Monday, May 14, 2012

Critique Partners

Now, it's been said a zillion times, you need to find a critique partner. For some, this is relatively easy, they just ask someone and boom, they have a partner. For others, not so much. There's a level of trust that must be examined when offering up your work to another person.  Finding a good partner is like searching for a needle in a proverbial haystack.

I've been lucky. All I had to do was ask. My first few partners and I didn't work out, not that I didn't love them and what they showed me with their advice and suggestions, it's just that we ended up writing in different genres and not knowing the YA or science fiction or paranormal genre, it was better to part ways, than to try and suffer through reading and critiquing what I didn't understand and frustrating them. Just the same as they didn't understand my Regency romances.

So if you're going to look, I'd suggest finding someone in your own genre.  Beta readers, on the other hand, are a different story. I specifically ask people who do not write in my genre to read my books. Their feedback is priceless, because if they like what I've written, then I know the people who DO read my genre, will like it too. However, I'm not going to send my Regency off to a writer of horror. I mean, what's the point, unless they express an interest in it. I stick to other genre romance writers, or women's fiction writers.

Back to trust. Handing your work off to someone else, is (to me) like handing my child to a complete stranger. Will they take care of her? Will they reprimand her? Will they feed her? Keep her from danger? Or will they just let her play in traffic willy-nilly, and not offer her anything more than a couple of crackers and a glass of water?

In sending off a complete manuscript for inspection and critique to another, you first must decide what you are after in the critique. Some people only want grammar checks, some to find plot holes, others want character assessments, and still others want the whole shebang. I have two partners now, one mainly for grammar and plot holes, the other for general assessment of the characters and complete storyline. Of course, both are free to inform me of anything that doesn't work, and they do, so it's a bonus for me.

That being said, when I offer a critique (to my partners or anyone else) the first thing I say, is that what I've critiqued are only SUGGESTIONS. I'm no expert, as I've stated, however, I'm also not stupid and generally know what works and what doesn't in a book. Therefore, if something isn't working, I'm going to tell them so, and the reason why. You can't just say, "Oh this doesn't work" and leave it at that, you have to tell them why, IN YOUR OPINION, you don't think it does. And then I offer up a suggestion or idea of what to do to make it work. It is then up to them to decide if they want to use it or not.

(Both my partners and I respect and trust each other enormously, so when Partner B decided one of my scenes made my MC look like a despot, she suggested I rewrite it and offered up an idea. Now mind you, the book, in my eyes, was done. However, after discussing it with Partner A, and she agreed with B, I rewrote the scene, which both B and A loved, and the MC came off as cute rather than awful. You have to learn to take the criticism that comes and decide what to do with it. If I wanted to keep my MC looking like a despot, I would have ignored her suggestion. But I thought her opinion had merit and so changed it. And that's not to say she wanted me to change other things, which I did not.)

Another area you need to look at when finding a crit partner is their level of expertise. When I first started writing, my partners and I were at the same level -- newbies. So we all learned how to do it together. And I learned a lot. Not only from them, but from following the blogs, reading craft books, and just plain writing. Practice makes perfect. And just because I'm published now, doesn't make me an expert in the art of critique. I still have tons to learn and that's what my partners are for. To show me the error of my ways with words. Both are brilliant writers, and have a clear distinct voice that I am insanely jealous of. One has written and finished five books and is under contract with a small publisher, the other has just finished her first novel, however has a long list of credits writing for magazines and newspapers as well as e-zines.

Now, I generally don't send them my book as I'm working on it. I wait until I'm completely finished and have gone through the ms. with my own fine tooth comb at least three times. Why? Because I feel that in order to do a thorough critique, they need to see the whole story together. If I send them chapter by chapter, it bogs down my writing process with editing and rewriting. And if I write something in Chapter 6, and then decide it needs to be changed when I get to Chapter 27, if they remember it, then they'll wonder where it is and question it, which leads to a round of emails and takes away from my writing. If I send them chapter by chapter, we're also both sick of looking at it and that's no fun for them when it comes to reading the final manuscript. They've already read it, so the reading becomes more like skimming, and who wants that from a critique?

That's not to say, that I don't send them a chapter or a scene just for review. If I know that something's not working and I need help with it, I'll send them just the bit I'm having trouble with. Usually their insights lend me an idea I wouldn't have come up with on my own.

And I never send a first draft. EVER. When the book is finished, I go over it with another comb, line edits, revisions, rewrites, grammar, punctuation, etc. I remove all the green and red squigglies and format the document as if I were getting ready to upload it. I want their reading experience to be free of encumbrances so they will enjoy it, and also, with a clean manuscript, errors are easier to find. The way I'm writing now, I write and revise and edit as I go along so by the time I'm finished, it's pretty much in 5th or 6th draft form. I only need to go over it once or twice before I send it off. Less painful than trying to restructure, or revise the whole thing. Which takes time I don't have. And in sending off a clean ms. it allows you to look professional. You wouldn't send a first draft to an agent or a publisher would you? Why do it to your crit partner.

And lastly, there needs to be praise. You can't just give a critique and tell the person just the mistakes they've made. You need to sprinkle in some good in there as well. I mean, if all you say is bad, then the writer will think their book sucks. And you know it doesn't, otherwise you wouldn't have offered to read it. Besides, how do you feel when all you hear is bad stuff. Doesn't feel good now does it?

Now having said all that, what do you do if you don't have a critique partner. Well, you hire an independent copy editor or proof reader. Most will offer a few pages of critique for free just to see if you like their work. Some charge by the page, others a flat rate. And sometimes even with critique partners, a copy editor/proof reader is a good thing. I just found this guy Robert Van de Laak, who reviewed one of my short stories and let me tell you what...I was blown away by how many mistakes  he found. Not only for grammar, but punctuation (mostly comma placement) and spelling (did you know the mantel on a fireplace is spelled -el, not -le. I didn't.) I normally don't recommend someone until asked, but if you find yourself in need of a once over, this is the guy to do it.  Tell him Anne sent you. (and no I was not paid for this endorsement.)

So there you have it. Tell me -- Do you have one or two critique partners? Are you in a group? How did you find yours? Do you love yours as much as I love mine? How do you critique? Do you use an independent resource for crits? Was any of this helpful? Please feel free to offer up your own suggestions in the comments.


Al said...

Finding people to crit your work is certainly a difficult task.
Recently I have used some of my internet acquaintances.

Linda G. said...

Good post!

I think it's good to have more than one critique partner, if at all possible. The different perspectives can be invaluable. If one doesn't like something, and it doesn't bother the others, you know it's probably just a matter of opinion. If something bothers the majority of your CPs (or betas), you might want to fix it. ;)

Anne Gallagher said...

Al -- I think that's the best place to find them. Expecially if you've been "friends" for awhile.

Linda -- Yes, that's what I like best about having two right now. If both agree something's not working, then I know I have to fix it. Also, if my beta readers don't like the same thing, then I know I'm in trouble.

Stacy McKitrick said...

I have two CPs. I think (one hasn't responded in awhile, so I'm beginning to wonder...). But I know what you mean about trusting someone you basically don't know.

I find their opinion valuable, though. They are not family and will tell me like it is. I need that, no matter how hard it is to hear/read!

Anne Gallagher said...

Stacy -- That's the key -- finding someone whose opinion you trust!

jbchicoine said...

When I started out looking for beta readers and crit partners, I was in desperate need of reassurance. It's been over 3 years since I began seriously pursuing the craft (and getting published).

Now, I have a crit partner , as you know. As I've become more confident in my work, I simply don't feel the need for a bunch, though having at least one or two other betas helps, as Lind G said, "If one doesn't like something, and it doesn't bother the others, you know it's probably just a matter of opinion." So, for that reason, I still pass my work around to a few readers, just to point out anything that might be glaring.

Bossy Betty said...

Great advice--especially the part about not sending the first draft!

Anne Gallagher said...

Bridget -- Like you, I think that once we get the hang of this writing thing, and become more confident, having too many people disseminate our work spoils what might have been a fine manuscript. Too many cooks spoil the soup, as it were.

Betty -- I'm sure you must see a lot of those in your job. It's so trying, to have to correct the simple things that could have been taken care of easily.

Johanna Garth said...

Such good advice. Especially going through your work to make sure it's really ready. Right now my beta readers are dying for me to give them Losing Hope and I'm doing that one last edit to make sure it's completely set for them!

Talli Roland said...

These are great tips, Anne. I think the most important thing I learned is to be very certain WHY you've done things in your draft before sending it off to CPs. Otherwise, differing opinions can really throw you for a loop.

R. Mac Wheeler said...

Well said.

But one thing I'd add. I cross-beta'd with a great writer from Ireland. I hadn't realized until then how much difference there is between versions of English.

Idiom and spelling isn't something you can take for granted.

This can very much impact the way your partner takes your dialogue as well.

Cheers, Mac

Francine Howarth: UK said...

Intriguing post!

I had two CPs, until one sadly died of cancer. So, one it is...She does write in same genre Romance: both historical and contemporary... I don't have a beta reader. Instead I have an editor. Yep, she's an academic editor, so reading romances gives her the opportunity to escape into fiction...She has admitted to often getting lost in the story and completely forgetting to edit as she goes. She then has to go back and read again...She has now settled to reading for pleasure in the first instance and editing second-round read. ;)


Anne Gallagher said...

Johanna -- It's so hard to let it go sometimes. Just once more...

Talli -- Yeah, I get that a lot. It's funny when they read something in Chapter 3 and wonder why it's there, I'll get a question on it, but when they find it again in Chapter 17, they say AHA!

Mac -- Very true. I always put the British versions in my books, just because I'm write that way. Sometimes, not only my critters but Word doesn't like them that way.

Francine -- Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss. And I'm so jealous you have an editor. I sometimes have to read through twice as well. I have a penchant for getting lost.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I don't have a critique partner, perse, but I do belong to a large writing group. We've been together for 5 years. We were all unpubbed when we started. We write many different genres. Much of what I've learned about the nuts and bolts of publishing has been from them sharing the knowledge as they've moved up the chain. We have two NYT bestsellers in our group and several award winning authors. I'm so proud of them! We have met each other at many conferences-some at booksignings, some just passing through and wanting to get together for dinner or something.

I've done critiques for several in the group. They've returned the favor. I also critique proposals for new series. I have a good friend who is a professional fiction editor (also part of the group). She has a fabulous eye for not only the overall story but how to develop greater impact and grammar (we call her the grammar queen). I don't sent first drafts to her--not that I couldn't, but I know she's busy and I know what at what stage the manuscript should be before I send it to for a look.

Trust is everything. This is my work. Not only for receiving the truth but knowing it won't be stolen. I don't trust my work to anyone.

I also have a fellow writer and now pubbed friend and we keep a IM window open and crack the whip on word counts bounce ideas or plot points of each other. Nice to have.


J.L. Campbell said...

My critique partners come within the boundaries of a member workshop site, which has been an awesome experience.

We go a chapter of a time, which is maybe why I've never given anyone - other than local friends - an entire MS to read.

Critique Partners are invaluable.

Donna Hosie said...

I've been rather unlucky with critique partners and so I tend to trust the submission process with agents. I'm lucky in that I always get feedback which is enormously helpful.

Mark Koopmans said...

Great article - full of really useful tips - especially for me, as I will be sending out my first ms to some crit partners over the next few months.... thanks :)

Sarah Ahiers said...

it's hard for me to find people that can help me the way i need help. I get a lot of line edit stuff, which i don't really need. Sigh. It's an ongoing stuggle for me

Anne Gallagher said...

Sia -- Trust is everything. And I like the idea of IMing. But I'm afraid my crit partners and I would get side tracked as we so often do anyway.

Joy -- I've never worked with a group, but I can imagine it would be both daunting and exciting. I also couldn't do chapters, that would drive me crazy to wait.

Donna -- You have been lucky with agents, so you must be doing something right.

Mark -- Anytime. If it's a first time thing, be sure to format correctly, and take out all those squigglies. They just get in the way.

Sarah -- You know you can always ask me.

Patti said...

CP are invaluable. I agree it's a hard thing to put yourself out there, but once you find the right person it's worth it.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Wonderful advice. I think it's crucial to praise as well as offer suggestions. Although, I once paid for a professional critique that ended up being mostly praise. Great for the self esteem, but useless in terms of making the story better. ; )

Liza said...

I have two amazing woman who have ready a pretty messy draft and given me excellent feedback that I hope I am channelling into a deeper, albiet more consise story. Their comments, however direct, have stimulated me to keep moving and to develop further layers in the piece. Oh, and believe it or not, some of the comments are laugh-out-loud funny...I am grateful for all of it.

Jennifer Hillier said...

Critique partners are awesome! I never had CPs for the first book, but I did workshop it quite a bit. In hindsight, I probably got a little TOO much feedback at the time, which was overwhelming for awhile, but it was definitely worth it.