Well, we only got a few requests (don’t be shy, speak up!) but two of them were on the same basic topic, so I’m going with that, in my first two-part discussion about getting help from your peers (as opposed to an editor or agent).
This week, I’m talking about Writers’ Groups Vs Beta Readers vs Going Solo.
Writers work alone. Unless you have a co-writer, the actual writing of a story involves your brain, your notebook, and your keyboard, and that’s it. Which means, depending on the shape of your id and ego, you’re either supremely confident that you’ve nailed it, or convinced that what you’ve written is utter dreck and should never be allowed off your hard drive.
Or, more likely, you waver somewhere between those places, depending on the project, the phase of the moon, and if you remembered to eat that day.
The answer to this inevitable wavering is getting (useful) feedback. That can come either when the story is finished, or while you’re in the process of writing it (a “WiP,” or work in progress). Those are two very different types of support, and some writers need one or the other, while some enjoy both – and some find either a distraction.
Figuring out which – if any – is right for you is the first step. No, I don’t have a handy dandy quiz or personality chart. But I can give you the rundown on what each offers.
I’ve belonged to a number of these in my time, from small, tight-knit groups to larger, classroom style gatherings, and on-line organizations. Generally a group meets at a specific time, at specific intervals (every few weeks, once a month, etc), and certain rules are enforced, most often “no rebuttal to critique until everyone is done.” That forces you to listen to what people are saying, rather than marshaling your defensiveness. Sometimes everyone gets a chance, sometimes – if the group is large – only a few people per meeting are critiqued. Ideally, you have a range of levels, and people who write different sorts of work, although you might want to focus on an all-fiction or all-nonfiction group, so that everyone’s working on the same assumptions. The best group I was in deliberately looked for people writing all sorts of commercial fiction, so that we got general, mainstream feedback as well as genre-specific reactions.
Groups like this are excellent for short fiction, slightly more problematic if you’re writing a novel (unless you know without fail they will meet regularly and respond quickly) and horrible if you’re writing on an intense schedule, and can’t wait a few weeks or longer between sections.
A beta reader is publisher’s adaptation of technology’s “beta testers,” who take a product for a trial run and report back on bugs or flaws. A beta reader does exactly that, only for fiction. Some will read along as you write, on a chapter by chapter basis, while others may wait for a completed project, but they read and respond individually, rather than in a group. This takes care of the “can’t wait” problem and is excellent for the writer who uses feedback to keep themselves motivated and energized. It also takes care of the “OMG it is teh suck!” fear, because you know right away if it does or not. When you’re working on a tight deadline, beta readers are a great resource.
The downside to a beta reader is the difficulty of finding one (or more) who can be the critical-yet-supportive reader your work needs. It’s not a job for the casual reader, who may love your work but not be able – or willing – to clarify what they don’t think works, and why. A good beta-reader does not have to be another writer – but s/he must be a thoughtful, detail-oriented reader willing (for a novel) to go the long haul.
A third option for those who are looking for a more immediate feedback is the workroom:
This is a relatively new phenomena; writers gathering online in a chatroom – either public or private – to work on their own projects in a communal setting. This is not a critique setting, as such: most times everyone is actively writing. But it does allow you the chance to run an idea off other people, test-drive a line you think is either good or bad, and pick at the gathered knowledge to solve a problem. It’s also excellent for heading off the “teh suck!” before it has a chance to really get a grip. I belong to one that spans several different time zones, so no matter when you’re working, odds are there’s someone else ready to join in.
Any one, or a combination, of these options might be exactly what you need. The trick is to look not only at how you write, but how you take feedback, and what sort of support you respond best to. Be utterly honest – nobody is judging you on this, and a “popular” answer is not going to help you at all if it’s not true.
Of course, sometimes the answer isn’t found in feedback at all. And that brings us to a fourth option:
For some people, the intrusion of someone else’s opinions into their work, especially at the critical formation stage, is a bad thing. They need to keep focused, working from beginning to end and then polishing on their own. It’s not my way, particularly (I am a firm believer in the External Eye) but it works for some folk. For them – and for you, possibly – working solo is the only thing that will work. If you try to go to a group, or wait on beta-readers, you’ll probably find yourself disgruntled with the entire project before you’re done. The lesson there is, don’t force yourself if it doesn’t work for you. Whatever benefits you might get would be outweighed by the negatives.
So consider your options, consider your personality and your needs, and then go out and find (or start) what you need!
Useful link: How to Choose a Writer’s Group
Coming up in Week 9: conferences vs. retreats vs. a degree program
Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy. Her first collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011. For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman) And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.