My last post spawned a new question, which is, okay, say you're really ready to listen to feedback on your work, but you can't find anyone to read it. What do you do? How do you find these elusive critique partners?
I'll admit I've had a lot of trouble with critique partners myself. If you read Maggie Stiefvater's blog you know she has two wonderful critique partners and she auditioned to find them. (She talks about that here.) My road, however, has not been so smooth. I've never had a regular critique partner. But especially in the beginning. And I think there are three rough phases of critique partner-ing.
The more difficult your work is to read, because it's wordy or confusing or badly paced or whatever, the more difficult it is to find critique partners, because your work just isn't enjoyable to read. You might not even realize it at first, but most writers go through this stage. No shame in it. This is the point where you can get just about anyone to critique you, because there are so many problems that anyone can spot at least some of them. And in fact, it's best to find critique partners that are on a similar skill level to you, because you'll learn a LOT from critiquing their work as well. Maybe you can't see what's wrong with your story yet, but you'll probably notice you don't really enjoy reading their work either. Sometimes you'll have to really think about WHY that is, exactly, depending on what the problem is.
If you're at this stage, I also recommend reading some books on writing. I never went writing book crazy, but there are two I love and still go back to: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King, and Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. (You could also opt for the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook instead if you enjoy that format.) The first one handles how to develop a style and line edit your work (not grammatically, but to improve readability and strengthen the prose), and the second one is good for plotting.
Where do you find beginner critique partners? Well, this is kind of the phase where you probably don't know how bad you are. I would not give your work to family, friends, or people you love and trust. They'll either lie, break your heart, or never have the time to read it. A great place to go is Critique Circle. The website makes it easy to submit critiques and critique other writers, and there is a point system set up so that you have to give critiques to get critiques. Therefore, almost every story will get some critiques because people need to earn points. You might even make some friends there and find someone to exchange with more closely.
At Critique Circle, you submit a chapter at a time, therefore it's best when your work really needs line editing. At some point, you won't get so much line editing, you'll get comments like "This character doesn't work for me" or "The pacing in this chapter dragged"--global comments. At this point, you'll want someone who will exchange larger chunks of story with you. There are a few ways you can find them.
If you have a blog, Twitter, etc and you've been making friends in the writing community, you can put out a call for readers there: "Hey, does anyone want to look at the first 50 pages of my novel? I'll be happy to reciprocate." I wouldn't ask for readers for the whole thing--too intimidating--and always be sure to return the favor. Also, when your friends ask for critiquers, you can always be the first to volunteer and build up "critiquer karma" so you can offer them your work when it's ready.
If you don't participate much in the online community, I think it would be really hard to find critique partners. Sometimes I see people pop onto the Blue Boards asking for crit partners, but I don't know what kind of response they get. I've always gotten critique partners through my blog.
I will mention, at first, it's better to give more than you take. Offer to give a lot of critiques and you'll learn things, make friends, and build goodwill. At first I critiqued more than I received critiques from others, and near the end of my pre-publication journey I had several people who would read my work just because they liked it. But it took time to get there.
During the intermediate phase, you might have a lot of critique partners. Maybe several at once, or maybe you'll run through them like Henry VIII went through wives. Sometimes you'll get advice that makes your forehead wrinkle, other times you might have three people telling you three different things (note: this usually just means something isn't working and there are many ways to fix it), but you'll learn a lot about how to use a critique. (My rule of thumb: Make changes if several people say the same thing, several people mention the same problem but offer different solutions, or if you're excited about the change. Don't take every suggestion.) You will learn exactly what you want in a critique partner.
Advanced is the ideal! One or two or three (probably not more than that) people who love your work, whose work you love to read, who will exchange entire manuscripts with you, turn them around when you need them for a deadline if they don't have a deadline themselves, and who will hash out ideas and problems when you're stumped. Finding this person is like...well, maybe not as hard as finding a romantic partner--you still don't have to share chores or finances--but it can be hard. Just as some people marry their high school sweetheart and some people go through three divorces and some people live and die alone, you might luck into a perfect critique partner early on, or it might take you 5+ years like me. It's a love match. Don't look too hard for it, let it find you, and don't feel bad if you don't have one. You'll manage without it.
Okay. Phew. OMG. If you like blogs with snappy advice, this is not the blog for you, is it? I'm so long winded...