There must be help out there, somewhere.

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“Will you read my novel and give me some pointers?”

It’s the question all published writers face eventually. And most of us dread it. We’re usually nice people, and we don’t especially want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We remember all too keenly how it was before we achieved our published status, which makes us want to help, if possible. That’s one reason Catie, David, Faith and I started this blog in the first place.

But for the most part, we will beg off reading someone’s as-yet-unpublished manuscript. For one thing, there’s the liability issue. Say I read your manuscript, in which there is a secondary character named Jolene. Three years later, I publish a book, and I’ve named the romantic interest Jolean. If you’re of a litigious nature, you could decide it’s all close enough to sue me for stealing what you wrote, and while I probably wouldn’t lose the case, you sure could make life complicated for a while. Another problem is that I barely have enough time to meet my own commitments, so dropping my work to read yours just isn’t smart of me.

So if I can’t personally read your novel, where can you turn for help?

Some people are fond of using “beta readers”. These are readers who are willing to read unpublished novels and give opinions. Beta readers tend not to be other writers, and they usually read the whole finished manuscript at once. The only person who got to read Mad Kestrel before it was sold was my best friend (my husband read portions, but he was a member of my writing group, and we’ll get into that in a minute.) I can’t really call Jan a beta reader, since by the time she read it, I was already working on rewrites for Tor.

There are numerous online communities designed to support and encourage writers in their quest to achieve publication. I usually recommend Absolute Write, since it’s frequented by a good many professionals who offer accurate and helpful advice. If you’re comfortable online, AW is a great place to go for help.

For me, though, the answer was the writing group. In the beginning, we met every other week, in a church meeting room. Each of us brought five typed pages of whatever we were writing at the time (and copies for the group.) We took turns reading our pages out loud, then receiving critique after. We weren’t all writing the same genre, but it didn’t matter. We looked for the voice to shine through, for the action to be believable, for the story to matter. Sometimes we didn’t like what we heard, but it always made for better writing. I don’t think there would be a book with my name on it right now if it wasn’t for my incredible writing group.

Finding one can be tricky. I discovered mine while in the public library – they’d put up a flyer, and I took the chance on a meeting. You can call your library, or local university. Watch the community boards in your local coffee shop, too. Search online. They’re out there, if you look hard enough.

Once you find a group, give them a test run. Go to a meeting and watch how they interact. Do they sit down and get started within a reasonable period after the scheduled start time? That’s a sign that everyone recognizes the value of each other’s time. Are they polite with each other? If the tension is so tight you’re afraid the air around you might snap, that’s likely not the place for you. Are they relaxed, but focused? You want a group that has come together to get work done, not one that’s only there to socialize. In the same breath, you want a group that cares about what everyone is creating. Did everyone bring pages to read, and did they all bring plenty of copies to share? If only one person brought pages, it can be a sign of trouble. Maybe the one person runs things, and won’t let anyone else read. Maybe the rest have given up and only came for the coffee and cookies, which means you won’t get an honest and useful critique. Once they begin critiquing, listen to what they say. A functioning group will offer positive comments that go further than This was really good! or I like this. They will make concrete suggestions for changes, and often make notes on the copies. The person receiving criticism will accept it without arguing and fussing (well, not much, anyway!)

If you attend a meeting and feel good about what you’ve seen, take your own pages next time. Prepare to be surprised by where the right group can take you!

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4 comments to There must be help out there, somewhere.

  • I love critique groups, and even after I was published, I went to one for years. I got valuable feedback from it, and made several sales I might not have made without the group. I also was able to mentor several very good authors, who went on to publication and fantastic success. And — I was able to tell writers who wanted me to look at their work that I only worked with writers who were within the group.

    That said, I no longer go to a critique group. I just do not have the time or the emotional commitment.

    So how do I handle the *help me* requests? I have now signed an agreement with one of my publishers to read nothing sent or given to me, unless it comes from them. This helps with the liability issue and gives me an out when I am asked to do a stranger a favor.

    I do break the rule from time to time (someone I meet at a conference, for instance) and help them, but I always inform my editor that I am doing so and give a blurb to them about the book. Also, I make a point to *never* read anything that is in the same genre as one I write in. For instance, I am now writing about vampires, skinwalkers, and other creatures who go bump in the night. With two exceptions, people I know personally and have been working with for a year or so, I will not accept any vamp-type books.

    But it’s hard to say no. Really hard. And some people get so ticked off, as if their time and dreams are so much more important than mine or other people’s. I too want to be nice. But sometimes I just can’t.
    Faith

  • I tried a critique group once and it didn’t work. I was published; the others weren’t. So I was expected to carry the load of the critiquing (not overtly, but this was the vibe), and they were reluctant to say anything critical about my stuff. Nice people, but not very helpful. I live in a small town and I have little free time, so I haven’t found another group. This isn’t to say that I question their value — I know lots of people who swear by their groups, and if I had access to one that could work for me I’d try it again.

    As for reading manuscripts, I always say the same thing: I make it a blanket policy not to. There have been exceptions over the years, but I can count them on one hand.

  • Similarly, I have a handful of good friends to whom I’ve extended a, “Yes, I will read your manuscript when it’s finished, if you want me to,” and beyond that, no, I just won’t do it. A lot of it is time management. I’m *terrible* at actually getting around to reading manuscripts and it’s wiser all around just to say no rather than leave somebody with a dangling expectation. Part of it’s the liability thing. Some of it’s that I’m a horrible person. No, wait. :)

    I haven’t belonged to a critique group in years, either. I’d /like/ to have a writer’s group, but for me it’d be more about spending time with people who don’t live in my head than expecting much in the way of feedback. :)

    -Catie

  • Tiffany

    I grew more as a writer after attending a conference than I did in my critique group. And I am VERY selective in who reads my work… I’m not published, and maybe it’s not that good, but I want real feedback rather than “Oh, that’s nice”. I’ve found letting my friend who proclaims she has absolutely no writing background read my work is the most helpful, because I simply ask, “where do you get bored with my book.” Then I go in and figure out if its a plot problem, characterization issue, etc.