Give and take

I can’t speak for everyone, but this writer is socially awkward and uncertain. Last week I talked about networking as an Indie author, and creating a barter system that would help those with no budget, but time, get off and running. What if I don’t have a network? Was asked.

Well, here’s the thing about networking. It’s a mixture of being willing to ask, and being willing to give. The system is one built on trust, like any other relationship, and that makes it a delicate balance for those of us who aren’t terribly socially ept. I can’t help much, other than to talk about my experiences and how I tend to feel like a clumsy ox when it comes to human interactions.

Writer’s groups are the best place to start building this network, of course. I first joined one when I was submitting bits of stories for critique to an online forum, and was invited to take part in a small group. That didn’t go very well. I hear horror stories about the impact groups can have on delicate young writers egos, but for me it wasn’t an impact on my writing, it was a terrible feeling of having to pretend to be something I wasn’t, in order to keep from being attacked and flamed. Because I didn’t trust them on one level, I couldn’t take seriously their criticism of my work – ย and most importantly, looking back, I couldn’t fully critique their work. That meant I wasn’t giving my best to them. I was afraid that if I pointed out flaws, they would come back at me saying that I was only bashing them for other reasons (I was not the same religion they were, and much of the OT chatter was bashing my religion). Later still, after I’d moved on from that group, I did hire one of them for editing, only to have to hire another person to revert those edits… It was a nightmare.

Lest you think I’m trying to discourage you! I am not. I am saying that if you don’t fully trust the people in the group, it’s a sign to bow out and move on. I got lucky, for values of luck, when I did at last wind up invited to a group mentored by Sarah Hoyt and Dave Freer. The group was run by another writer, Darwin Garrison (whose stories are worth looking up) and it was a far better structure than the small group (remember the song in the Music Man, with the women singing “pick a little…” That was the first group) in that it was targeted at becoming better writers. Not that there wasn’t off topic chatter, it’s the first place I saw in-depth discussion of what the publishing world was really like. And ultimately it led me here.

That group went the way of most communities – the attrition of time washed some of us away. I stopped writing for some years, dealing with illness and depression as my marriage spiralled into darkness. I reconnected with some of them on Facebook, and in time I started writing again. At that point I also started to consider the writing as a business, once I’d finished a novel. I had a bunch of stories, not all finished, in a drawer. I had very little money, so I knew I’d be on my own for things like covers and formatting. I decided early on that I would hire an editor… The first time I used money I’d saved and set aside from my other business. After that, all monies from sales were put back into the writing biz until it turned a profit.

I’ve always worried about asking too much of my friends, who were accomplished writers when I was struggling to begin. I’ve been blessed with good friends, but I try very hard to give as much as I get. I took a workshop on cover design (Dean Wesley Smith, it was $300 four years ago) so I could do my covers and help others. Later there was a class on design at college. I spent countless hours on art, learning how to take incoherent elements and make something that would sell a book. At this point, I have a skill I’m confident has value, which I can trade with others, towards editing my writing. I can edit, but I enjoy the art and design. You get the idea – if you are confident that what you are offering in trade is worth it, you’re more likely to ask for a barter.

Bartering is a trust relationship. If you’re trading loaves of bread for a chicken, it’s very physical and immediate. Trading skills takes time, and you may not see the results immediately. It’s important to know the other person well. And building that kind of relationship is not a quick and easy process. I suspect there’s a reason money has remained so popular over the ages. Friendships come and go, the work remains. I suspect that a more formal barter network for Indie Authors would be of use, some way to offer a skill you have, and say “I need x done” and there would be recommendations that paired you up. Pitfalls exist (don’t they always?) In that cliques would form, monetary values would have to be set (if someone is convinced their editing ought to be $500 per novel, they might not be happy to receive a $250 cover in return), and people who fail to deliver would have to be removed from the list (see the first pitfall).

So how to start forming your network? Start talking to people who are like-minded. Don’t limit the conversation to writing, only. Be an encouraging voice. And when you need help, ask. When help is asked for, offer to help. If you worry that you are asking too much, say that.

I’m bad about some of this. When I am deeply stressed, I tend to retreat from human contact. Some of this is a relic of my past, so when I feel I’ve upset someone, I go into full retreat mode with profuse apologies, which used to be the only way I could defuse an explosive rage. I know that this is not that, but if I’m not thinking clearly it is breathtakingly difficult to stop, open up, and reach out again. I’ve been trying to do this recently, and if you are like me, I encourage you to crack the shell a little, and take a risk. Writing may be a solitary occupation, but writers are healthier with friends.

51 thoughts on “Give and take

  1. I’m an introvert by nature, but I used to be able to fake it pretty well. I’ve tried to network. Really, I have. My first toe in the water went poorly on one writers site. I was invited to share writing, which I did, and it became ‘dogpile on the new chick’. Took a couple years to recover from that. Tried again, and was kind of successful until it became clear to me that the general philosophies of the site’s new owner were at odds with my own. So, left and went solitary. I blogged. I made loads of connections that way and ended up with a solid core of people I could trust, but yeah, most of them are super busy with their own writing/lives/etc., so it’s hard to ask for help. Now I do what I can by myself, hire people who can do what I can’t, and hope for the best.

    1. I am slowly getting to “do most on my own, hire editing” but I had help getting here. With the money coming in after building momentum, I can afford to pay an editor, which was very difficult at the beginning. Now, I try to help others like that, because I can’t pay back the debt I owe, I can only pay it forward to other newbies.

      1. I edit. Content, line, grammar (Chicago style, by preference) and beta-reading. And I do it cheap (or barter-y) ’cause I’m trying to build up some references. ๐Ÿ™‚ Just in case anybody needs to know.

  2. Will have to think about getting out and seeing what types of groups are available in my area for starters. I can get beta readers if I need to so that’s not an issue. Talking about writing and discussing stuff. Don’t really feel up to doing something like that in meat space where I live To many colleges and universities for my liking. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Nice article…and so true. These reaching out steps can be hard, but some really fine friendships often develop between writers who aid each other.

    Also, since you mentioned covers, here are a few tips for anyone out there designing covers that I have picked up from watching my cover artist (who is a former Marvel/DC artist.) I watched him take a cover and change a tiny aspect and make it go from amaturish to professional looking. Here’s what I took away:

    The number one thing that makes covers look less that up to snuff is: choice of color and placement for the lettering. To counter this:

    1) Font must be readable and clear and have contrast with what is behind it.

    2) Letters should not cover up major images in the art. We don’t really think about it if we aren’t artists, but to the customer, letters touching or covering some major aspect or important image in the art–particularly the very edge of the letter just touching or covering it–looks to the customer’s eye a lot like when we see someone who writes a word that doesn’t quite fit on his page and the last few letters are squished small. Subconsciously, it signals: bad planning.

    3) (this one I learned on my own) If you are putting together a cover out of different sources–photoshop-style, see if your program has something like the Photoshop Curves (change light levels) function or a Dodge and Burn function (dodge–make lighter, burn–make darker.) Use one of these functions over the whole picture. This makes the different objects from different photos look as if they are being viewed under the same lighting–again, the eye notices the difference and the image suddenly looks less photoshopped.

    1. Lousy Book Covers is a great resource. They don’t just make fun of bad covers, they offer solid advice on how to make better ones.

    2. Additional advice:

      Read The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams. Ignore the way that for every single edition the cover was done by someone who hadn’t read the book. . . something I have heard much mirth about. . . and read the book.

      And my own reflections:

      (Re-reads, reflects. . . )

      Also remember that your title is part of the visual elements, so the cover can’t be cast in concrete until the title is. On the other hand, the cover should be for the story, not the title. It may help, even, to have them offer different selling points for your work.

    3. On the font-visibility thing: Photoshop has a little dropdown that can be used on a type layer that looks like a little f in a circle on the Layers menu. Color Overlay will change the color instantly (so you can play around with what looks best), and Stroke will outline the letters with whatever color you choose, at whatever thickness you choose. (I would personally keep that as small as you canโ€”a few pixels or so. Just enough to set the font off, but not so much that it’s obtrusive.)

      There are other things you can do to the font at this point, but I would be *very* wary of using them, because too much means that you’re going to overwhelm the viewer. Even Baen doesn’t emboss and bevel and put a gradient and a glow on their titles, and they’ve been known to be a bit over the top.

      Here, this is the cover for my book.
      Note that the font is white with a dark stroke to set it off from the slightly pale cover art. (The stroke is actually a dark red from the artwork, but you could have it simply black and it wouldn’t be awful.) I’d explain the placement of the face in detail except that I’ve been doing art for my whole life and I’ve internalized how to frame things to the point where I can’t explain it. But note that the top of her head does not just hit the top of the cover; it’s cut off. You don’t want any obvious things like chins or knees or feet to butt up against the edges of your frame (whether that be the edge of the book or an internal design.) It makes it look as though the figure is trapped in a box.

  4. Oh man, I haaaaate asking for favors, which is why I’m so bad at it. When I ventured into publishing, I had friends giving away free advice, which was a huge help. After that, I ask Oleg to help by asking for me (somehow even though I was in all these writing and critique groups, he was the one who knew actual authors). Having that buffer helped until I could ask for myself. Still bad at it but less introvert scardy cat ๐Ÿ™‚

    I’m always afraid if I don’t have something to offer right then in return that I’m just a user and I hate those people. Still not quite out of that mindset, still feel bad for asking, but I try to remember that I can do something or pass it on in the future.

    1. Part of the reason Mad Genius Club exists, I believe, is to give as much help as we can, so you don’t have to ask. Although! I will point out that asking a blogger a question isn’t asking a favor, it is doing a favor, as we often run out of ideas and appreciate new things to blog about which the question can give us.

    2. I have a somewhat difficult problem. I feel comfortable asking when it’s for a small, easily definable piece of information that is just obscure enough that a specialist is likely to know it (or know how to find it quickly and easy) but the average person won’t be able to run it down with reasonable effort. For instance, I had no qualms about asking various departments at my old alma mater some specific questions about the locations of departmental offices two or three decades ago, since I’d discarded my copies of publications from that era.

      However, I feel *very* uncomfortable asking about more general information. I have several stories that are stalled indefinitely because I can’t figure out how to ask the question so that I look legit, and not like a lazy kid trying to con other people into doing their homework for them. For instance, trying to figure out what kinds of circumstances would cause the type of accident in a moonbase that I’m looking for, and what kinds of consequences it would have, and what kinds of solutions could my characters reasonably think up in their situation. (I thought I could write around the technical specifics, since the protagonist is on Earth. Not so).

      1. I’ve never posted there, but sometimes when I’m trying to find out technical stuff I’ve seen answers at Stack Exchange. It’s not just for programmers/coders, they also have forums specifically for writers asking sci-fi type questions — “What if Titan was our moon?” That sort of thing.

        A science question I saw posed there helped me work out a key detail in my magic system. I don’t think I ever saw where anyone got snotty, though keep in my mind I don’t hang out there. The writing specific forum is

        And the sci-fi/fantasy forum for the kind of questions you’re asking is

        I hope it helps!

  5. I joined one writer’s group, which wasn’t the brightest move of my short career. A question I asked at the first meeting I attended should have put me off – “What have you all published?” – the answer being that no one had ever published anything, not even on Amazon. I left the group after they accused my protagonist of being a racist. He isn’t, by the way, a racist. He’s stuck sitting in his office while the author tries to fix a glaring error in the plot.

    1. That’s a good point about writer’s groups. You need one that has the heart of a teacher (and no, not on the desk rotating from member to member). Usually, this means a mixture of experienced and new writers, a spirit of encouragement, and a willingness to be blunt without cruelty.

  6. I attended a clinic the regional forma writers’ group offered a few years ago. I learned a great deal, and discovered that 1) I was pretty much the only sci-fi writer, 2) I was the only pure indie, 3)NY Publishing house rules are an insult to readers [“Don’t write above a 4th grade level.” No, I’m not making that up. I’ll show you my notes.] And the main group’s meeting time is exactly wring for me. They were, and are, really nice people and they have a lot of books and other things out, but the chemistry wasn’t quite there. I’m glad I went, I’m glad they’re there, but for now I’ll stick with other stuff.

    I beta read and light edit for covers. By light edit I mean “flag glaring typos or grammar and OttoCorrupt problems.”

    1. Pro forma works there, too ๐Ÿ˜‰

      I think that it’s rare to find an -in-person group that is a good match, an online group is more likely since we’re odd ducks ’round here.

    2. “Donโ€™t write above a 4th grade level.”

      EFF that. My book is for some reason being sold for “9-12” (it’s a YA; when did that become 9-12?) and I made no effort to reign in my vocabulary. Though I did make an in-universe explanation of “seneschal”. Good thing I didn’t pull out “chatelaine”.

      1. Not writing above a 4th-grade level seems like a difficult target. Back when I was writing process and troubleshooting documentation I borrowed a trick from someone (I’ve long forgotten who) on one of Jerry Pournelle’s conferences on BIX. I used Grammatik’s grade level function to ensure that the final document was no higher than 8th-grade level. This usually involved at least two rewrites in order to break up complex sentences and only use big words when replacing the big word would mean using another paragraph to explain. It was a frustrating process till I learned to do most of that on the first draft. (After Word Perfect swallowed up Grammatik I clung to the last version until Word added a similar function.)
        I find it hard to imagine the difficulty of reaching a 4th-grade level.

      2. I am SO sorry about “reign in.” That’s one of the ones I hate like poison. It is “rein” as in horses.

        I blame the last two weeks. (Not bad, just exhausting in the physical accomplishment way.)

  7. I’m guessing I was EXTREMELY lucky with the writer’s group I joined in DC, it was older folks, about half with published novels, shorts, etc. All professionals in other fields. The criticism was pointed at improvement, not at belittling… ๐Ÿ™‚ Re covers and editing, I cheerfully pay for those, since I suck at both. I’ll alpha/beta read for folks in a heartbeat, as I’m pretty good at continuity issues. Grammatical, not no but hell no! 40 years of writing for tech/gov documents has killed what little I ever knew of proper punctuation! ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

  8. I’ve never managed a meat space writers group. I did get together with a couple of other NaNoWriMoers (real word, or ought to be) a few times, but we mostly just wrote.

    On line, well, isn’t that what this is? And Baen’s Bar, and a bunch of us congregate on facebook.

    1. Yes, it is. A more nebulous group, but MGC is certainly a loose network of authors. There are more formal groups on FB, and I currently don’t belong to any but miss that a bit.

  9. One thing I think I’ve forgotten to do enough since finding this site a few years ago is say Thank You.

    The information is good, the presentation is interesting, the commenters are usually on point (even when off point), and even when I don’t necessarily agree (everybody approaches art differently and I find disagreement tends to spur me to refine my thoughts more than agreement does so sometimes I look for disagreement on purpose) I still enjoy the different opinions here.

    So, Thanks to all the contributors and all the commenters.

    Now, I said that because I often think that the thing missing from artistic communities is gratitude from new writers towards more experienced writers offering their advice. Not saying you should bake a cake but a sincere thank you for reading and critiquing is appreciated. Heck, even when it devolves into an argument there should be a sense of gratitude for getting involved. Unless you get the feeling that the critique exists to attack the writer of the piece rather than to help the piece get better (which can happen in any writing group for any reason, whether personality, projection, or politics).

    At a convention a few years ago there was a middle-aged woman in the audience who asked what to do when you got a bad critique (because it had destroyed her confidence and she was almost in tears asking the question and reliving the critique) and I told her that the meaner the critique is, as long as it’s focused on the work, the more the critiquer thinks of your potential as a writer. They went hard at the story because they thought you had talent and needed a push. The other panelists nodded agreement and I might have been correct in that case (or she might have sucked) but mainly I said it as a way to encourage. There are two ways to react to that kind of critique in my opinion; one (and the one I use, probably due to mad Irishism) is anger as motivation (you think I suck? Well, hold my beer and watch this). The other is to take it as a compliment and listen to what they had to say, reverse the negative feeling and make it a positive. Either way will keep you writing. The only way a destructive critique like that can destroy you is if you wallow in it and allow the destruction.

    They were the jerk, but they weren’t the one that stopped you. That was you, and only you. (Nobody else but you).


    1. Baking a cake I can do… Oops, wrong blog ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Yes, good criticism isn’t always gentle. I think everyone has heard my story of what Dave Freer did for my first novel. It’s a lesson that stuck hard. But I didn’t take it to say that *I* sucked, because that would have been devastating.

    2. I once asked someone in the art community for “a moment of brutality.” He said he wouldn’t have done a critique if I hadn’t phrased it that way. And it was a useful critique, in that it pointed out issues with presentation that were harming my end result. While I haven’t exhibited in an art show since, it’s because I am running around with kids and don’t have the time to fix those errors as of yet, not because I’ve given up on art entirely. (More of a “time vs. value” calculations than anything.)

  10. I know this great writer’s group. Mad Genius Club. I have learned a lot, and nobody mocks my mistakes. Yay!

  11. Words fail me, not because the article didn’t nail the topic, but because I can’t begin to talk about my experience with a writers group, which met the criteria of a mix of levels etc., as it left me scarred. I have a small semi-professional writing CV in non-fiction, and want to leverage my ability to turn a few word into producing a body of fiction in the future. So, thank you for this.

    1. We’re always happy to help. MGC is a labor of love, and any time you have a question, feel free to ask. Even if one of us doesn’t run with it in a whole post, we can answer in comments, and the comment section around these parts is full of helpful, and kind! Souls.

  12. Having been burned by a bad critique group can make it very difficult to go back, not just because you’re afraid of falling into another toxic one, but because abuse can leave you with hot buttons that are wired to very primitive parts of the brain. And even legitimate criticism stings — but if it hits one of those hot buttons (say if the critiquer uses a turn of phrase one of the most toxic people in your old group just loved to use when humiliating you in the guise of critiquing your story), you can be reacting even before your conscious mind is aware of it, and you’re stuck trying to shut the proverbial barn door with the horse halfway down the road. Which is not exactly productive for maintaining a relationship with a beta reader

    When I was a recovering from my Toxic Group Experience, I had some good experiences with Critters (since it was structured such that a truly toxic crit could be ignored, or reported to ABurt), but as I progressed, I found I was getting fewer useful crits and more and more well-meaning but unhelpful ones (often from beginners who were charging in beyond their depth, when they weren’t following rules straight over cliffs). And the formal structure (which is necessary in something that large) became more of a hindrance than a help, because it pretty much ruled out getting a crit on anything that needed a quick turnaround time (ie, anything for an anthology or contest with a rapidly-approaching deadline). So I drifted away from it, although at the time it wasn’t a huge problem, because I did have some friends I could exchange crits with.

    And then there was 2007-08, a dark period when I was so busy on non-fiction that I was left with crumbs of time for fiction. By the time I got back to writing fiction, things had changed. One of my longest-time friends had developed serious health issues and no longer was up to doing crits. Other people from that group had just sort of drifted away and were no longer posting on it. I made a few requests, got only silence, and stopped. In some ways, the silence hurt more than even outright snubs.

    And right now I’m finding that one of the things I really need is brainstorming. I’ll get to a certain point in a story and I realize that something is going on here that I don’t fully understand. For instance, I know that one character pulls a prank that simultaneously is very dangerous and gives the protagonist the key insight to solving her other problem, but I have no idea what that could be. And I don’t have the right kind of general knowledge to know how to research to the specifics. While I am sure I could find the names and contact information of people who would have the necessary expertise, without an existing rapport with them, I’m uncertain that I can present myself as legit, not some kid trying to con them into providing homework answers.

    (Although the absolute worst brainstorm fail was when I needed help trying to portray a specific interpersonal interaction, and when I asked, everyone answered around the question instead of answering the question. I thought it was just a matter of my having communicated poorly what I needed, so I carefully rephrased my question, trying to make sure that it was completely clear what information I needed. And yet again, all the responses walked around and around the question but never actually *answered* it, leaving me with no more useful information than when I started. I think I went through two or three more attempts to ask better before I finally gave up, realizing that no, I was not going to get the information I needed to write the scene, no matter how carefully I phrased the question to make it blindingly clear what information I needed).

    1. I am very blessed with my First Reader, who brainstorms (we call it striking Sparks) with me. He’s excellent at taking my plot stuck points and sparking new ideas and plotlines. I know this isn’t a help to you, but with perseverance you may find someone who can do this with you. I don’t necessarily recommend what I do, and marrying them to keep them handy…

      And the abuse does leave scars which are very painful when poked later. Even though I know what the worst of mine are (stupid. I don’t take it well when it’s implied I’m dumb) I still have a kneejerk reaction and online it’s good because I can walk away from the keyboard and analyze whether I need to respond, or just ignore something that was badly phrased.

      PS. If you’re still stuck, email me at cedarlila(at)Gmail(dot)com I don’t have time to read a story, but I can answer a question or two!

    2. “I know that one character pulls a prank that simultaneously is very dangerous and gives the protagonist the key insight to solving her other problem, but I have no idea what that could be.”

      Hmm. Do you know what the insight is, or what the problem is that needs to be solved? Sometimes you need to work backwards. Once you have the problem, you can work on the insight; once you have the insight, you can research college pranksters (Caltech maintains a good list of theirs) to find one that can be tweaked.

      I had a climactic scene that had to be dangerous in general but targeted towards the protagonist in particular, and I had to have the general situation survivable so that the particular scenario could be dealt with. What I ended up with was two different dangersโ€”the general one creating cover for the particular one. And once I had that, I could tweak the scenario so that the general danger could be survived.

  13. The one group I was part of was Barfly Slush, which had such folks as Kate and the Caffreys. If anything, they were not hard enough on me. (Still wish I’d saved Kate’s novel ridiculing ALL the fantasy tropes. Best use of magic EVER and as funny as her Con books.)

    Then I took fiction and non-fiction at the uni. That was, well, I have a knack for the sort of non-fiction essays that uni profs like. But the poor fiction profs and the literary students, they got two sci-fi/fantasy and a post-apoc writers and about died when we started arguing guns. I would have been better off not taking those classes.

  14. the writers groups i have looked at here in years past, i wouldn’t get along with. the ones that tolerate sci-fi are all LASFS types… lets just say .. um.. no

    1. See, this is what I’m trying to encourage. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to get some help, and to help others in return. For one thing, if we can improve the overall quality of Indie products, the industry as a whole improves.

      1. This! I love indie more with each passing year, mostly because said years are filled up with people telling me how full of Badthink it all is, and I would love to edit more in that field to help polish it up to full awesomeness. I read one novel whose ideas and characters I adored, but I kept pulling up short every three paragraphs and going “oh, come ON! Fix this first!” One of my strongest editing abilities is polishing tone and flow until it sounds professional, and I was itching to get to a keyboard. Which sounds patronizing but isn’t intended that way. I loved the hell out of said book. ๐Ÿ™‚

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: