Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are You Competitive With Other Writers?

The Inklings, a legendary writers' group.
You realize these guys knew how to party.
by Lydia Netzer

Writers, for centuries, have socialized with other writers. In salons, in retreats, artist colonies, as penpals, personal friends, friendly rivals, actual rivals. There is something about this writing life that draws like to like, so even though we tend to imagine writers as garret-dwelling loners, they actually do clump up together all the time. Maybe because no one else understands this particular brand of crazy. Maybe because they want to compare notes, not only to learn from their comrades but also to see how they measure up.

Our "Book Pregnant" group consists of 30 debut authors. As we've been going through this process together, sharing our news and asking questions and learning about the experiences the others are having, I've realized that besides the obvious (money) there are a multitude of comparison points authors can use to measure each other. Here are a few:


  • Covers. Do you have foil? Is your name bigger than your title? Stock photo or original art? How thick is your paper?
  • Blurbs. Were you blurbed by your buddies or did you draw in some strangers to publicly love you? 
  • Tours. How many dates? Publisher footing the bill? 
  • Giveaways. How many ARCs is your publisher putting out there before your launch?
  • Reviews. Are you getting reviewed in the New York Times? Or not?
  • Media. Where are you interviewed? Morning shows? NPR? 
  • Lists. Not just bestseller lists, but "Most Anticipated" lists, recommendation lists, Indie Next lists, award shortlists... the list of lists goes on.
  • Numbers. Did you know there are web sites where you can put your book, your friends books, and the books of everyone you know including Kafka and Nora Roberts, and then see side-by-side sales data in a handy graph? True. 
Not my actual sales figures.
With all of these ways that writers can one-up each other, all of the feelings that can potentially be hurt, and all the ways you can feel rotten about yourself by bathing in everyone else's success, you would think that our little group would be just a tiny bit fraught. That there would be a little bit of "Well, you may have gotten that profile, but I got that interview," or at the very least, "Damn, I wish I had that kind of print run." But I'm telling you, honestly, it's not like that. Not only is this group not like that, but I've been friends with other writers for most of my life, and while some of my friends have been insanely successful and others of us have not, I have seen my friends helping each other, helping me, supporting each other, cheering each other on, commiserating without eye-rolling, encouraging without comparing. It's really amazing. 

Why is this happening?

One idea is that writers have so many obstacles to overcome, so many external threats and potential "enemies," that it doesn't pay to attack each other from within the team. There are unimpressed reviewers, Goodreads users that give you one star with no explanation, Amazon coders that somehow leave your best info off your page, bookstore patrons that don't show up for readings in the rain, etc. Who needs to worry about other writers' snubs or sabotage? 

Crazy writer will bathe for Likes.
Another thought is that writers really do need each other to succeed -- for introductions, for advice, for recommendations, for instruction -- so once one has been helped, one is likely to turn around and help others. But what I've been thinking about lately is that possibly now in this online world of social media, where you need Likes and Retweets and Pinnings and Follows... you really can't survive on your own. Even if you're a loner, a tortured artist living in a cave, with no social skills and no deodorant, you better learn how to craft a cool status update, because your publisher is looking at your fan page, and you better have some engaged readers. 

You know what a hashtag on Twitter is, right? A hashtag is a word proceeded by a # sign, which creates a searchable, followable stream connected to a topic, group, or conversation. So if you use the #fallenwoman hashtag, you can click on it to find other fallen women. If you use the #bachelor hashtag, you can find other people discussing the show. If you use both, you can express your opinion about the cast, in a concise and Twitter-friendly way. If you use the #amwriting hashtag or the #mywana hashtag, you'll find writers joining together to support each other online. 

#amwriting was begun by Johanna Harness two years ago. It's an abbreviation of "I am writing" and its purpose is to connect writers to other writers around the world. You can read more about it here, or just jump on Twitter and search #amwriting to get a taste. #mywana is a tag that was launched by writer Kristen Lamb based on her book for writers, We Are Not Alone. She calls it the Love Revolution and you can read more about it here. I asked these two networking experts some questions about competition between writers and how the internet has changed the way writers interact. 

1. What inspired you to promote this hashtag? Was it seeing existing friendliness and collaboration between writers or was it seeing a dearth of it?

Johanna Harness: When I started on Twitter, there really wasn't a community of writers.  Agents had a lot of followers and there were pockets of authors who all knew each other, but it was difficult breaking into those groups.  I wanted a place where all were welcome, a place where it would be okay to jump into a conversation.  Twitter is a great medium for showing daily life. There is comfort in knowing that writing is frustrating and difficult and just a hell of a lot of work. Most writers have other gigs in their lives and still make time for words.  Just because the writing journey is difficult, that doesn't mean you're doing anything wrong.  Twitter shows that the real writing path is not magical.  It's wonderful some days and some days it makes your head explode.  That's normal.  I wanted a community on twitter where people would not feel so alone with that daily reality.

Kristen Lamb: Actually what inspired me to write WANA was that I saw a bunch of technology and marketing experts giving writers what I felt was flawed advice. They were well-meaning, but clearly didn't understand that writers are not car insurance and books are not tacos. Traditional marketing has never sold books...ever. And using Facebook as a new way to spam people is a bad idea.

I saw how writers could come together and support each other and they weren't doing that, at least not in a meaningful way that had power to eventually drive book sales. There was no reason we couldn't be one big family, leaning on each other and helping each other. Books are not so cost-prohibitive that people can't buy more than one, so there really was no reason for rivalry.

2. Do you think it's possible for a writer to survive the digital age *without* reaching out to support and network with other writers?

Kristen Lamb: No. I think the Lone Wolf writer is a romantic anachronism. Hemingway wouldn't last a minute in the new paradigm.

3. Conversely, do you think it's possible for a writer NOT to feel competitive with other writers? 

Johanna Harness: Yes.  I think it has a lot to do with how a writer experiences validation.  If motivation and validation come from within, writers are much more likely to be supportive of each other. 

Jealousy gets in the way of all kinds of relationships. If someone is jealous of my success and feels delight when I fail, that's not much of a friendship.  If that same person achieves great success and is only nice because she knows she's better than I am, that's no kind of friendship either.  I'm of a mind that we're all on individual paths.  We all struggle.  We're all working toward our goals. We can support each other and lift each other up and it doesn't diminish us.  Love inspires love. Jealousy inspires all sorts of nasty stuff.

4. Have you seen evidence of back-biting, invidious comparisons, put-downs and such on Twitter... without naming names? :) Or is it pretty rare?

Johanna Harness: Writers are no different than any other group of humans. I see it.  I distance myself from it. Anyone whispering ill of others to me is likely whispering ill of me to others.  That's not the kind of energy I want in my life.   

Kristen Lamb: I hate to say it, but the worst behavior and the most unprofessional behavior I have witnessed on Twitter actually came from agents. I have unfollowed literary agents who found it fun to hide behind a cutesy moniker and talk about writers like they were morons. They would whine that writers were unprofessional and then act like high school mean girls. I've seen less of that lately and that is good. I think many of them are realizing they need writers and that being unprofessional won't be tolerated. 

The only bad behavior I have witnessed from writers is the spamming. But, in fairness, a lot of "experts" are teaching them that blitzing people about their books is being a responsible professional. So in this instance I can see how I writer would mean well, but come off wrong. 

Agents mocking writers? There is no gray there. It's just wrong. But, again, I've seen less and less of that so that's a good sign.

5. Can you name some good examples of writers who give others hand-ups and help newbies, so I can give them shoutouts? :)

Johanna Harness: Recently the writers over at Beyond The Margins honored me with their Above and Beyond Award.  The best part of the experience has been getting to know the other nominees on the list.  I'd point you to that list for some really wonderful examples of community-builders. 

Kristen Lamb: Anyone you meet in #MyWANA. Also any of the WANAlums #WANA711 #WANA1011 and #WANA112 (WANAlums are blogging classes of mine who have teamed up). Piper Bayard @PiperBayad, Jenny Hansen @jhansenwrites, Marcy Kennedy, Patrick Thunstorm... There are just too many to name. 

***

What do you think? Are you competitive with other writers? Do you believe me when I say that writers can be purely supportive with other writers? Does Twitter foster comparison or foster collaboration? Have you seen the ugly side of a writing friendship? Leave a comment and tell us about it. 

25 comments:

  1. This is quite infomative. No, I didn't know about the hashtag. Appreciate this insight. I do believe I'm going to have to figure out more about twitter...and write,TOO. Where's the time?

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    1. Kristen offers a lot of good tips about using social media and still finding time to write on her blog (http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com). For Twitter specifically, Pat Thunstorm (who's mentioned above) had a guide on TweetDeck, which is one of the best tools for making Twitter easy to use. Reading his guide also saves time since it gets rid of trial and error. The guide is out of date right now, but he's updating it, so it would be worth bookmarking the site and checking back (http://pathunstrom.wordpress.com/tweetdeck-learning-guide/tweetdeck-desktop-guide/)

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  2. Thank you for explaining the hashtag, and for providing the two. I plan to check them both out. As a new writer, my experience is very limited, but I have been blown away by the kindness and supportiveness that authors have shown to each other.

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  3. Having a healthy community is a must, I totally believe that. The amount of support I've found in Book Pregnant, AgentQuery Connect, and the Lucky13's is the reason I never stopped trying.

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  4. On a personal note, for ten years while writing my book and fixating on my children, I watched several of my friends achieve amazing success in publishing. There were times when I was really down on myself for not keeping up, and I do think that those critical feelings pushed me to keep trying. As they were climbing the bestseller lists, I would have felt like a real idiot if I'd given up on my book.

    In my opinion, it's possible to separate your happiness and support of your friends from a healthy competitive spirit in yourself, driving you to try harder and do better. So when you're looking outward, it's pure love, but when you're looking inward, you can make those comparisons and lecture yourself on falling behind.

    Of course then when you do get your deal, you have to return to NOT comparing -- because when it's about numbers, comparisons are really dangerous.

    Maybe someone else can articulate that better... the whole spectrum of competitive behavior is so layered and complicated.

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  5. It is so fun to see Kristen's comments and mine side by side! Love you, Kristen! Thanks for the interview, Lydia. Much appreciated.

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    1. Right? I saw me side-by-side with you and went, "Wow! To be included in such company! I really made it :D." Love you too and all you do for writers. We need each other more than ever.

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  6. I haven't seen much competition or unprofessional behaviour on Twitter, but then again I found out about #amwriting soon after its inception, and have been lucky enough to find other lovely writers on-line. Unfortunately, I have not been so fortunate in real life. "High school mean girls" is a good way of describing some of them. Others were dismissive because I was younger than them, older than them, female (that was a big problem when I was in my twenties, not so much in my thirties and forties), or didn't go to the same university/have the same opportunities they did. Notice that none of those reasons have to do with writing -- mostly because none of those people bothered to read anything I'd written before excluding me. I've also met some writers in real life who are wonderful people, mind you!

    I think it comes down to writing being a morally and ethically neutral activity. It's not the writing -- it's how you choose to connect with it.

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  7. Great article and VERY COOL that Johanna was interviewed!

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  8. I am sometimes envious, but never jealous, and I don't put myself up against other writers -- only against myself. Meaning, I think that I can do better than myself with the next book, blog post, speaking engagement, etc. I might wish for the same type of success as another writer, but not for his or her success. When one writer succeeds, it impacts us all in a good way I think. I'm also awed by the generosity of spirit of successful authors, who seem to only want others to succeed as well. It's an open-arms community and I'm hoping to pay it forward. Thanks for the great post, Lydia.

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  9. What a great post, and with SO much information! Thanks Lydia. I have to say, just being able to call myself a soon-to-be-published author, learning how supportive other writers are, and becoming friends them, on BP and elsewhere, has been a mind-blowing experience for me. Of course I want my career to be a success, but I'm so honored and thrilled to be part of the writing community, there's no room for jealousy! It's all good!

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  10. I belong to an online group of aspiring writers in various genres. Our fearless leader & Tiger Mom, Devon Ellington, is multi-published in multi-genre. I found nothing but support from my 'writing family.' My debut novel was released this month, and it's the support of these people that have kept me from going insane these past few weeks.

    We firmly believe when one of us makes it, we all make it.

    I don't think I would have made it this far in this publishing journey had it not been for the generosity and support of other writers. Writers are some of the most generous people I have come across.

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  11. What a great post! I agree, building a supportive community with other writers, established and emerging, is a huge boost, both from a business standpoint and, more importantly, a psychological one. I'm always able to turn to my debut group, the Apocalypsies (2012 kidlit debut authors) with questions that I wouldn't dare ask my agent or editor; I also learn so much from those who are ahead of me in the process, and hope I am helpful to others in turn. I want to give a shout-out to one kidlit author who has been instrumental in helping newbie authors, and that is Cynthia Leitich Smith. Her website and blog are full of advice for writers, and she is so accessible, so generous with her time and advice; I don't know how she has time to be so helpful and still be such a prolific writer!

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  12. This is true -- I've been awed and grateful for the help I've gotten from published authors on my way to my own deal -- from blurbs to advice to redirection to editorial help -- my book would still be moldering on my hard drive if it were not for the intervention of the writers I know.

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  13. Great post Lydia. Part of being a supportive community of writers is teaching each other things. I learn so much from you and the other members of book pregnant. It's a real gift!

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  14. Excellent writing! I agree. Kristen's method is actually social since it's about helping and supporting others.

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  15. It's the quick road to the death of your own work. It makes your soul actually smaller. AT fests if you are not careful you can wander into the wrong room suddenly everyone around you is laying their e-peens on the table and grabbing the measuring sticks and it is suddenly hard to not reach for your own metaphysical zipper. It is hard to not participate.

    But the ONLY way to win is...not to play.

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  16. Reading this post was a great way to start my day. Although I'm not part of any official writers' circle, I take great motivation from the writer friends I've made online. And I agree, the basic feeling is of mutual encouragement, not spite or envy. (Not that we're not occasionally jealous of each others' print runs or book-signing opportunities.)

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  17. Great post, Lydia! I echo Amy's sentiment: "I might wish for the same type of success as another writer, but not for his or her success." All of our successes are our own, and all authors struggle, even the big-time bestsellers. A supportive community of other people who get this writing life in all its horror and glory is such an amazing gift. We all cheer each other on at all phases of the process and I would never have made it this far without all of my writing friends.

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  18. I am in awe of other writers — their stories, how they do all that they do.

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  19. This is a great post. Gives me added confidence that the writing community is mainly supportive. Love the #amwriting hashtag. Hadn't heard of #mywana. Must check it out.

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  20. Kristen Lamb has made good arguments for a community of writers. I don't see writers as actually competitive with each other, mostly because each of us produce unique work. (As Kristen writes re marketing above, "books aren't tacos.") I'm coming to think that a lot of the existing paradigms about publishing in the pre-digital age are going to be swept away. The only thing that will remain is the market for a good story. And who provides a good story? Come on, anyone reading this knows the answer! It isn't agents, editors or publishers, even if editors help.

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  21. This was very revealing and insightful. At the end of the day, my thoughts are be competitive with yourself. What are your beta readers and crit partners saying about your work? We are all with fault and striving for improvement, and supporting our fellow writers is the most kind thing you can do. Even if it's a crit buddy, say things in a proactive way, not in one which would tear them down.

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  22. Where can I find a side-by-side graph like that?

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  23. I'm not competitive with other writers at all. God didn't give me that gift to COMPETE, he gave me the gift to encourage, uplift and entertain people in a family oriented way. I've met other people who write. The men were cool and humble. The women became competitive the moment they found out I wrote too.


    They actually were trying to get me to recite some of my poetry as though to compare it to theirs. I find it silly and ridiculous to be this insecure over a literary gift. I wanted to tell them all they needed to get a life.



    I have learned my lesson though. Now when I meet a lady who writes and one of my friends of family members lets it spill to them that I write too, when these insecure women put on the lets compare skills hat and ask me to recite something, I just tell them "I don't care to share my work now." Or I simply say, "I don't care to discuss it." And then I move on and get as far away from this person as possible. I had no idea so many female writers/authors were this pathetic. If it weren't so laughable i'd almost be ready to cry for them.

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