--about whether a writer can learn anything without a more skilled mentor to guide her.
Ahhh. There's the magic of it.
Peer review--review by people at your own skill level (and slightly above) is at least as useful as review by somebody much 'better' that you are, I find. And often *more* useful.
What people seem to be missing is that the workshop does not have the power to make any given story publishable. No matter how many crits you receive to improve an unpublishable story, chances are that *that given story* will remain unpublishable. As you improve in skill, you will understand why.
I do not say this facetiously.
I have a big-ass trunk full of unpublishable stories. They cannot be saved. They were stillborn. They, in the vernacular, are turds, and no amount of polishing will make them anything other than very shiny--
Was the time spent writing those stories and polishing them wasted? Even though they are naughty in my sight and will never see the light of day, and I cannot *believe* that I ever let them leave the scented bower of my hard drive?
Well, because after I wrote them and polished them and sent them out, I wrote another story. Which didn't have quite the same flaws as the one before that. And then I polished THAT slightly different turd and sent it out. And wrote another story, which was somewhat less turdlike, because in process of reviewing somebody else, I realized something I was doing wrong.
And then maybe somebody on my own skill level said, "Here's something you're not doing well."
And I scoffed. Lo, I scoffed! For I was the baddest sunnufabich in the valley, and I knew what I was doing.
That story is trunked now too.
As is the one after it. And the one after that. And then I sold one--and oh god, thank you the anthology has gone out of print since 1998. Hallelujah. It is gone, daddy, gone. But somewhere, somebody read it--and no doubt walked away with a very poor impression of my ability to delineate a coherent sentence.
Nevermind tell a god-damned story.
And then I trunked everything I wrote the next year. And the year after that. And a novel or three. Or four. And when I received reviews from more experienced writers, I often didn't know what they were talking about, or I frothed and fumed because they didn't appreciate my brilliance, and I was doing "x" clumsy, awkward, ugly thing because it was "part of my style."
I knew what I was doing. Dammit!
--Oh, here's A Very Good Story, but it starts in the wrong place. And this one is a Very Good Story, but the idea isn't quite up to snuff. And that one over there is a Very Good Story, but--
--wait, these are the same people I was reviewing last year, who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag.
Maybe *I* couldn't write my way out of paper bag, either.
Shit, lookit that. A paper bag. How did I get in here? How do you suppose I get out?
And then I realized one day early this year what a comment I got last year from a much more experienced writer had mean regarding a story *I* thought was among my best. It had taken me six months to reach a skill level that let me understand what he was trying to tell me.
It took me three more months before I could *fix* the problem.
Meanwhile writting, critting, being critted by people at my own skill level. Or a little over. Or a little below.
I *can* review/comment on pieces by people who are much more or less skillfull than I am. I do, in fact, do this.
However, my advice is most useful to people who are about where I am, and vice versa. Because somebody whose sentence level writing isn't strong--I can sit down and explain to them why it isn't strong.
They'll ignore me, baby. They'll be ready to hear that advice in a year. or two. or ten. But I do not have the power to turn anybody else's story into something publishable, whether it is a story by a writer that's a million miles from ready, or one that needs just a nudge to put it over the edge.
Can't be done.
Many early stories cannot be saved. But it takes a few years to see why they can't be saved, and it has to be done the hard way, so that later stories reach a level where they *can* be saved. Peer reviews are valuable. A mentor relationship is nice, but nonessential.
Writing can't be taught: it can be demonstrated, but it has to be learned by the would-be writer.
This is why most writers do in fact have wise readers, literary friends, crit circles, beta readers. Pals. Amy Thomson uses a crit circle. Caitlin Kiernan has beta readers.
There's really no solution except the one nobody really wants to hear: the way to learn to write is to write for ten years, read everything you can get your hands on, and analyze it to death--as much for why it works as why it doesn't.
That million words of shit is not just an expression.
Hell, I've probably written two million words of shit, and I've been doing it for fifteen years, and I'm *still* not selling consistently.
And all *I* can teach a brand-new writer is the same stuff that people a little above his level can teach him, because you have to learn the foundations before you can learn the curlicues. and 99% of writing well enough to publish is foundation. And that last 1%, the gingerbread, what Charlie Finlay calls "doing things right"--takes ten times as long.
Will I continue to review beginning writers? You betcha. Because that's the way it works. You don't pay it back, in the immortal words of Robert Heinlein. You pay it forward.
Can I make their early stories publishable? Not any more than my early reviewers stood a chance in hell of making my early stuff fit to be seen.
I wish I had better news for you, but that's the way it works. It's by your bootstraps, or not at all.