The writer sits in a darkened room, his face lit only by the glow of his computer screen as he madly types on the keyboard. Soon, his latest opus will be completed, so perfect that no second draft will be needed. He’ll submit it to a publisher, who will instantly accept it, and all too soon it will be a New York Times bestseller.
For many people, the perception is that professional writing is done by supremely talented people working in isolation and producing perfectly publishable stories and novels without any additional help from anybody.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it generally works in real life.
Think about it for a moment. Have you ever opened a book and seen an acknowledgement page where the author thanks dozens of people for helping him complete the book?
What’s going on here? Isn’t writing a solitary art? What could all of these people possible do for a writer?
I’m going to tear the veil aside, and tell you who these people are, what they do, and how they help writers produce their stories and novels.
This is, of course, highly relevant to me because I’m trying to jump-start my own encore career as a professional science fiction and fantasy writer.
To that end, I’ve set up, or am in the process of setting up, five basic groups of people to help me.
Mastermind Group: To help with the business aspects of being a solo entrepreneur.
Writer’s Group: To help with the creative aspects of being a writer.
Alpha Readers: To help improve my content by focusing on structural issues.
Beta Readers: To help improve my content by serving as a test audience.
Subject Matter Experts: People who know more than me about key subjects like sword fighting, military tactics, etc.
So, what’s a Mastermind group?
Writing is a business, and I’m pursuing a multi-pronged approach for my writing career. While writing needs to be my primary activity, I’ll be augmenting this with other activities such as workshops, storytelling performances, videos, blogging, marketing, etc. Basically, I’m planning on using my advanced public speaking and storytelling skills as a locomotive to pull me through the marketplace and help advertise my fiction. This is a complicated business plan with a lot of moving parts.
Accordingly, I need a team of people to help me out with the business aspects of being a solo entrepreneur. A Mastermind group provides a collaborative environment where ambitious, driven individuals can meet to discuss business plans and engage in mutual problem-solving. Most importantly, however, a Mastermind group requires members to set goals, and holds them accountable for reaching those goals. The group helps members push their limits.
A Writer’s Group allows me to interact with other writers in my field. We can meet, kick around ideas, brainstorm, solve writing problems, etc. This helps me get better at the craft of writing.
Alpha readers and beta readers help make your content better. Alpha readers are people with industry knowledge who read your story in its roughest form, often multiple times, and tell you what’s not working, where there are structural problems in your story, etc. They also challenge your underlying assumptions. To put it bluntly, they tell you if your story sucks, explain why it sucks, and give you recommendations on how to make it suck less.
The best example of where I thought alpha readers could have really made a difference involves the two Star Wars trilogies. If George Lucas had surrounded himself with the kind of detail-oriented people who make good alpha readers, he would have never perpetrated Jar Jar Binks on us.
Beta readers are your test audience. When you think your story is complete, and ready to be published, you give it to them. By the time they see your story, the basic architecture should already be sound. Beta readers help you fine-tune your story to make it even more effective. They tell you about issues like character motivation problems, clumsy dialogue, pacing problems, and areas where they were jarred out of the story.
Finally, subject matter experts. Have you ever seen a book where key details were wrong? Subject matter experts help prevent this. They are volunteers who give you advice on topics like sword fighting, police procedures, forensics, the possible physics of interstellar space drives, etc.
And you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to find subject matter experts to help you. If you ask nicely, most people would love to answer questions about their profession or hobby. For example, I needed expertise on sword fighting for a story. This past Memorial Day weekend, I attended the Virginia Scottish Festival and Games. One of the organizations present at the event was the Virginia Fencing School, where I met two men who were delighted to answer my questions about fencing, the different types of swords, and different fighting styles.
Writing is not a solitary art. All of these people are essential if you want to be a high-performing professional writer. If you’re writer, or want to be a writer, I hope that I’ve opened your eyes about the writing profession and how volunteers can help you achieve your dreams. If you’re not a writer, well, I hope that I’ve provided you with a better understanding of how stories and books are really produced.
Every writer really does need a village.