Breaking into published print is hard to do. Often times it is difficult to get a fair assessment of your writing skills and ability to construct a decent story, especially in the realm of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Science Fiction and Fantasy are wonderful genres because they allow us to push the limits of our imaginations, set our own boundaries and construct our own social structures and standards.
Unfortunately this freedom does not change the rules of writing, nor does it change the reality that there are critics out there. Many people are encouraged by the opinions of friends and family in their writing, which is a good thing. Every struggling artist no matter what medium they use needs that validation, that understanding that their creative being thirsts for. Writing Contests tend to be geared towards a particular subject or style, and because of this many otherwise good authors are rejected, which can be as discouraging as a network of caring and supportive people can be encouraging.
So how do you receive a fair assessment of your skills? How do you receive the encouragement you need to keep writing, but the criticism you need to improve? I have found personally critique groups are an excellent solution. For the realm of the Fantasy and Science Fiction writers Critters is a great place to go. They have set up a very well designed submission and critique system. Most of the members there are aspiring authors themselves with their own manuscripts in the works. They are looking for an honest critique of their writing to strengthen their talents, and what they offer in return by way of critiques is most encouraging and helpful.
I have personally found in critiquing the work of others I recognize my own strengths and weaknesses. There is not a particular format for the critiques, but there is a length requirement. With this requirement you are almost forced to assess the five major Critique points of any story… plot development, character development, setting, composition, and mechanics. In giving such a fleshed out critique, you are able to take the time to point out everything you love about the story, be it the description of the characters, or the immaculate attention to spelling and grammar, and you have a chance to point out what you saw that you would have done slightly differently, or something about the story you wish to know more about.
Each critique you submit earns you a number of points. You have to earn a certain number of points before you can submit a manuscript to the queue. This is to insure that no one can submit manuscript after manuscript without contributing what everyone is there for… to have their work read and reviewed. I have never in my time on Critters encountered anyone who was cruel or unduly harsh in their assessment of a piece. Most members are very diplomatic and fair.
Just reading there is enough primer to get the creative pump flowing. I enjoy critiquing the work I find there, and eagerly await each time one of my own pieces has been submitted to see what my fellow aspiring authors have to say. On-line critique groups are a very valuable writing tool. For Fantasy and Science Fiction writers Critters is definitely the one I recommend.