Building Your Writing Support Triangle

Image: three tree stumps in a triangle, supporting hammocks
Photo credit: Ken Mattison on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Today’s post is by author, editor and coach Jessica Conoley (@jaconoley).


Every writer I know who has lasted in the publishing industry for more than five years has one thing in common: a support system that functions on multiple levels. Everything about this industry—querying agents, sending stories out on submission, the erratic way in which we get paid, etc.—is designed to weed writers out and wear us down. But those of us with multi-level support are more likely to weather the storms of self-doubt.

There are three key types of support for writers:

  • Mentorship: People ahead of you in their career who inspire you.
  • Critique: People who offer feedback on your writing in exchange for your feedback on theirs.
  • Accountability: People who help keep you on track for your writing and career goals.

The key to emotional well-being and continued productivity is knowing which part of your support system to call on and when. Once you start looking you can find support everywhere: from writers and non-writers, people you may never meet in real life, or authors who don’t even know you exist.

  • If you are lacking in motivation and inspiration, invest some time in finding your mentors.
  • After you’ve refined your story to the best of your ability, and a fresh set of eyes would give you some perspective, reach out to your critique partners.
  • If you find it difficult to carve out time to write, lean into the accountability side of your support system.

Mentorship: Three Levels

Are you looking for motivation and inspiration? Find yourself a writing mentor. The great part is you don’t even have to be able to access that person in real life.

I have mentors on three levels.

1. Rockstar Titans

These are writers like Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, and Stephen King. These mentors from afar are the authors with million-dollar book deals and fans who tattoo their quotes onto their flesh. If I were fortunate enough to be in the same room with a Titan, I likely wouldn’t be able to speak to them out loud with my words, because OMG “It’s you.”

Luckily these seemingly inaccessible mentors have:

  • Books you can read and study. How they execute their craft teaches me how to refine mine.
  • Most Titans offer videos on YouTube, speeches, lectures, interviews, and book launches. Snippets of relevant wisdom find their way to me with each viewing.
  • Social media you can engage with. How they interact with their readers and promote their work can serve as a blueprint for my own online presence. Sometimes they do something I don’t like, which teaches me as well.

Rockstar Titans have done the impossible—which means it’s possible. And one day, if I finish the draft of this damn book, and the one after that, and the one after that, maybe, just maybe that could be me.

2. Writing Geniuses

These are authors five to ten years ahead of me in their careers. And yes, they’ve amassed awards and published multiple books, but they still walk the same streets as mere mortal me. If I encounter a Writing Genius in real life I could probably muster the courage to talk to them.

Writing Geniuses are still building their platforms, which means they actively engage with their audiences. Luckily, I am their audience.

  • Retweets, shares, and comments on a Writing Genius’s social media gets your name (and avatar) in front of their eyeballs. After years of my retweeting and positively commenting on a Writing Genius’s posts, she followed me back! More importantly, when I had a technical question on a project, I tweeted her for advice and she responded.
  • Subscribing to a Writing Genius’s email newsletter puts you in direct contact with the author. Unlike social media, where algorithms can filter or bury the authors insights, a newsletter is delivered to your inbox. This direct connection ensures you don’t miss out on the important wisdom the Writing Genius is willing to share. Reading the emails keeps you up to date on what the author is doing. Replies to their newsletter with a short thank you and information about what you found helpful in the article lets the Writing Genius know their work is appreciated. Remember you’re not entitled to a response to an email. Mentors are busy and guarding their time—which is a great lesson in how you may need to employ boundaries with your time. Regardless if they write back or not, it’s good literary citizenship to tell other authors when their work has positively impacted you.
  • Membership to a Writing Genius’s Patreon shows them you are long-term invested in their success, and therefore they are more likely to engage with you. One of the authors I support on Patreon offers monthly virtual classes and work sessions to her patrons. Initially I was too shy to ever speak up in the Q&A sessions, but over time I got more comfortable and learned to ask her for advice.

Writing Geniuses have shown me how to navigate the tricky higher levels of this industry, and I owe them a thank you—so when I meet them in the flesh I will muster the courage to let them know how grateful I’ve been for their guidance.

3. Working Role Models

These are authors I have face-to-face access to. Often these mentors took it upon themselves to encourage my growth out of sheer generosity and good literary citizenship. They have read my work. They have seen my potential and encouraged me to try new things. They send opportunities my way because they believe in me.

It takes courage to approach someone and ask if they would be willing to help with a few questions regarding our career. You should applaud yourself for reaching out. But, if they say no, or don’t respond to your email, remember they just mentored you. They showed you the most important writer lesson of all: our time is precious, and we cannot say yes to every request and/or opportunity that comes our way.

If they say yes, be respectful of the irreplaceable time they are investing in you. Be prepared. Have questions laid out that you think they can help with. Show them the work you have done to get where you are and let them know where you want to head next. Then, sit back and listen. Listen with your whole body, down to the marrow of your bones. Hear what they’re saying and what they aren’t saying. Ask clarifying questions and delve deep whenever you can.

Working Role Models are two steps ahead of me in their career, but if I work hard we might become colleagues. Maybe one day I will send opportunities to them, the way they have so generously sent them to me.

If it’s time for you to find a mentor, who do you admire? What avenues to you have to connect with them? If you’re unable to connect with them, what are three ways you can learn from them right now without one-on-one access?

Critique: Three Types

Every writer reaches a point when they can no longer be objective about their own work. Even worse, you can’t figure out what the hell you’re writing in the first place, and, oops, you’re 50,000 words in, but damn that last sentence was fire. You need a fresh set of eyes attached to someone else’s brain. I typically know I’ve hit this wall when I’m moving the same sentence to four different places in a manuscript, deleting it, reinserting it, and then adding a comma because surely that’s going to solve the problem. If you’re tinkering with no progress, call in your critique support.

1. Critique Groups

To refine your writing, gather a small group of writers who exchange work according to preset rules and time frames. The group format lets you see a variety of reactions to your work, and triangulate information to see what you need to fix. If four out of the five of members of the group say, “I was confused and had no idea what happened in this scene,” you know you have a serious problem. If two of the members get in a huge fight about which one of your characters is the worst, fantastic—you’ve written something that invoked passion in others. If one person hates something, well that’s interesting and helpful feedback, but maybe it’s more about their personal preference than your writing. The added bonus: a critique group will help you develop a thicker skin, which will come in real handy when those reviews start going up at Goodreads.

2. Critique Partners

A good critique partner is worth their weight in gold because they’re willing to read the same chapter again, and again, and again. This is the writer you swap work with on a regular basis and provide reciprocal critiques. It’s helpful to ask for the type of critique you need, depending on the stage of your project.

  • Big picture edits to check for pacing problems, voice consistency, or other over arcing issues.
  • Line edits when you’re tightening, refining voice, clarifying action, working on visualization, etc.
  • Copy edits to check for grammar, consistency, and formatting issues before you send out for potential publication.
  • Positivity Passes when you need to hear what you’re doing well. The positivity pass is often overlooked and highly underrated. Ask for this type of feedback when you feel like “My writing sucks.” And questioning, “Why am I even doing this?” A PP helps provide some much-needed validation and surely if your CP can find something nice to say about the work you won’t have to throw the whole thing in the garbage.

3. Beta Readers

Beta readers are as close to a reader shopping a bookstore as you can get. These are one-time readers who give initial impressions on how your story is coming across. The super fantastic thing: Beta readers don’t have to be writers. They just have to be readers whose opinions you trust.

However, if you’re asking someone to read a full manuscript, that’s a huge time commitment. First, ask if they would read the first ten pages for you. If they’re into your story, then offer to let them read the whole manuscript. If they’re not into the story, it gives them a graceful out. As with your critique group, look for those places where multiple readers comment. This means you’re either doing something really right or really wrong.

Critique lets you see your work (more) objectively. It lets you know your strengths as a writer and points out places where you could spend a little more time revising. If you get your critiques and realize you are great at description, but your dialogue could use work, consider a class to help refine your skills.

Remember: Critiques are other people’s opinions. It is your story, so disregard the feedback that is irrelevant to your vision. Incorporate and revise based upon the feedback that hit home.

Critique support often turns into emotional support as well. Writing is a weird industry and only another writer is going to understand the sting of a query rejection or why it takes four years for your book to get to print. That emotional support has kept me from walking away from this industry more than once, and it all started with swapping some pages.

Accountability: Three Steps

One of the most challenging parts of being a writer is sitting our butts in the chair: getting in the day’s words, or edits, or marketing. For some reason I’ve never been more willing to clean out my fridge than when I have to write a difficult scene. Balancing all of the responsibilities of life, plus our ambitions as a writer, can feel impossible. Especially if we don’t have a deadline looming or the fear of breach of contract to motivate us. If you find yourself doing everything but writing lately it’s time to lean on the accountability leg of your support triangle.

Accountability is tricky. You have to dig into your personal motivations and fear. Once you understand your motivations it is a lot easier to find the right accountability tools. I recommend trying any and everything until one sticks.

If you are concerned with what people think about you, consider a public commitment.

  • Declare “I am a writer.” Publicly. This creates psychological ownership of your writing aspirations. People will ask you what you write, and avoiding the awkward, “Ummmm, nothing right now…” is great motivation to keep you writing. I am a writer is a terrifying declaration to make the first time, but if you tell the Uber driver you’re never going to see again, it feels like there’s less at stake. Work up to telling your friends and family after practicing on a few strangers.
  • Create a newsletter. Decide how often you are going to send out the newsletter, tell people you’re trying an experiment for three months and would they please sign up. Stick to it for one quarter. Knowing your readers are expecting you in their inbox will keep you hitting send. After three months, if you’ve enjoyed the experience, keep going. With newsletters there’s an added bonus. You’re creating a direct link to readers, which translates to building your platform, and publishers love to hear you have a platform when you’re shopping that manuscript or book proposal.
  • Post on social media every business day for a month about your daily writing goal. The internet is always watching. Someone will be inspired by you following your dream. Someone is counting on you to succeed in your writing, because if you can do it, then maybe they can too. You may never know who that someone is, because your followers aren’t always brave enough to reach out and say how you’ve inspired them. But someday, you’ll be signing books, and a random stranger will say, “I saw your daily writing posts, and it made me want to write. I just finished my first short story.”

If you hate wasting money, consider a financial commitment.

  • Pay to join a class, workshop, or Patreon offered by a writer you admire. You can find writing courses taught by Rockstar Titans, Writing Geniuses, and Working Role Models. Classes teach you how to refine your craft. Workshops provide the opportunity for feedback on your work. Patreon subscriptions let you see behind the scenes and get you a step closer to your mentor. They also offer the opportunity to build your writing community. Surrounding yourself with like-minded writers committed to finishing their work is always beneficial, and these new acquaintances may end up being good accountability partners.
  • Invest in an editor/coach/therapist. Editors know industry trends and can dissect books in a way your average critique partner isn’t able to. An edit letter gives you a jumping off point on how to move your project forward, and it’s always easier to make progress when we have a road map. A book coach provides accountability and moral support. You may be surprised how much more progress you make when someone is reading over your shoulder. A therapist can help dig into those mindset issues that are holding you back from finishing your manuscript. Maybe you thought your problem was a lack of craft or experience, but when talking through your challenges with a therapist you realize the real issue is your fear of success.
  • Reward yourself when you meet your goal. If your goal is to write every day for one month, go to the bank and take out thirty dollars in $1 bills. Every day you write, add $1 to a jar. At the end of thirty days take the money out of the jar and treat yourself. Want to make the stakes even higher? If you miss a day, take all the cash out of the jar and start over, from zero, on your next writing day. I do a variation of this quarterly, and have ended up with some pretty snazzy treats, like a beautiful Retro Classic Bluetooth keyboard.

If you hate to let other people down, consider a one-on-one commitment.

  • Find yourself an accountability partner—an acquaintance whose opinion you value, who is also working toward a goal. Your AP doesn’t have to be a writer, and they don’t have to have the same goal as you. Texting each other daily updates on your individual progress is great motivation. My AP and I have a two-texts-a-day routine. We start our working day with texts of our goals for the workday, and finish with a sum up of what we accomplished. My AP says, “It feels like clocking in and out of work, but in a good way.”
  • Swap work with a critique partner. CPs are writers you exchange work with and provide feedback for, on a regular basis. Ideally you will find someone at a similar level in their writing career. Agree on a page count, deadline, and frequency of work exchanges. (I swap with mine weekly.)
  • Schedule a co-working session. Meeting a friend at the library to do your homework has evolved in the digital era. Now we can co-work with friends halfway around the world via Zoom or Microsoft Teams. There are even apps that will link you up with total strangers to co-work. I run co-working sessions three times a week, for two hours each session. We chat for fifteen minutes, work for forty-five, chat for fifteen, and work for forty-five. Looking at all the Zoom boxes and knowing other people are working as well is motivating. An added bonus for people with chaotic households is you can say, “I have a meeting.” Your family will leave you alone for two hours while you get your words in for the day. Co-working sessions can be a great gateway for people who are transitioning from corporate/work environments with a lot of inherent structure to a free-form/self-motivated work environment.

It took me ten years and a lot of experimentation to find the right mix of support, but once I understood my motivations, I was able to hone the tools that worked. If you want to dig into your motivation, Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies quiz is a good place to start. The quiz is quick and lets you know if you’re the type who needs internal or external accountability. So, the next time you’re tempted to binge Netflix, because it feels too hard to sit your butt in the chair, reach out to your accountability support system.

With a strong writing support triangle, you can move your career forward as you deepen relationships and help others. Taking time to build your support triangle now will give you a strong foundation that keeps you in this industry for decades.

P.S. If you need help building your support system, you’re welcome to try a co-working session with me and my patrons. Reach out to me on Twitter (@jaconoley) and I’ll get you the details.

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Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Jessica Conoley connects story tellers and tells stories. She writes essays, creative non-fiction, flash fiction, and fantasy. Conoley’s coaching services demystify the business aspect of writing by drawing on her former experiences running a non-profit and serving as managing editor of a literary magazine. In 2020, she expanded her offerings to include virtual workspaces and critique groups as a way to foster creative community from the safety of our own homes. Learn more at: https://jessicaconoley.com/

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