So, there seems to have been some minor enthusiasm about yesterday's announcement. I guess I'll sell a few copies of that book. Stay tuned for more details as I have them.
Now, for a writing post. I'm spinning out from a reader-submitted question about finding beta readers and will talk about getting feedback. Writing is a pretty solitary endeavor (unless you're collaborating) and sometimes it's difficult to be objective about your own work. That's when it's helpful to get another set of eyes. When you start writing professionally and deal with agents and editors, you're going to get that outside input throughout the process, and it really does help improve the book. Whether or not you get outside input before you submit is up to you. Some authors have been successful going it totally alone, so that no other human being sees their work until they turn it in to an editor, but if you're not getting the results you want, getting feedback may help. That extra set of eyes helps because you know your story and your world inside and out. You know what you want to be on the page and you understand the background and motivations of everyone in the story. That makes it difficult to judge whether someone who doesn't have all that information will get what you're trying to convey. Another person can give you the kind of perspective a reader might have.
You can get feedback in a variety of ways.
There are critique groups, where a group of writers meets either in person or virtually to read and critique each others' work. Some groups may submit material in advance and then discuss it when they meet. Others read work aloud at the meeting and then discuss it.
There are critique partners. This is like a critique group, but with just one other person. The partners exchange work and provide feedback. It may not be on as set a schedule as a critique group, just sending each other material when they need feedback.
There are beta readers. I generally think of these as like critique partners, but without the reciprocal element. They're people who read and give feedback without necessarily having anything of their own that they want critiqued.
There are also public forum critique opportunities, like writing workshop sessions at conventions or writing conferences, online classes, message boards or even blogs. For instance, the Dear Author blog does First Page Saturdays, in which authors can anonymously submit the first page of a manuscript for critique by the blog readers.
And you can get feedback through some writing contests. Romance Writers of America chapters often sponsor contests where the main benefit isn't so much the prize as it is the fact that your manuscript is critiqued by knowledgable judges, including editors and agents if you make it to the final round.
Some writers submit work for critique as they go -- if the critique group meets monthly, then that month's output gets critiqued. Others may wait until the book is finished, then run it past a beta reader or critique partner before doing another round of revisions.
What you look for in a feedback provider, whether critique group, critique partner or beta reader, is someone whose opinion you trust and who knows something about the genre you're writing. You don't want someone who will read your fantasy novel and then comment, "A person gets turned into a frog on page twelve. I don't think that's possible." When working with beta readers, you may have multiple readers who provide different kinds of feedback. You may have one person who's read absolutely everything in the genre and who can tell you where you stack up, one person who's the nit-picking grammar guru and one person who can spot a plot hole a mile away. While writers can make good critique partners or beta readers, a knowledgable reader may be just as good. You don't have to be at the same point on your path to publication as your feedback provider.
The thing that's important to remember about feedback is that you don't have to listen to it. You should consider it thoughtfully, but ultimately, it's your book and you get the final say (unless you're dealing with a publishing house editor). The feedback may or may not be right. It's just an opinion. If multiple people give you the same feedback, they may be on to something. I've often found that while I don't like the suggested change, the fact that a suggestion is made clues me in to the fact that something is wrong that I need to fix, and I come up with my own change. If what you're looking for is someone to tell you how awesome you are and you're going to get mad if they say anything mean about your writing, then you probably don't want serious feedback. Show it to your mom, best friend or dog, but don't waste a critique partner or beta reader's time.
How do you find critique groups or partners or beta readers? A good place to start is with a writing group. You may find a community group meeting in the library or bookstore. There are also national writing organizations that have local chapters. Many of these groups will have critique sessions or maintain a list of people looking for critique partners. If you attend writing conferences or writing-related sessions at science fiction conventions, you may meet other aspiring authors who are interested in finding a critique partner or starting a critique group. You may also find knowledgable people who might be willing to beta read for you. Another way to find critiques is through online writing forums, like Absolute Write, whose forum has a section for critiques. You can do an Internet search for writing groups, conferences or forums. You should probably get a sense of any group by attending, participating and listening before you jump in and ask people to critique your manuscript.