Creating an Online Writing Community

There are dozens of online writing communities, but you want the perfect fit. Maybe you’ve tried several with no luck, or maybe you’re confident that you can create the perfect community. Maybe you simply want to give it a shot. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided it’s time to create a writing group all your own, and you’ve chosen to create it online. I’ve tried this myself a few times with varying levels of success.

The advice I’ve gathered here is by no means the be all and end all of creating an online writing community, simply advice to get the ball rolling in the right direction. Making a few key decisions right away will help you narrow your search for further guidance.

Choosing a Structure

There are a few ways to structure your online writing group. Email subscription groups tend to work well for more critique focused groups like the Critters Writers Workshop. Forum based communities such as Proboards. In my experience these websites are far easier to use than any free email subscription service, especially if you’re trying to create a large community covering many topics and genres. Besides, with an email group you still need a website to advertise your community, whereas your forum can be its own website.

Don’t forget that whatever platform you use, any work intended for publication must be posted privately. If more than 10% of a manuscript is published for free online, most publishers won’t look at it.

Creating Participation Rules

Creating a writing group means creating a variety of rules. Will you allow people to post erotica for critique? Will you focus on a specific genre? Will there be a required number of critiques per week or month in order for members to stay active? How many critiques should a writer give before they post a story? Will writers be allowed to advertise their websites and publications, and if so where?

Think hard on these questions, and revisit your rule list a couple times. Get someone else to look at it, to make sure it’s fair. Demanding a high amount of participation from every member probably isn’t your best move, but a small requirement–even just one critique per month–weeds out people who aren’t serious about writing. Erotica might be best placed on a separate forum from other critiques–and you might make a separate forum for writers to advertise their work in, too.

You can change these later if you choose to, but having some basic requirements will help you find the right people to join your online writing community.

Getting Help

Ideally you’ll be able to find a few people interested in helping with group moderation and website maintenance. No matter what, you’ll need people to build the community. Nobody will go to a forum where nobody already is. Five or six writers who know a handful more can make the difference between a community that dies in a few months and a community that lives on.

Start by asking writers you know if they’d be interested in joining your community. Ideally they’ll love it so much they talk about it endlessly with other people. Either way, ask them to send word of the community you’re building on to writers they know who might be interested. People are far more open to suggestions from somebody know, and word of mouth is the most powerful marketing tool.

As your community grows, pay careful attention to who develops as a leader. Stay on the lookout for potential new moderators, because the bigger a community gets, the more time consuming running it becomes.

Creating a successful writing community is a challenge, whether you’re doing it locally or online. If the community thrives it can take over your entire life. The community you build will be worth the time poured into it only if its maintenance doesn’t interfere with your writing time. To be honest, the best advice I can give you is to try already existing writing groups before you start your own.

Writing a marathon

Nanowrimo pep talks have often compared the challenge to a marathon, and it makes a lot of sense. Writing a book in a month is about both writing quickly and having the energy to write every day or as close to every day as possible for an entire month. That’s a long time when you’ve just begun your writer’s path, and even for someone who’s been writing for years it can be hard to stay productive all month long.

But now the last 48 hours have hit, and it’s time for a different kind of marathon, the one where instead of writing every day for a month you write as much as possible in one day. If you’ve got the day off and an unfinished novel, can you finish your novel tomorrow? How close can you get? How many words can you pound out now that we’ve hit crunch time?

For an effective marathon of writing, you need the following:

1. Writing time. Clear out as much of your day as you can, and set out which hours you’re going to spend writing and when you’ll allow yourself breaks. You will need breaks, to stretch and stand up, go to the bathroom and grab a drink and possibly even to eat something. Plan out how regular and how long these will be so you don’t end up spending most of your day on break.

2. Caffeine and/or sugar. Go out and get some chocolate tonight if you’re out, and make sure you have plenty of your favourite beverage–most writers I know seem to have a fondness for coffee, though I prefer Dr.Pepper–and your favourite snack lying around to keep you energized and motivated.

3. A goal. Your goal might be to finish your novel tomorrow, or to write ten thousand words, or possibly just to get as close to the end as you can. What’s essential is that you have a goal, so you’ll be able to tell if your marathon was successful or not.

4. An iron will. It’s the last day of November and Nanowrimo, so inevitably you’ll get eight hundred calls and two hundred emails, and all your friends will want to hang out. Say no, don’t go to any parties, and remember your end goal. This is the last day of Nanowrimo, and you want that novel finished, so don’t agree to anything until it’s done. It’s hard to say no when friends want to hang out on your day off, but tomorrow you have to do it. If you’re American, Thanksgiving might make this harder, but carve out as much writing time as you possibly can–your family should admire your dedication and respect your wishes, and you should never feel bad demanding your own time.

And once you have gathered all of these things, it’s time to get to work–let’s make these 48 hours count.

Advice from a Caterpillar

Hello, author. A brief introduction should be in order. I’m Mr. Caterpillar, and I first tried this NaNoWriMo thing in 2008. I had been aware of the event since many years prior to that, but 2008 was when I finally tried in earnest to do what I had been pretending to do since I was in single digits of age. Using an electronic typewriter, and a lot of encouragement, I would put up to one single paragraph on a sheet of paper and consider that a “page” of writing. After ten “pages” or so, I had written a “book”. The rest of the page was left open for illustrations. I was usually the star of this story, and various friendly talking caterpillars of different shapes and sizes were something I felt the need to include every time.

It was absolutely terrible and derivative stuff, pinching from any number of things, from music videos to videogames, movies to television commercials. And after a few of these, I was eventually able to write an entire double spaced page of material, calling this a “chapter”, and realizing that the back of the page always had space for the requisite illustration.

I have brought up just the sort of embarrassing thing that might lead you to question why I am fit to give you advice. You are most likely out to compose a work of far greater word count, and hopefully better quality—though quality can be left for later, not being of the essence in NaNoWriMo tradition. Personally, I hate giving advice because I never had an easy time taking advice as a younger man. So, what I offer are thoughts to take or leave, the key thought circling back to quality.

Don’t worry about quality right now.

It’s simpler to say than to execute, because I have already failed at that several times this November despite my past experience and successes. It’s my fault I have taken other manuscripts to the next level, it’s my fault I have dealt with beta readers, and it’s therefore my fault that I pause after a chapter and imagine fierce emails with some sentences in caps lock. You can avoid this fate, or at least not feel like it is such a big deal right now. I would never have passed 50K in every NaNoWriMo since 2008, nor performed readings of edited NaNo novel material on several outings to favourable reviews, if I let that understandable fear get in the way. Learn by composing, when you can, and learn a lot by composing a lot; now is the time.

You might find it natural to imagine readers without much effort, because many people write to be read. We both know that right now, those readers are as real as the talking caterpillars I used to draw with pencil crayons. In NaNoWriMo, the traditional focus is quantity, and the only certain reader is also the author. If you have set for yourself different goals than the traditional ones, then I absolutely respect your choice. If, as I am this year, you simply desire to crank out at least fifty thousand words or greater, then my advice is to listen less to those imaginary readers of the future, and more to those imaginary characters who would love for you to tell their story.

Unless you’re writing a story about imaginary future readers, in which case, you have just broken my brain.

Sincerely, Mr. Caterpillar

3 Solutions to hating your Nanowrimo novel

It’s more than halfway through the month and your novel’s middle is sagging, your characters are refusing to co-operate, and you wish you’d never started it to begin with. Or maybe your characters are doing exactly as they’re told, and you’ve simply realized that you can’t stand them–or your story idea.

Don’t panic. As anyone who’s done Nanowrimo a few times will know, it’s bound to happen eventually. It’s perfectly natural to get frustrated with your novel. Writing a book in a month is hard, writing daily is hard, and sometimes an idea turns out to be less interesting than you originally thought. Characters can be impossible to work with and if the wrong one decides to die it can ruin everything.

All of that is perfectly natural, and it’s part of the insane, masochistic fun called being a writer. Be thankful that you currently have all the support of Nanowrimo behind you, and make some quick decisions so you can stay on track with your goals.

No matter why you hate your novel, there are a few things you can do:

1. Finish the damn thing anyway. Most writers go through a period of time when they hate their novels, even outside of Nanowrimo, and if the story still means something important to you, you have to grit your teeth and bear it. You never know, the changes might lead to something wonderful in the end. Besides, great novels are not written, they’re rewritten.

You might want to make some small changes of your own, perhaps killing the most annoying character if you can get away with it. Either way, writing a crappy novel is still an accomplishment, because most people never write a book at all. Truth be told, most don’t even get started. So you are a champion already, and if you reach that finish line, you’ll be truly different from most people. You’ll actually be able to say “I wrote a book.” And that’s the first step towards writing a great book.

All that said, you also never need to look at it once November’s over, and if you really hate it you can print it up and feed it to a bonfire.

2. Kill all–or most–of your main characters, and start over from a side character’s perspective. If your story’s dragging, it might be that your characters are the problem. Maybe you realized the main characters aren’t that interesting and somebody else is, or maybe you just hate them. Either way, it’s perfectly acceptable to kill them all–in as many words as possible, because death is great for word count.

Once your main characters are dead, start part two of your novel from a side character’s PoV. This way you can keep all your words from before and legitimately say it’s part of the same novel–even if you end up deciding later that it’s really two books, or even that your original main characters aren’t worth ten pages. Sometimes killing off characters is the best thing you can do for a novel.

3. Scrap it and start a new book. This may seem like utter madness so late in the month, but it’ll make the rest of Nano easier and depending on your point of view, you can even keep the words from your last attempt. Or you can find some bizarre way to tie your old book into the new book you’ve realized you’d like to write. You’ll want this to be a pretty superficial connection, so you can painlessly edit away the first part if you decide to later.

Of course, this all requires you to have a totally new novel idea, so if you don’t, I wouldn’t suggest going this route.

Remember, if you hate your novel, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve always ended up using one of these three strategies when I came to hate my Nanowrimo novel, and if they don’t work for you, I’m sure there are more out there. Don’t forget to ask the friendly folks on the Nanowrimo forums for help–they’re one of the most helpful communities in the writing world.

5 Important considerations when planning your Nanowrimo novel

Antique typewriter isolated on white
If you, like me, are currently working with only the most basic novel concept, there are some important things to consider as you flesh out your story. These are important things to consider before diving into your novel, whether it’s for Nanowrimo or not.

Asking yourself these questions can really save you a world of pain during November and beyond it.

1. How exciting is this story? You need to be excited about your story. A novel is a commitment. You’re going to devote at least a significant chunk of next month to writing this thing, and if you plan to someday publish you’re going to have to spend months, possibly years editing it.

Frankly, you won’t get all the way through November with a story that doesn’t excite you, and even if you do, will it really excite readers? You need to be able to sustain your excitement for at least 50, 000 words and so do any potential readers.

If you’re in the lucky position of having several ideas to choose from, go with the one that excites you most. You want to have fun this November, and you don’t want to get halfway through the month and hate your novel. I’ve been there, it sucks. Choose the idea that you’ll enjoy writing the most.

2. How hard is writing this story going to be? Some stories are harder to write than others. If you’re writing in a historical setting and you’re not a history buff, you’ll need to do a lot of research to accurately portray the era you’re writing in. Of course you can supplement details after Nanowrimo, but either way you’ll have to do the work.

Other stories are hard to write because of subject matter or genre, and if you’re trying Nanowrimo for the first time, working on a difficult story can be a way to set yourself up for failure. Remember that while you want to challenge yourself, you don’t want to be tearing your hair out halfway through.

Of course, some people use Nanowrimo as a chance for catharsis and have an easier time writing about the heavy stuff, and if that’s your preference, all the power to you. The kind of story I write changes every year, and I’m sure in the years to come that will change even more drastically.

3. Will this story actually fill 50, 000 words? Grab a pen and piece of paper right now and write down all the scenes you’ve envisioned for your novel so far. How long do you think it will take to get through these scenes? My stories have occasionally fallen far short of their goal and I’ve had to add incredible amounts of padding, but if you already know your word count goal when you start planning, you can aim to fill the space.

Now is a good time to think about subplots, both because they can add thousands upon thousands of words, and because it’s always good to have several layers in your novel. Subplots also make great distractions when your main plot is frustrating to write, so you’ll want a couple to get you through the rough times.

Ideally subplots connect and in some way shape the main plot, while containing their own little story. You don’t want to artificially insert subplots to make them longer, so take the time to think about what might naturally emerge in your setting with the characters you have.

4. Who has the most interesting story? Even if all you have is a basic story concept, who has the most interesting point of view on that story? If it’s a political story set in a historical era, who’s point of view is more interesting to you, the servants or the politicians? If all you’ve decided is that you want to involve dragons, do you actually want to tell a story from the dragon’s mind, or will your narrator be human observing the dragon?

With a semi-solid story idea, you can create characters based on need. You can figure out professions based on the time period your novel’s set in. Most stories set in historical periods will require servants, nobles, blacksmiths and guards, whether they be knights or not.

If all you have is characters, then you need to figure out which one has the most interesting story and start digging into that. A strong character who’s planted themselves in your mind is there for a reason, and you’ll always find a story worth telling if you explore that character’s mind enough.

5. What do I want people to feel when they walk away? This is the tone of your book, and knowing that can help you in several ways. Once you know the tone you can read similar books to inspire you and create plot points to help emphasize the mood of your story. It can be a guiding force that helps you through the times when writing is hard and your story doesn’t make sense.

I believe that a good story conveys one emotion properly, but a great story conveys every emotion at different times. If you can accomplish the latter, that’s amazing, but if you had to pick just one thing for your reader to feel, what would it be?

Consider what makes you feel that way, and research what evokes that emotion in other people. Huge plots can emerge from just one scene if you follow them to their conclusion.

When you make a point of answering these questions early on during your planning process, you can then decide how your planning time is best used. These answers are really instructions for your planning process: beef your story up—or possibly pare it down—and make sure it’s going to give everyone, including you, the message you intend.