As I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier posts, reading is essential to being a good writer. (Do you think there ever was a successful band that didn’t listen to other music?) So to continue to improve your “chops” in addition to reading, you should become a reviewer. Either join Goodreads.com and write lengthy reviews of the books you have read, or join a Critique group (I did both). However, the critique group will improve your analytic skill, and open your eyes. You will learn to know good writing when you see it because you are not reading final drafts that have undergone professional editing.
Critters Writer’s Workshop (critters.org) is a free online sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writing critique group. While it is free, they mandate your participation. If you are not actively submitting critiques to other author’s short stories or chapters, then they will delete your membership. On top of that, they have “pro” members, such as SFWA Chapter Presidents and Nebula Award winner Ken Liu. They were established in 1995 and have over 15,000 members and are still growing.
Being that it is online can cause some uneasiness. “What if my original work gets stolen?” you might ask. They are huge advocates of the Copyright law. It is posted heavily, and there hasn’t been any problems with that yet. FYI, the protections afforded to you under the U.S. Copyright law apply as soon as you put something original on paper, so your work is already protected and there is no need to file with the USPTO. Your alternate choice is to join local in-person critique groups, but you usually have to have something to share in front of the group (which you might not always have) and they critique you on the spot. The benefit of this being online is that I can take my time with my review before I send it in.
Critters allows you to submit your entire novel too, and members can elect to become part of a dedicated reading group for your novel. The point is, they have a really good system, and I highly recommend joining if you write in the fiction genres aforementioned.
As an active member of Critters Writer’s Workshop, I had the pleasure to submit my completed fantasy short story: The Ravenous Flock. I wrote it to a fair length of 5,000 words, which I believe is optimal for submitting to magazines (which they state on their websites), though most short stories that I have read and reviewed are around 7,500 words. Once submitted, you get added to the queue (unless you are “pro” then you go to the front of the line). The queue is so long that it usually results in your manuscript being read 3-4 weeks from when you had submitted it. (Not bad). When I receive feedback, I’ll post my opinion of how helpful or not helpful this process was.
I’ll leave you with this final note: Short Stories are a different beast. Mark Twain once said, “I don’t have time to write you a short letter, so I’ll write you a long one instead.” Terry Brooks also said, “Writing a short story was one of the hardest things he had ever done. He would rather have a 500 page project any day.” So when I read one of Ken Liu’s short stories on Critters.org and saw it was only 750 words, I was impressed. Then I began reading it…. it had a never ending comma… the whole 3 paragraph story was one sentence. I felt beyond inadequate; I felt unworthy… and it really opened my eyes. And I hope all new writers have the opportunity to experience the same. So go join a critique group!