For any writer who is just starting out, one of the most frustrating parts of the process is finding new (and unbiased) eyes to look at your work.
Getting people to read your work is like a big wet blanket being thrown on your enthusiasm. You've created a stellar draft of a story and you're excited. You need to know whether others share your opinion. And this is where you hit a wall.
There is nothing wrong with mom or your spouse or your siblings or a friend reading your work, but every writer knows exactly what those people are going to say when they're done. And you know how you're going to react, you're not going to fully believe the requisite, "It's good."
It's a strange thing to say, but writers have more faith in the opinion of a complete stranger. The stranger has no skin in the game. They are free to criticize or flat out unload on you. They don't have to care about your feelings or sleep in the bed next to you.
But finding people willing to read is a challenge. In the case of a novel, you're asking for several hours of time commitment. That's just to read it, it doesn't even factor in the feedback you want. It's not far off from taking your Saturday and driving around until you find a moving van, then helping a complete stranger move in and unpack.
So how do you get people to agree to read your work. Here are a few suggestions:
People will do anything for money, including reading a messy first draft full of typos. They might even help you fix up your work.
It is not difficult to locate an editor - Goodreads, Twitter, Medium - just about anywhere where writers are found, there are people advertising editing services. I personally have never looked deeply into those, frankly I don't have the money for it just yet. I am certain of one thing: As with anything else, you get what you pay for. You may search high and low for good deals, and may even find one. But there's a better chance of finding someone who claims to be a professional editor while they're really just a kid in college trying to score enough money for pizza and beer for the weekend.
There is also the double-edged sword of expecting a different quality of reads and edits when you are paying for it. When your Uncle Joe misses a typo it's one thing, it's another when you're paying $500 to someone. People will miss things, even the pros. But it only takes one to sink your manuscript with a publisher (such as one in the first sentence). You could find yourself in a squabble about what you received versus what an editor wants to charge. (There is a little entertainment value in running a search for this subject and reading the horror stories on both sides.)
The point is that you can get a read if you offer someone money. There are tons of people out there who do that. Finding the right one -- one that fits in the budget, meets your expectations and is appropriate for whatever stage your work is in (first draft, final draft), is a challenge. Do your homework before you open your wallet.
I think my story is a little on the rare side. I put out a tweet looking for a critique partner and found one. A very good one. And even though she's past the point of needing someone to read her work (it is due out in book form quite soon), we still maintain a working relationship. There are people out there who will read your work on social media, most are other writers who want to trade their work for yours.
You may get bites on your social media posts quickly, because there are tons of writers who want reads. It pays to be a little bit picky. The world is full of bad writers with terrible stories. Think of the worst thing you've ever read, then add more plot holes and a bunch of typos, misspellings and terrible grammar. If you choose the first person that wants to do a swap, you might be reading something like this. Or you might get a work in a genre you really don't like.
Personally, I enjoy the challenge of trying to find something redeeming in an otherwise pitiful piece of writing. But you may not be up to it. I have also found that the feedback you receive is often on par with the quality of the other writer's work. To put it bluntly, I've wasted a lot of time reading bad stuff in order to receive marginal feedback.
On the upside, people on social media usually don't want money. You can't expect a lot from someone who's trading their time for yours. And you will probably at least get back one or two useful things, in addition to getting a precious foreign set of eyes on your work.
There are quite a few places which have active communities to find readers. I can only speak to the two I've had the most experience with: Goodreads and Wattpad. It's a mixed bag, but I would recommend Wattpad over Goodreads based on my own experience.
The key to either site is not just to put your work out there and hope for readers, but to become involved in the communities on them. There are a few people on Wattpad who like reading stuff for free and don't write anything. There are literally millions of things for them to choose from, so it is tough for your work to be noticed.
I picked a group which runs a weekly flash fiction prompt, and started being marginally active in it. I read their work, but they also read mine. And they'll offer unsolicited feedback. So far, for me, it's been the path of least resistance in terms of getting reads on my work. I've got 15 to 20 unique readers looking at everything I produce for the prompt. And some of those people have read the other things in my library, my longer works, as well. I didn't even have to ask.
On Goodreads, I've found a lot more people who are serious about their own writing, and not so willing to help you with yours. My experience might not be a common one, but I've done things for people on there (such as read and post reviews) and not even gotten so much as an offer of a reciprocal read. It's been disappointing. I no longer budget much time to their forums as a result.
Wattpad is not without its warts, either. The writing quality there is more on par with "hobbyist", and it shows in a lot of works. The site is brimming with younger writers all writing in the same genres (sci-fi, fantasy, Young Adult), many of whom are not terribly good. There is a ton of fanfiction as well. If you don't write in those genres, your work will never be popular enough to get tons of reads and feedback. It just won't. I focus on quality and not quantity. Most of the people there are the other way around (since Wattpad rewards you on their landing pages for reads and votes by featuring your work).
At the end of the day, you're not going to make it as a writer, at least a serious one, without total strangers reading and critiquing your work. It is a necessary evil. You don't find many writers who drafted, edited and polished everything on their own and got a large publishing contract.
But you also need to remember you are not alone. All of the other writers in the world are in the same boat. Sometimes you have to help row their boat a little to get them to help you with yours. (Or you can hire an oarsman.)
Getting reads is one of the keys to improving your writing. Consider it a required step on your path toward being an author.
As a writer, it's really easy to get too many irons in the fire. Ideas don't stop because you're busy or your kid gets sick or you get a big project at work. And one can't always adhere to a schedule.
In this day and age, it is a lot easier to maintain a consistent presence on social media and blogging platforms by scheduling things in advance. There is consistent advice out there which says you need to stay consistent in your updates if you want to collect followers and fans.
I'd love to say I've done this intentionally, but a string of recent events has depleted my backlog of items and I have no time to get caught up or create new content. And inspiration has hit me, I really needed to start writing creatively again on top of that. The result is that I've missed some regularly scheduled blog posts.
The results have not been unexpected, my site traffic has fallen as I have neglected it. I promote my stuff on Twitter but haven't been active on there for a few days. My website traffic dipped as a result. I wonder how many of those people will keep coming back to look for updates since I didn't have anything new to offer them. I suspect I may have lost at least one or two of them at a minimum, it's the nature of web traffic.
The reality for most writers is that there are so many hours in a day to write, and sometimes you need to focus on something at the expense of another thing. It's hard work being a consistent blogger, writing new material and thinking up new subjects each week. That alone is enough to tackle for most writers, and they find themselves unwilling or unable to write anything else. It becomes like a job.
But when you start piling the other platform things on top of it -- maintaining a social media presence, managing your website, writing creatively for a story or novel -- it can break you. If you work a regular job (and many writers do) and have a family too, things have to get prioritized. I've reached that point. I can't bend or stretch any more, I've been forced to back off from a few things.
There are some people who are superstars at managing personal and professional profiles on multiple social media sites. It's fine if you're not one of those people. You need to find one and stick to that one. It's really better to kick butt and take names on one social media platform than it is to put halfhearted efforts into several. You risk over-committing if you take on too much. I will not sacrifice my family life for platform building (as an example), so I have to lighten the workload a little.
But I understand that is going to come at the expense of some of the relationships I've tried to build with fellow writers over the past year. I think it is an important lesson that writers can learn early in their journey: You're going to disappoint people. Sometimes your writing won't match a previous work and they'll hate it. Other times you'll take too long between books in a series. There are a million different ways to let down people who don't know you or understand your life.
I know I'm letting down a few people who have come to expect a certain level of participation on Twitter and some regular blogging. Life happens, and I'm going to at least try to push through until I have more time. I will eventually get caught up. I have some plans for some new things that I simply need time to work on. When I get some writing finished, I'll be back with some better stuff. I'll take my time to build a really big backlog to ensure I can work within the confines of my weekly schedule. And I'll have new material to offer.
So if you're like me, take a break if things are getting too hectic. Hit the reset button. It's not the end of the world, just a turn in the road.
The struggle is as old as art itself: Do you sacrifice artistic integrity to make what people want, or do you just do your own thing because it's something you care about.
I don't feel that I am unique among writers in feeling this way. My views on writing are a little behind the times in terms of things such as attributing a quote to someone and not including cursing in every third sentence. I'm pretty set in my ways. And I know I'm sacrificing chances to actually make a name for myself by sticking to what I like and what I believe in.
There are strong arguments to be made in either direction.
Polonius tells us in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true." Personally, I would find a lot more satisfaction in making it against the odds as a writer by continuing to do my own thing. It would serve as validation that my talent as a writer transcends pop culture and is actually quite good.
On the other hand, thumbing your nose at an audience is a good way to lose an audience. I use the musician Neil Young as a case study. After scoring his biggest hit in "Heart of Gold", he didn't really make another record like Harvest (on which Heart of Gold appears). It's hard to say whether it was intentional on his part. But his insistence on making music that he wants to make kept him off the charts for long years between hits.
I do not profess to be an expert, but my observations at this point among writing circles are that there are a ton of writers focused on Young Adult (YA) and Fantasy writing these days. The reasons might be more complex than this, but this is the generation that grew up with Harry Potter, one of the seminal collections and examples of this genre.
It doesn't help that series such as Twilight have also scored huge success, it validates the idea that people really want stories with fantastical elements that focus on coming of age. These two franchises alone account for several billion dollars of audience money fed into the respective author's bank accounts.
For those of us who are not necessarily interested in worlds with vampires and/or wizards, it seems like selling out to write stories in these genres. If you're talented, you could produce works in these genres that become popular, and make you rich.
Personally, I have a very hard time doing this. I don't discount the talent of someone like J.K. Rowling, but I just don't know if my audience is the same as her audience. I find myself reticent to want to wade into the crowded waters of these genres for the sake of making a name for myself.
One of the things I would fear is creating the expectation that I am going to continue to write in that genre. J.K. Rowling might want to write a science-fiction tale or a horror story, but she is probably somewhat limited in being able to do so. She's made her publisher a lot of money, and they certainly would want her to continue to do so. Name recognition will sell a few of her books, but there's always going to be a throng of people buying them in the hope of learning more about the universe she's created. They would be very disappointed if her newest book were a political thriller without the slightest hint of magic, even if it was spectacularly written.
I happen to believe in building your own audience more than I want to become famous. I know I could write great fantasy stories if I wanted to, but I just don't want to. I totally understand that the audience wanting more fantasy stories is much bigger than the ones who want sci-fi or historical fiction, but I love writing in those genres. It's also a much smaller pond in which to try to be a big fish.
It's not hard to understand arguments for "selling out" from an artistic standpoint. It would be nice to walk away from my day job and be a writer. It would be nice to sell one book so well that I would never have to work again for as long as I live.
But in the end I have to ask myself, would being rich and famous make me happy and feel like I have accomplished my goals as a writer? Or do I want to grind it out in relative obscurity, knowing that I enjoy what I'm writing?
It's a spiritual crisis that every artist faces, and I don't think there's a wrong answer to it.