Right around the time when personal computers were busy becoming a reality in schools and homes, (shortly after the dinosaurs went extinct for my younger readers) I joined the cross country team at a community college in Saratoga, CA. I say joined, but as I recall, it was more like misled. It’s been a few years, but I recall thinking I was signing up for a cross country course to complete some P.E. requirement.
As it turns out, West Valley College had an incredibly good CC team. They had won the community college state championship something like twenty years straight. I liked running, and had actually done a couple of years of CC in high school. But never anything like this. I knew I was in a little over my head when one of the first practices was ten miles of five/sevens. One mile run at a five minute pace; the next at a seven minute pace to “rest.” And that was an easy workout.
Needless to say, I was seriously trashed in every practice, and meets were even worse. I remember buying a big gulp, a 64 oz Sprite, and a bottle of Gatorade after school every day and swigging the three drinks down in a bizarre icy, sweet, salty mixture. I also recall waking up night after night with terrible cramps in my calves.
I’m not in this picture. I would have been way down around the corner!
It was seriously trial by fire.
But what I also remember was running a 10k that Halloween at under a six minute pace. Something I had never done before. What I discovered was that hanging around people who were really good at what they did, forced me to become better. I not only raised my goals as I tried to keep up with them, it also made me see that real people I knew personally were accomplishing things I thought were out of reach.
This same concept applies to a lot of other things in life—including writing. You hear a lot about networking. Sometimes it refers to getting to know someone who knows someone. Like, “You should really go meet Tiffany. Her editor is here at the conference and maybe you will get a chance to mention your WIP.” Or, “Mike is going to tell his agent about me.” This is also know in certain circles as schmoozing. Some people are better at it than others.
There is also social networking. You know, the woman who has 72,000 Facebook friends, 5,000 blog followers, and twitters, podcasts, and newsletters her way into the homes (if possibly not the hearts) of anyone and everyone who might buy her books.
Those both have their places, (No, I won’t elaborate on where those places might be) and they have been written about quite a bit. But the networking I want to focus on has much more to do with building a net of friends and far less to do with working.
Ten years ago I joined a critique group. At the time, no one had really heard of any of us. Yesterday, I had dinner with that group at a fun little Thai restaurant in American Fork. Over the course of the dinner we discussed an upcoming national release, well known agents, submissions, acceptances, foreign rights, movie options—all from this small group of writers.
I forget the numbers, but together we’ve published something like fifty or sixty books, won multiple awards, have at least three literary agents that I know of, have written movie scripts, nonfiction, novels for all ages . . . you get the point. It’s fun to tell people about my group, because they usually say something like, “Wow! How did you manage to line up such a group of successful authors?”
The truth of the matter is that we weren’t successful when we met. We were just a bunch of writers, trying to get better with each other’s help. I guess you could credit luck or serendipity or something for the fact that all of us have published books since those early days. But I don’t buy it. I think it has much more to do with the net we have created.
Imagine a big rope net for a minute. It can be useful in a couple of ways. For one thing, it can catch you when you fall. For another thing, it gives you handholds to climb. I like to view friendships that way. The great thing about finding and keeping good friends is that when you are struggling, they are there to support you. More than once I’ve been cheered and buoyed up by my friends when I’ve had a writing setback.
In addition, spending time with people who are accomplishing what you hope to seems to make it that much more attainable. You know the old saying, “Success breeds success.” I firmly believe that is true when it comes to writing friends. It’s easy to see a stranger get a big book deal and think, “Oh, he must have known someone.” Or, “She’s so much better than I ever could be.”
But when it’s the person you’ve edited, critiqued, encouraged, given stupid little joke holiday gifts to, and just rubbed shoulders with, it lights a fire inside you. You realize that the success you are yearning for is maybe not out of reach. That person may be a rung or two higher than you at the moment, but they are on the exact same net. You only need to reach up and pull to get there too.
A couple of years after I joined my critique group, I met another friend. He and I had each published a couple of books at the time. But of us with with very small Utah publishers. His was slightly smaller than mine, so he was impressed with what I’d done. The truth of the matter though was that we both had a dream of being full time writers. I say a dream, but it was more than that. It was a belief. Over the years, we’ve taken turns pulling each other up that net. Not so much by introducing each other to agents and editors—although there has been some of that. But more by encouraging and challenging each other.
Most of you probably know the person I’m talking about is James Dashner. Just before he left for a trip to Georgia, he sent me a text about a manuscript I currently have on submission. It was short and to the point. “It’s gonna happen!!!” To me that note sums up what writing friends are all about. They are the ones who keep telling you, It’s gonna happen, until you believe it yourself.
You can spend all your time chasing after the newest rising star. I’ve spent plenty of time reading blogs of successful writers, trying to vicariously experience book deals, tours, foreign rights, and all the other glamorous aspects of being a writer. But there’s something special about seeing friends like James, Rob Wells, Ally Condie, Lisa Mangum and others succeed from the ground up.
If you are committed to becoming a successful writer, one of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to find other writers with the same goals and become friends with them. Start building your net now and see how much it helps you climb and pads your falls!