Monday, December 31, 2012

A Safe New Year's Eve

The only thing better than having a Happy New Year?  Having a Safe New Year.

As someone who is in charge of shepherding thousands of students each year through the twists and turns of a college education, I've become quite sensitive to the "stuff" outside of academics that we can't really control.  There's nothing worse, after all, than seeing a student with the ability and the motivation to succeed who is rendered unable to by circumstance.  And--that nasty circumstance always seems to bite us around this time of year.

So please, everybody, have a great and wonderful New Year's celebration. But please, also have a safe one.  There's no excuse for getting behind the wheel of a vehicle after you've been drinking.  It's hard enough watching out for other drivers who might be driving intoxicated when you're sober, after all. 

The AAA "Tipsy Tow" program that's been tossed around Facebook isn't available everywhere in the U.S., unfortunately.  It turns out that they stopped running it in most places after people abused the program, using the goodwill of AAA and the organization's member base to get home rather than planning responsibly safe alternatives.  That's sad, but I can't say I blame them much.

There are other programs, though.  A list of options, listed alphabetically by state and then by city, are available here, having been compiled by the NHTSA and hosted on the AAA web site.  If you plan to go out drinking, you should go through the list prior to departing to program the number into your cell phone.  Alternatively, if you're in the Richmond area, the law firm of Allen Allen Allen & Allen (I'm thinking they need two or three more people named Allen, aren't you?) is offering free options here

And so, on that note--enjoy responsibly, and enjoy safely, but enjoy your New Year's Eve celebration!


Sunday, December 30, 2012

An End, or A Beginning?

"I don't believe in happy endings." - Jeanette Winterson

"Beginnings are always messy." - John Galsworthy

"It's the end of the world as we know it." - R.E.M.

So, all of us who survived the predicted apocalypse can breathe a little easier now.  It's okay, the Mayans apparently got it wrong.  That, or perhaps the end of their calendar only signals that they got tired of counting out the hundreds of years.  Or maybe they didn't, and their Calendar Pt. II was actually created with numberings out to, say, the year 6060, but it got destroyed in one of the attacks.  I dunno, but regardless, we're still here.  Whew, I say.  Break out the champagne, I say. 

Then again, apparently the Golden Dawn predicted a century or so ago that the end of the world would happen in 2010.  We survived that one, too.  I've heard Pat Robertson said the same for 2007.  A lot of people thought January 1, 2000, would be our official End of Record marker.  We've stared down about a dozen apocalyptic prophecies thanks to the combined efforts of Harold Camping and the Jehovah's Witnesses.  And frankly I refuse to bother with a count of all the times people have claimed that their interpretation of the works of Nostradamus says that the world must end on a certain date.

It's nothing new.  The Romans thought the ending would come somewhere around 600 years B.C., based on the theory that Romulus had seen 12 eagles, and each eagle represented 10 years, and so basic math (if you can do basic math with all those Ms and Cs and Xs and Is) gave Rome 120 years from its founding to exist and then die.  Yep, really.  Later another Roman, Pope Innocent III, said that the world would end 666 years after the rise of Islam, in a year that passed by apocalypse-free a thousand years ago, give or take a few dozen.  Returning the favor, the head of the Nation of Islam predicted that the Gulf War of the early 1990's would be the "War of Armageddon."

Nope.  Still here, guys.

No end in sight, then, but rather a continued turning of the wheel.

No grand ending of doom is in sight, that is.  We mortals, I think, have a difficult time looking at the passage of time as one long string.  We need endings, and we also need beginnings, because without them life wouldn't make much sense when bookended between our own beginning at birth, and our own ending at--well, at the other end.   We often, as a result, manufacture our own endings, and what flows naturally from an ending is another beginning. 

So which is it, then?  Does this self-manufactured mark at the New Year point to a beginning, or an ending?  The answer is fairly simple; it's both.  The year 2012, when it began, offered us all sorts of promises for what it might bring.  I was certain, for example, that it was heralding my becoming a famous (and wealthy) author who could buy a private (and perpetually warm) island where I could do nothing but drink and write.  Clearly, that didn't happen.  But other, less grand, promises were fulfilled by what was truly a great year.  I've already listed some of them on a post a few days ago, but other stuff happened as well.  Through, for example, I played a part in helping an Argentinian lady launch a business.  Through my day job, I played a part in helping well over a hundred people become trained and certified and launched into new careers. 

One of the news agencies labeled 2012 the year of 'meh.'  Their point was that nothing all that grand happened in the year.  I disagree. 

It was a pretty good year.

And it's over.  Done.  Ending.  Tomorrow, in fact.

That brings us to the beginning.  The year 2013 isn't nearly as round a number as 2012, which is probably why I haven't heard any grand prophecies regarding the year to come.  And odd as it is, it's not a prime number either.  It just--is.

And yet, it's gonna be great.

I'm still working on the goals for next year.  Hopefully you have, or are going to have, some too.  If you haven't yet sat down to consider where 2013 will take you, please do so with me over the next 24 hours or so.

As much as we loved (or didn't, depending on your own experiences) the year 2012, let's get it ended so we can get on with a fresh new beginning.  

2013, beginning in just a couple of days, is going to be our best year ever.

So tell me--what are you looking forward to the most with this new beginning?


Friday, December 28, 2012

Why New Years Goals?

"Achievable goals are the first step to self improvement." - J.K. Rowling

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"Life is like a ten-speed bicycle.  Most of us have gears we never use." - Charles Schulz


A blog post I read recently--forgive me, I can't recall which one--commented sagely enough that it's silly to rely upon a particular date (specifically, January 1st of each year) to spur ourselves into self-improvement activities such as goal-setting, resolution-declaring, beer-drinking, etc.

Okay, I made that last bit up.  But there is an awful lot of beer-drinking that goes on around that time of year, isn't there?  It's followed, appropriately enough, by even more resolution-declaring regarding a reduction in beer-drinking.  Which is soon enough followed by more beer-drinking, of course, which is in turn followed by vocal promises to an unnamed deity to "never drink again."


So anyway, I kind of agree that a properly-functioning goal-oriented person doesn't need artificial spurs like New Year's Day to create goals.  We really ought to be constantly evaluating our paths and crafting new markers on a regular basis.

Doesn't happen, though, does it?

Even if it does, even if you're a goal-setting maven from way back, you still need to pick a day and time at some point in the year to sit down and craft/evaluate your annual goals.  Why annual goals?  Well, they're probably the easiest to create and track, because weekly and monthly goals, if they're kept achievable, are often not grand enough to get us excited (though please don't assume I'm downplaying their importance!), while multi-year goals are usually so far out that we don't see much movement toward them.  But I can see next year, all in one happy calendar, and in looking at next year I can plan for some pretty splendiferous achievements.  The plans for those achievements will require weekly and monthly goals, to be certain.  And the annual goals I set should, in turn, play into what I'm hoping to accomplish in the next 3-5 years.  But it helps to start looking at one thing at a time, and annual goals are my favorite spot to start from. 

So, what day and time makes sense to sit down and look at your annual goals?  Doesn't technically matter.  At work, for example, I set some goals based on July to June calculations, because that's what my accreditation agency is tracking.  If you, too, are burdened with external agency "fiscal year" considerations, then go with those.  But most of us aren't, at least not for our personal and business goals.  So--wanna set goals on February 14th?  Nah, didn't think so; there's too much chocolate to be eaten and wine to be drunk on that day, right?  A random day, perhaps, like April 28th or August 20th?  Nah, too random.  So why not use the calendar year since so many of us use normal calendars on a regular basis?

So, that's why I'm suggesting we go with goal-setting activities at the end of December for a Jan 1 - Dec 31 period.  It's not because I think New Year's Resolutions have any particular merit, but rather because it's just a fairly obvious choice given the basic calendar structure.

Soon to come: Looking to 2013.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: A look back

"Blog Challenge: What do YOU believe you can accomplish in 2013?" - Cricket Walker, V7N Blogging Tips and Challenges question of the week

"Shoot for the moon.  Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." - Les Brown

Good question, Cricket.  Short and meaningless answer: just about anything I set my mind to.  That truly is a meaningless response, though, because the underlying question still isn't answered.  What is it that I'm going to set my mind to?  In other words, what are my goals for 2013?

Hold on there just a sec, though.  One important principle of goal-setting is that you start with a look at where you've been and where you are.  After all, you wouldn't just start giving directions to the local store without identifying the location from which the person you're directing is starting from, would you?

Well, okay, I know some people who would, but let's assume you're not one of those.

I've written a blog post or two on the SMART method of goal evaluation before: goals must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive.  I've trained leaders on the importance of SMART goals.  Typically in that training I include a hands-on real-world type of practical exercise in which we evaluate some goals for that particular team.  It always goes roughly the same way: Specific and Measurable are pretty easy to evaluate, and then all hell breaks loose on Achievable.  There's always somebody who preaches the moon philosophy stated above, which is fine if you're into the practice of sitting down at the end of the year to brag about how many lofty goals you didn't quite make.  Put simply: moon-goals are great for my motivational writing, but they're crappy for my annual performance evaluation.

At the same time, there's always a realist in the group, someone who not only objects to moon-goals, but screws up their face into the "I just sucked on a lemon" expression when you start discussing stretch goals.  You know--those are the goals that are achievable in the foreseeable future, goals that don't require shooting for the moon, but still they're goals that will require nearly perfect execution of a nearly perfect plan by everybody on the team.

"But what if somebody messes up?" *more facial imitation of lemon-sucking*

"There's no if; it's a when.  We know we're imperfect, but we can build some contingency into the plan."

"We do that every year, and then the contingencies fall through."

Then the moonie speaks up: "But if we shoot for the moon...."

"Then we have longer to fall, and we still end up with our head stuck in a mud bank."

See?  This is probably one of the most difficult discussions to moderate through, but the benefit of doing so is the team that becomes much stronger through the process.  The key to successful moderation?  Figuring out where you're starting from and what's gone right/wrong to get you there.


My turn.  2013 goals will follow later, but for now, let's look at what I've done in 2012.  Mostly, anyway.  Out of respect for my boss and co-workers I'm going to leave the work discussions at work, but here goes with the rest:

Didn't win the lottery.  Didn't get out of the apartment, though frankly that wasn't really one of my serious goals.  Did survive a couple of bouts of pneumonia and three broken ribs and a broken collarbone.  Gained, rather than lost, a few pounds.  Got a couple of chronic health issues (hypothyroidism and sleep apnea) under treatment.

Finished my PhD.  'nuff said, man.  Been working on that thing since early 2007.  Haven't gotten people at work retrained to call me "Doctor King" yet, though.

Authorpreneurly (hey, I made the word up in the first place; it's up to me how the suffixes get added, right?):
Self-published three works, all in early 2012.  Numbers aren't in for December yet, but as of February through November I'd sold just over a thousand copies of my work, nearly 100 of those in European markets.  I've had nearly 200 copies borrowed in the Kindle Online Lending Library, which actually pays nearly as well per copy as selling it does.  I've had some strong promotions, too.  All totaled, I'm hoping to cruise past December 31st with just over 13,000 copies of my works in readers' hands.  That number's not going to get me onto any bestseller lists, but it's not bad for Year 1, right?

The Blog:
I've had a tough time with the blog this year.  In 2011 I started in late February and racked up 201 posts by December 31, 2011.  But I've slowed down in 2012; this post you're reading now will be number 92 for the year.  Viewership is up, though; in 2011 I had just shy of 7,000 visits, compared to well over 10,000 to date in 2012. 

All things considered, then, I've accomplished a lot in 2012.  And more importantly, now that I know where I've come from and where I am today, my goals for 2013 shouldn't be too hard to craft off of this list, right?

Heh--we'll see.  Here goes.  More to come, later.

Questions for you, though, while I'm away working: have you taken the time to look back over the last year and see what you've accomplished yet?  Did the activity reveal anything? Does it give you a hint as to how to barrel into 2013? 


Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas, again!

"The xmas holidays have this high value: that they remind Forgetters of the Forgotten, & repair damaged relationships." - Mark Twain

You know, not to be a Danny Downer, but the frail and fleeting nature of life is a recurring theme in my books, and it's actually a central theme of Book 4 (which I hope to have out sometime next summer, but Book 3 must of course come first).  Still, that's fiction.  Over the past few weeks, meanwhile, I've had not one, not two, not three, but four different reminders of how that theme plays out in real life.  In real life, life is frail.  In real life, life is fleeting.  And in real life, we mere mortals can't just hop on over to Gaia's glade, asking as Crystal did for the secret to immortality.

We can, however, work to make every day we're given into a life well lived.  What does that mean?  Well, when my own life is over, nobody is going to stand at my remembrance ceremony talking about how many books I've written or sold.  Nobody is going to speak of the wondrous accomplishments with accreditation I've wrought.  They will, however, (hopefully) tell tales of relationships, of memories that span a lifetime of us all traveling through it together.

That's what life's about.

The beautiful thing, incidentally, about this season is that the very thing I just said life is about is amplified by the "Spirit of the Season."  We all decry the commercialism of gift-giving, yet we still participate.  Why?  Because, I think, down in our hearts, we know that the trading of gifts really isn't, or at least shouldn't be, about the gifts themselves.  Instead, it's about finding an easy way to open a connection between two people through which joy, friendship, and love can flow.

So as you journey through the events of Christmas Eve today, and Christmas Day tomorrow, keep all that in mind.  If you're like me and still have to brave the shopping areas (every single year I forget something till the day before Christmas) then try to do so with love and joy in your heart no matter how many idio--er, lovely fellow shoppers--cut you off.  Think of someone you haven't connected with in a while, and reach out to them.  Do it today, not tomorrow; you might find out as I did this morning that that person is no longer connectable with.  Practice a random act of kindness.  Smile at people, even--especially--when they don't deserve it.

Speaking of Christmas and gifts and stuff--I and my friends at Alexandria Publishing Group would like to help you enjoy the season with the gift of a free anthology.  It contains bits of all of our writing, from fantasy to science fiction to humor.  It's got Greek gods and zombies and nanobots, and even *gasp* a guitar or two, so what's not to love about it?

You can download it from Smashwords here:

Enjoy, and have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Holidays, a Joyful Kwanzaa, a Happy Hanukkah, a Merry Festivus, or whatever tradition you follow.  And please, make it be about your incredible fellow travelers in the voyage of life.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Following Directions

"We are a puny and fickle folk.  Avarice, hesitation, and following are our diseases." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I poached my first egg, by hand, today.  And, by way of that success, I also poached my second, third, fourth, fifth, and so on, after a while being proud to have enough to feed the family breakfast.

Now, "by hand" doesn't mean I'm Johnny Storm.  But I remember being a kid using a poaching pan on the stovetop, and later I used the microwave version.  To use those, you just pop an egg down into the preformed cup, fill the bottom with water, and heat it till it's done.  Easy-peasy.  If you've ever watched those cooking shows and witnessed the fine art of poaching without the cups, though, you know that there's a finesse, a fineness to doing it by hand.

Turns out it's pretty easy.  But....

The first thing I did was, as usual, look it up online to see how others have been successful at it.  Because, you know, that's one of the first steps of our own success.  It's what we're taught to do: replicate others' achievement.  Right?

So I found sites pretty easily that proclaimed to have "the true secret" to poaching eggs in water.  The trick, all of them I looked at said, is to spin the spoon around the water rapidly to create a whirlpool, into which you gently deposit the egg to be poached.  That, they say, will hold the egg together and make for a super poaching experience.

Yeah, right.

Thing is, I doubted it initially--a gut feeling, which I carefully ignored.  I'd watched the art of poaching eggs on the food network before, and the chefs poach multiple eggs at a time in the same water, which, if this method is used, would require several whirlpools going simultaneously.  I'm no physics expert, though I am a physics major, and I think I can safely call the multi-whirlpool thing a feat of physical impossibility in any normal-sized pot.  But then again, my brain said, those were pros who were cooking sans-whirlpool, while the sites I was reading appeared to be written by amateurs for amateurs, so--surely there's something I don't know, my brain said, overriding my gut.

There wasn't.

I did the first egg precisely like they said--waited for the water to get just right, not boiling but nearly boiling, added a touch of vinegar, and started Ye Olde Whirlpool up in the center.  Dropped the egg into the little tempest, and--zzzziiip!  The white did precisely what I should've predicted it would do, studly physics major that I am.  It spun right off the yolk, pulled by the centrifugal forces of the storm.

Well, that ended up being a nicely-poached yolk, anyway.  It tasted good, egg white or no.

Using that experience, then, as well as my own ideas as well as what I'd seen from the experts, I proceeded to drop two and then three eggs at a time gently into still (and quite hot) water.  It worked perfectly.  It's really not hard to poach eggs, it turns out--you just have to drop them gently and then not panic while the egg sits in the water for a few minutes not doing much.

Oh--and don't blindly follow directions, regardless of what you do.  Writers, you know the perfectly friendly advice about what person to write in, what kind of story to write, how often to blog and Tweet and post to other sites, not starting your story with somebody waking up from a dream, etc.?  They're all wrong.  Well--the one about not starting your story like that is pretty universal.  But the rest--nah.  They're right for the person who wrote them, but odds are they're wrong for you.  What's worked in one story may not work in yours.  What hasn't worked in others, meanwhile, might turn yours into the next best-seller.  Bottom line is to write the story that you want to read.  Cook the eggs you want to eat.  Build the business you want to be a customer of. 


Monday, December 3, 2012

Animal Abuse

"Compassion for animals is intimately connected with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man." - Arthur Schopenhauer

This morning I rose with the goal of, prior to going to the office, revising a holiday-themed short story I'd written over the weekend for the upcoming Alexandria Publishing Group anthology.  I chuckled a bit, though, when I noticed that it was still titled "The Puppy" yet there was actually no puppy in it.

No, I'm not crazy.  There was a puppy in the story at first.  But as it developed it became clear that the poor canine mischief-maker couldn't successfully keep up with what I needed from the primary plot device, and so poof, I sacked him for another animal.  No warning, no performance counseling, just whap!  You're outta here.  Go find another story where they'll like you better, Fido.

The more I thought of it, the more it upset me.  It occurs to me that there are plenty of agencies who fight against animal cruelty of a physical nature, but what about their psychological needs?  What about protecting them from prejudice and discrimination?  I'm not talking about the almighty "dog-lover" versus "cat-lover" argument; the two species arguably have profoundly different characteristics and thus should be treated as differently as, say, Army and Navy football fans.  No, I'm talking about the inherent assumption, devoid of facts, that one animal breed can necessarily do a particular job better than another.

Ferinstance, when you think about those dog sleds up in Alaska, what do you see in your mind's eye?  A team of huskies, right?  Can other breeds of dogs do the same task just as well for equal pay?  Sure.  Granted, other species are wrong for the job--cats, for example, would make the human pull them, and horses would charge too much in food.  But why do we automatically make the assumption that dogsled pullers must be huskies?  Discrimination, that's why. 

Writers are probably the worst, both at propagating these stereotypes and at initially creating them.  Take the standard magician's animal sidekick, for example.  It really doesn't matter what animal appears from inside a mage's headgear, yet you never hear a story where the magician says "watch as I pull this cobra out of my hat."  Any animal small enough to fit in the hat in the first place would do, but it's always a rabbit.  Why is that?

And why is the rabbit always white?


Similarly, why do poets choose to use the perfectly benign crow/raven family as the animal incarnation of evil?  There's absolutely no reason Mr. Poe couldn't have written:

"And the parrot, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting, 
on the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door"  

Granted, parrots are known to speak, and so the continued repetition of a word by that breed of bird would seem normal, and thus it wouldn't guide us to the conclusion that the narrator was crazy as a loon (oh!  the poor maligned loons, too!).  Given that, though, another breed would've done just as well:

"But the pigeon still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling, 
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door."  

Anyway, you get my point.  Why pick on the raven?  Just because it's black?

Support your poor animal friends and their psychological well-being today, folks. 


PS--my mind goes strange places when it finds itself at the intersection of Monday morning and caffeine.  Absolutely none of this article was meant to be taken seriously, nor were any cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, or even cobras harmed in its writing. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Answering the "What Do I Do Now?" Question

Now that NaNoWriMo is successfully behind me, I was pleased to gloat my way into the Thank God It's Over party for my region's NaNoGroup.  It was actually a lot of fun, all gloating aside, meeting the folks once again.  Nearly every one of them had won, one young lady even having put out 110K words! And then the question came up--what to do now?  I fled, not because I didn't want to answer the question based on my own experience, but because I didn't want to answer the question twenty times when I could just blog about what's clearly an important topic.  Write once, read many--a good system, no?

So you finished NaNoWriMo.  What to do?  Well, first, I'll join everybody else who's written on the topic by advising you to pat yourself on the back.  Take a day or two off.  You deserve it.  DON'T allow your momentum to slip away; you're a writer, now if not before, and the thing that makes you a writer is that you write.  Trust me, it's easy to slip back into the casual affairs of the day, sliding into the bedsheets without a single word committed to paper.  Sure, relax a little, but don't stop writing for more than a day or two.  Not now, not ever. 

Another, probably more important, don't to keep in mind: don't push your now-finished manuscript in front of anybody.  Not critique groups.  Not your parents.  Not your spouse, at least not unless your relationship is solid enough that you can tolerate being the recipient of hysterical laughter from someone you care about.  Especially not an agent.  No, I'm serious--I've been following many agents' blogs and writings for a while now.  Most, if not all, literary agents hate December.  It's not because of the guy in the big red suit or the huge lines at the mall, either.  Well, not just because of that.  No, it's because December follows NaNoWriMo.  December is when their mailboxes light up with 30-day crappy manuscripts of crappiness.

I know, yours is really pretty good.  I know, some very famous novels started as NaNos.  I know, I know.  But listen, I'm really serious on this one.  Don't submit your NaNo project to an agent.  If you're experienced enough as a writer that you stand a chance in hell of pulling it off, you're also experienced enough to know it's a horribad idea.  If you're not--well, do this instead.  Take your manuscript and print it out.  Save it, yes, and back it up, yes, but also print it, on both sides of the paper if you wish to conserve.  Then take that sheaf and stuff it into a brown paper bag, or at least a plastic Kroger bag--two, one inside the other, is even better.  Write "Do NOT open till after Christmas" on it and stuff it behind the tree.

Why?  Because that's how writing works.  Most of us, when we're learning to draw, craft a beautiful picture of an apple--intending, unfortunately, to have drawn a face.  But we don't expect the first attempt to be that good, because drawing is hard, right?  Keep at it, recognizing where you need improvement, and some day your drawing of a face will look like a face--or not, if you're an impressionist, but whatever trips your trigger.  By the same token, most of us, when we're learning to bicycle, look at falling down as part of the game.  It hurts, but it's the only way to learn, right?

Why is it then that people crafting a novel think the first draft is going to be anything but a mushy pile of smelly literary crap?

But don't just believe me.  Leave that manuscript behind the tree till you take the tree down sometime in late December or early January (or June, if you're like me).  Then read it.  You'll be shocked at how bad it really is.  But since you wrote it, and the story came from inside your head, you'll also probably know what you need to do to fix it.  Then leave the second draft aside for another few weeks and do it again.  It'll take several drafts, and even then it may never serve as anything beyond your greatest learning exercise--but then again, that's valuable, right?  The only way to get better at writing is to write, but that's not enough.  You also have to find your mistakes and revise.

So anyway, I'm done beating on the manuscript.  What else can you do after finishing NaNoWriMo?  Besides, of course, the obvious answer: "write more."  There are a ton of different things you can do, though.

First, if you haven't already, get yourself habituated to following agents' and other authors' blogs.  Rachelle Gardner is a key agent to follow, but there are many others out there.  Some represent your genre, while others don't; you'll want to find agents that represent your genre if you can, but don't ignore those who don't.  Also, find some authors whose books you like and follow them.  You'll see that some are active while others aren't; some are interesting while others aren't, and so on.  Over time you'll winnow out the ones that aren't valuable, but don't expect to recognize what's valuable at first.  Follow it all, read it all, and enjoy it as much as you can.

Join Facebook.  No, really.  It is a colossal time-waste opportunity, granted.  But there are a ton of good writers on there to follow (I got to wish Tracy Hickman a happy birthday the other day!), and there are a great many writers groups.  I'm in the Indie Author Group, for one.  Also Novelspot, and Book Junkies.  Those are all at or over 1000 members, and the discussions on them are fairly well moderated.  You should just be able to search by name and request membership--none are hidden, as far as I know.  But pay attention to the rules; nothing annoys a group more than someone joining it and immediately posting about a book he wants them all to buy.  Outside of marketing, though, get active with the groups.  Lurk, read discussions, but also ask questions.

If you're local to Richmond, VA, you're in a great town to be a writer.  I recommend the following:

James River Writers - my #1 recommendation.  Several reasons:
  • Writers Wednesdays, on the second Wednesday of every month at one of the Capital Alehouse facilities in town (aka Beer Mecca in my book).  It costs nothing, and you don't have to be a member.  It's a meet and greet, with published and unpublished writers and poets and screenwriters.  And beer, by the way.  If you expect an agenda you'll be disappointed, but it's a great way to meet people and start friendships.
  • The Writing Show, last Thursday of every month from January to August.  There is a fee for this, but it's not huge and the ones I've been to have been worth every penny.  And if you go to Writers Wednesday first, you'll already know somebody at the Writing Show to sit beside!
  • The Conference.  There's a fee for this too, but you've got till next fall to save up the couple of hundred bucks, which really isn't all that much for a writers conference.  I blogged a bunch about it in 2011--look at my October blog entries.  Would have done the same in 2012 had my shoulder injury not kept me at home that weekend.  The sessions are great, but the three things you must do are a) submit a first page for the critique (a panel of agents will critique a series of anonymous first pages of novels), b) sign up to spend a few minutes of personal one-on-one time with an agent of your choice, and c) Pitchapalooza (assuming my friends at The Book Doctors make it again in 2013).  Yes, you're going to learn a lot by watching others, but the only way to get better at pitching your work of literary genius is by pitching your work of literary genius.  Just.  Do.  It. 
  • The Unpublished Novel contest.  Deadline is December 17.  Go ahead and send the first 50 pages of your NaNo--I dare ya.
Other writers groups are here in town, too, I must say.  I know Greg, from Agile Writers--find them on  Good guy, and probably a great group, but I don't have time to do more than one writing group, myself. 

Richmond is a great place to be if you're a sci fi/fantasy/horror/spooky fiction type too, by the way. My favorite (though I'm admittedly biased because I work for the group) is RavenCon.  We're a fairly moderately-sized convention every year in the spring; we've gotten national praise for what we do, though, and we're pretty proud of it.  There are a lot of local and national writers who come out; I'm still kicking myself for missing the year when Jim Butcher was the author Guest of Honor.  At $35 a person (if you sign up by the end of December) or $40 a person in 2013, it's a reasonably-priced weekend event.

MarsCon is coming up quick!  It's in January in Williamsburg, and with David B. Coe as the author Guest of Honor, it looks like this will be on my must-attend list.  I haven't actually been to a MarsCon before, but the folks I work with at RavenCon tell me it's a great show.

SheVaCon is nearly here too!  It's a bit of a road trip to Roanoke, but it's worth it.  I attended last year and enjoyed the heck out of myself.  Bought a print there that made the framers at Michael's turn green with envy. 

So go.  Talk to people.  If you're not in Richmond, look up conventions in your own area.  You'll run into authors who've been working the craft for ten, twenty, even forty or fifty years.

Oh, and keep writing.  Did I mention that?