Writing has a reputation as a solitary profession. We picture authors curled in their hermitages, pouring out words hour after hour and not interacting with another human for days.
I wasn’t immune to this preconception, so it has been one of my greatest surprises that my writing profession has leaned on community in ways I never thought possible. In fact, I would say it has been dependent on the communities I’ve joined and the ties I’ve formed.
After finishing the first draft of my novel Zero Sum Game, I went online to search for writing forums. I joined a whole slew of them, some of which I meshed with and some of which I didn’t. The one with the most staying power for me was far and away Absolute Write, where I found a diverse crowd of smart, informed people all exploring writing the same way I was. On Absolute Write, I found my betas, my writing group, and lifelong friendships.
Later on I joined the Codex Writers’ Group and got active with science fiction and fantasy Twitter, and, as I worked up in my career, I began being invited to private author loops. These days, if I have a question, want to talk shop, or simply want to commiserate about the day to day of writing, I have plenty of people to reach out to, and it’s made the most profound difference for me. Here are just a few of the ways community has been make or break for me:
Betas and Critiquing
One of the most obvious ways a writing community is invaluable is in the process of writing. I’m downright lucky to have found a writing group who will always step in to read for me and who have a wide diversity of experience and perspectives. We also help each other brainstorm and check each others’ expertise. My first readers are incredibly skilled and have leveled me up significantly from where I started.
But I’ve leveled up equally from being the critiquer myself. It’s something I consistently recommend to new writers as being one of the most helpful learning tools possible, as critiquing other people’s work helped me see the transparency of what prose was doing more than anything else. I beta’ed over thirty novels and countless short stories in the first few years I was meeting other writers, and I suspect it helped me just as much as it helped them.
Learning the Business Side
I can’t imagine where I’d be without being able to compare notes on the business with other writers. When you’re just starting out, it’s near impossible to know the norms of the industry, and I had countless gaps in my knowledge about how professional writing works. I learned—and am still learning!—an incredible amount by listening to my peers shop talk or by asking them questions, and I try to pay forward what I get by sharing my own knowledge.
It’s amazingly useful to compare notes to try to figure out if a contract is predatory, if a request is unusual, if a payment seems reasonable, or a whole slew of other things. This is especially true when publishing turns bad—like all industries, it has its bad apples and its ugly side, and writers might have no way to know they’re being taken advantage of if not for community.
Before I joined writing communities, I had no idea just how much I didn’t know.
Referrals, Blurbs, and All That Jazz
This is that nebulous thing people call “networking”—but it’s not so mysterious, and it’s not a dirty thing at all. I never, ever go into a relationship with a writer or publishing professional with an angle or expecting something out of them, and I don’t think most of my peers do either. Instead, we’re all just sort of… mucking through this whole chaotic business together, and when we get a chance we help each other out, and other people do the same for us.
I’m extremely indebted to many, many people for taking the time out of their schedules to do something for me, and with no expectation that I could do anything for them in return. People have given me advice that set me on a solid path, or made introductions for me that changed the course of my career. People went out of their way to refer me, recruit me, signal boost me, or give me publicity blurbs for my book.
And now I try to do the same. I feel absolutely great when I’m able to make a connection between two people I think are cool, or recommend someone for something I think they’d be fantastic at. My friends and colleagues include so many kind, wonderful, talented writers, and I want to see them succeed. I want to go out of my way for them.
I like to think of it all not as a quid pro quo, but as a great web of people cheering each other on, and all mutually boosting each other whenever we have a chance. And the point here is that it starts with community. We start by having a genuine interest in seeing each other succeed—and then it all builds from there.
Surviving the Day to Day
Out of everything, however, the place my writing communities really keep me on an even keel—maybe the least obvious and most important way—is the day to day. I go online with my writer friends and we support each other through the emotional ups and downs of writing, the motivational failures, the bad releases or the internet trolls. And we celebrate with each other, too—if my friends receive good publishing news it makes my month!
I think of trying to do all of this alone, with no one to turn to for a virtual hug or a sympathetic groan, and I shudder.
Writing is Full of People Worth Knowing
But even all of the above doesn’t encompass how vital my writing communities have been for me. The people I’ve met through writing have twined into my life in unexpected and irreversible ways, until I can no longer imagine their absence. They’ve filled gaps for me and become family to me, filling in missing parts of myself that I didn’t even realize I needed.
I have met so many thoughtful, smart, wise, and richly varied people through writing. I learn from them as both writers and people. My life would be poorer without them.
Even if I never wrote another word—if I gave up writing entirely and no longer “needed” any of the benefits of a writing community—I would still stay a part of that community, grown together with the longtime friends I’ve made here.
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor in 2018, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Raising Hope, among other shows, and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. She currently lives in Tokyo. SL Huang has a website and she’s active on on Twitter as @sl_huang. You can see AW’s SL Huang interview here.