Close your eyes and imagine a writer.

What do you see? A free-spirited young woman writing in a leather-bound journal beneath a tree? A middle-aged man with a cup of joe in hand, hunkered over an antique typewriter? Maybe a tortured soul pouring over his or her laptop well into the wee hours of the night?

No matter the person and setting you envisioned, one fact remains consistent: that quintessential writer was working alone.

Even if you pictured a hip twenty-something tapping away on a tablet in some coffee shop, the rest of the patrons surely faded into the background. That’s because writing happens in an impenetrable bubble on an island of solitude in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s a lonely job, but someone’s gotta do it.

The worst-kept secret about writers is this: We’re all control freaks to varying degrees. When writing fiction, an author pretty much gets to play god. We mold the world, birth a cast of characters (oops, I mean people), and direct the action from the safety of our own mind. What we say goes, and even if we, every now and then, have to consider the proverbial reader who will one day adore our published work, at the end of the day, we pen the tale we want to tell.

As previously confessed, I’m addicted to planning. I love to get lost in my own little worlds, considering plot problems from every angle and examining the protagonist’s motivation from prologue to epilogue. I use an outline for novels, construct a timeline to ensure consistency, draft character profiles, and narrate my brainstorming in Microsoft Word—the whole nine yards.

Worldcon/Chicon logo

Chronic planning is a part of my personality even beyond the craft of writing. So when I had to make a decision about whether or not to drop everything attend Worldcon in Chicago last weekend, my first instinct was to forget the whole thing. You see, if I don’t have time to plan, I tend to navigate down the path of least resistance. Maybe it’s because fictional messes are fun to invent and clean up, while real-world complications cause stress.

But here’s the thing: A writer doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There isn’t some literary fairy who swoops down to scoop up a finished manuscript, waves a magic wand, and disseminates the supposed masterpiece to the masses. We writers need people (whether we want to admit it or not), and that’s why I took an impromptu personal day at work, recruited my sister to accompany me on the three-hour drive down to Chicago, and dropped the 70 bucks for one-day admission to Worldcon (hosted by Chicon this year) in the hopes that I would run into a certain editor who has expressed interest in my novel, If Soul Can Sleep.

For someone unaccustomed to—and certainly uncomfortable with—taking risks, the trip was a considerable gamble. After all, the editor in question was scheduled for only one small-scale event that day, and the kaffeeklatsch required on-site registration, which opened the day before.  I arrived an hour before the intimate Q&A was scheduled to begin and signed up as a third alternate.

Miraculously, the stars aligned, and there was just enough room for me.

Defined as “the premier gathering of authors, artists, fans, dealers, and more in the world science fiction community,” Worldcon covers the many aspects of speculative fiction, including fantasy and sci-fi, the two genres my novel straddles. Of course, peppering this editor of a major publisher was a highlight of the day—not to mention being able to introduce myself afterwards. (No “yea” or “nay” yet, but hopefully soon!)

But surrounding myself with thousands of fans and aficionados of science fiction—and books in particular—served as a stark reminder that few, if any, successful artistic endeavors center on a single individual. For novels in particular, agents, editors, artists, and many others play a role in getting the writer’s work to the widest possible audience. Considering how much time I spend typing the hours away, alone, in my home office, it was a blast to spend some time as part of a community.

In addition to the kaffeeklatsch, I attended a panel comprised of new writers. One of the best question posed to the group had nothing to do with tips for getting published. When asked, “What do you do when you’re not writing?” I was floored by the wide array of answers that came up when these fine folks talked about their “day jobs,” hobbies, and past careers:

  • A former hard rocker who became a database builder
  • A professional storyteller at Renaissance fairs who also blogs for Reading Rainbow
  • A manufacturing professional who wrote his last book on a smart phone while soaking in the tub after long shifts on the floor
  • A stay-at-home mother who’s planning to go back to school for a doctorate so that she can build robotic legs for paralyzed children
  • An administrative assistant who is going back to school for become a special education teacher

While listening to their anecdotes, I amassed a plethora of proof that real writers don’t live in seclusion; in fact, they grab life by the jugular, have fascinating experiences, and take risks. After all, how can you write what you know if all you know is a glowing computer screen and a bottomless mug of coffee?

Being a writer is only as lonely as you let it be. And if you want to write about exciting, adventurous characters, you have to take a page out of their book.