Part of being a writer is reading. I read non-fiction for research and ideas, and fiction for industry education and — of course — sheer pleasure.
And for those of us starting out, we read each other's work and critique it. We learn from it, and try to help each other make our work as good as it can be. Of course we're limited in this task by our own skill level, but we do our best.
I've been a member of two online critique groups: Critters.org and Hatrack.com writers' groups. Both were good experiences. Both ate up a ton of time and left very little for me to spend writing my own work. I quit each of them after a few months, when my turn to submit came up and I had nothing to send. That told me that it was taking too much of my time.
When I read to critique I spend a *lot* of time. If something catches my attention, or doesn't read well, I will spend whatever amount of time it takes to figure out *why* and then convey that back to the writer. There is usually a lot of red on the page when I'm done, and it's usually story stuff rather than punctuation and grammar — contradictions, believability problems, characterization, logic problems. Lots of passive voice stuff, usually, too. But it takes *so long.*
So the critique groups didn't work out for me. Now I take on one or two projects at a time and try to get loose, comfy timelines. To date I've only critiqued short stories, or a couple of chapters of a novel.
And then a couple of days ago that changed, and I took on a 140k-word novel by a friend in Forward Motion. I totally want to do this critique – with my own novel scheduled to be finished at the end of August I want the experience of working with something that long. And she's been so helpful to me on two different projects, I definitely owe her.
I got started last night, and soon discovered that my method of critique is not going to work for something this size. She wouldn't get this thing back for a year. So I had to come up with something else. It won't be as thorough as I'd like – much more topical, with general comments at the bottom. It won't be the kind of line editing that I like to do. But I'll learn something from it, and I hope that it will be valuable to my friend.
It's a hard thing to do, sending your work off to other people to be picked apart. As writers we want validation, not criticism. I believe that it's a rite of passage for new writers to submit their work for critique. It's courageous and demonstrates a seriousness about the craft.
The truth is that we don't often receive validation. The nice things are always — ALWAYS — followed by a “but.” Even glowing comments in the context of a critique are followed by — well, the critique. Egos are bruised, confidence is slaughtered, will to live can get a little iffy.
The ultimate validation, the brass ring, the one that we all want and that I have not yet had is — of course — publication. Not “pretty good,” not “very good,” — good enough to print. That's the validation that I want, and my friend wants. We can't provide that to each other, unfortunately, because we are not editors. But we'll try to help each other along the way, to increase the odds that some day we *will* get it.
I was talking about reading, wasn't I. Before I sign off, here's some more reading for all of you self-learners out there: MIT's OpenCourseWare, where they've made the course work available for more than a 1000 (their number, I didn't count them) undergraduate classes. I'm going to drool over these course listings and hope that some day I'll find the time to work my way through a few of them. I think I'm going to start with “Imagining the Future.”
Have at it.