Being a Better Writer: The Importance of a Support Group

Hello readers, new and old! Welcome back to another (or perhaps your first) Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! For those of you that are new (and quite possibly discovered the site from your attendance of Life, The Universe, and Everything this weekend), BaBW is a regularly-occurring Monday article discussing all things writing, one topic at a time. Over the years, it has discussed hundreds of different topics, such Sanderson’s Three Laws of Magic, The Five-Man Band, Subverting Tropes, and even The Art of Misdirection, to name a few. Such has been the series’ popularity that if you’ve just discovered Unusual Things for the first time, it’s highly likely that you’ve still seen a snippet of it somewhere, from Wikipedia to Google search summaries on various topics.

Basically, if you’ve just arrived and are looking for writing advice, rejoice. There’s hundreds upon hundreds of articles here, all searchable, categorized, and even tagged. If you want writing articles on everything from brainstorming to formatting, you’re in the right place.

So welcome! To those of you returning readers, I hope you had a chance to attend the aforementioned LTUE convention this weekend. As usual, my daily write-ups are up and on the site, so if you missed the con (sadness, especially as this year it was online due to Covid-19, and easier to attend than ever), you can still catch a summary of just some of the panels that occurred.

And with that, there’s no other news to discuss today. So let’s dive right into our topic. Which is going to be a bit less of a common one. In fact, I was actually planning on writing about another topic until more than a few of those LTUE panels mentioned this one, and I decided it deserved its own place on BaBW.

Which makes today’s topic a slightly rarer one. Usually for BaBW the topics are the nuts, bolts, and washers of fiction. How to sell emotion, or how to make sure that your conflict is gripping readers. The stuff people think about when they think about writing.

But every so often BaBW takes a step back and tackles another aspect of writing that sometimes isn’t given nearly enough credit in the writing process: The health of the writer. The importance of keeping the primary and secondary writing machine—your brain and your body, not your keyboard and your word processor—in good shape so that you can continue to produce those stories that you love so much.

So today, readers, we’re going to talk about the importance of a support group.

To begin with, I suppose that it says something about our writing culture as a perception that I feel that asking a random room about what sort of people should be involved with the writing process would give you plenty of answers about editors, pre-readers, sensitivity readers, writing groups, and all sorts of other ways people can interact with a book, but few to no one would mention a support group. Sands, even I would have made it an afterthought if asked.

Now, in hindsight this makes sense. Editors, pre-readers, and all the other extra eyes that go into a book manuscript are like the large ingredients of a soup. Potatoes. Chunks of cubed steak. Onions. They’re eye-catching and easy to notice both during the cooking process and during the consumption.

However, no amount of carrots, potatoes, steak, or other ingredients will save a soup that lacks a few smaller and hard-to-notice ingredients, such as salt or pepper. Or a good stock. Or garlic (which goes well in almost everything).

Okay, maybe that last one isn’t quite as good for the sake of the comparison, but the point is that you wouldn’t want to eat a soup that was made up of all the “core” things we think about going into a soup, but lacked some of the small, almost invisible things like salt, pepper, or stock. Anyone that’s ever tried can surely attest that a soup without salt may have good body, but simply lacks flavor. Yes, you can consume it, but it’ll clearly be missing a large part of its flavor. Texture can only go so far.

As an aside, you clearly wouldn’t want to eat the inverse of this soup either, but again, those large, attention-grabbing ingredients are much harder to forget or ignore (though yes, some try).

So then, what are we missing? What makes up the salt, the pepper, and these other seasonings? You’ve probably already guessed by now, but these are the smaller things that we as readers, editors, and even writers tend to forget about. Things like sleep, managing our stress, physical health, and yes, support groups.

Now, which one of these is salt and which one is pepper is entirely up to you. And how much of one or the other you need to season your “soup” with is also entirely a matter of taste (no regrets about that pun). But it’s likely that no matter what, you’re going to need a little bit of each one to produce your tastiest soup.

Okay, so with all these analogies aside, what is the point and purpose of a support group? For that matter, what is a support group? Why are they important at all? Why should you need one?

Well … I’ll put this bluntly and restate what I said in an earlier BaBW post: Writing is stressful. Non-writers scoff at this, and even some novice writers, but the simple truth of the matter is that writing is a weight. It carries a lot of stress with it, and anyone who tells you otherwise has simply never done it to the degree that would make a career out of it.

Imagine, you’re on the middle point of a trilogy. You’re attempting to make a pivotal scene work so that the story can move forward. There’s a deadline looming in a few days, and if you don’t make that deadline your income is going to drop. The bills are piling up. Readers and reviewers alike jazzed at the first book are hungry for a sequel and can’t stop talking about how good the first book was, and you’re not sure it wasn’t a fluke. And this blasted scene won’t work. The characters won’t agree, and if you let them get away with that it might upend a lot of what you’ve promised in book one and …

Sound stressful? That’s the tip of the iceberg. A full rundown of all the various stresses that pile up on an author would make for a much longer post. This kind of stuff is why BaBW did a post on handling stress a few months ago: There’s a lot of it to worry about when you’re a writer.

This is where a support group comes in.

Now, I want to make something clear here. A support group’s purpose is not to mindlessly encourage your work and tell you that it’s fine. They shouldn’t be someone that looks at your story where the scene won’t work and says “Hey, this is fine, ignore all the problems.” That’s either an editor of some kind or a fan. And these can be good for your stress and mental health too (as well as correct) but … an editor isn’t a support group.

So what is it? A support group is someone that backs you as an person who is an author, and encourages you to move forward.

Simply put, this can be a person who enjoys your works or has never read them at all. They can be a family member or a friend. But they will be someone who when the pressure arises and starts to squeeze, looks at you and says “You’ve got this. You’ve done it before, you’ll do it again,” and means it.

They’ll know we’re stressed. They’ll know we’re under pressure. And so they’ll support us. They’ll back us up, remind us what we’re good at, maybe talk us through our venting of all the stress we’re facing … and then let us go back out to handle it because they know we can.

Now again, this isn’t the same as an editor, though they can be one as well. Or a fan. This person can be a family member, a spouse, a lifelong friend, or even some or all of those in various combinations.

But the important bit is that they’re not going to praise your writing simply for existing, and in fact what you’ve written may only come into it to remind you “You’ve done this before, I think you’ve got this.” A support group is anyone that is there to support you. Not just your writing, but you.

Again this doesn’t mean that they can’t offer advice. Or even critique. But it’ll be from a different angle than a straightforward editor, that angle being you. An editor? They want the book improved. And there’s nothing wrong with those potatoes. But a support group? They’ll want to make sure that you are at your peak, and realistically reassure you of what you can do and have done before.

They might tell you to take five minutes and have an ice-cream bar. They might let you bounce ideas off of them, explaining things until you reach the proper answer. They might just give you a hug. There’s a lot of room here. But the point is, they’re helping you and backing you up. They’re supporting you, be that in letting you vent, reminding you what you’ve done … whatever you need.

As to the why? As in why they would do this, or why you should have a support group? Well, I feel that’s fairly self-explanatory. They care, and in caring they’ll help you keep your vision straight, your stress levels low, and your self-perception on point.

It’s always going to be to your benefit to have someone genuinely in your corner.

All right, so with all that … how do we go about finding a support group? Well, here the answers are much less straightforward than before. As noted above, they can be most anyone, and therefore can come from most anywhere. One of the panels at LTUE where this topic came up had someone mention (audience or panel, I can’t recall) that they’d specifically gone to writing meetups to make friends that could be their support group (and they could be theirs in vice-versa fashion).

Think about what you need, perhaps. Not want, but need. Perhaps look at the people in your own life and see if one of them fits the criteria. Maybe someone already does and has been part of your support group for years now.

Maybe you have the inverse, and you’re spending time with a bunch of people that are the opposite of a support group. You may want to consider bringing balance to the equation.

Remember, a support group isn’t going to mindlessly praise you. They’re going to be real about things. But they’re also going to back you and help you get to where you need to be to keep moving forward.

Now, there’s one last thing I feel I should mention before ending this post. You can also have support activities. These are activities that help you destress, clear your head, relax and thing things through, or any other form of releasing mental pressure that helps you move forward with your writing. For example, for me its biking. When my brain can’t take anymore or the story is stuck, I go for a bike ride to clear my head out. At LTUE someone else mentioned playing a few rounds of Call of Duty.

These can also function similarly to a support group, or can be combined with one. They’re activities we can reliably call on that help us destress and move our mind to a different place where we can “detach” from our writing for a bit or see it from a different angle. We come back refreshed and ready to push forward again.

We should try to have both. Try to have someone in our corner. Try to have a support activity. Flavor our “soup” with enough salt and pepper so that our end product is the best product we can offer, seasoned to perfection.

So as we continue to move through this new year, as we practice all our writing elements from pacing to plotting, don’t neglect yourself along the way.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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