I can’t stress it strongly enough: if you’re serious about getting your writing published, you need a good writers’ group. It’s so important to have a venue to a) read your work aloud, checking for rhythm and repetition, and b) get constructive feedback.
Notice I said a “good” writers’ group. Not just any collection of people will do. It usually goes without saying that the other members of your group will be writers too. They don’t need to be top-tier professional novelists, but they should have some grasp of the craft of writing and a willingness to learn and improve. Even a beginning writer can point out awkwardly constructed sentences, plot holes, and places where it’s just confusing.
In addition, they have to be objective. I recently edited a novel that had apparently been “looked over” by several friends of the author, but it was obvious to me that these friends were too close, or too timid, to offer any real critique. Misplaced modifiers, comma errors, and an appalling overuse of similes infested the work. What the author really needed was someone who knew the craft and was willing to point out these mistakes and weaknesses.
However, a critique should be, above all, constructive. Someone who just trashes your work for the sake of being mean isn’t helpful. A good writers’ group will try to offer solutions as well as simply pointing out problems.
Needless to say, you must be willing to reciprocate with objective, constructive critique.
If you don’t already have a writers’ group, start one! Run an ad in your local alt weekly, put up flyers in the library, bookstores, and coffeehouses with your name and e-mail. Once you’ve gotten a few responses, set up a meeting at a public place, such as a coffeehouse. Besides the regular “getting-to-know-each-other” chit-chat, discuss what you want out of the group, where and how often to meet. Some people prefer to meet in a public space; others feel safer sharing their work in a more private setting.
One thing I suggest is that when you bring works to read, make copies for everyone. The other members can read along, marking any grammatical, spelling, or punctuation errors on the page.
You may find that the group ends up being a valuable networking tool, as well as a sort of “Angie’s List” of other writing resources. For example, because of numerous bad references from members of my writers’ groups, I realized a certain MFA creative writing program probably wasn’t for me, saving me valuable time, money, and frustration. On the other hand, I found my excellent editor, Gabrielle Idlet, through references from other writers. This just underscores the value of a good writers’ group.