I am in a bit of a dilemma if you will. I can't find a critique partner worthy of my work.
Now let me explain before I make myself sound any more like a Pretentious Bitch.
Currently, I am in a critique group with people I love. I mean, these people are really great. But there are problems with this group.
1. They write all genres. YA, Horror, Sci-Fi ... nothing is off the table for anyone. So no one's particularly focused in any one style.
2. I don't write genre. My heroes win Prestigious Awards. One day, I want to win Prestigious Awards.
3. Honestly, (and this is the hardest thing to say because I love these people) while they are all very dedicated to their work and I have seen them improve, they're still just not very good.
4. I've tried online critique groups but everyone's writing genre fiction and the few that are writing literary fiction aren't very good either. They all have the newbie problems like bloated dialogue, unfocused description and poor grammar.
5. I cannot afford an MFA, or for that matter, any kind of creative writing classes or workshop.
Oh, Rejectionist... What should I do? I desperately want an ideal reader and a good editor but I just haven't been able to find one. Is there something I'm missing? A strategy I forgot to try? I'm getting frustrated. I feel like I'm banging my head on a locked door and the person with the key is nowhere in sight.
Thanks a ton,
Ha ha! Oh, dearest Author-friend! You DO understand that asking us "where do I find the Ideal Reader" is sort of like asking us "what bar should I hang out in to meet The Great Love of My Life" or "in what city would I find the Perfect State of Enlightenment" or "is there something I can eat that would make me Realize My Fullest Potential, and can you tell me what it is, thank you." The Ideal Reader is like a fucking UNICORN, okay? You hang out in the forest for a couple hundred years and act REALLY AWESOME, and MAYBE you will get lucky. Brilliant editors are as rare, and as precious, as brilliant writers. Editing is a skill like no other, and it is a skill that very few people have. It requires one to be diagnostician, surgeon, and diplomat all at once; to see where it is a writer is going and why it is she is not getting there, AND the ability to explain this to her in a way that helps her move forward. Although many great editors are also great writers, hello Betsy Lerner, plenty of great editors are not great writers at all; they are not really gifts that have much to do with each other.
However! That is not very useful to you, now, is it. Okay. Well. First, in your situation, which we have certainly been in, we would look deep into our secret heart and ask ourself if we are the proverbial Workshop Butthead. There is nothing WRONG with being Workshop Butthead. The Rejectionist is absolutely, truly, irredeemably Workshop Butthead (and is ALSO a Pretentious Bitch, now that you mention it). We have, as we mentioned on Wednesday, made people fucking CRY in workshops. PEOPLE as in PLURAL. There's not much you can do about it, if you are Workshop Butthead, but it is an important thing to know about yourself, because it means you have no business being in workshops. Here is the secret of workshops: you WILL encounter people who are terrible. TERRIBLE. Not just people you THINK are terrible; people who are OBJECTIVELY TERRIBLE. MFA, online, hometown writing group, middle of Brooklyn or middle of South Dakota, it doesn't matter. You will be exchanging your work with people who are terrible and who are not going to get better. And the unwritten contract you sign, when entering the Workshop, is that you will give their work the same attention and courtesy that they are giving yours. Even if YOU are not terrible in the least (in all fairness, back when we were in workshops, which was a Very Long Time Ago, we were pretty fucking terrible). The payoff for entering into this agreement is the optimistic assumption that, at some point, you will find someone whose feedback is useful to you--and make no mistake, it will have NOTHING TO DO with how good a writer they are, what kind of work they write, or what they read for fun. We mustn't EVER assume that someone cannot tell what makes a great story because s/he writes YA, or science fiction, or romance, okay? OKAY. Even if s/he writes GODAWFUL YA, or science fiction, or romance. Plenty of great stories ARE YA, or science fiction, or romance.
If you are NOT Workshop Butthead, and ARE able to give engaged and useful feedback to other people in your writing group without putting out your own eye, or whatever, we would counsel you to stick it out. Being in a writing group can teach you a lot of things. It gives you deadlines, it makes you accountable, it makes you a better reader--take it from a former Assistant: nothing teaches you to be a better reader like trying to give useful feedback on a project that is atrocious. We mean it. Two years in the trenches made us into one hell of an editor, and you know what's fabulous about that? It means we are that much better at turning a ruthless laser eyeball on our own work. Think of it as practice. Think of it as learning a certain kind of grace. Dreadful writers still have stories to tell, and their work in all likelihood means as much to them as yours does to you. Some people will never, ever write well. That doesn't mean their stories don't matter.
If you ARE Workshop Butthead? Well, that's a tougher tangle, isn't it. You are going to have to go solo, Author-friend, and you are going to have to start reading like a pro. Don't read books for fun, read 'em for blood. Why do you like the writers you like? What are they doing? Tear apart their sentences. Figure out every one of their tricks, and then steal those tricks as needed. Put your mean face on, because you are going to have to get brutal with your own self. Read every book about writing ever written, until your head falls off, and then decide whose advice works for you and ignore the rest. And maybe! maybe! if you are very very good, or very very lucky, the universe will give you a Chérie l'Ecrivain of your own, to read your every paragraph and tell you exactly what it needs to be magical, HAVE WE MENTIONED YET TODAY HOW GRATEFUL WE ARE FOR OUR CHERIE, UNIVERSE? NO? WE ARE VERY VERY GRATEFUL FOR OUR CHERIE.
Oh! and one last thing: there aren't many, but MFA programs that will pay your way do exist. Here is a good place to start looking; also check out the Stegner Fellowship, which is not an MFA, but is prestigious as all get-out. Good luck!
The great questions of our time may be sent to rejectionistandyourmom[at]gmail.com.