Five years ago, more or less, I was having coffee with my friend Angela Slatter and listening to her complain about the slow progress she was making on her latest draft. Shoot, I said, there’s an easy fix for that. At Clarion Kelly Link mentioned she and Holly Black get together in a coffee shop once a week, then yell at each other write until they run out of words. We could just do something similar and it’d get your work kick-started right quick.
And since Angela allowed that this idea may have merit, we started meeting up once a week to talk about writing, eat ridiculous amounts of junk food, and write up a storm. Thus began Write Club, possibly the smartest idea I ever ripped off from another, far more successful writer and applied to my own life.
Write Club’s evolved a bit over the years. We eat less junk-food these days. We meet up during the daylight hours, instead of the Friday evenings we once favoured. There was a short hiatus in 2011, when we both foolishly worked a full-time schedule for a couple of months. Angela now writes full-time, after starting out as a part-time writer/part-time QWC employee; I now write part-time while working for QWC, after starting out as an unemployed slacker who basically failed to get jobs and wrote things to pay the phone bills.
But the core remains: once a week we meet, drink coffee, talk about writing, then bang out a terrifying number of words on our latest project. After five years, it’s responsible for getting quite a bit of stuff done.
It’s fucking awesome.
Both Angela and I used to blog about Write Club pretty regularly back in 2009. It was shiny and new back then, and people kept asking about it when we tweeted results or posted things on Facebook. These days, well, the idea is a little tarnished and the vast majority of our friends know what we’re talking about, so it doesn’t get the blog time it once did.
Today I plan on rectifying that with a list of seven things I’ve learned because of Write Club.
ONE: WEEKLY WRITING EVENTS ARE A USEFUL “RESET”
I’m doing pretty good with the writing routine these days. I get up at the crack of dawn. I hammer out a couple of thousand words. I punch above my weight. I try not to fall asleep on the train ride into work. I am a fucking writing machine with laser-like focus that’s creeping up on a 2k/day average.
But I still have weeks where things go to shit. There’s problems at work. Or the rail company does track work just outside my window and keeps me awake all night. Or there’s a deadline which requires rewrites. Or my body, which isn’t built for this six-AM-in-the-morning bullshit, just says fuck it and demands a few extra hours of sleep for a few days. And so I let things slide for a day or two…possibly even four or five.
Then Write Club comes around and gets me back on track. The moment where I get a breathing space to remember what it is I do and why I love to do it, then re-align the mental crosshairs on the long-term goal. It makes it easier to slip back into the writing routine when I’ve fallen out of the habit, and it comes around often enough to make sure I don’t slide too far.
Technically it doesn’t have to be a Write Club kind of thing; over the last couple of months, my crit group has become a kind of secondary check-in that serves the same purpose, and I know plenty of writers who are doing something similar with the weekly Writing Races we run through work.
What matters is having that weekly anchor that you aren’t inclined to skip that allows you to hit the reset button.
TWO: YOUR PROCESS PROBABLY HAS MORE WASTED TIME IN IT THAN YOU THINK
Here’s the thing about write club: the four hours I spend at Angela’s place are usually the most productive point in my week. If I’m having the kind of week where I’m routinely hitting 2,000 words over a four-hour block at home, I’ll head to Write Club and achieve 3,000 or 4,000 words in the same span of time. There’s something about the process that puts my writing into high gear and encourages a little extra production.
What’s changed? A lot of little things, bits and pieces that are ingrained parts of my writing habit at home, but aren’t applicable at Write Club. At home, for example, I’ll get stuck on a bit of writing and pace the room a little, or make myself a cup of coffee. Or I’ll spend a minute or two fact-checking something on the internet after writing a scene, rather than plunging onto the next thing. Or I’ll just sit there, blinking at the grey light of pre-dawn happening outside my window.
The details probably shift from day-to-day, but what remains is this: there are all sorts of little moments where I waste time when I’m on my own. That goes away when there’s another person there, furiously working on their own project, encouraging me to cut short my little pause and get back into the manuscript.
THREE: “NETWORK” IS NOT A DIRTY WORD
I’ve learned a lot from Angela over five years of write club. The most useful thing, however, has been watching the way Angela networks as a writer, and occasionally benefiting from said network when she’s leveraged it on my behalf.
I used to hate the very idea of networking. It brought to mind images of business cards and false smiles, the relentlessly cynical exercise of meetings with people I didn’t really like or know how to talk too. It was a thing for extraverts, the people who actually liked going out there and talking to people. I wrote because I hated that shit. I wanted to spend as little time out in the world as possible.
And while I had several friends who were natural super-connectors, capable of discovering something interesting about nearly everyone they met and developing a firm friendship because of it, I’d never really seen someone who approached networking from a quieter, more introverted place.
Then I spent five years watching Angela do her thing, quietly connecting people with one-another via email or quick catch-ups at conventions, doing small favours for people and helping them out, passing on news of this opportunity or that opening to people who’d be a good fit. It’s fucking awe inspiring to watch, and at no point does it come off as a dry or cynical exercise.
FOUR: TALK ABOUT THE FUTURE
It will probably come as no surprise that I have a long-term strategy for my writing. It’s moderately detailed, in the short-term, and eminently adaptable based on changes in prospects and opportunities in the long term, but it’s there and I know the shape of the career I want to have.
While the chance to sit down and write every week is one of Write Club’s major perks, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how fucking awesome it is to sit down every seven days and discuss the state of your career and your future plans with another writer who gets it. Someone who understands that publishing is a step, not an end-point, and thinks of opportunities accordingly.
I refine a lot of my future plans at Write Clubs. I figure out which opportunities are good ones and which are bad by using Angela as a sounding board. I talk through the merits of submitting here, or the drawbacks of saying no when someone writes and asks for a particular thing. I pay attention to the choices Angela makes and figure out the whys and wherefores of each step.
Talking about the future, about where I want to go and what I want to do, helps make it more concrete. And once it’s concrete, it’s easier to work towards, especially on the cold winter mornings that make up my writing time for the rest of the week.
FIVE: MY PROCESS IS NOT YOUR PROCESS, AND IT SURE AS HELL AIN’T ANGELA’S PROCESS
No two writers work the same way. I already knew this, well before Write Club was a thing, but it’s surprisingly how well it’s been schooled into me after five years of working with someone else in the room every week.
Angela, for instance, likes to talk through her work. She plots out loud, figuring out how things interconnect, and she keeps a lot of little details moving in way I can’t even begin to comprehend. She collaborates well, as evidenced by works like Midnight and Moonshine which she wrote with LL Hannett.
Me, I can’t do that. Once I’ve started the story, I want it to rattle around inside my skull until it’s about 90% done, and only then am I able to invite other people in to read what I’ve done or discuss a plot point I haven’t been able to figure out. The thought of collaboration makes me break out in a cold sweat. I’m happy to chat about Angela’s work in progress, but I tend to lock down the details of my own unless I’m massively, monumentally stuck or about to type “The End.”
None of that really matters. What matters is that your process works and you’re finishing your damn projects. So long as that happens regularly, you’re golden.
SIX: SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO TAKE A CHANCE ON A WEIRD IDEA
Here’s something I don’t often say out loud, but: Write Club shouldn’t exist.
Sure, Angela and I knew each other well enough to hang out during that initial conversation, but this was still pretty early on in our friendship. I’m pretty damn skittish around people I’ve just met. Hell, I’m like a cantankerous house-cat, jealously guarding my territory and snarling at anyone who comes close. I don’t really invite close friends I’ve known for decades to come around and hang at my place, let alone people that I’ve only known for a couple of months and hung out with three or four times.
That I opened my mouth and ventured a suggestion that basically amounted to, well, let us hang out every week for a couple of years, yeah? is kind of bizarre and utterly unlike me. If it hadn’t been writing-related, it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened.
Somewhere in the multi-verse there is a Peter who didn’t suggest write club that fateful day back in 2009. Truly, I have to admit, it would suck to be that guy.
SEVEN: SEEK OUT LIKE-MINDED WRITERS
Write Club is mostly Angela and I. It hasn’t always been thus. In the halcyon early days, when we’d Write Club on a Friday night like the word-obsessed freaks we were, there would occasionally be spare bodies in the room. People who wanted to get in on the Write Club vibe and pound the keyboards.
Mostly, these people would show up for a couple of weeks and then quietly disappear. Not because they were weak or uninterested in writing, but because Write Club wasn’t for them. They didn’t groove of the hours of silence, focused on the clatter of keys. Or they didn’t want to set aside the chunk of their week for the sole purpose of writing.
I remember going to Kevin J. Anderson workshop a few years back, and one of the most interesting things he talked about was starting a critique group in the early days of his career where one of the conditions of entry was being able to produce three or more rejection letters from professional markets. If you couldn’t meet that requirement, he said, you weren’t taking writing seriously enough to avoid frustrating him and the other writers who were showing up.
Basically, you just weren’t in sync with the group.
Mindsets matter. There’s a social element to Write Club that’s valuable, but ultimately it’s about the work. If the choice is an extra half-hour of chatting or an extra half-hour of writing, we’re almost certainly going to take the half-hour of writing time. It comes down to the way we think about writing and the way we think about our careers.
If we weren’t the kind of people who’d make that choice, odds are this whole thing would have fallen apart years ago.