(Suddenly I wonder if I can be sued for random use of slogans on my blog. Lawyers? Just in case: I've borrowed slogans from Verizon.)
Writing is about networking. This is not a recent thing. Writers have been finding one another and working together before literature was an industry.
Seeking out and associating with other members of the publishing industry helps you grow as a writer and can even help your career.
Publishing- especially in the US, and probably moreso in the UK- is still very much a face to face everybody knows everybody industry. You wouldn't expect that a middle manager at one of 6 major companies in any other industry would know a middle manager at any of the other companies. But you'd might be surprised if an editor who'd been in publishing for a while didn't know editors at every one of the "Big 6" publishers. Just like Hollywood, knowing the right people can mean a foot in the door.
(Also, like Hollywood, pissing off the wrong people can mean, "You'll never work in this town again!" Always be professional!)
Even if your friends and family are capable of telling you about your baby objectively (and you are capable of hearing it), they just don't have the experience. You need other writers (or even very well-read readers) to give you technical specifics on problems and possible fixes.
Loved ones mean well, but sometimes you need a friend who knows. A friend who understands that there are days when everything that comes out is crap, and days when you just don't feel like for no reason at all. A friend who knows the sting of rejection and how almost really doesn't count. Someone who's had the same pain.
Let's face it- writers are strange people. We throw off the "typical societal yoke" - things like 9 to 5's and objective professions where x is always good and y is always bad. We prefer instead to work through the nights when everyone else sleeps and be at the mercies of readers' whims.
In the "real world", many writers have to tone it down (at least I do), so that the general populus doesn't run away screaming that we're stark raving mad. But hanging out with other writers means you can be just as off-the-wall as you feel like. Let the good times roll!
HOW TO BUILD IT
So where do you find these editors, agents and writers to be friends with?
1. Attend industry events.
Yes, it can be expensive to go to a conference, but they are worth it. It's the best chance you have of meeting large numbers of editors and agents. (Of course this coming from someone who hasn't managed to attend a writer's event outside Tokyo- the first time I tried, I lost my passport; the next time, Japan had it's biggest earthquake ever.) If you really (really, really) can't go to conferences, try to attend smaller literary events in your area. They've each got an advantage. At large conferences, you'll get to meet more industry professionals. At a small event, you'll have more face time.
2. Join a literary collective.
If you're a young adult writer, subscribe to SCBWI. If you write romance, there's RWA. Any writer may benefit from a Writers' Market or Publishers' Marketplace subscription. ETC. Many of these have websites and forums (fora) where you can meet others. If you can't afford the members' fees, stop by the website and see when they have events in your area. They all have services they provide to non-members.
3. Online forum.
These days you don't have to be near anything or anybody to be a writer- case in point, the city that provides the most visits to my blog every month is in Pakistan! (Hi there, my beloved Pakistani readers!) For YA, there's YALitchat. For general writers there's WD, and Absolute Write.
4. The blogosphere.
Find and follow one writer/agent/editor blog. Comment a lot. Click on links to other blogs. Follow them. Comment some more.
I make most of my writing contacts on blogs. I do interviews fairly often. Most of these are not cold contacts. The interviewees knew me from stalking-er- following their blogs.
Thanks to the bloggosphere I've interviewed a slew of amazing people all around the world. I also met the members of my critique group through blogging. And of course the most fabulous of all, I met YOU! Yes, you, staring at the screen. (lol- that's so Sesame Street, but I couldn't resist.)
WHO TO MEET
Most educated writers still choose to have an agent. If you're not going to perform all the functions these superheroes do, then you'll need one too.
You'll want to meet agents represent your genre and niche. Read the acknowledgements sections of your favourite books, and look out for those agents at conferences and on the web.
Consider these guys the Blackwell's of literature. They can tell you what's hot and what's not. Also, they are a step closer to final product than agents, so you can pick up more scoops from them than from a hijacked ice cream truck.
Once again the best place to meet them is at a conference. You can also find many editors online tweeting or blogging. (Aside: When I watched the YA Buzz panel from BEA, I was shocked to realise that I knew some of the editors' other projects from the moment I heard their names! Little unagented me has dream editors. How weird is that?)
You'll want to meet lots of other writers, but you may especially want to meet writers who:
-have been at it longer than you have (to guide you)
-are on the same level as you (to learn alongside)
-are just starting out (writing is one of those weird fields where helping others helps you)
-write the same genre (they'll understand the conventions and restrictions)
-are extremely strong in an individual component of writing (having a friend who's really good at plot, one who's really good at character, and one who's really good at setting, etc. can help you develop each of these areas.)
Bloggy bud, Tawna, has beta readers who are not writers, only voracious readers. This can help you not get caught up in technicalities and move towards a sense of how well readers react to your work.
Not many people seem to have betas who are not writers, so that choice is up to you. Readers are easiest to find on the bloggosphere or on sites like Goodreads.
Connections are everything in literature. How well-connected are you?
Can you hear me now?