Monday, March 6, 2017

To be a Writer, You Need a Community ~ by Christy Mihaly

This is a story about writing, and community, and giving back. Like a good picture book, it's also about coming full circle.

Ten Thousand Hours

You’ve probably heard that to master a skill you must practice it for ten thousand hours. . . . I suspect ten thousand isn’t the precise number for every person in every field, but you get the idea.

In this book,
Malcolm Gladwell
discussed the
"10,000-hour rule."
And . . . if you keep doing the thing you’re learning (here, we’re referring to writing), then somewhere along the line you get better, and you start to understand the journey that you’ve begun. And after that, maybe a piece you wrote gets some recognition, or an editor doesn’t immediately reject a manuscript, and you revise, and take some courses, and join a critique group . . . and then one day, even though you haven’t completed your ten thousand hours—or, in any event, you know you aren’t finished practicing—someone asks you to share what you know. To give a presentation, in public.

Sitting up Front

I've posted previously about my local indie book store, Bear Pond BooksAmong its other virtues, Bear Pond hosts an informative Author/Educator speaker series. Children’s book buyer Jane Knight organizes these wide-ranging talks. Over the years, I’ve attended many enlightening Author/Educator programs, given by many talented authors and educators.

Author Linda Urban speaks; Jane feeds the crowd
But. My place was in the “audience” seats, where I could soak up the wisdom of those sitting in the “presenter” chairs up front. When Jane asked me to give a presentation this year, I was taken aback. Surely I wasn’t qualified. Jane, however, knew that I’d recently published a book, and she also knew that many of the folks attending the speaker series, or hanging around the book store, were interested in writing for publication. She thought they’d like to hear how someone with a day job (teacher, librarian, parent, attorney) could break into publishing. I gulped, and agreed. (This is the giving-back part.)

Once these flyers went out, we were committed!
But I didn't agree to do it alone. I recruited Ryan Kriger, a former colleague from my former job as a lawyer, to co-present. 
Ryan is lawyering full-time. He’s also a writer, and has both a literary agent and several manuscripts making the rounds. I thought it might be helpful and relevant that he does stand-up comedy as well. Ryan named our talk: “Don’t Quit Your Day Job: A Working Writers’ Workshop.”

Doing the talk!
On the morning of the talk, we settled into the unfamiliar chairs up front. People filled the space before us. Ryan and I just knew that some of those audience members were better writers than we. Nonetheless, we plowed ahead. We distributed a list of resources we’d compiled, and introduced ourselves. We each summarized our parallel tales of how we’d evolved from doing “hobby writing” to identifying ourselves as actual authors.

As we did, a truth emerged: the key to becoming a “real” writer was joining a community of writers. If you're serious about writing, find your community.

It takes a community to publish a book

Of course, writers must hone their craft: write, revise, re-revise, and polish. (See above re: 10,000 hours.) But the next stepping stone on the path to publication is to acknowledge you can’t do it alone. Venture outside your writing garret, and participate in the writing world.
Push yourself: Conferences can be fun

Writers aren’t always good joiners. But that fantasy of toiling alone in a lofty studio, perfecting a Great Work, never emerging except at last to mail the freshly minted manuscript to some eager editor? Not going to happen.

Working writers, with M&M's
Publishing a book takes teamwork. Unless you self-publish (and even then) you'll work with others (critique partners, agents, editors, experts, illustrators, designers, marketers and more) to get that book out.

SCBWI New England conference
Where can you find your team? If you write and/or illustrate children’s books, join SCBWIAfter that, seek out local writers’ associations, online groups like 12x12 (for picture book writers), challenges such as NaNoWriMo, courses, and community events. Haunt your local book store, library, or community center, and check out their writing-related offerings. 

On the Writing Journey

I’d been writing for a decade, and making precious little progress, before I first attended a writing workshop (at Highlights Foundation). It changed my life. I started solid friendships with several experienced writers, and one even invited me to join her critique group. (I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how a crit group worked!) It’s now been almost four years, and the same e-mail-based critique group is still thriving. We’ve made each other’s work stronger, shared ideas, inspiration, and disappointments, and celebrated one another’s hard-earned successes. AND, I’m now co-authoring a book with a member of the group.

At every conference or workshop or writer’s meeting I’ve attended since then, I’ve pushed my way a little farther along the writing path. I haven’t scored a three-book deal yet. But with each event, I become less ignorant about writing. I've met my tribe. I've found support. I've learned more about the craft. I've begun to understand publishing and marketing. I was introduced to the writers who became the GROG, and others who are my neighbors in rural Vermont.

But most important: I stopped feeling like an imposter when I said, "I'm a writer!"

Ryan told a similar tale. He lived in Brooklyn (that hub of the publishing universe) for several years, before he’d joined any writers’ groups. But he didn't really get to know people in publishing during his time there. Then he moved away, joined SCBWI, and began meeting writers, editors, and agents. The more involved he became in writing workshops and critique groups, the more confident he grew in seeking (and finding) an agent and submitting his manuscripts. While his books haven't (yet) been published, Ryan has joined the writing community as a “real writer,” and recently published a piece about using humor in writing. Ryan also reminded me that, although he and I had met at our workplace, neither of us was aware that the other wrote outside the office, until we crossed paths at a local SCBWI event. You have to get out there and meet up!

Now, years later, we were sitting in the chairs at the front of the room, sharing what we've learned, meeting more writers, expanding our writing community. Thanks, Jane. (This is the full circle part!)

Who's in your writing community? Let us know in the comments. Share your recommendations! And if you'd like more information, here are a few community-oriented posts from the GROG archives: 

Thanks so much for stopping by!


  1. Great post, Chris (who is in my online writing community!). I co-chair a group that meets in Ithaca, NY once a month for SCBWI Shop Talks, and we try to build community and support for local writers.

    1. Sue -- You are my Writing Community Guru -- thank you for including me in one of your groups!

  2. Christy, such truth in this post. It is a community and I'd be lost w/out mine. Congrats on your presentation!

  3. So proud of my writing bud I met at Higlights Founders Workshop. You have stayed the course. I see big things ahead. Great post full of truths.

    1. Sherri, thanks so much. I'm following you along this path.

  4. Thank you for this great post! I joined 12x12 for the first time in January. It has been a game changer for me and for my writing life.

    1. Elizabeth, I'm glad you found 12x12 -- isn't it eye-opening how much help you can find, once you know where to look for it? Good luck on the journey!

  5. Thanks for taking us along on an informative journey, Christy! Hearing and sharing affirmation that we've all heard but wonder "Do we really have to do ALL that?" The bonds you've formed with fellow writers is a wonderful bonus, as well. Appreciate this great post!

  6. I wish I could have been in the audience listening to your presentation. You are so right - you can't go on this writing journey alone.

    1. Great to see you here, Claire! Thank you for your kind words.

  7. Yes! I don't know what I would do without my community of writers. Congrats on your successful journey!

    1. Thank you, Jilanne. As we've learned, we're all in this together.

  8. I just found your blog on Janet's site. This is a great posting about writing. Thanks for informing us on the art of writing. I sure wish I could have heard your presentation. You are so right, writing cannot be done alone. We sure need our writing community.

  9. I'm glad you found the GROG, Brenda. Feel free to come back again!

  10. This is so awesome to hear your story and how it takes community. Wonderful post, Christy!

  11. So enjoyed the journey you took us on, Christy. I agree...for me, the kidlit community inspires and encourages me every minute of every day. ;)

    1. Well, Vivian, you're one of the shining lights of the community . . . .

  12. An excellent post for sure, Christy. As much as writing is a solitary activity, it can't be done without trusted writing partners who offer suggestions for improvement and encouragment along the path to publication.

    Your writing journey is filled with dedication and perseverance. Thank you for sharing the experience.

    All the best.

  13. So much to absorb here, Christy.
    I would love to be fortunate enough to hear you present, some day.

    Also thanks for the links to some of our past articles. I especially liked being reminded about introverts at conferences & the list of fb groups for writers.

    And I was fortunate to hear a presentation (via Skype) from Linda Urban. She
    offered so much goodness & light about staying true to the Story. Would learn from her in a heartbeat, again.

    Plus, thanks for bringing Ryan Kriger into the story. Will look for his eventual titles. Perhaps he will want to become an occasional writer for our GROG.

    Finally, can someone nominate Jane Knight for an award?

  14. Great post, Christy. It was for this very reason (the belief in community) that Sylvia Liu and I started KidLit411. Having a tribe keeps us from going crazy!

    Thanks again!