Monday, November 9, 2009

I'll get by with a little help

Happy Monday, everyone!

I apologise for getting my post up later than I usually do, but I've been super busy the last couple of days- busy in a very good way, because my friend, sometime mentor and writing idol Diana Gabaldon is in town, and I've been lucky enough to catch up with her a couple of times.

So, I thought today I would talk about something I feel is incredibly important for writing success- seeking out mentors and supporters who will help you take your work to the next level.

In my archaeology career and in every other field I've worked in, I've had mentors. They're the people whose work I admire- whether it be their work ethic, their ideas, their enthusiasm- there are different things that draw my attention, but there's always one thing they have in common. They make me want to do my own work better.

I don't think this is unique to me- I'd be surprised if there were many people out there who *didn't* approach their day-to-day work in the same way.

So I believe that if you're serious about writing, you need to approach it in the same respect. Think about the people whose work you admire. Then track 'em down. Not all stalker-like, of course- but if you look out there, you'll find that a huge number of your favourite authors have their own websites or blogs where they happily share their philosophies and thoughts on life. Diana Gabaldon, Neil Gaiman, Maureen Johnson, Anthony Bourdain- they're just a few who come immediately to mind. As you can see they're from an incredibly varied range of fields, from young adult to non-fiction travel, but they're people I automatically consider because a) I enjoy their style, and b) they are amazingly open and passionate about their chosen craft, and they're out there, on the Internet, giving advice. For free! What more could you want?

The next step beyond reading the thoughts of your idols is to keep an eye on their travels (not, you know, using binoculars outside their houses or anything). Just keep an eye on their touring schedules. See if they're appearing at any writers conferences.

Keep an eye on writers conferences in general, and make the effort to go where you can. You might find mentors and idols that you've never heard of before. And no matter whether the speakers are to your taste or not, I believe you can learn something from anyone else.

That's where the importance of contact with your peers begins. Join a writers group or a critique group- you'll be amazed how much you learn just by reading about others, let alone by posting your own work. Something I always emphasise to new people at the CompuServe Forum is that you can learn so much from critiquing others- if you don't want to share your own work, you don't even need to.

Just by being involved with other writers you'll find kinship and support from others who know what it's like to obsess night and day over people in your head. They understand how it feels to leap back out of bed just as you're going to sleep because you've had a story idea you don't want to forget. They get why you don't want to talk about your stories to other people- or why you can't stop. And because you're all aiming for the same goal and you all know how it feels to strive for success, you can't help but support each other.

I know I spent years as a teenager thinking I knew it all about writing and I didn't need any help, but I'll tell you now- a few words of praise and support here and there can keep me going whenever I feel the inevitable writerly negativity about my stories. Every bit of positivity is absorbed and held inside, and every bit of constructive criticism makes me a better writer.

In short, as far as I'm concerned, writing might be a solitary activity, but I couldn't do it half as well without the support of my friends and mentors. And when I finally get published, I know my acknowledgements page is going to be a mile long :)

So, who do you look up to, and who have you met? Was it a life-changing experience? What did you learn? Diana is the second of my favourite authors I've sought out- I've also been lucky enough to chat with Tim Winton, a brilliant Australian writer who I caught up with at a book launch last year.


  1. The first author I ever reached out to was Julian Barnes (filled out the questionnaire at the end of Flaubert's Parrot and got a postcard back; I wish I'd kept a copy of my replies, I bet they were so silly (I was 15!)), but that was because back then I didn't really know how to contact authors, or I might have written to a lot of my favourite YA authors.
    Connections in that sense are so much easier now thanks to the internet; it's great being able to chat with not only Diana, but you guys, and Barbara Rogan and Barbara Schnell, and everyone else on the forum. I definitely think it came at the right time, after I'd been through my juvenile writing stage and at least got to a point where I can share with others.
    I still remember the first writing class I signed up for - it was at the local community centre; I was 12 and everyone else was over 40! All the stuff I wrote was so pathetic, and I only remember going to a couple of classes. I must have blocked the rest of the experience from my memory :-)
    Local Montreal authors are very supportive also, though I've only met a handful of them so far...

  2. Well, I think all of us probably stumbled upon Compuserve because of Diana. I know I certainly did. :) Though I've never met her in person, she's been a great help to me over the years -- both with personal and craft type advice.

    Other than that, I've never even been to a book signing! LMAO. Honestly, NO ONE comes to Nebraska. I may have to start traveling just to feel "in" with the writing community. That said, one of the most amazing writers I've ever met is of course Jo Bourne. She's simply delightful. So talented and willing to share. Let me tell you, during the short days I stayed with her (Yes, people -- I hung with Jo Bourne at a beach house!), I soaked in SO much. It was simply brilliant watching her write--taking in her creative process. Gah, to have HALF her talent.

    That said, the online community of friends I've developed has simply been invaluable! That includes all the women of this blog...and so many more that I can't even begin to name them all. It's so nice to know that if I stumble across a serious block, there are many of my friends who have been there, done that, and are so willing to talk me down from the ledge. (g) And the blogosphere...goodness. It's so wonderful how open so many authors are today. I have a million bookmarked and spend a good portion of every day catching up. Granted, it takes time, but I find the sacrifice worth it to soak up all kinds of advice/tips.

    Great post, Claire!

  3. Hi Claire,

    Hmm...the last author I met Salmon, when I was in grade 2? *g*

    That said, all the wonderful folk at the Compuserve Books & Writers Forum (and its previous incarnations) have been invaluable to me in learning how to write well, so that is a form of mentoring, just not in-person.

    Diana's actually in Melbourne for the next couple of days, but as I'm sick it doesn't look like I'm going to get to see her. *Grrr*

  4. Hi Claire
    I was at the Morning Tea with Diana on Monday too (table 4). I lurk at Compuserve - more of a reader than a writer. Diana's is the first author talk I've been to, but I am going to hear Paullina Simons next week (The Bronze Horseman series/trilogy is my 2nd favourite to the Outlander series).

  5. So true, Claire!

    There is absolutely NO WAY I'd be the writer I am today if I didn't have my writing friends. :)

    And I will always be grateful to those established writers who have the grace to pay it forward.

  6. Claire, you are absolutely right - having a community of other writers to reach out to, to moan with, to celebrate with, to take advice from, is priceless. I know I would be stuck, writing like a third-grader, if not for the Forum.

    As for writers I've had the pleasure of hearing speak ... I think I'm a bit of a book launch/writers conference junky. (g) Off the top of my head -
    Tom Keneally
    Paul Auster
    Ian McEwin
    Nicholas Jose (The Paper Nautilus)
    Tara Moss (Australian crime/thriller writer)
    Monica McInerney (Australian romance/chick-lit writer, based in Dublin)
    Fiona McIntosh (Australian fantasy writer)
    and of course, Diana Gabaldon.

    Without fail, I've come away from hearing these writers feeling absolutely inspired to get stuck into my own WIP. Gotta be happy with that!