This is a post I wasn't sure I'd ever have to write. I've seen other authors talk about this topic, but didn't see this coming for me. I'm a huge fan of paying it forward, and I'm a staunch cheerleader for other writers, no matter what stage of the journey they're in. But since I'm starting to find myself explaining this fairly often lately, I feel like I need to put together a more public response.
There are a ton of dedicated, talented writers working hard toward publication. Those of us a few steps behind our goal look for answers and inspiration from those of us a few steps further ahead on the path. I can honestly say that my own journey toward publication was significantly aided by the generosity of a few who were ahead of me on the path. One published author took the time to answer a newbie's questions. A trio of debut authors put together a web site that featured question and answer sessions with newly published authors. Agents ran blogs and addressed many of the mysterious topics that go hand in hand with getting published, read hooks, and critiqued writing samples.
I gobbled all of those up like the info-starved newbie I was.
If you're an info-starved newbie, you should too.
Google is your friend. USE IT. Everything you need to know is out there on the web. Well, everything but the answer to this question: Does my writing suck?
The perennial question all of us are afraid to ask, but must if we want to move our craft forward and pursue our goals. For some, outside input isn't useful or welcome. For others, outside input is the holy grail that will finally help us figure out how to make our craft better. The problem is, no one can answer the "Does my writing suck?" question without reading our stories.
Here's the good news: You can find other writers willing to read your work in exchange for reading theirs. We call these other writers critique partners, or CPs. Finding the right CPs, the ones that get your writing and push you to improve it without hijacking it with their own vision; the ones who leave you feeling like you've been given wings rather than leave you feeling like you need to drown your sorrows in a tub of Ben & Jerry's--finding those? Is a time-consuming process of trial and error.
And if you want CPs, you have to be willing to commit to that process. Because some CP relationships won't work. Some will work for one book, but not for any others. Some will be wonderful until the level of commitment drops because life gets in the way. But unless you want to pay for a freelance editor to take a look at your book, putting together a team of CPs is pretty much the only litmus test you're going to get for the "Does my writing suck?" question followed by the "What must I do to improve it?" question.
Because here's the thing: I can't read your book. I can't be one of your CPs. I say this because I've started to get emails and messages on Facebook asking me if I would look over a few chapters or read an entire manuscript.
So many of those books sound AH-MAZING, and I wish I could say yes. I can't. Here's why:
1. I barely have any reading time at all. After I finish with my own writing schedule, read for my own team of CPs, handle the business aspect of my career, deal with the flotsam and jetsam of life with four kids, and maybe find time to squeeze in a little bit of personal hygiene, I'm done. Before I started writing for a living, I read at least twenty books a month. Now, I'm lucky if I read two. I need those two to be the kind of books that recharge my creativity and make me yearn to write something that good. So, I take those two books from my formidable pile of To Be Read titles waiting in patient stacks of Ooh, Shiny! on my top bookshelf.
2. The time I have for critique reading is taken. I've spent the last five years building relationships with other writers and putting together a team of trusted critique partners. Right now, I have four CPs. That's a lot of critique reading! They come first on my "read for others" priority list, and I can't imagine where I'd find the time to squeeze in another.
3. My agent won't let me. No, really. She is very insistent on this point. Because what if one day I write a story about hot pink unicorns who live in a commune and eat nothing but figs and peanut butter, and this idea is the hottest thing since Voldemort tried to defeat Harry, and a writer I once agreed to read for remembers that he had unicorns who sort of lived in a commune? They weren't hot pink and they sure didn't eat figs and peanut butter, but still. UNICORNS. And then this writer feels strongly that I have stolen the lovely hot pink fig and peanut butter-loving unicorns from him? This is how writers end up in court.
And even though YOU realize that unicorns are fair game for anyone, and YOU would never sue me over my dazzling fig-eating beauties, there are those who would.
So, even though your story is amazing, and even though I bet I would love it, this is why I reply to those lovely emails with deep regret. I can't read your story. But others can. And should. And WILL. Google "critique partner." There are sites that help you find them. Join local writers groups. Make friends with other writers on Facebook and Twitter and test the waters there. Because one day, I'd love to add your amazing book to my Ooh, Shiny! pile of titles I just can't wait to read.