What’s the secret sauce to being a writer… a successful writer? Community. Other writers. Little gangs and groups. Even if the face-to-face contact is infrequent or only online. You’re going to need people who ask how your new draft is going as if it’s a sickly, beloved pet. People who give you their gut reaction to your book cover mock-ups. Writer buddies who tell it to you straight when you’re in draft mode, and cheer you on when your book’s out in the world.
You need to find some Writer Cheerleaders. How do you do that? Here’s how I did it.
When I first moved in Paris in 1999, I went to every book event at WH Smith. It was my social lifeline, although as a recovering social outcast (read my memoir Xamnesia to see why), I was a gormless freak at these events. I’d buy the author’s book, edge forward, ask for a scrawl. I didn’t dare speak to anyone. I looked in envy at people talking to other people… then slinked out the door.
But I always grabbed a FUSAC on my way out. (That’s the equivalent of going on Facebook in today’s world.) In those pages, I learned of writing classes at WICE, at the British Institute of Paris, at Shakespeare and Company. This led me to meeting others who wrote. Those people became friends. One even stood up as my témoin (witness) at my wedding.
Years passed, classes morphed. I frequented many different writing groups. We’d meet in a café or someone’s studio where we drank beaujolais, ate peanuts, and helped each other write better. Support structures shifted but I could always go to book events and see familiar faces. Brentano’s, The Red Wheelbarrow, The Village Voice, Carr’s Restaurant, Upstairs at Duroc readings, the American Library, Abbey Bookshop, events at embassies… I’d edge forward clutching paperback or hardcover, ask for a scrawl. I started blathering to famous authors. That went badly. E.g., I dared to talk to Margaret Atwood, sharing that I was half Canadian, my mother hailed from Ontario, and did she have advice for an aspiring author? She blinked a Morse code of fluttering eyelids as if to say, Too Much Information – and where would I start?
I know I’m something of a goofball if you put me in a room with big famous authors. I write in too many different genres. I have too many whacky ideas in my head, like creating a website where you can type in your story idea and get an assessment of how far off a great storyline it is. I’m the one with a mish-mash accent. ‘Where are you from really?’ I get asked. ‘New Zealand, but parents weren’t from there… we moved at lot…’ I trail off. Obscure. I’m hopeless at asking for the sale.
I’m no Hemingway, but in Paris it was the circle of writing buddies who helped me feel at home there and concretized my dreams of being publishing.
I started to indie publish in part because a writing mentor who lives in the building where Gertrude Stein lived, kept telling me about this woman’s memoir and when she indie published it, I bought it and it switched a lightbulb on for me — I could indie publish my books, too! She’d heard about my book from the writing mentor also and we became friends from there. First through e-mail, then over a lot of a few bottles of red and tortilla de patatas in her apartment in the bo-bo (trendy) 11th arrondissement of Paris.
For me, the best thing about Paris is the writing community – online and off. Sorry not to tout the French literary scene, or the architecture, or the shopping, but I will never be able to write in French and I’ve done the Eiffel so many times I could have a leg plaqued in my name. But the anglo writing scene? It’s many tentacled and likes to kiss you on both cheeks.
When I did NaNoWriMo in 2004 I fell short by 2,000 words because I was like, “euehhh… I just can’t muster the muse.”
I failed because there is no muse. There is either a huge sense of self-belief or when that’s lacking there’s community. Community both motivates and intimidates you. It lifts you up and puts a fire under your tail because you realize that if others can do this — you can too. Meaning: get your act together and write.
In 2004, I failed NaNoWriMo because I didn’t draw on my community for help. I sat in our tiny apartment in the 9th arrondissement and hoped I’d somehow turn into David Sedaris by sitting there alone. I only ventured out to go the gym where I watched an anorexic girl fan herself as she ran 10km every day in a long flowy dress because she felt bad about herself. I didn’t feel much better than Flowy Dress on Treadmill Girl. (I hope she’s okay now. I don’t know because she wasn’t a writer so we didn’t become friends.)
By 2012 and this year, 2016, when I did (and won) NaNoWriMo, I had realized it was all about community and how that helps you get where you need to go. I was encouraged by writing buddies (okay I only have like 4 on NaNo but it helped – NaNo needs to make it easier to find your friends in there!). It made me keep writing to see others writing. If they could, I could. Plus I couldn’t wait to read their books and hoped they’d want to read mine someday.
Nowadays I’m in a spectrum of writing groups and networks, with author friends who are mainly online but still lifelines. I reconnect as often as I can with the old writing pals from all of those classes, those critique groups, those beta-reading circles — mainly by sharing their content, buying their books, and posting books reviews! Reviews are a great way to cheerlead writers. Anyone who ever leaves an Amazon review for me is forever in my can-I-do-anything-for-you list.
By the way, these groups work best when you are utterly sincere and genuine. Don’t go there with an agenda or hope of “selling” to these people. Go to help others.
Writing is a process and you can do it alone, but boy that sucks. And publishing and marketing today is no longer quietly relying on your literary agent and publishing house. Authors should be social and friendly and just-plain kind to others. No snark. No superiority complex, please. Pom-poms and smiles and the splits if you can manage that.
I thank Paris and all the writers I’ve met along the way in those basements with plastic cups for the wine, a cylinder of pretzels and a scatter of Lay’s chips. It all built up my writer identity, really. The lunches and the coffees and the weekend workshops, the literary salon marathons, the hanging out at Shakespeare & Company. The book launch parties at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. My bookshelf holds many works by people I’m honoured to know. I love asking for a scrawl in a book and daring to speak up just to say, Thanks for writing this! — everyone feels good in that moment.
If it sounds like a 15-year process, please know that I am kinda slow and backward on identity and self-esteem. You’ll be faster than me. Start today. Write a comment below and let’s bond. Say something nice to a random fellow writer posting in that Facebook group you’re in. Write an Amazon review and let the author know you thought of them, they should say thank you and cheer on your project and efforts.
If you’re a writer — write and all that — but build up your community. Join good groups, good classes, do workshops with awesome authors… but not so you can approach the über-famous author and fluff some aspiring-writer-‘pick-up’ line… go so you can meet other writers, form a circle, become a gang.
Be a Writers’ Cheerleader. It’s the best.