Writing — even when it’s undertaken with friends at a writers’ circle or at a coffee shop — is an inherently solitary affair. Authors aren’t coders; we rarely sit down to collaborate on the exact same manuscript as if we were developing a website or a mobile app.

So the heart of writing starts with a single person. You. The author. The creator of worlds and the spinner of yarns as yet unwoven.

But “you, the author” almost surely cannot succeed as a published writer if the totality of your support network may be viewed in a sufficiently clean bathroom mirror. Authors need layers of support to help them hone their craft and arrive at book deals with publishers. They need a whole literary infrastructure beyond themselves to arrive at the right product at the right place at the right time with the right level of skill, that will achieve the sales it deserves.

The first layer of that onion, beyond your self-referential heart, is your writing tribe. Think of these folks as the people with whom you routinely talk about writing. The tribe might be a group of friends who get together weekly or monthly to write and to bounce ideas off of each other, or it might be a virtual group of people (stable over time!) who trade writing prompts and motivation in a quiet corner of the Interwebs. The tribe is your sword and shield as a writer. A good tribe will hold you accountable — usually, by making progress with your word count. And they’ll offer a shoulder to cry on when you get frustrated with a plot dead-end or a character who just doesn’t fit.

The next layer out consists of peer beta readers. Your tribe might make good alpha readers, but a good beta reader knows your genre and is experienced in writing at your length (novel, short story, novella, flash, etc.). Usually, beta readers are either published authors or unpublished but well-read colleagues who understand both syntax and story development and will not spare bad news when it’s warranted. Your Aunt Ethel is unlikely to be a good beta reader, for example, but the author who recently released a book in your genre with a local press might make an excellent candidate. You must grow a network of beta readers; you’ll rarely be successful if you just randomly ask competent people to perform a detailed critique of your work (for free!) without having built a relationship first.

The third layer consists of fellow authors within your sphere of activity. Most towns of any appreciable size have some form of a literary community. So you’ll have access to poetry readings, writers’ conferences, author events, workshops, etc. The key phrase, though, is “within your sphere of activity.” For example, people who enjoy writing short stories in sci-fi or speculative fiction represent a fairly constrained population. Many of these folks, however, are active at a regional level. You could go to a con or a retreat and begin to network. Most authors welcome new contacts within the community. When you’re finally published and need an established author to blurb you, these are the folks to whom you’ll turn first.

The final layer consists of the community of readers who enjoy works like yours. Book fairs, writing events, library functions — these are all places to meet people who like the kind of stuff that you, in theory, will produce. So get to know them. Learn their quirks. Pay attention to what they say they loved or hated about other people’s stories. Network with well-connected readers and reviewers. Get them to sign up for your newsletter or follow you on Twitter or Goodreads or something similar. Let them know you exist, so that when your first story is ready for market, you’ll have a built-in audience you can notify.

Over the last year, as we’ve pushed out issues of The 3288 Review and Brewed Awakenings, I’ve lamented two big trends: First, that almost no submitting writers seem to avail themselves of beta readers, and second, that people don’t put their money where their mouth is.

For a while, I assumed that a lack of beta reading — and, to be frank, we can usually tell within the first 500 words or so whether a piece has been beta-edited — indicated a degree of professional immaturity by the writer. But my opinion is growing more nuanced. I better understand now that most early-career writers simply haven’t let their onion grow; they released their first draft to market because they had no one to guide them differently. They didn’t get beta readers because they have no recourse to any. They haven’t networked. They have no support system. And therefore, they have no idea that beta reading is even a “thing” they ought to endure.

And because they haven’t networked, they haven’t understood the essential truth that if you want people to buy your book, you have to buy theirs, too. As far as we can tell based on our sales records, almost none of the folks we’ve published have purchased anything from us. None of the people who pitch The 3288 Review from out of town have bothered to buy a review copy. People are quick to solicit contracts and to cash our checks and demand invoice payment, but not so quick to support our mission by interacting with our shopping cart. But it’s not just us — our authors, likewise, see much more excitement and promises to buy, expressed in social media posts, than what actually seems to transpire in our accounting system. And it’s not just our authors, either … did you know that an outright majority of titles released in the United States by self-published authors and small presses never move more than 100 books sold? So without that networking, and without the mutual support that comes from being published authors, your risk of being a low-volume title increases significantly.

But the self-help-for-writers industry is slow to accept the point.

Many articles — and even, alas, books — along the theme of “getting started as a writer” emphasize the anodyne as if it were a brilliant insight. You know the drill: Find a nice place to write. Write every day. Reward yourself for meeting goals. Yadda, yadda. All of these little nuggets are true, in their way, but they’re remarkably trite. After all, would you try to excel as a published author by writing for one hour a month whilst balancing on a unicycle in rush-hour traffic, and then you flog yourself with a salt-dipped whip every time you reach 500 words? Of course not. Most advice about writing is self-evident pablum presented as inspiration.

Yet were I to offer advice to an aspiring writer about geting a solid start, I wouldn’t necessarily begin with a writer’s desk arrangement or his personal habits. Rather, I’d recognize that authors need to grow the onion, so I’d offer counsel that might look something like this:

  1. Figure out why you want to write. Is it for publication, or just for a hobby? Do you have one story you want to tell, or many?
  2. Read some of the standard works on the craft. Buy reference books. Equip your toolbox.
  3. Start getting involved in the local literary community by attending readings and workshops and seminars. Buy the stuff that local authors are selling (getting inscribed copies usually delights the author). Make contacts.
  4. Launch your platform by starting a writing blog or fan page. You won’t have product to move, at that point, but short-yet-frequent posts about what you’re doing can help you build an audience early.
  5. Join a writing group — or start one, if none exists. The best groups mix serious with social and often meet weekly or semimonthly.
  6. Write a half-dozen “training” manuscripts. These aren’t the Big Story you want to tell; rather, they’re short stories or novelettes that help you figure out your own best working environment, as well as provide some raw material to share with a professional editor or to peer reviewers to identify trends and improvement opportunities now instead of when you genuinely get down to business.

When you’ve done these six things, only then might be truly ready to begin your Big Story. Because when your Big Story is your training manuscript, the odds decrease that a publisher will contract for it.

Authors are interesting people. They love what they do and they bring real value to their readers. But when an author fancies himself the next Hemingway, writing alone in a shack, the bad habits begin early. Like it or not, although writing as an activity is inherently solitary, writing for publication is an astonishingly social cultural phenomenon that requires much networking and relationship building.

Because if you lack a fully developed onion, it’ll be that much harder to see your work in print — and to see that people are actually willing to buy it.

The Layers of an Author’s Onion: Getting Started as an Author
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