bag. It's sad when you see a writer who absolutely destroys his reputation by boorish, drunken behavior.

Sometimes peers look down on us for good reason.

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