Seeking input is easier than you think
I was recently asked to write a column about finding “beta readers,” which is another term for peer reviewers, or friends who read your stories or novels before you send them out to be savaged by the Internet. My Independent cohort Meg Opperman — just nominated for a Derringer! — has already covered the benefits and rules of workshopping (and it’s good advice; see here, here, here, and here), but I’m going to address the part before that. How do you even find someone to tell you that you suck?
- “Hey, Buddy, Ol’ Pal” — Ask Friends. My very first beta readers were a random assortment of friends, and only one or two of them wanted to be writers. Were those friends helpful? Actually, yes, and I still send some of them my work today. It’s like sharing your writing with your spouse, assuming your spouse isn’t also a writer (ahem). Their opinion of what you wrote carries weight because they know you intimately, and they know when you’re full of BS. Plus, you need the perspective of someone not blinded by the rules. I’m not dismissing rules, because understanding and implementing them turns you from an amateur to a pro. But it’s often difficult for writers to realize their audience isn’t only other writers.
- “Seeking M or F 2 Tell Me What 2 Do” — Online Critique Groups. Personally, I looked into this option and wasn’t that impressed, but it was a long time ago (I think I was using AltaVista on a CompuServe account). Maybe things have changed, and these groups are better? I dunno. I consider it kind of like WattPad, which is hugely popular and ostensibly offers some critical feedback but, in my experience, is really just a self-promotional tool. You use sites like that often enough, you start to feel like a self-promotional tool! (That's a "dad joke." Sorry.) Anyway, I’m leery of online critique groups, but not dismissive. Want more information? Check out this article.
- “If You See Something, Say Something” — Reaching Out. Not only is this handy advice for defeating terrorists, but it’s a swell way to make friends. If you’re writing for eventual publication, then you should be reading everything you can. Given that my field is crime fiction, I tend to check out short-story sites like Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, Spinetingler, and a bunch of others on a regular basis. And if I come across a story I like, I’ll send a note (via email, Facebook, Twitter, or AltaVista) to the author. Do I come off as a stalker? Absolutely. Is the note appreciated? Sometimes! But, the point is, if you really admire someone’s writing, then something about their writing likely resonated with your own. You could form a friendship, and that friendship could turn into one where you start trading work back and forth. Happened to me once. At the very least, you brightened someone's day. Aw.
- “Is This Seat Taken?” — Writing Classes. You could get an MA or an MFA, but you might not be up for an entire graduate degree’s worth of work. I understand. Fortunately, there are lots of individual writing programs offered by reputable organizations. If you're in the DC area, you can always go to the Writer's Center. The staff is terrific, the classes offer a wide range of topics, and they're reasonably priced. If you're not in the area, or you hate people, then there are pretty good online choices. My recommendation? LitReactor. Again, you're getting great instructors at good prices, and LitReactor is so respected that established writers occasionally sign up for the workshops. These classes are one of the best ways to find critique pals, especially since you're signing up for a specific genre and skill level.
Seeing a pattern?
The more serious you are about your own writing, the more likely you are to find serious writers.
Heading down to the Virginia Festival of the Book next weekend? I’m talking crime fiction on the Crime Wave panel, Saturday at 2 p.m., with Ellen Crosby, Neely Tucker, and Mark Pryor. Stop by and let us panel at you!