Think of an author you admire: someone who seems genuinely inspired and productive, someone whose success hasn’t gone to her head or caused a downturn in the quality of her work. Do a little research, and more likely than not, you’ll find that this person has (or had) a writers’ group. She may not necessarily participate in a formal critique circle, but a healthy sum of money says that this writer has, at the very least, a group of close friends who are writers of a similar caliber.
A few reasons why writers’ groups are invaluable:
1. Writers get lonely. Writing by its nature is a job done in solitude, but that’s not the only reason that writers often feel isolated. As impolite as it may be to mention it, writers tend to be… an eccentric lot. Speculative fiction writers in particular have been known to obsess over the kinds of subjects that can throw a funeral shroud over the conversation at any office party. So instead of adjusting the quality of the conversation, why not adjust the quality of the party? There are people out there who are more than willing to discuss the lack of quantitative experimental predictions in string theory or the proto-Slavic archaisms in the old Novgorod dialect.
2. You can steal your friends’ ideas. Well, not steal, exactly. But if you put together a group of creative people, eventually a sort of “lost and found” bin materializes in the shared space between them. “I had this weird dream about a ghost librarian,” says the hard science fiction writer during a critique session, then shrugs and tosses it into the bin. Discarded characters, plot elements, and settings can sometimes ferment into something intoxicating that you never could have come up with on your own.
3. Friends don’t let friends write Lady in the Water. The publishing and film industries are rife with stories of hot young storytellers who let success warp their perspective so badly that they completely lose the faculty of self-criticism. The benefit of having a group of literary friends whose opinions you’ve always respected is that you’re likely to lend them at least half an ear when they tell you that maybe you should come back to your latest project when you’re not so high on Me Juice. You trusted them when you were a nobody; chances are you’ll still let them guide you even when the critics are hailing you as the Second Coming of Asimov.
4. It’s fun. No matter how gritty or weighty your 600-page tomes may be, writing doesn’t always have to be Serious Business. As anyone who has attended Clarion can tell you, the mischief and mayhem that a room full of spec fic writers can get up to is nothing short of epic. Life is short, and at the end of it you want to have something to look back on besides many hours staring at a computer monitor and cursing while you repeatedly stab the backspace key. Cultivating meaningful friendships with fellow writers is a way to color your life with outrageous and joyful moments while convincing yourself that you’re still “on the clock.”
All that said, it’s important not to mentally label this sort of activity as “networking.” If you attend a convention or introduce yourself to another writer with the idea that you’re forging an Important Business Relationship, you’re not only taking the joy out of it, but probably coming off as self-serving. So don’t “network.” Just go to conventions and readings and other writerly social activities with open eyes and ears. When you feel a connection to someone – and you will – just run with it. Don’t worry about what it does or doesn’t mean for your career. Follow your instincts, be personable and interested in what others have to say, and before you know it you’ll look around and realize you’ve created your own writers’ group.
Or go to Clarion, and let us make one for you.