I am no longer an emerging writer, but I would not call myself an accomplished one. I have published one novel, and two collections of poetry. Recently, I've been playing around with short stories, and learning more about horror fiction. I have been having trouble finding beta readers for short fiction.
I joined one fiction writing group, and it shut down. Another writing partner blew up her social media, and I wasn't sure if I should contact her any more. Other people have ghosted me after I send them a story. I would just like one person to trade work with every once in a while, and I'd like them to be a fairly knowledgeable writer. Is there a solution to my problem?
Dear Writing Alone,
Finding that one special person to trade work with can sometimes feel like, well, finding that one special person to spend your life with. You look around, see so many available writers out there, but when you try to arrange something, it falls apart. You hear other writers casually talking about their writing groups and beta readers and wonder, why can’t I find my person too?
When we are very new writers, it is sometimes easier in the sense that anyone’s feedback seems like good feedback. But as we become more experienced, we necessarily become more selective. We want people who can see through our draft and understand our intention for the story, who can really connect with our writing, and have an informed discussion with us about what we are trying to do and how to make it work.
For all the mythos about the lonely writer in unheated garret, creative work requires community. Even Hemingway, that terrible guy who is probably the source of the solo writer in the garret myth, used to talk about writing with his colleagues such as Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. Unfortunately, it’s no longer as simple as moving to Paris and finding a bunch of writers hanging out at the bar.
I know I spent many years hungry for writing community, and people to share work with, and even when I’d find myself at last in some sort of writing group or partnership, circumstances would always blow it apart. It always feels like a house of cards.
You’re not alone, Writing Alone. But the question remains, what to do about it?
Unfortunately, just like finding a life partner, there’s no easy answer to finding a writing partner. You’re going to have to put yourself out there, again and again, and see if something will click, even for a little while, and then you may have to do it again for the next story. That can be hard if you, like many writers and like many of us at this point in the pandemic, are a little socially awkward.
It helps to try and approach the situation with a kind of thoughtless grace. Assume the people who ghosted simply had some Life that got in the way, and check in with them—maybe they are embarrassed that they haven’t been able to get to your work yet and are avoiding you. Assume the person who blew up their social media still wants to trade work and reach out. Assume there are members of the writing group who may still want to trade work, or at least, read your work now with an open promise for you to look at their work sometime down the road—writing groups are sometimes tricky to keep running for a wide variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean the people in the group aren’t looking for people to trade work with. Assume the best possible interpretation of other people’s actions, and try not to overthink who to approach and when and why. Give people a graceful way to decline, but also, give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion and show up for you.
Ask people where and how they found their writing groups and communities. Mine have largely come from classes I’ve taken. A student of mine found hers through Bianca Marais on Twitter who was matching people to make writing groups. (She’s not currently doing this, but I’m told she occasionally still does when time and energy allow.)
Failing that, or if you don’t have the time and energy to chase down people these days, you can always try going it alone. But this means you need to really think about what you are looking for in terms of feedback. Are you looking for validation? Let me do that for you now; you are a good writer.
Is it a matter of a quick check that the story you want to tell is the story that’s coming through? Maybe there’s a wider variety of people you can share this story with for that, who can read it quickly and simply tell you what they think it’s about.
Do you want to talk through your ideas for the story with someone? Meet with a writer friend (online or in person) for a chat and talk through the story with them. They don’t need to read it. Tell them what it’s about, how you’ve set things up, whatever you are wondering about. Have a conversation. It can be surprisingly helpful, and it might be easier to find someone to commit to a chat. If you can’t find a writer friend to talk it through with, journal a conversation instead.
If it’s a larger question of craft, perhaps some revision exercises might help you. In his book, “Craft in the Real World,” Matthew Salesses lists a number of helpful revision exercises that may help you crack the story open, many of which you can also find here. I personally find breaking down the story into beats (essentially, the bullet points of the plot) or using a text-to-speech website to read the story aloud to me helpful.
Alternatively—pay someone for a critique of your work. Perhaps there is a writer you know or admire that would be willing to mentor you if you able to compensate them for their time. Perhaps there is a literary editor who can push your work to the next level, remembering that editors are great at identifying issues but not necessarily as adept at solving them. If you are fortunate enough to have an agent that provides editorial feedback, perhaps they can help.
This doesn’t mean you’ll never find your person, Writing Alone. Putting yourself out there, over and over again, is exhausting. And it is disheartening to put yourself out there only for other people, for whatever reason, to let you down. But it’s how we make connections. There is nothing for it but to keep trying.
Love these suggestions! Sometimes a writing group isn't a forever thing either. I try to appreciate the time I have and learn from the other writers and then move on if you have to. I find it more frustrating to stay in a group that you have outgrown then leave.
Beautiful thoughts- so so excited you’re writing this!