Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Groups Continued
(Networking Part Four)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I am an inveterate group builder. I can’t help myself. (My dictionary, consulted because I can’t spell inveterate to save my life [you should have seen my first attempt], tells me that inveterate means fixed in habit and practice, particularly a bad one. Yep. That fits.) I build groups wherever I go.
My husband Dean Wesley Smith told me once that we needed to move somewhere where we didn’t know anyone and we needed to remain anonymous after we did. I told him it wouldn’t work and added, “Wherever we go, we colonize.”
And we do. We bring other writers with us. We built a writing community in Eugene, Oregon. We’ve built another here in Lincoln City, Oregon. And we’ve built two international writing communities, one of which died a rather ugly death, the other of which is still on-going. In fact, our Eugene writing community continues as well, even though we left the community fifteen years ago. We have no involvement in the writing community in Eugene, yet people still ask me about it all the time, thinking I still go to meetings.
Amazing. Groups do live long after their founders. Dean started a writing community in Moscow, Idaho when he lived there, and was one of the three founders of the Moscon Science Fiction convention, all of which lived past his residence in the town for decades. My writing community in Madison didn’t live beyond my move, but I had just started it when I left. My radio community, however, is still alive and well (and we’re all now Facebook friends).
Groups form easily and groups sometimes form hard. But groups form and have a trajectory. See last week’s post on whether or not you need a group, and how to figure out which groups you already belong to.
I have been a part of so many groups that I’ve learned they all follow the same general pattern: Groups form among like-minded people who gather in a fit of enthusiasm. Sometimes those groups have rules. More often than not, they don’t.
The group then has some kind of success—however that group measures success, whether it’s in a large membership or in putting on a successful convention or successfully arguing for someone else’s rights. The success reverberates through the group, giving it confidence, and helping it grow.
Growth is a group’s friend and a group’s enemy. Groups with a lot of members gain clout, but those groups also gain strife.
The group’s founders usually run the group until they get tired—usually both physically and emotionally. Then they hand leadership to someone else, someone less or more qualified, but (and this is important) someone who usually has a different vision for the group.
In the last stages of the group’s founders phase, several things can happen: the founders realize they’re not up to the task of running a large group; the founders no longer have time to run the group; the founders aren’t capable of running anything—they’re starters, not managers; the founders are no longer all that interested in the group; or the founders hold onto power with everything that they have to the detriment of the group.
At the last stages of the founders phase, the founders are usually in the way of good group growth. Someone will point that out. There will be bickering and strife, bad feelings and nastiness all around. The fighting can (and probably will) get ugly.
The group will probably splinter if the founders are still interested in running it. If the founders aren’t interested, they’ll leave the group. If the founders are interested but aren’t very politic, they’ll get kicked out of the very group they started. Or, if the founders are smart, they’ll find their own replacements before all of this happens and they’ll let the replacements run the group with no interference.
This is the phase at which many groups implode and disappear. The enthusiasm can’t carry the group through all the strife.
But if people are smart and the group is still valuable to a large number of members, it will survive (or a new group, with the same membership minus a few troublemakers, will start under a new name). If the group does survive this phase, it will often grow and become more professional. It’ll develop written rules, maybe even rent a meeting place, and elect officers—sometimes paying them.
Eventually these groups become established parts of the landscape, their beginnings lost in the mists of time. People can’t imagine life without that particular group. Or a profession without a particular professional organization.
Eventually, the group gains power of its own. It will survive without any of the founding members. It will become an entity in and of itself, one that can hire and fire employees, one that can admit or discharge members, one that can make statements about its beliefs with the weight of history behind it.
Because I love history and politics and group dynamics, I read about group beginnings all the time. And every group goes through these phases. (There are more, but these are the general ones.)
For a few examples: The Science Fiction Writers of America began around the dining room table at Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm’s house. Damon became the organization’s first president; Kate designed the Nebula award. I don’t know much about the early years, but I do know that the in-fighting among the early members became so extreme that two decades later, when I met all of the founding members, half of them hadn’t spoken to each other in fifteen years or more.
Most members of the Science Fiction Writers of America can’t tell you a thing about those early years. Nor can they tell you who the past presidents were, what the infighting was about in the 1970s, or why the organization even got founded. But the current members can tell you about the current in-fighting, the good things that the organization is attempting to do, and why they joined this particular group. (For many sf writers, joining the Science Fiction Writers of America is a goal—from childhood.)
Romance Writers of America had a similar start. I don’t even recall who started the organization. I do recall going to some early RWA meetings in 1979 and 1980. Everything was mimeoed, meetings were on the fly, and the organization’s bulletin was photocopied and stapled.
Then RWA wanted the publishing industry to acknowledge that romance novels sold more copies than most other genres combined. The early mission of RWA was to gain respect for its members. The organization achieved that better than any organization I’ve ever seen because somewhere along the way—in the years I was solely in science fiction and not romance—someone (I have no idea who and I’m not going to look it up [I have a romance novel deadline, y’all, and it’s taking my focus]) decided to follow the feminist model: Don’t demand respect; earn it. The women of RWA became experts at the business of writing. They used statistics, knowledge, negotiation, and guts to take on the publishing industry. Even now, when I teach new writers, I tell them to get a membership in RWA whether they write romance or not. They’ll learn the business, and how important it is. Only one other writer’s organization teaches business, and that’s Sisters in Crime, who followed the same model for the same reason.
Has RWA had infighting and strife? Oh, yeah. I missed most of it either by joining too late the first time or by being in science fiction for the tough middle years. But just a few years ago, there was another major battle, one that led to the tightening of the organization’s rules.
Unlike the early battles, though, later battles in a group rarely lead to the group’s demise. The early battles can kill a group.
This trajectory I’m discussing doesn’t just happen in writers’ groups. It happens in all groups. Recently, I talked with someone who used to run the local chamber of commerce in our small town. Our town was so tiny that it didn’t have a chamber for many years. When it formed a chamber, it did so with enthusiasm and joy. Then came the problems, the strife, and the splintering. Now, in our town of 7,000 people, there are several business organizations, some of which seem very chamber of commerce-like. And of course, the chamber still exists.
I’m discussing all of this in a very rational, cold-blooded fashion. But my cold-blooded rationality is hard-earned. I’ve been kicked out of groups that I’ve started (remember my comment about not being politic? That’s…um…me). I’ve been kicked out of groups that I didn’t have much invested in, including one group that threw out a block of members because the group didn’t approve of our day job. (We were writers and editors; it was a writing organization, and it felt that editors were the enemy—even if some of the editors were writing more books per year than the so-called writers.)
I’ve been the hatchet man for more than one organization—or, if you prefer a different analogy, the canary in the coal mine. I get annoyed at bad behavior faster than most, so people expect me to blow first—and are relieved when I do so. I have learned that I don’t play well with others, so now, when I join a group, I don’t get involved with the day-to-day politics of that group. I remain a rank-and-file member.
And the groups I start? I run them—or we do, Dean and I—with an iron fist. I’ve told more than one group member if they don’t like the way we run the group, they have two choices: they can suck it up and get used to our method or they can leave. Most stay. Over the past five years in more than one group, only two people have left.
What does all of this mean for you, the freelancer? Quite a bit, actually. Once you’ve figured out that you need or want to belong to a certain group (last week’s post), now you must decide how you fit into that group. Because I have a strong personality, I tend to lead groups, whether I want to or not. So I have to figure out how to mute my personality to remain rank and file. Often that means avoiding any policy at all and staying away from mass meetings.
So how does the group benefit me?
I generally join groups for knowledge. I want to learn something. So I become part of an organization. In those groups, I remain quiet and I stay as uninvolved as possible.
In the groups that I start, I remain in control, and the groups stay relatively small. They also have strict rules that everyone in the group knows about, and those rules are enforced.
Mostly, though, I don’t join many groups. It’s safer that way, for me and for the group.
But you’ve chosen to join a few groups. What can you do with the knowledge of the pattern that I gave you above?
1. Know that the pattern exists. Figure out where the group is in its trajectory, and stay out of the infighting. Realize that groups, like individuals, change. The things you joined for may disappear. Or they may grow stronger. Or the group might improve in ways you hadn’t expected at all.
2. Keep your involvement to a minimum. Remember that you’re in the group to help your business, not to help the group. If you keep that rule firmly in mind, you’ll stay out of 90% of the problems that come up inside the group.
3. Remember that infighting is normal. Wait for the fights to pass. Remain silent. If you can’t remain silent, then drop out of the group. You can always rejoin later. Remember that you joined the group to make connections, not to make enemies. If you keep that as your golden rule, you’ll gain a lot from the groups you join. If you forget that one piece of advice, you’ll lose half your life to battles that, on the scheme of things, mean nothing at all.
4. Reevaluate your memberships in all of your groups once a year. Figure out if you’re getting anything from the group. (And remember that structured time off has worth.) Figure out how to maximize the benefits while avoiding the problems. If you can’t avoid the problems and they’re taking over your life, then quit.
5. Evaluate the groups themselves. Some groups become toxic. They started with noble purpose, but got hijacked by the worst personalities inside the organization. Sometimes those people tarnish or destroy the group’s reputation. You don’t want to be painted with that same brush. If your group is known for terrible behavior and has an awful reputation, then you need to leave the group—even if it had a great reputation once upon a time.
6. Remember that loyalty has a price, and is sometimes misplaced. Your first loyalty should be to yourself, your family, your business and your beliefs. The groups you join may have your loyalty only if those groups do not, in any way, interfere with those four things. The moment those groups do interfere, then you need to leave the group.
7. Limit the number of groups you belong to and/or the number of hours per week you spend in your various groups. For example, I know a lot of writers who belong to a dozen writers organizations and who never miss a meeting, but haven’t written a word in years. Those writers have their priorities in the wrong place.
I suspect the same thing happens in other organizations. I do know that a few organizations I belonged to when I had other professions used those types of people mercilessly, running them ragged because they were the only ones who had time to work for the organization. Every other member of the organization did paying work that took time away from the organization—which is as it should be.
8. If you joined a group to network, then network. Talk to the other members of the group. Find out who they are, what their interests are, what they do in their own businesses, what their spouses do, and what their hobbies are. If you want them to do you a favor, make sure you do favors in return. Be nice, be polite, and be reliable.
9. Remember that a group is only as good as its members. If you don’t like the other people who belong to the group, ask yourself why you belong. If you think highly of them, then stay and try to be worthy of their respect.
Groups can be extremely beneficial to your freelance career. They can also destroy it. The key is to find the balance. Figure out which groups will benefit you, and which groups will harm you—and realize that next year, some of the groups that benefited you might harm you and vice versa.
Be smart and (this part is a do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do) be politic. If you’re all of these things, then you should have pretty smooth sailing in any group that you chose to join.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Groups Continued (Networking Part Four)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.