Sunday, March 25, 2012

mind-ing the business of writers

Aaron Sorkin has put these words into the mouths of several of his characters: "If you're not smartest guy in the room, then surround yourself with smart people. If you are the smartest guy in the room, then surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you."

Napoleon Hill calls this "creating the Master Mind." Look at any of the most successful leaders in the last century, and you'll see that they are only as great as the people they surround themselves with. Any time you have two or more people collaborating their talents for a common purpose, you have a master mind.

When I was a TA at UMass-Dartmouth, I invited my colleagues (consisting of other TAs, adjuncts, and tenured professors) to the then-Uncle Jon's (now Mirasol's) Cafe once a week (usually Fridays, when we most needed it), where we enjoyed each other's company (and chocolate chip muffins) and talked teaching. We would discuss what kinds of writing our students were doing, what texts we were using, what worked, didn't work, ask questions, and seek advice when faced with a troublesome student or a problematic paper. We would also steal ideas from each other constantly (with each other's permission, of course). I have no doubt that these weekly "coffee klatches" made me a better teacher. Additionally, being a teacher and student simultaneously came with its own kind of enrichment (that more than compensated for the stress). There's something stimulating about being immersed in the very theory you put to practice on a daily basis, something that makes you want to do better, be better.

The same is true for writers.

Writers groups aren't only places to give and receive feedback on drafts in progress. They can be discussion groups of books we've read, genres we'd like to explore, styles we want to try out. And they can be a support system when you're stuck in that writer's mud. I enjoy talking about writing with other writers as much as I enjoy talking about the teaching of writing with other writing teachers. I enjoy their company.

My point is this: the act of writing is often a solitary one, but when it comes to the business of being a writer--specifically, a published author--to be successful, you must surround yourself with a group of smart, talented individuals to make your writing intentions come to fruition. (Of course, you need to have a clear vision of those intentions, but that'll be next week's post.) The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

This is especially important for self-published authors, who typically wear the hats of writer, editor, cover designer, publicist, advertiser, web designer, agent, tech support, and more. I was one of those do-it-all self-publishers, mainly because I had no money to hire others to do these things for me. When I give advice to aspiring self-publishers today, I tell them that one thing I would do differently is to learn more up front. If I am going to take on the role of cover designer, for example, then I need to learn everything I can about cover design: Photoshop, graphics, typeface, etc. That means either reading books, taking a beginner's class, or asking someone who knows Photoshop really well to give me a few lessons. Or, I need to come up with working capital to pay someone to design the cover for me, someone who's way better at it than I am.

Were I to self-publish today, I'd hire a cover designer and an editor, for starters (and I'd make sure I had the money to invest in them first). Why? Because another thing I learned from my experience was that I'm pretty bad at graphic design (despite having almost pursued it as a career when I was fresh out of high school) and good at editing, but not enough for the level of excellence I have for my finished product. I'm also not the best organizer and planner. I am, however, good at networking, and I'm a good ideas-person. I can contribute to the development of these things and let someone more talented execute them. That is also the value of a master mind-- the "mind" works collectively, in synergy. We all put something into the soup, or we stir, or even bless it.

As an author with a publisher, I still find master minds invaluable. Consider all of the following:
  • My fellow Amazon Publishing authors and I brainstorm ideas about improving websites, taking advantage of social networking and technology to sell more books, and just plain ol' have a good time talking to each other. Each of us is good at something. Some of us are better at some things than others. We all bring something to the table. Best of all, we cheer for and support each other, plug each other's books, blogs, appearances, etc. We are not in competition with each other to sell books; rather, we are in solidarity to sell books.
  • My fellow writers and I help each other get past stumbling blocks, workshop a page or two, vent our frustrations and share our successes. I take all my screenwriting efforts to my fellow screenwriters, who make them good. Why I Love Singlehood co-author Sarah Girrell and I can spend hours talking plots, characters, what-ifs. She is the first person I go to for feedback. My twin brother is another.
  • My relationship with my publisher is such that I am part of their team. It's not "what are you doing for me," but rather, "What can I do for you?" and "Thank you." That sentiment runs both ways.

These groups don't have to be in the same room to be effective. In fact, in each of the above cases, my fellow master-minders are spread out across the country, even overseas. Would I like us to be in the same room? Yes, for the selfish reason of enjoying their company and needing a hug every now and then. But we are every bit as effective virtually as we would be physically. Every single one of them makes my books the best they can be.

Your master mind can also be comprised of those who you don't know personally, but are still in a position to inspire or advise you. In other words, READ. Read whatever you can get your hands on. I never get tired of reading Stephen King's On Writing. I dust off my favorite rhetoric and composition texts when I need to re-charge my battery (and really should start looking at what's new). I take advantage of blogposts, articles, and anything else that keeps me in the loop with the publishing industry and success stories of other authors. I read screenplays, novels in my genre, etc.

No matter where you work or what kind of career you're in, a master mind is a vital and enriching part of your success. If you want to be better at your present job (or you want to advance your career), start meeting with your colleagues or others in your field once a week, every other week, or once a month, be it virtually or physically. If you want to do something more fulfilling with your life, start surrounding yourself with those who can help you make that move. Most important, come to these groups ready to contribute what you can. You always have something to offer.


Fenny said...

I only hang out with you so that people think I'm friends with cool people!

Elisa said...

Wow, that's the same reason I hang out with you!

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Elisa said...

Glad you liked it. Hope you'll come back in the coming weeks!

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Thanks for sharing these lessons, Elisa! And I want to hang out with you and Fenny at the cool kids' table. Can I? I'll bribe with cookies.

And can I just say that I smiled when you started off this post with 'Aaron Sorkin'...That's just never a bad thing. You may be starting a new direction on this blog, but you'll never wander too far away from the Sorkinator.

Elisa said...

Beth, I thought you owned the cool kids' table. ;)

Fenny said...

Elisa said...

Fenny: Love. that. :)

Jacqueline Howett said...

I enjoyed that! Thanks for this great post!

I could relate with quite a lot here, and if only I knew much of all this a good year or so ago!

Elisa said...

Thank you, Jacqueline! Hope you'll stay tuned for the next post. :)