Are Writers Really Loners? Should We Be?

The old stereotype shows writers sitting alone in their garrets writing for hours, avoiding people while the bills and the trash pile up—and maybe the empty whiskey bottles, too. But is that really where it’s at? I don’t even have a garret.

I ask this because it came up at our board meeting for Writers on the Edge, which puts on the Nye Beach Writers Series in Newport Oregon. We are running out of volunteers. Even though writers and fans claim to love what we do, nobody seems to want to commit to working on the team that makes it happen.

In wondering why it’s so hard to get volunteers, some of the board speculated that it’s because writers are lone wolves. But are they? Writers are always asking me as president of WOE where they can hang out with other writers. They want to chat, they want critiques, they want to just set their laptops side by side and work. They need that extra push of someone caring whether or not they write to make them put words on the page. Some want classes, many want deadlines.

I read online recently about a group of women that meet to submit their work. Side by side with their laptops, they pound out their manuscripts, queries, and cover letters. Every time someone hits send, they all celebrate. This is similar to the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) write-ins that happen all over the country in November. I have not attended these. I prefer to write in silence. Also, I speak my words as I type them, which would no doubt drive the others crazy. But if you would like to write with other writers, you don’t have to wait until November. Invite somebody for a writing date.

I prefer to produce my rough drafts and do major edits alone, but I don’t like to be alone all the time. I enjoy the company of other writers, and I love the extra push from workshops and write-ins where everybody’s writing at once. Over the years, critique groups have been very helpful. Several of the most successful writers I know, including Chuck Palahniuk, Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain and Lidia Yuknavitch, are part of a Thursday night writers group in Portland, Oregon  that meets regularly for no-holds-barred critiques. I have no doubt that their association has helped them write better and get published sooner.

You may or may not like writing with other people around. I did it for years as a newspaper reporter and editor, so I know it’s totally possible to write elbow to elbow with other writers writing, phones ringing, police radios squawking, and people coming in and out. When you’re facing a deadline, you just do it. Now, I enjoy the peace and quiet, but I can write and have written anywhere.

I’m shy about reaching out to other people, but I do think we need other people once we hack out our early drafts. At some point, we need someone else to look at what we have written and tell us what works and what doesn’t. When we get stuck, they can help us find a way out. We also need someone to tell us it’s worth doing and urge us to keep going, especially when we’re getting nothing but rejections.

And when it comes to submitting our work, dealing with queries, cover letters, and sharing market information, it really helps to have friends to talk to, even if it’s only on Facebook.

The connections we can make with other writers are pure gold. Through my activities with California Writers, Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge, I have met big-name writers, editors and publishers. I mean, they know who I am and what I write. They can help me with my career. If nothing else, they make me feel as if I am a real writer and my big success is just around the corner.

So are writers really loners? Not any more than the rest of the population. Have you noticed how many of us are on Facebook, Twitter and other social media? Quite a few writers I know prefer to write in coffee shops and other public places. You do have to put those words on the screen by yourself, but when you’re done, back away from the computer and find another human being to talk to. It’s healthy.

And if you live on the Central Oregon Coast, we sure could use your help with the Nye Beach Writers series. Write us at info@writersontheedge.org.

Are we loners? Are you? I welcome your comments. The comment link is at the top of the page just below the “tags.”

Now let’s go write.

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How Not to Apply for a Reading Series

I’ve been throwing away other people’s books and manuscripts. Gasp. I don’t want to. It feels wrong. But these things have piled up over the years, sent by writers who want to be featured at the Nye Beach Writers’ Series here in Newport, Oregon. We have changed presidents several times in the last decade, and now the boxes have landed at my house.

It’s my job to schedule the authors for our monthly programs. At this point, 2015 is set, but of course people still contact us. Some I have put in the queue for 2016 because I want them here as soon as possible.

Others, not so much. Their work is inappropriate for our series, they live on the other side of the country, they demand a date that is not available, or–and this is where the throwing stuff away comes in–they send books with no other information, loose manuscript pages with no names on them, and vague form letters that show they know nothing about what we do here. The interesting books, I’ll read and give away, but everything else is going into the recycling bin.

Scheduling writers for readings is a big job. In some ways, it’s a lot like being an editor. People query us. We issue acceptances and rejections. We choose our guest authors to fit into the whole year, hoping for a balance of genres and styles, new writers and veterans. That means if we already have several poets, we might say no to another poet, even if his work is fabulous. We’re also looking for writers who are dynamic readers, who don’t just read but perform. We also want people who are going to draw an audience.

I’m sure it’s the same for most reading series. In the interest of not having to throw away any more manuscripts or books, here are some tips I have learned doing this job for Nye Beach Writers, as well as several years doing the same thing for California Writers Club.

  • Do a little research. Check the website, find out when and where the readings happen, and whether they do straight readings or are looking for workshops. See what types of writers read there, and tailor your query to that reading series.
  • Use email. This is 2015. Before you mail a big packet of unnecessary material, write a one-page email telling a little bit about yourself and why you think you’d be a good fit. If you have a new book to promote, tell us. If you have read at other venues or if you teach writing, tell us. If you happen to have a multimedia presentation with music, video or PowerPoint, tell us. If you have a cocker spaniel named Charlie, don’t tell us—unless he’s coming to the reading.
  • Before you go to the expense of sending a book, ask if we’d like you to send a copy. If you’re published by a traditional press, ask them to send the book. In fact, use their PR to approach us.
  • If you only have manuscript pages or proofs that’s okay, but put your name on every page and give us at least a paper clip to hold them together.
  • Be aware that we schedule way ahead, so don’t write to me in March and tell me you want to be our guest in May and only May. That date is taken. You need to think ahead, too. It’s not too soon to let us know if your book is coming out next January.
  • If scheduled, you will need to provide photos and bio material for our publicity person. Have those available, but don’t send them until asked. If you have a web page we can consult, that will be a big help.

The Nye Beach Writers Series is a production of Writers on the Edge, a nonprofit organization. We hold our events the third Saturday of the month at the Newport Visual Arts Center. After the guest author presentation, we always hold an open mic for anyone who wants to share their work. We also host several workshops a year.

Newport is also the home of the Willamette Writers Coast Branch, a separate organization which hosts monthly writing workshops–not readings. They are always looking for writers who can teach some aspect of writing. It could be you.

We have had some great authors at Nye Beach Writers. Cheryl Strayed read for us when her bestseller Wild was just a dream. Chuck Palahniuk shared his work with us when he was a brand new writer with a weird novel called Fight Club. Reading for a series such as ours won’t make you rich, but it’s a great way to promote your work and connect with readers.

There are reading series all over the country, all over the world. To be honest, if we had no one approach us, we’d just feature our friends, so we all need authors coming to us, but do it right. Do your homework, and don’t send me stuff I’m going to wind up throwing away because I don’t know what else to do with it.

Enough. You can’t read it if you don’t write it. Let’s go write.


How do you find a critique group?

Last week when I wrote about how to tell when your novel is done, I mentioned my critique group and their reactions to my manuscript. You may have noticed other authors talking about their groups or thanking them on the acknowledgements pages of their published books. And you may be thinking: I don’t have a group, I have no idea how to get one, and it’s lonely out here.

I hear you. Good critique groups are not easy to find, especially if you live out in the boonies like I do. If you happen to be in a college creative writing program or taking a workshop, you might have a chance to critique each other’s work, but that’s only a temporary fix, and these might not even be the people you want to have reading your work. The ideal critique group is long-lasting, local, and small enough that every writer gets the attention he or she needs, but big enough to offer varied opinions. The members share a similar level of skill and experience, and they understand what you’re trying to do with your writing. They stick to a regular schedule and a consistent process that works.

How do you find such a group? That’s where networking comes in. Most writers would rather just write. Too bad. There are many steps between the writer and reading world, and you need other people to get there. Here’s what you do:

* Join a local or regional writing organization. Here in Oregon, I belong to Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge. We also have Oregon Writers Colony. In California, I belonged to the California Writers Club, which has branches all over the state. Most states have their own writing organizations. A quick Internet search will surely find you a group. You can find a great list of genre-specific groups at http://www.writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations.

* Go to writing events. Look for readings, open mics, workshops and conferences where you can meet other writers.

* Get involved. Join the board, volunteer, offer to bring cookies, read your work at the open mic, talk to people. Writers are inherently shy, but if you get yourself an official job to do, it’s a lot easier to meet people.

* Ask people about critique groups. Do they know of one that could use another member? Would they like to start one with you? If there’s a newsletter, submit a notice that you’re looking for a critique group. Our group was born one night before a Willamette Writers program when three of us were having dinner together and discovered we were all looking for a critique group. We set a date, started meeting, added a couple more members, and have been meeting every other Tuesday since then. When I lived in California, I was invited by a fellow member of California Writer’s Club to join her group.

Not every group succeeds. You may need to try different combinations of people. It helps if you’re all working on similar types of writing. In my group, we’re all doing novels or memoirs right now. Another group I know does nothing but poetry. And you need to set up a process. Where and when will you meet? Will you read passages out loud or distribute copies before the meeting? Our group sends up to 10 pages by email a few days before the meeting so members arrive having already read and marked up their copies. We go clockwise around the table giving our comments while the author listens and takes notes. We talk about what works and what doesn’t and about where the story is going. We discuss issues like flashbacks, point of view and plot. It’s painful when a friend says, “No, this section doesn’t work,” but it makes our work much stronger in the long run.

It’s not essential to meet in person. You can exchange critiques around the world by computer, adding comments and corrections with the “track changes” function in Word. You could even meet via Skype or Google Hangout. You can also join existing online critique sites such as the Critique Circle, where you earn critiques for your work by commenting on other members’ work. I belonged for a long time, and it was helpful. But there’s something about meeting face to face, working through the pages of your work together, that really does make it stronger.

We writers would like to think we don’t need anyone else. But we do. We cannot be objective about our own work, and we will never see it as a reader sees it. We need a critique group.

But of course there’s nothing to critique until you write it.

So now go write.