Okay, so being a solo writer is actually impossible.
Well, no, not impossible. But it's not very wise, if you want to be published. A truly solo writer, who hides his work, keeping all writings tucked away in some hidden corner of the laptop will never find publication.
Writers must be read. Writers must receive feedback. Writers must live in a river of honesty if they want to thrive.
Aha! you say. Well, isn't that what a critique group is for?
In a perfect world, a writer could always have a decent critique group, full of talented, dedicated writers, creating just the right blend of helpful advice, spot on critique, encouragement, imagination, vision, wisdom, connections in publishing, etc. etc.
Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Unfortunately, we do not operate in a perfect world.
What if the writer lives out in the middle of nowhere, and there are no other writers around for miles?
What if the writer is a science fiction writer, and the only group near enough to meet with is a romance-writers-only group? Or a bunch of poets who have no idea what to do with something longer than two or three pages?
What if every single group the writer finds and joins falls apart due to lack of interest?
From what I've seen and heard, it's a rare thing for a writer's group to stay together for a long time. Life happens. People move, people die, people lose interest in writing, people never actually HAD interest in writing (only in defending and being praised for their sickly sweet prose), people have personality conflicts, people are dreamers and not doers, etc. etc. etc.
I had to work without a group for years. And I'm certain that I'm not the only one.
For the die-hard, lonely writer, who has TRIED to find or start a group but failed... what is to be done?
Readers, my friend. Readers. Trusted, honest, intelligent readers. And here's how it's worked for me.
I tend to think of my readers in three separate groups.* This is my own personal classification system, to help me know when my manuscript is ready for a particular person.
1. Alpha Readers. Alphas... oh, my beloved Alphas. These are the readers who can see the story on a grand scale. These are the ones who can see through the flaws of an early draft and help me find the potential of what I'm trying to do. These are the readers who give me from-the-gut emotional reactions, feedback on overall likeability, intuition on whether a story is working or not. An Alpha reader usually isn't terribly concerned with grammar or smaller details... they just want a good story with good characters, and they'll let me know if I'm doing that, or if I'm failing that, or if I have potential to do that, and they'll give a general direction but they won't nitpick. I LOVE my Alphas.
2. Beta Readers. My Betas readers are generally fellow writers. These are the ones who will help me with the details in later drafts. So and so did this here when it should have happened there. Did you notice you used the word 'just' 78 times in this manuscript? That character wouldn't say that, but they might say this...
Usually, my Betas are fellow writers. These are the ones who help me with continuity, with pacing, with structure. These are the ones who understand flow and voice and such things - for me, a discovery writer, the Betas are absolutely indispensable. Sometimes it hurts... but it's a good hurt. And they do it because they love the truth, and they love helping you to tell the truth. I LOVE my Betas.
3. Gamma Readers. Last, but not least, are the trusty Gamma readers. I should say grammar readers, because these are the ones who I turn to for line edits. These are the ones who aced English in high school and college, the ones who love to find and repair the broken bits of English I leave all over my manuscripts. Without my Gammas I don't know what I'd do. I HATE grammar. I just go with my gut and don't worry about it. Thanks to my Gammas, I can know exactly where I'm breaking the rules without having to be conscious of breaking the rules while I'm doing it. I LOVE my Gammas.
Now, the question remains... how do you find these wonderful people?
Well, first we've got to define what makes a good reader. This is my shot at it.
A good reader is someone who will tell the truth about your writing in such a way that you can improve it.
And this, dear friends, will be different for every person. Some say that you shouldn't let friends or relatives read your work, because they'll be scared to tell you the truth or they won't be able to see it. But I'd have to say that one of my most reliable readers is my mom, who is both my friend and my relative. She believed in my writing before I even knew what I was doing, before I even knew that I wanted to be a writer. But she'll also tell me all the really awkward things about my writing that I won't necessarily hear from others. She's about as blunt as a two-by-four. I can still remember a little humor piece I showed to her one day, when I was a teenager, maybe 15 or 16.
Her reply was short, and went something like this:
"You're forcing it, honey. It's not funny. You're trying too hard."
And she was absolutely right. It hurt, but she was right. And I went on to do better things.
I count those who will tell me the truth because they care and wish for me to improve as my friends. The fact that they care takes a lot of the sting out of even painful truths.
Okay, now how do I find those good readers?
I let people who are willing to give feedback read my stuff, and they showed me what sort of reader they were for themselves. Trial and error. Scary, but it worked.
Fair warning: there are a bunch of people out there who will read your work poorly. This is not to say that they will not enjoy it, or that they are not otherwise intelligent, literate, literature-loving people. But they will give you maybe a line or two of feedback, usually beginning with 'This was awesome! Don't really have anything else to say about it!'**
It's nice when that happens, sure. However, it's not really helpful. Having someone say 'Thanx! It was fun to read! I really liked it!' is about as useful as not having had a reader read it at all. It's nice to provide someone with a few hours of readerly bliss, sure. (If that's really what happened.) But that's not what we're looking for. We're looking for people who will help us craft our story into something that will give HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of people a few hours of readerly bliss. A bit of vague praise will not help towards that goal.
Thank the reader graciously, hug them if appropriate, put them on your list of people to tell when the book is published, and continue searching. If you truly want reliable, honest readers, you will find them. Even if you live out in the boondocks. Even if you think there's nobody around with any interest in your kind of work. And once you've found them, whether they are writers or not, they will be able to fulfill one crucial aspect of your missing writer's group: honesty that you, as the creator of the art, cannot provide for yourself.
That is, if that is what you really want. If you want the truth more than you want to feel like thebomb.com because someone praised your writing, then the reader system might work for you. If not, then you will happily settle for those who, for whatever reason, will only tell you what you want to hear. These are the people who are afraid of you, afraid of offending you or hurting your feelings.
It's not their fault, and it might not be yours. It just is. Doesn't make them bad. But keep looking - you'll find those wonderful Alphas, Betas and Gammas, when you really want the truth. And you'll recognize them by their fruits. An Alpha reader will intuitively understand what you're trying to do and lend you general assistance toward that goal. Your beloved Betas will show you the details that you'd missed, and helpfully fill in the gaps, helping you smooth your story. And a Gamma will return your manuscript with a content smile on his/her face, red pen in hand, all of the typos and misplaced punctuation carefully brought to perfect, satisfying order.
It'll take time to find them. But you will. And you'll be so glad when you do, because when you build a relationship with an individual reader, they don't vanish with a writer's group. They tend to stick around. This is one of the joys of being a writer: Great, honest relationships with readers, whether they be friends, relatives, fellow writers, or people you've never met.
One last thing, one final step that maybe should be one of the starting steps: BECOME a reader. Give back what you've been given. I'm not saying to give your whole life away to reading other people's work (unless, you're like, an editor or something) but figure out what sort of reader you are, (I'm an Alpha with a strong touch of Beta, BTW) and then try to help other writers with those Alpha, Beta or Gamma strengths that you have in yourself. There is HUGE satisfaction in giving that sort of service. It will change you as a writer and as a person, and it will help you through the dry times when your Muse is absent and your Block is looming.
Try it. You'll like it.
* Most of the time, the lines aren't as clean as this. I've got one wonderful Alpha with some strong Beta characteristics. I've another Gamma or two that I bet would be able to provide some interesting Alpha feedback. This is only a set of guidelines. Because... it's not a wise idea to hand your first draft to a strict grammarian, as they may unintentionally kill your story, like pruning a tree before it's strong enough to handle it. On the other side of the coin, your Alpha will probably not do so well if you ask them for a line edit and they're foolish enough to agree to it. And they might just die of boredom. And a dead Alpha reader is a tragedy, a flat-out tragedy.
** There are ways around this, if you know what to ask for. You can improve a reader's feedback somewhat. But that's another post.