Why You Need a Heist Crew to Write a Book
Gather round kids, because I'm going to tell you a story about how I managed to find my writing group, the ups. The downs. (Her laughs. Her frowns... sorry, totally slipped into musical mode there...)
But, nonetheless, one of the most difficult things (even more difficult than landing an agent/publishing deal, in my opinion) is finding your core group of writers.
The ones you can scream with, cry with, be petty about things with. The ones you can give your zero-draft to and know they won't rip it apart. The ones who complement you and your writing style. The ones you mesh with and trust to tell you when you do something really well, but are also willing to tell you when something doesn't work or when you need to abandon a project.
So, are you all settled in? Fine. Go make your popcorn, pour yourself some wine or reheat your tea. I'll wait.
Now are you ready? Coolio. Here we go.
Once upon a time, there was a naive young writer who dreamed of publishing success...
okay, that naive young writer was me and it was 2016. I had barely joined twitter, owned a copy of the Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents, and was about to finish my first draft of a book that I was convinced was going to absolutely stun the world with its amazing characters, superbly dark & grim tone, and basically catapult me into being a millionaire as it was optioned for film and TV rights, maybe even a theme park....
And I had no clue what I was doing. NONE. Like, I didn't even know what a critique partner was because NO ONE had read my manuscript. (What if they stole it! What if they made fun of it! No, no...I needed to keep my precious words to myself until someone offered me a seven figure deal...)
But, nevertheless, I queried, because agents were going to be positively FIGHTING over my brilliant book. Well, one agent. Because I only queried one, because that was how it works, right?
If you're not laughing at me yet, what is wrong with you? I'm laughing at me. I was so clueless. Then, as I was dipping my toes into the strange waters of Writing-Twitter, I stumbled across the hashtag #CPMatch run by Megan Lally. I dove in and came back up with my first real writing friend, Ashley.
We started trading chapters and I didn't know how to be a critique partner, but I knew I loved her writing and I loved her feedback on mine. So we kept trading chapters and I learned so much. Like how poorly written my book was (as in it lacked plot, there were missing scenes, character inconsistencies) and Ashley was so nice about all of it. She would compliment the good stuff, but also be like SO HERE IS WHAT IS MISSING. She was definitely ahead of me in craft and skill here. But I was still able to offer valuable feedback and helped figure out some plot points that were gumming up her story (her story was so cool, it was contemporary/near-future sci-fi and I loved everything about it). Our lives eventually drifted in different directions and while we're no longer CPs, I will never ever forget how much I learned from that experience and how much Ashley helped to shape who I would eventually become as far as a writer and a CP.
Long story short (too late!) I learned all the things I DIDN'T KNOW about writing, about publishing, etc. etc. So fast forward to that summer (2017), when I was foolishly preparing to query again (with like 50 agents on my list instead of 1, I'd grown so much! 🙃) thinking that now that I had a CP and had improved that I was finally ready and this time. THIS TIME, an agent would offer rep and my life would be charmed.
I posted on the Twitters asking for query feedback and got a reply from one Alexandra Overy saying she would be willing to take a look at it. I was excited to have fresh eyes on my query and, as one does on twitter when you get a random reply from an unknown person, I snooped on her. She had an agent. I nearly died. An *agented* author was going to read my query and give me advice. I was nervous. (fyi, I've never outgrown that fangirl stage with her) Her advice was excellent and at some point a month or so later, she posted saying she was looking for feedback on something and I was like, I can return the favor! So I did, and the rest is history as far as our writing friendship is concerned. Ally continues to be my writing rock and my glorious murder twin. (So now, go pre-order her debut: These Feathered Flames [come on, you knew I was gonna slip it in there somewhere!])
Which leads me to the next stop in my writing adventure. I was still feeling SUPER CONFIDENT about my manuscript and I sent those queries out. And, dear reader, it was no where near ready to query. Was it better than before, absolutely, but still so far from what it needed to be. (and that is a whole 'nother story, it wasn't until I queried my 2nd finished MS that I was legitimately ready to query and that wouldn't be until the spring of 2019)
Back to 2018: Enter Tiffany. She responded to one of Ally's tweets and then I muscled my way in and was like, we should trade pages. We did and Tiffany became my next CP and then, all of a sudden I was in a slack group OVERFLOWING with writing talent. This experience was at the same time fantastic and extremely stressful.
I had a crash course on all the things I still didn't know and a crash course in how many different styles of CPing existed. I was NOT a good fit to CP a lot of the the other members' works and my writing and CPing wasn't really their thing either. I also didn't know how to adjust my critique style to individual people yet. I only knew one way to do it and I thought it was awesome because it worked for me. But this couldn't be further from the truth. I started to get more and more stressed because I couldn't figure out *what* I was doing wrong and how to be better and I was starting to really hate myself and my writing.
But I didn't want to quit. I wanted to figure it out and be able to fit in and feel confident and to be liked and for people to feel excited about my writing. And this was one of the roughest moments so far in my foray into the world of writing, but in the spring of 2018, I did end up leaving the slack group. And I felt terrible. I felt like I had failed. Because everyone always talked about their writing groups and how great they were and how in sync they were and here I was, unable to feel like I could fit in or that I was even good enough to be part of this group.
In the end, it wasn't them. It wasn't me. It just was. And this took me a very long time to realize because I internalized all my shortcomings and was like THEY ALL HATE ME. Which is absolutely not true. I still talk, on some level, to every single member of that original slack group. I do it one on one through DM or reply to a tweet from one of them, but not as a whole group in slack. And that was my first revelation about what works best for me. I can't do slack groups and for the most part, can't do more than two people in a social setting at a time. And if it's going to be more than 2 people, it has to be the RIGHT group of people that I feel comfortable around, which is entirely on me. And even then, I shut down a lot because I feel overwhelmed by everything that is going on and it's just safer to be quiet and not interact...
But anyway, in short, there are a lot of people out there who are members of BIG writing groups and hang out in slack channels or in discord spaces and if you're not one of them, it's okay. It's okay to have a super small, close knit writing group. Don't feel like you're coming up short because you don't have 20 CPs and Betas screaming about your writing. It's not a quantity thing, it's about who you trust to help tease out the best version of your story and who gets you.
I'm getting off track.
So in the summer of 2018, my writing group consisted of two people. Ally and, oddly enough, a colleague from work, Sue. She was the first in-person person I ever told about my writing and my goals of being agented and published. And little did she know that by agreeing to read my manuscript and give me feedback, that she would be entering into a contract for the rest of her life. Muwahahahahahahaahahahaha.
Sue is a very unique critique partner for many reasons. One, we meet in person, over pancakes, at a local restaurant (note: this was pre-covid, we miss our restaurant, we miss our waitress--same one for two years) and two, she doesn't write, so there is no exchange of pages. I basically just shove a binder in her general direction, she whips out a red pen and goes to town, then over a 3 or 4 hour brunch, she gets on my case about anything and everything on the page. You think I'm kidding? First it was grammar and 'was' verbs and passive voice. Then it was things like "can a teen girl carry an 8 year-old child for 6 hours through an overgrown forest at the base of the mountains? Is that *actually* feasible??" (she still brings this point up every time we talk writing). But what I love most is the real time discussion and feedback and getting to really dive into nuanced things in my writing. It's terrifying for a lot of people to be in person and talk about their books, but for me it's become something I really love.
Anyway, I kept trying to find someone else because I realized the value in having several trusted sets of eyes and perspectives, but nothing stuck and after many random page exchanges, I was basically convinced that it had to be something wrong with me as a person and as a writer and that if I couldn't even find CPs that liked me and my writing, how would I ever find an agent? I was working on a new project and it was not going well because I had so much doubt.
Then, randomly, in January of 2019, I started talking with someone else looking for a writing buddy to trade pages with because I was still trying desperately to find my place and my crew. Enter Sarah. She beta read my latest version of SAMM and I beta read her manuscript and in short, her feedback and opinions have been invaluable. She offers such great insight and she gets me as a writer and helps me to unearth the version of the story that I want to tell (also, should #FoxWip ever get published, please direct all rage & anger at the ending toward her as it was largely her idea) Sarah has been a great addition to my crew and helps me stay on track with my writing goals.
But I still wanted to have one more person in my corner that I knew I could turn to, whose feedback would be invaluable and help me to grow stronger. And, through a very serendipitous route, that person ended up being Briston. Which still, to this day I am floored by because when we first met, we beta read each other's stuff and we did not click. Like at all. And I was pretty much convinced that she hated me because I was so insecure about who I was as a writer and as person. But somehow we managed to reconnect. Both of us had grown and improved as writers and critique partners and one day, when we're on a panel together, we're gonna have a great story to tell about how we came to be writing friends.
And thus my core writing group was formed, after almost 4 years, a lot of tears, a lot of doubt, and a lot of searching. But I wouldn't trade any of them for ANYTHING. Each one of them helps to push different aspects of my writing and helps me to improve my craft. They lift my spirits when I'm feeling down and cheer me on when I send random snippets. I even feel comfortable sending out my unrevised zero draft to them, which is a huge, huge, level of trust because as we all know, zero-drafts are messy. They are all sisters of my heart and I would cut a bitch for any one of them.
Finding your core group is so very important and people talk about it, but they don't talk about the process and how it sometimes gets really messy. All the ups and downs of the past four years have taught me a lot about writing and about myself. I don't thrive in big groups. I need to keep everything smaller. I'm also not afraid to walk away from advice and feedback that isn't jiving with my vision for my writing.
I've had CPs in the past who gave solid advice, it just wasn't advice that was necessarily applicable to my manuscript--it was more of what *they* preferred in a manuscript. I've learned how to sort through that type of feedback and identify when it's more opinion based vs. legitimate problems that need to be addressed. So I guess what I'm saying, is don't be afraid to walk away from a writing group that doesn't get you or that you don't feel comfortable in. It's not them. It's not you. It just is.
Know what it is that you want out of your critique partners and, better yet, know if your critique partners are flexible and if they are able to adapt to what YOU NEED. For example, I know I can send a draft out to my people and be like, I want broad stroke feedback and feel free to offer any ideas for the plot holes you find and trust they aren't going to send my manuscript back with over 1000 comments ripping it to pieces. If I ask they rip it to pieces, I know they will and they afterward I can talk to them about those 1000 comments. I also know I need timely feedback. I can't handle the waiting for MONTHS thing. So I try to schedule in advance withe my CPs so that their turn around time is less than a month.
I actually have an order I send my drafts out in. I send my zero draft to one CP, then make revisions and send the next version to another one. Then another round of revisions and I send to my third. Then more revisions and I beg all of them to read it again as a *final* version pre-querying. And in the middle in those revisions stages, all of them are inundated with brainstorming questions and help me work through the gaps.
The moral of this story is to not get discouraged if you don't mesh with your first writing group. If after the honeymoon phase, you aren't feeling the love, politely move on. build your group little by little. Your writing group can be as tiny or as large as you're comfortable with. There are times when I want to branch out and dive back into something slack-like and I have been invited, and declined, to join new groups. Because each time I start to think I need new writing people or a bigger group, I remember how very happy I am with my sisterhood (which, I should mention, has another fabulous member, that while we don't exchange pages, we cheer each other on FERVENTLY) and this works for me. I am not less of a writer because I have a small group.
Take advantage of all the things happening on writing twitter to find your people, Pitchwars, Revise & Resub, CPMatch, Author Mentor Match, etc. etc. Reaching out is scary, but give it a go and just kinda speed date your way through until you find the person who fits with you. Someone who not only loves your writing and gets your vision, but that you have an equal love of THEIR writing and get their vision.
And not be be cheesy, but you will find your group. It might be a super rough road to finding them, but just collect them slowly and make your dream team. They don't need to pop up overnight like the perfect team in a heist movie. You know what, that's what's happening. Here is my writing heist crew: