Therese here. I’m thrilled to have guest, debut author and personal friend Amy Atwell with us today. Amy has long been mama to a thriving Yahoo community called GIAM or Goal In A Month. She’s generous with her time, positive, supportive, and one of the most ambitious people I’ve ever known–often juggling several ginormous projects at once. When her debut, Lying Eyes, sold recently, the GIAM community rallied around her to help celebrate. How much can an online community rally around a person? What, really, can a virtual community do for you? Amy’s here today to tell us a little about that. Enjoy!
I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends
Or how I accidentally built an online writing neighborhood that’s defined my career
A huge thank you to the team here at Writer Unboxed for inviting me today. This blog is such an inspiration to me, and I hope to offer something back.
I think most writers recognize the power of social media nowadays. We’re entrepreneurs. We build our networks and bond with potential audiences. We expand our communities across Facebook, Twitter and MySpace much the way Britain’s Empire spanned the globe.
But writing is also a personal endeavor and can be an intensely private journey where we need to overcome fears to achieve our dreams. Often, in the midst of all the tweets, RSS feeds, YouTube videos and other noise from the internet, what we really need is a safety net.
So I’ll pose this question: would you say Dorothy was building her network when she invited Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion to follow her to Oz? And if they’d been her “followers,” is it likely they would have continued to support her in her quest once they were confronted by the Wicked Witch? Dorothy did the smart thing. The kind of thing most of us would do in a new or foreign situation: Dorothy made friends. Where Dorothy went really right is she made friends with others who had similar goals and direction. This meant they could all move forward down the Yellow Brick Road together.
I’m not Dorothy, but my path to publication has been as circuitous as those yellow bricks. Luckily, six years ago, while at a crossroads in my writing path, I took a chance and reached out to some potential friends. And thus, WritingGIAM began.
In October 2004 I had this crazy notion to write a Book In A Month. I’d studied the theory of it, and I wanted to try it. I could have waited for NaNoWriMo, but I was intimidated at the thought of sharing this challenge with thousands of strangers.
Instead, I posted a note to a couple writer groups telling them of my goal. I had a dozen people contact me and commit to undertake a goal in October, too. So, we started a loop. You know, one of those Yahoo! Groups that are prevalent, somewhat old school, and everyone complains about. At the time, it was the perfect answer to allow us to keep track of each other easily. We agreed to touch base once per week during October and announce our progress. The goal was to hold each other accountable.
But something else happened to us during that month. We bonded. Not that we had a lot in common—we wrote all sorts of different things and we lived all over the place. But once per week we’d shared our accomplishments, our challenges, our progress and out pitfalls. In that respect, we were building a shared history. And we all agreed that we’d been more productive because we’d felt someone was watching our progress.
And so we continued our group. In fact, it was so much fun, we invited some more people to join us. And here’s where we made one major change that defined us: each week we gathered the individual “recaps” and compiled them into one comprehensive group announcement. We took turns being the community recapper and gathering the info. Yeah, it was extra work for that person that week—often two hours of work to gather and condense and comment. But our group history was now archived and we’d shared the responsibility for gathering it. This bonded us even more.
With time, writers who had never met each other were becoming friends. We knew what hours of the day to look for each other online. We encouraged each other past the writer’s block, the rejections, the dead-end scenes that had to be tossed. We cheered for contest wins, requests, sales and releases. We toasted weddings, grieved over lost pets, took virtual tours of new homes.
More people learned of our group and joined. When the loop reached 50 members, I realized we had a problem. If the group became bigger, the group recapper would never be able to keep up with everyone. And the more people, the less personal the loop would be. So, I decided to open a second loop modeled on this same concept.
To my surprise—and joy—the second group bonded in similar ways to the first. Before I knew it, I had two “neighborhoods” where writers were forming friendships. Members were sharing things they might not be comfortable sharing in a public forum: spouse’s names, children’s ages, vacation plans, family photos. And productive? People were offering to read and critique for each other, brainstorm, nail down log lines. They were recommending agents, and answering the nitty gritting questions about publishing.
Fast forward to today and WritingGIAM has four online neighborhoods of published or actively marketing writers, plus another neighborhood (GoPRO) for writers working to finish a manuscript. In addition to our “goals” loops, we offer a class loop, a critique partner matching service, three different writing challenge loops, a chatroom, and a new website and Facebook group page. Overall, we’re serving nearly 300 members. Learn more HERE.
So, how does one start a community?
1. Establish the purpose of your group. GIAM began as a challenge for goal-oriented writers to account for their progress.
2. Start small. GIAM began with 12 people, and this allowed us to test and evolve and grow successfully.
3. Forget the where of it. Groups can be physical, virtual, geographic or online.
4. Make easy communication your priority. Communication is key for a new group to bond. GIAM still uses Yahoo! Groups as our main communication tool. Forums, newsletters, live meetings are other options.
5. Establish simple ground rules and minimize bureaucracy. GIAM has very few tenets other than “what’s said on the loop, stays on the loop.”
6. When possible, let the group dictate decisions. GIAMers long-ago decided that there really were no “off-topic” subjects. Everything is fair game!
7. Encourage participation through providing a supportive, inclusive environment.
For me, it’s definitely a labor of love. Running an online community is time-consuming, but I’ve never regretted it. I have learned so much from so many, and GIAM is my small attempt to pay it forward. Like Dorothy, I may have always had the power within me to achieve my dream, but the journey has been so much better with friends by my side. A special shout out to all the GIAMers: Thank You for inspiring me!
Amy Atwell worked in professional theater for 15 years before turning from the stage to the page to write fiction. She now gives her imagination free rein in both contemporary and historical stories that combine adventure and romance. In addition to her writing, Amy runs the WritingGIAM online community. Her debut romantic suspense novel, Lying Eyes, will be available November 15th from Carina Press. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.