“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But for the most part, we will beg off reading someone’s as-yet-unpublished manuscript.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 These are readers who are willing to read unpublished novels and give opinions.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!