Writing itself is a solitary business. Just you, your ideas, and a way to record them. But the ultimate goal is to share those ideas with as many people as possible (i.e. readers) so it makes sense to gradually start involving other people into the process before publication.
In addition to a professional editor, there are several other types of people to involve in your life.
Tool #1: Find a craft partner. Many call this person (or persons) a critique partner (or group) but it all depends on what you want or need them to do. Some I’ve heard about truly critique, as in critically tear apart every word you’ve written and change the writing sample into how they would tell the story. Others like the idea of writing more than the finishing and continually bring the same re-worked section over and over, never completing a manuscript or actually taking steps toward publication even if that means simply entering a contest or querying an agent.
What you need is a craft partner who will point out the weak places in your writing and help you grow in skill. In the process, their advice can mirror that of a content editor if they know enough to spot plot holes or weak characterization. They often become your biggest cheerleader as well as an accountability partner to push you to complete a project or try something new. This type of person is usually at the same point in their writing journey as you are or perhaps a little further ahead.
But where can you find a treasure like this? Anywhere you hang out with other writers is a place to find a potential craft partner or group. Look for someone writing in your genre at about the same stage in the journey and then get to know them to see if your personalities mesh. Ask to read something they’ve written or in the course of a conversation, find out where they are learning more about the craft.
When I first ventured out of my writing cave, I stumbled into a professional organization—American Christian Fiction Writers—that offered critique groups as one of their services. Initially, they randomly matched interested people into groups but soon found a better way by creating a pool of writers who agreed to critique two other chapters for every chapter they submitted to the group. Through these “sample” critiques and various opinions, individuals naturally gravitated toward each other, formed their own small groups, and left the larger pool.
Other organizations or local writers groups also offer opportunities to join critique groups. But once you find one, how does it work?
First, make sure there is a trial period or set a few boundaries of your own. If things aren’t working out in four weeks, you can leave without any hard feelings. (One would hope others would be professional enough to understand that not everyone is a fit.)
The logistics of an individual group or partnership depend on the members. Some meet in person weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly while others send their chapters online via email. Some groups submit a single chapter in advance and then everyone discusses their suggestions during the meeting. Others submit several chapters at a time with the understanding that they need to reciprocate by looking at the other submissions before being eligible to submit their own work again. Some critique in bleeding red ink on paper, some offer verbal suggestions while the author scribbles down notes, and the online partners usually rely on Track Changes or embedded comments in order to offer suggestions or make changes in the document itself.
As my personal writing journey has progressed, so has my need for multiple voices speaking into my craft. While I used to be part of a larger group, I now only exchange chapters with one other writer. However, I still seek out other people to meet different needs.
Tool #2: Seek out other writers. Beyond the wisdom and insight of a craft partner, rubbing elbows with others writers keeps you in touch with the changing climate of the publishing world. Not only can you identify the current trends, but you can also glean a lot of virtual experience from those who are further along the path to publication as you learn what mistakes to avoid.
Writing conferences are great places to learn about the craft of writing and pitch ideas to potential editors and agents, but they are also a networking playground. There’s a lot of truth in the saying “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” Approach other authors as people first rather than networking contacts, form relationships with those who truly understand what it means to have characters arguing in your brain, and then you might later be surprised when opportunity uses your new friend to unlock a door.
Local writers groups are another place to meet writers with the added bonus that they cost much less than a full-blown conference. Some groups cross genres to include both nonfiction and fiction writers as well as children’s book authors and poets. Other groups are more specific to the romance genre or historical westerns or even science fiction. The group I attend is all Christian fiction writers, but not necessarily all writing for the Christian market. Our meetings sometimes focus on a specific chapter of a famous writing craft book as we dissect things like dialogue or memorable secondary characters while other times we host work parties where members can bring in a few pages for a group critique or use their allotted time for collective brainstorming through a plot situation.
Each group is unique and fills a specific need for the members. For me, spending time with other writers inspires me to rush back to my desk and get back to work. Not to mention, there is a built-in accountability by being part of a group because who wants to show up at a meeting to admit they’ve written nothing in the last month?
Tool #3: When you have manuscript written, find a few readers who are willing to give their honest opinion about your book. Often called beta readers or first readers, these are the folks that help point out the logic errors in your argument, flag the unrealistic parts of your story, and show you where they got confused. In non-fiction, clarity matters most so beta readers can give you an objective perspective to know if the average reader will capture what you were trying to communicate or get hopelessly lost on your meandering rabbit trail. And in fiction, these readers can point out where stories got boring, repetitious, shallow, or preachy. Sometimes you might also have an expert read your work in order to check your facts for accuracy.
Believe me. You’d much rather hear the truth from a few trusted people than have negative reviews splashed all over the Internet. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee the absence of one-star reviews, but any problem that can be prevented before publication, should.
Tool #4: Get help from the non-writers in your life. At a writing conference I attended, the emcee called these the “normals” in our lives. Of course, her point was to pay attention to the presence of other guests at the hotel and not discuss poisons while in the elevator with other mystery writers. But the bigger fact remains, there are people in our lives who don’t fully understand the compulsion to write or create or spend hours rewriting specific sentences until we find just the right words.
But even if they don’t get us, those people are still vitally important. Just to have someone on your side to be that cheerleader when you want to give up is priceless. Or someone to pick up the slack at home when it comes to meals or laundry when you’re on a deadline. Or someone to take over the childcare for a few hours so you can escape to a coffee shop for uninterrupted writing time. These people could be close family or friends, but they could also be hired help to do the cleaning so you can work.
Still, there’s another bigger benefit to having “normal” people in your life. They are the fodder for stories, and not just as role models for heroic characters. (Or the unfortunate inspiration for a villain or the latest victim in the murder mystery.) People watch for behavior quirks. Search for similarities in the way certain types of people dress in order to describe them accurately. Eavesdrop on conversations to pick up on unique speech patterns or vocabulary. Pay attention to the life stories of those around you because plot twists, conflicts, or motivating backstory ideas are everywhere.