This month at All The Kissing, we’re delving into a few topics designed to help brand-new writers gain confidence. We kick that off with a look at how to set aside fear, insecurity, and anxiety, and surround yourself with the community you need in order to succeed.
Nobody Knows Everything
The best teachers I’ve ever had weren’t the ones who had all the answers. They were the ones who, when they didn’t know an answer, were honest about it. “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you” was always, to me, a sign of the greatest strength. Why? Because it teaches us that there’s no shame in not knowing, and that there’s power in being able to ask for help when we need it.
When I first started devoting serious amounts of time to writing—when I decided that I needed to pursue it like a job if I was ever going to make anything of it—I knew I was going to have to ask others to help me. But I was stubborn, and my pride was wrapped up in the whole idea of success, or of being successful, or of being good enough at what I did that I didn’t want to need anybody else. So for a time I spun my wheels. I wrote. A lot. But I didn’t get any better at it, because I didn’t really know what I was doing. Learning to be competent is a four-stage process, and I was clearly at the unconscious incompetence stage.
Finally the time came when I admitted I needed to surround myself with a likely crew, with a community who would be there to support me in my writing journey. We’ve looked before at the various types of readers (in Cheerleaders, Critique Partners, and Beta Readers). That post outlines the roles different readers can play for you, but it doesn’t necessarily touch on how to go about finding those people, or about how to trust yourself—and them—with sharing your words.
Writing is a solo act. While most of us squirrel ourselves away and write in privacy, some of us can do it in a room surrounded by other people. Before he passed away, science fiction writer Jay Lake spent time sitting in a storefront window writing, with his computer monitor mirrored to a projection screen so people could watch his words take shape. I’m certainly not that type of writer (Jay was an extremely gregarious extrovert). That’s one method of finding an appreciative audience. The sky really is the limit! When an author reaches a certain status, we think they probably don’t need to knock on doors to find critique partners and beta readers.
I think that assumption is probably wrong.
Getting Started Means Getting Brave
What I did, when I first started writing in earnest, was go the same route that many people follow: I hit up my friends and acquaintances and asked them to read for me. This was an okay approach, because it still took nerve to share my writing with the people I liked and knew. All the usual thoughts went through my brain: what if my words suck? What if no one gets what I’m trying to do? What if everyone hates my writing? I should save myself the trouble, give up now, and call it a day. Fortunately for me, I didn’t listen to that voice.
Yes, the possibility is very real that a certain segment of your chosen readership won’t like what you’re doing. But even if they don’t like it, they should still be able to give you useful feedback about why. Or about which pieces they did like. Or about what they think you can do to improve as a writer. Faced with this possibility, it’s easy to spiral back into self-doubt. It’s easy to let imposter syndrome come out to play. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, imposter syndrome is exactly what it sounds like: it’s that voice that says I’m no good at this, I shouldn’t even be trying it, no one will ever want to read my words, there’s no point. It’s something that affects every writer, no matter how polished we are, no matter how well-received, no matter how many books we’ve published, no matter where we are in the process.
I’m going to share a small secret about writing as a career.
The most valuable thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to learn to recognize that negative “I can’t do this” voice when it pops up, and squash it right away.
Acknowledge that the fear is very real, that the worries might even be valid at the moment, but remind imposter syndrome that it can go away and leave you alone. Because you’ve got writing to do.
For that matter, how do we gather the nerve to make that first request? It’s akin to standing on top of a tower with a bungee cord wrapped around your ankle. At some point, you have to make the leap (and it most definitely is a leap of faith). The only way to steel yourself is to do it. To set down the shackles of introversion or of self-doubt and take a stab at it.
When we were babies, we all crawled for the first time. Stood for the first time. Said our first words, or smiled at our first stranger. As beginning writers, we’re a lot like our baby selves: afraid of the unknown. But still, we dig down deep inside and muster the courage. We have to, if we’re ever going to do anything.
Finding the Right Resources
Let’s circle back to baby writer me tapping all my friends on the shoulder and asking them to read. Ultimately, this wasn’t a great solution. Why not? Well. Just because someone agrees to read doesn’t mean they’re in it for the long haul, or that they want to read the second, third, and fourth drafts, or that they’ve really got the time to give your writing the consideration it needs. Nor does it mean that they’re qualified to provide constructive criticism, because that’s a learned skill and an art form all its own.
Once I realized that, I decided everybody else was right. I did need to find writing peers to give me better feedback. It’s a big wide world out there, and I wasn’t on Facebook and didn’t have any great love for Twitter either, so I didn’t know how to find helpful resources in either place. But I did know how to use a search engine.
Here’s another secret for you: by virtue of the fact that you’re reading this, you’re already on the way to finding valuable resources, people you’ll want to ask to read for you.
At the All The Kissing Facebook group, we have sections devoted to helping our community members find readers. Twitter is, in fact, a great place to find other writers. I know many writers who’ve had success simply asking the Twitterverse in general if anyone is interested in giving their manuscript a read. Yes, it takes nerve to throw that request out there and if you’re like me, you agonize over it for ten or twelve hours before being brave enough to post that tweet. Think about it, though: once your book is published, lots of people will be reading. They’ll all have opinions about it. Some will love your book. Others will not love it. Many will share those opinions with you. You will get reviews, both positive and negative. You will get feedback whether you want it or not.
Why not get used to it first with fellow authors? At least you’ll all have the writing process in common. Also, fellow writer are more likely to give you useful craft feedback, and less of a shoulder shrug followed by “I don’t know, I just liked it” or “I don’t know, I just didn’t like it.”
There are many, many paths to take to find critique partners and beta readers. When I first started, I was writing YA science fiction. Once I decided to get serious, I did two things that put me on the right path. First, I signed up with an online critique group and started exchanging stories with a handful of other writers. That helped me get an idea of where I was in the process, compared to other people. It also helped me learn how to give the right kind of feedback.
Second, I joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I started going to SCBWI meetings and conferences. At one of them, I added my email address to a list of people looking to join an in-person writing group. Guess what? It worked. Four of us formed a group. We met regularly (there is magic in meeting face to face), shared work, followed each other’s progress, and cheered each other on. The group membership changed a bit over time. One of our members found someone else she preferred working with. The other three of us carried on. Then we added another fourth. And so on, and so on.
When I moved to the romance genre (little did I know I’d always been writing romance, it was just wearing a costume), I joined Romance Writers of America (RWA) and signed on to go to the national conference. I started entering contests like Pitch Wars because clearly my philosophy all along has been go big or go home. I went home the first year, but not the second! I also began participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I still participate in NaNoWriMo every year. To me, it’s a great exercise in discipline. But the first few Novembers I used all the resources NaNoWriMo had to offer. I used the forums, did a bunch of behind-the-scenes networking, found other writers working in my genre, and gently poked to see if anyone was interested in exchanging manuscripts once we were done.
The Task of Finding Readers and Critique Partners is Forever Evolving
These days, I have the best critique partners. Getting here has taken its time, but it’s been a process of winnowing down from a large impersonal pool to a trusted pool of writers working in my same genre. Now I’m at the point where I can not only shove a manuscript at my CPs, but I can brainstorm story ideas with them. Just today I was chatting with one of my CPs. We were talking about how nervous we were at first when we each asked the other one to read our manuscripts. Now we can laugh over it, but the nerves and fear were real.
Does the reaching out get easier? Yes and no. There’s always that flutter of nerves when we share our work with someone new. But at some point, we have to understand that this is part of the writing-for-publication process.
What’s the worst that will happen if we ask someone to read for us? They’ll say no, either with or without an explanation. If they say no, we move on.
We ask people in our writing communities. If they say no, we can ask if they have recommendations for someone else. It’s like sifting sand in the sandbox: eventually, we’ll find something that sticks. Someone who sticks, someone we trust.
Learning how to be a fair and useful critique partner is a whole different topic, but for now, congratulate yourself. You’ve just learned that you’re brave enough to ask a virtual stranger to spend their time on your words and let you know, constructively, what they think of your writing. That’s no small thing! Pat yourself on the back. You’ve just taken another step on your own writing journey, and I wish you all the luck in the world.
For those who still don’t think they’re brave enough, I recommend two books:
- Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Jump on in, the writing water’s fine! And let us know in comments if you have any questions, or stories of your own to share.