Foster the People

Why writers need to cultivate a community











When I was ready to become serious about being a novelist, I thought that all I needed was a room of my own where I could write without distraction. My husband and I moved from the biggest city in the U.S. to a small town in a dusty and isolated corner of New Mexico. It was there, in a room over the garage of our rented adobe house, that I holed up to write my first novel.

It was a disaster.

In my defense, novel writing is hard. But I also now realize that my ideal of the lone writer who succeeds solely on the merits of her work was not only unrealistic, but contrary to my ambition to be an author. It is precisely because writing is such a lonely endeavor that writers need to emerge from their solitary lairs to meet and mingle with other writers to compare notes, offer support and advice, share stories, and make connections.

Even that high priest of solitude and contemplation Henry David Thoreau snuck over to his mother’s house to dine with friends every so often.

While I was working on a second novel, my family settled in the Washington, DC, area, home to a robust, vibrant writing community. At my husband’s suggestion, I wrote a book review for a new website called the Washington Independent Review of Books. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the best thing I could have done for my writerly aspirations.

There is a lot more to being an author than writing a good manuscript, as I discovered when my second novel did not find a publisher. The lucky few may be plucked from obscurity to gain instant acclaim and success, but for most of us, it’s a long, hard slog. And when you are an unknown entity struggling to make your voice heard, it helps to have a supportive community.

For me, that community started with the contacts I made through the Independent, which have thus far led to this monthly column, a bookselling job that gives me up-close-and-personal access to big-name author readings, joining a writing group, moderating and speaking on author panels, and finding out about the indie press that will publish my debut novel.

It’s that generous spirit of community that drives the Independent’s annual Washington Writers Conference, which took place last weekend. As our heroic chair (and talented novelist), Jenny Yacovissi, eloquently explains, the conference is a labor of love that takes many months of planning, scheduling, and recruiting of panelists, moderators, and agents. From the organizers to the keynote speaker to the debut authors to the time-keeper for the panelists, everybody is a volunteer who is giving back to the writing community.

Their hard work paid off with yet another wildly successful conference that featured in-depth discussions on the craft of writing, the state of the publishing industry, how to pitch to agents, how to get published, marketing strategies, and much more. The air of the conference hall fairly crackled with the kinetic energy of creative people dedicated to the art of the written word, and the warm feeling of camaraderie that pervaded left me feeling invigorated, inspired, and proud to be a writer.

Looking back, I see that isolating myself to write my first novel was a rookie mistake. The purpose of writing that novel was to get it published, and publishing is an industry, and succeeding in an industry requires a familiarity with its protocols and practices, fostering professional relationships, and learning from those who have gone before you.

The path to publication can be a brutal, bruising, and incredibly humbling experience, and success on the first try is extremely rare. I didn’t know that, and when I finally realized that my first novel was not only unpublishable but also unreadable, I gave up writing for eight years.

If I’d been a part of a writing community, I would have understood that it takes time to master the very complicated business of writing a novel, that failure is almost inevitable, that good writers learn from their mistakes, and that there is no one typical path to success.

So, when it comes my time to be on a debut-author’s panel, my advice will be to seek out a local writing community. You will need the writing tips, the publishing advice, and the networking opportunities. You will need the help in building your platform (even Thoreau is on Twitter these days).

But most of all, you will need the support, understanding, and commiseration that can only be found in the company of other writers.

[Photo by Bruce Guthrie.]

Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, will be published by Unnamed Press October 16, 2018.

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