So…you have a finished draft of a novel? Congratulations! Most aspiring writers never get that far, so already, you’re ahead of the game. But now what? You know enough to know that you need readers. But who? And where do you find them?
First of all, you need qualified readers. Not your neighbor, or your sister’s boyfriend’s cousin, no matter how many books per year they read. You need other writers, who understand how to construct plot, character arcs, and pacing. It’s one thing to read a book and know the pacing was tight and the characters were multi-layered. It’s another thing to know how to do it, and to diagnose when and where that’s not happening.
You might hear that you need Beta Readers or Critique Partners. Often, people will use the terms interchangeably, but they are different. A primer:
Beta Readers will read your novel all the way through, and provide you with an extensive edit letter. They can read for a multitude of issues both big and small. But a beta reader will usually only read your book once. Then they’ll write the letter or provide the feedback, and be done. You might have several beta readers (and you should) to cross-reference any similarities of opinion, and use that as a guide.
Critique Partners (often referred to as CPs) do what beta readers do…but it’s more of a relationship than a single read-through. Critique partners might read the same chapter (or your entire novel) several times, and offer feedback on how it’s developing, either in writing or in person. This is different than a writing group, where everyone takes turns submitting and your turn might not come around again for a month. A CP will read what needs to be read, when it needs to be read, and give you timely feedback. And you will do the same for them.
I prefer to work with critique partners rather than beta readers. My critique partners help me brainstorm. They look at drafts as I try to flesh out problems and plot. They are nearly as invested in my book as I am…and I want that kind of buy-in. And when you find people whose ideas mesh with yours, whose writing and thinking enhance and inform yours…they are more valuable than gold.
So how do you find these people?
Writing Classes: Online or otherwise, this is a great place to start. You will be given assignments that will improve your craft and the instructor will critique your work, but the most valuable thing you’ll find in these classes are other writers who want what you want—reliable readers for their work. Pay attention to who has work you enjoy reading. Who offers positive and critical feedback (you want someone who is tough, yet won’t forget to point out the parts they love). If you finish the class with one new relationship formed, you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
UCLA Extension is filled with great instructors, and that’s where I met one of my best CPs, Alexandra. She lives in Florida but over the years, we’ve become great friends as well as CPs.
Gotham Writer’s Workshop is another online writing resource. I’ve taken classes with them over the years, and they are filled with thoughtful people of all levels working to grow their craft.
Of note: There are many online writing resources that offer writing support, such as webinars, but you need a format that will allow you to interact with other people and their writing. That way, you’ll know whether you’re a good fit for each other. Do you enjoy their work? Do you have ideas about how to make it better? When you offer those ideas, does that person embrace at least some of them? Likewise, do their ideas resonate with you? The best critique relationship is a vibrant back-and-forth of ideas. Not a one-sided conversation.
Facebook Groups: There are probably thousands of Facebook groups dedicated to writers. If you are female, or female-identifying, The Binders is a MUST for you. They have hundreds of sub-groups…depending on your writing level, your geographical location, your genre. There are entire groups dedicated to helping you find places to pitch your work, other groups dedicated to writing sprints. The main group has over 40,000 members. These forums allow you to ask questions or put out a call for readers. I met my beloved CP, Aimee, in a Binders group. She has become one of my most trusted first readers. (And her book, THE PERFECT MOTHER releases just a week before mine, on May 1! It’s also going to be a movie! You need to preorder it NOW). Aimee and I, along with our other CP, Liz, chat via Skype monthly. We read each other’s work…no matter how rough or incomplete. Liz, who published her book MONSTERS, A LOVE STORY, helps us stay sane. CPs are not just for critiquing your work. They’re for helping you navigate all stages of publishing. And Facebook is a great resource to find them.
Another great Facebook group is WFWA (Women’s Fiction Writers Association). This is for all people who write Women’s Fiction, and it’s not just female/female identifying writers. We have some men who write women’s fiction in there too. It’s a membership-based group, but it gives you access to their online forum on Facebook, their critique groups, their annual conference, and many MANY resources. Agent pitch sessions. Mentors. Webinars on publicity or querying. The list is endless and they’re always adding to it.
Also check out Women Writers, Women’s Books on Facebook. Another forum filled with writers, who offer advice and commiseration about the publishing process.
So how do you find people in these groups to become CPs? Put out a call for readers, and include a short pitch to entice them. Offer to trade first chapters. Read their work. If you connect, offer to read more. If you don’t, you graciously say, “I don’t think I’m the right person for this particular piece. I wish you well!” and move on. Don’t worry about offending them. Writers need to have a thick skin. If they can’t handle that, they’ve got a long and painful road ahead of them. Not your problem.
Conferences: I admit, I have never been to a writing conference. It’s on my list of things I want to do this year. Conferences are a great place to network, to meet agents and editors, as well as other writers. They offer intensive seminars on a wide range of topics, and pitch sessions with agents, editors, or other published writers. There are hundreds of writing conferences every year. Some of the biggest are:
RWA (for romance writers)
Contests: I’ve already talked about Pitch Wars…but contests like this are a great way to find new CPs that are already pre-screened for quality, because you can’t pay to get in. You are selected based on the quality of your writing. In my Pitch Wars year, there were over 2,000 applicants. About 140 were selected. We have our own Facebook group (and every subsequent class gets their own) and a wide variety of genre and category. But without exception, each writer earned their spot through their exemplary writing talent, and if I need a quick read, I’d trust any one of them to do the job.
So now what?
Ideally, you want about 3-5 critique partners. You can form a group, like I have with Aimee and Liz, or you can work with them separately, like I do with Alexandra. In order to get the most out of the relationship, make sure you do the following:
What you want from your CP:
√ Someone whose work interests you.
√ Someone with a strong work ethic—you don’t want someone who only writes when they’re inspired. You need someone with feet on the ground, every day.
√ Someone who is a writer, not just an avid reader.
√ Someone who will push you. Tell you something’s not working. Someone who will call you out on clichés or stereotypes when they pop up in your work.
√ Someone who will not be jealous of your successes, or revel in your failures.
What you should provide your CP:
You need to be everything on the above list and…
√ Be timely with your critiques. Life gets busy, yes. But this is a partnership and you have to prioritize it.
√ You need to strive to give more than you take—meaning, to be a good CP, your partner needs to feel that you give as much time to their work as they give to yours.
√ You have to learn how to be honest, even when it’s hard. If something isn’t working, you must tell them. They’d rather hear it from you than an agent or editor.
Now go forth and partner up! I wish you productive writing days and critique partners who will enhance not just your writing, but your life.
THE ONES WE CHOOSE is available for preorder!
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