Learning to Be an Author
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.
I am not going to lie, I have asked myself that questions a few times since I started writing.
The arguments against a writer focusing much of their writing energy on short stories are plentiful:
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. I could fill a blog with all the different things I've read and heard about trying to break in as an author of short stories. It just isn't done anymore. I'll stop, though, before I talk myself out of it.
The reality for me is that both my writing and reading time are at a premium. I have two young children and a busy life (not to mention a full-time job that pays the bills). There are limited opportunities to write, and I have struggled with piecing together longer-form writing when I have to stop frequently. I lose my momentum and the project sits untouched.
But I realized that I am not alone in the issues I face. In today's world, it seems more likely that fewer and fewer people have the time (or can make the time) to sit and read novel after novel. It takes a commitment to get to that point in the hustle and bustle of life in this century.
I can't tell you how many times, in reading a book in the past few years, that I've reached a point where I either want to stop or should stop, and flip ahead to see where the next chapter starts, then groan in disapproval at trying to make it through another five or six pages. I end up not enjoying the story because I forget important elements of the story due to all of the stopping and starting, and find myself disoriented when I pick up the book and start reading again.
So why do I bother with short stories?
Because I want to fill a niche, helping people like me who used to love to read but find they have almost no time for anymore. I want to provide quick, bite-sized entertainment that you can read from start to stop in 10 to 15 minutes.
I remember when I was young, we would read short stories in Read Magazine at school. They were quick reads that packed a wallop, usually pretty famous stories such as "Murder in the Rue Morgue" or "The Lottery". I remember more about those stories, nearly 30 years removed from them, than I do about the most recent novel I've read. Now those kind of stories are all but impossible to find.
The writing community I've encountered on Twitter are a very kind and helpful group, but most are focused on Young Adult, particularly in the fantasy genre. Almost all of them are focused on novels, because big publishers are more apt to spend $1 million on a 100,000 writers of YA Fantasy looking for the next Harry Potter than they are in spending $100 on a really good, self-contained short story. It can't be made into a franchise, so it is overlooked.
I feel that readers are the victims here, especially if you're not into the genres being pushed by major publishers. I love historical fiction, non-fiction and sci-fi (the last of which does get a little more love than the first two). Finding any good short story is a bit of a chore, finding good ones in the genres I enjoy are nearly impossible. I usually go and reread my favorites from Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry and others, because finding short stories is a time investment in and of itself.
So have a look around my site. I'm offering some short stories for free. I'm offering others for sale on Amazon (for now). There's this blog, and I have a fun blog called "Randos" that offers really quick (and often humorous) reads that might only take a couple of minutes. Hopefully I fill the niche, even a little.