How to Build Your Writing Team

by Jenny Hansen (@jhansenwrites)

On my drive home from the day job yesterday I was listening to the radio, navigating through L.A.’s horrendous traffic and thinking about the memoir I’m writing on high-risk pregnancy.

I tuned in for the traffic report (because I needed to know why I was going 15 in a 65 MPH zone) and the business report that followed it caught my attention.  They were discussing the four character requirements of teamwork: openness, generosity, flexibility and patience. Of course I thought of how this applies to writing.

Many writers feel that they are flying solo when nothing could be further than the truth.  The process of getting a book published requires a massive amount of teamwork and every single one of the above qualities.

Your Personal Team

During the early stages it helps to have other creative people on your team – to plot with, critique with, and (most soothing) to commiserate with. If you have a family, do not discount their importance as they help feed and house you and put up with your constant mumbling and forgetfulness while you are consumed with your work in progress.

My husband usually knows how things are going by where my keys are. If I’m on top of things, they will be on the kitchen counter in their cute tray. On the bad days of tortured plots and tangled chapters, they have been found in the refrigerator, the pantry and the linen closet.

Openness:  Julia Cameron describes this better than I can, but the gist is that she recommends that “you show up to the page and allow the work to move through you.”  Unless you lay your heart and mind wide open to the possibilities in your universe, your muse will not come visit and your writing will fall flat. Jennifer Crusie calls this process: “listening to the girls in the basement.” You must open that door if you want to hear what’s being shouted up the stairs.

Generosity: Writing is a fearsome thing. When those girls shout up from the depths of your psyche, they often tell you ugly, sharp, embarrassing things. If you are not generous with your good opinion of yourself, these messages can chip away at your spirit. Yes, we want to be generous with others, but I think it’s most important to be generous to yourself first.

Flexibility: If you are a plotter, this one is often the roughest part of the writing road for you. Those hussies in the basement will inevitably try to drive your story to a place that isn’t in the outline. Just go with it – that is what the delete key is for. The small increments of time where they elbow their way into the driver’s seat of your novel will always pay off. I promise you they will.

Patience: This is the hardest thing for me, both in writing and in life. My inner Diego – that’s my name for that arrogant, nitpicky internal critic who tells me this writing thing will NEVER work – says the darnedest stuff. “Is it done yet? This is crap. Can’t you write better than that? This is boring…” That Diego is a terrible team player, don’t you think? 

Be patient. Novels take time, no matter what that Diego dude says. What does he know anyway?

Your Publishing Team

Once you are submitting, your personal team offers priceless support in helping you cope with the multitudes of rejections that 99% of writers get. (If you want to feel better about your rejections, read this blog by James Hughes.)

You are now trying with all your might to build your publishing team with an agent or an editor.  I highly recommend Laura Drake’s blog series on The Great Agent Search as you hunt for your perfect representative. To do your part as an author, all four teamwork cylinders MUST be firing when you interact with these potential pub team members.

Openness:  You must be honest with your publishing professionals about where you want to take your writing career. If you want to do book tours, ask them how to make that happen. If you have small children and don’t want to travel, tell them that too. If you don’t feel you can write more than two books a year, SAY IT – it’s not like they won’t find out. They can’t help you achieve your dreams if you don’t share what they are. I’m not telling you to demand, but asking is always appreciated. The worst they can do is say no (which in my mind just means “Yes Later”).

Generosity:  Editors and agents do not lay in wait ready to pounce and shoot unsuspecting writers down. Quite the opposite. They read thousands of pages every week, hoping and praying to see a submission that follows their guidelines, is well constructed and chock full of great writing.

These same individuals are ready to cry happy tears when they see all of the above plus a marketing plan, a book blurb and an author with a platform already built that they can leverage. If you are scratching your head, thinking “Excuse me, platform what?” you need a heavy injection of Kristen Lamb and Bob Mayer. Visit Kristen’s blog at http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/ and read Bob’s book by the same name, Warrior Writer.  Do it now – you’ll be glad you did.

Lastly, I recommend that you thank your editors and agents often, remember their birthdays and send them chocolate. They are working to get your book(s) out to the public and you should express some gratitude for this. (Note: I didn’t say fawn over them. That would be creepy. Just send chocolate, or whatever else it is that they adore, and give them your sincerest thanks.)

Flexibility:  Understand that you might need to do some things you didn’t plan on when you sat down to write your book. It could be that if you want publicity that you will have to do it yourself for the first few books. If it doesn’t terrify you down to the bone, you might consider approaching writing chapters, libraries and bookstores about speaking for them or having a book signing. If crowds freak you out, perhaps consider doing radio. Barbara DeMarco-Barrett does a weekly show called Writers On Writing, plus there is NPR and (if you’re a really lucky romance author) Sue Grimshaw’s TrueRomance series. Note: With Borders reorganizing right now, you might want to research the last one a bit.

Patience:  After all your hard work writing the book, it is difficult to wait for it to “take off.” I know it is challenging to face, but the first one might not be your breakout book. In fact, it is quite rare for a debut novel to be the one to hit the NYT Bestseller List.

Bob Mayer talks about his friend Susan Wiggs who took 20+ years to hit the bestseller list. Robyn Carr, who writes lovely women’s fiction for MIRA Books, became an “overnight success” THIRTY years after she began publishing. Your job is to keep writing books that you’re proud of and to build a team that you trust to help promote them. The rest will take care of itself.

Your Public Team

When the momentous day comes that you get THE CALL, you add a whole new dimension to your team – The Reader. Every published author will tell you that readers are the most important team members of all. Though we write for ourselves first, we are really writing for our readers, whether they are real (critique partners, family, your new glorious agent) or imagined. A great reader is a golden gift and a blessing to be treasured. If you want to keep your readership and grow it, your “Fab Four” teamwork qualities are vital:

Openness:  Your readers want to know about you.  Every book you write shouts, “This is who I am” so it is a safe bet that your readers will feel that you are already their friend when they meet you. It’s just the way it is.

If it makes you uncomfortable to be praised and loved on in person, make sure that you have an interactive website or that you keep an active blog. Get on Twitter or Facebook. Post often.  If you need help getting started with Twitter, click here for Twitter help.

Generosity:  Donate books to contests and worthy causes. Authors receive a certain number of free copies when they publish (how many depends on your contract) and it will only help you to give some of these away – send one to our soldiers overseas, offer one as a door prize for your next monthly writers meeting, donate one for a contest prize on your website or blog. The goodwill generated from this is amazing. 

Try to answer your fan mail and blog comments – it goes back to openness and helps your readers feel more connected to you.

Flexibility:  It could be that you will be called on to do new or unusual things to promote your book or interact with your readers.  You might have to emcee an auction, take a bus tour, sit next to an author FAR more popular than you and watch her sell books (while you don’t).

You might not be able to envision all of the things you’ll do in the name of promotion right now. That’s okay. If it doesn’t hurt you, try to roll with it. If you need ideas, ask other authors or your agent what they recommend to help you connect to your readers. If you don’t know who to ask, here is a blog by Alain Miles with seven suggestions for engaging your readers.

Patience:  I will never forget hearing one of my favorite authors, Rebecca Forster, speak about her first book signing. She said, “I sat there in that bookstore at a tiny table with a big stack of books, a pen and dish of candy. The candy was the only thing that moved all day.”

It is a sad fact that in the early part of your career, your book signings might not have all the hoopla of Janet Evanovich or Nora Roberts. If you are showing steady sales and making friends with the bookstore owners, you are still doing your job at these events. Note:  Always sign all of the books a bookstore will put in front of you. And bring your own “Autographed by Author” stickers in case they don’t have them. Not only does that sticker really help move books, when combined with your signature on the title page, it keeps the bookstore from stripping and returning them to the publisher.

So, there you have it…my take on building your writing team.  Who’s on your writing team and what qualities do you recommend writers bring to the equation?

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11 Responses to How to Build Your Writing Team

  1. Loved this post! Can’t go wrong if you follow this advice!
    : )

  2. Akoss says:

    Can’t go wrong with these advices. Too bad I’m still at the first stage.😦
    I so need a personal team. But I will be patient.
    Thanks for sharing. I found through a twitter re-tweet.🙂

    • Akoss,

      You can build a personal team through everything from libraries to book clubs to professional writing groups.

      I found my team through RWA (www.rwa.org) and there is usually a group close no matter where you are if you live in the United States. If you don’t, there are several online chapters (FF&P, Women’s Fiction, and the Inspirational chapter all come to mind, depending on what you write).

      I actually write women’s fiction *and* memoir but have found a tremendous amount of support through my local RWA chapter. It is soothing to hang out once a month with other people who have stories running around their heads. Plus you learn a lot.

      Keep us posted on how your team building goes, OK? You can find all of us on Twitter through the link at the top of this page.

      ~Jenny

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