Sep 13, 2011

Finding The Perfect Critique Partners

One of the benefits of joining all these writing groups on-line is finding critique partners. I just hooked up with a group of four, but am searching for others for more intimate one-on-one critiques that involve discussion as well as line editing. I have created and belonged to many in person groups while working on my adult novels, but found as the facilitator it was hard to get a good critique as people are leery to pick apart the leader's writing.

Even in cyber space, I see a hesitancy, and understandably so. On one critique board, the writer responded to a man's question with such rudeness, I doubt the critiquer will be back, or I, for that matter. Elsewhere, and I admit I have done this myself, there is praise and minor critiques in an attempt to be positive and encouraging.

That's not what I want when I ask someone to critique my work. I want to know how the story reads, if my characters are believable, likable, if my scenes are compelling. Let me know if I am telling when I should be showing. If you question a comment or action that is out of line with who you perceive my character to be, tell me.

I also need to know if I'm not talking to my intended audience. If I'm writing for middle grade and you think I'm dealing with things that won't hold their interest, while it might hurt to hear it, I do need to know that. It's just your opinion, and I, as the writer, have final say in all decisions, but your opinion is important to me. It makes me think and propels me to ask others so I make the right decisions.

Not everyone's critique can help me. If someone who writes and reads romance novels, worries  my language, violence, and graphic imagery is over the top then I have to take that from where it comes. If a literary writer starts cutting up my prose, I just need to smile and not worry. If you tell me you have kids and wouldn't let them read my book, I have to take that into consideration. If you have been studying the MG market and know what sells and what doesn't, then I would be a fool not to listen to you.

What I also need to know is if you would honestly continue reading my book based on my characters, plot, and writing. Most people don't want to hear that. I do. I have written six novels and have been told over and over how great they are, but if that's true then why aren't they published. When I went back to my critiquers and told them what agents said, they agreed. With my latest book, The Talent Collector, this happened surrounding Corbi's relationship with her brother. No one who read or critiqued the book said anything about Matt. When I reiterated what agents said, every one of them agreed and said they had been bothered by that as well. Why didn't they tell me? Because while they were all quick to find grammar errors, and other small stuff, they didn't want to challenge me on the bigger stuff, the important stuff that makes or breaks the book being picked up by an agent or publisher.

After reviewing and critiquing five novels for me, my daughter who is an avid reader told me on the fifth one how much she liked the change in my writing style and that she had a hard time with my previous style where I only used contractions in dialog. Wow, that was huge. What could that knowledge have done for me four books ago?

Critiquing is tough. You never know how much is enough and how honest to be. That is where trust comes in. I have a writer friend whose work I critique and she trusts me completely. I have no reason to say things I don't honestly believe. But I'm tough on her. I question dialog, redundancies, timelines, motivation, and even character names. I ask for slower pacing, more scenes, and deeper motives. There have been times she has gone home and cried over all my marks, not because I was harsh, but because she knows in many instances, I was right and she needs to do a major rewrite. She self-publishes her books (actually I do it for her, she is one of my best friends), and she wants her novels to be the best they can. She's an excellent writer and sells a lot of books, but when writing she tends to get lost in the story. No one else who critiques her work challenges her on her story. I pride myself on the trust she has in me, and I never worry that she will take anything as criticism rather than critique.

At times honesty can hurt, and you might feel defensive or even frustrated and start thinking you'll never get this, but if your goal, like mine, is to get published, then you have to listen to it all with an open mind. You can't own anything in a WIP. If someone trips over a word, change it. If a sentence pulls a reader out of the story, change it or delete it. If they question how something is plausible, then make sure it is. In my current YA WIP, one of my critiquers asked how my protagonist could wish her mother dead. She felt that was very harsh and bitter. In my original opening of the novel, I gave a lot of back story. After a great critique on the first five pages from Carolyn Chambers Clark, I changed that, but now, without knowing my protagonist's past, the hate seems to be out of place. This was a very important critique, one that will make me rework how I handle my MC's past. It will make my story tighter and more believable. In essence, it will help me tell a better story and raise my chances for success.

Praise has an important role in critiquing as well. It helps build trust and temper the negativity felt from critiques. There are always things in someone's story that make me smile, or catch me off guard, or make me stop and ponder. I always mark those. And I like to see them marked in my writing too, as long as they are honest.

The other thing I think is important in a critiquing partner is that we are on the same level in our writing skills and even paths towards success. I admit, I'd love someone published to go over my work, but then when I think about it, maybe I would take what she said too seriously and my writing would become more hers than mine. That's a risk. It's one of the reason I want a true peer to work with. I want to like what you're writing, your style of writing, and your speed. I tend to be a prolific writer, I can critique a full novel in one or two nights. Others are slower and prefer a more laid back partner. I need to work with someone like me. I need someone who will discuss things with me, let me throw a scene back at them to see what they think and who can explain their reasons for heavy critiques. For you to be a good critiquer for me, you'd need to understand my genre even if you don't write it.

I am searching for that intimate critique partner or two who I can learn to trust and who will trust me as I work through my current novel. If you're looking for a partner, don't settle. On-line group work is great for finished work. They find all those little things that will push your novel from slush pile to editors desk, but during that WIP, look hard for that right person or two who will challenge you to be the best writer possible.

8 comments:

  1. It sounds as though we have similiar interests! I'm doing YA fantasy. I'm writing my first trilogy and enjoying it so much. I have one online partner and we've developed a really good relationships, knowing our characters and the heart of our stories, helping each other wade through the puddles to get the the road. I understand your blog post. I think relationship is important when critiquing...after the line stuff, we need to know the heart issues.
    I love the Narnia series and LOTR as well as those you've mentioned. Love your trolls and sculptures!

    I'm presently bloging profile and portraits of my main characters...http://dragontargeseries.blogspot.com/

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  2. Thanks for commenting Dianna. I'm off to check out your blog.

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  3. Anabel (from paranormal critique group)September 14, 2011 at 7:43 AM

    You are right in every word. That's what I'm searching too! Of course for my translating I need help with vocabulary and grammar but to have a great story I will always need someone that's not afraid to say the true. If a character is not likable, if a scene don't work, etc. Soemtimes we as the writer have read so many times the same thing that we think that everything is correct and it's not. I can critique that quick but can't send my work so quick because I'm translating.

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  4. It is such a tough one, critiquing. Quite often people tell you what the problems are with what you've got but fail to tell you what is missing or don't have the heart to tell you it's okay but not really publishable. It's so tough out there.

    Got a blog award for you on my blog today :) http://catherinemjohnson.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/blog-award-and-book-giveaway-results/

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  5. Catherine and Anabel, thanks for stopping by. I agree, that it is hard to find that perfect mix. I try hard to keep my critiques to the level of the writer. If someone is a beginner, I'm not going to say, this isn't publishable, but if someone writes well and is seriously seeking publication I might tell them the story needs some revamping to be publishable.

    An award Catherine. Wow. Thanks. I'm off to check it out.

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  6. Hi Balin, great post, and really well thought out! I definitely agree with your thoughts - it's so important to get the right fit in a critique partner. I've been in critique groups, and have some awesome individual CPs who've taught me so much. I'm also looking for other CPs who I can learn to trust over the long term and who can challenge me too - I'd definitely agree that it's important to find someone on the same level as you (or higher).

    I'd suggest we swap pages and see how we fit, but I can't work as fast as you, I'm afraid. All the best in finding someone who you can trust and build that long-term relationship with :)

    Hugs,

    Rach

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  7. LOL, if you love this, you have to read my WIP!!! :D

    "I am in love with the idea of schizophrenia--not to downplay the seriousness of the illness. The idea that our minds can form other worlds, people, and experiences fascinates me, and shows up in many of my stories. As do sociopaths, and the idea that for most it is easier to follow than lead."

    Hugs,

    Rach

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  8. Rachel, I will definitely check out your WIP!

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