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Finding Your Soul (Critique) Mate

August 7, 2014

When I first started writing, I didn’t share my work with anyone. It felt so private, an intrusion on something very personal given that I always adhered to the adage of writing what I knew. In my stories, familiar faces cropped up, frequenting haunts I knew too well. I didn’t feel comfortable letting anyone else into that world because first, it was too private; and second, what if my writing wasn’t any good?

Eventually, when I decided I wanted to get serious about my writing, I revisited that mindset. Thing is, the vast majority of writers don’t write their debut novel without assistance by others or involvement in the writing world. There’s a whole underground world of us – on forums like query tracker and absolute write, and active in writing groups and reading everything we can get our hands on.

It’s all practice. All of it. And every writer, no matter how good, is better for doing it.

One of the most valuable – if not the most valuable – assets for a writer is a critique partner. I have had, without exaggeration, at least two dozen. Of those two dozen, I have four consistent critique partners who have stuck with me for at least three years. These partners will tell me when I need to scrap something, point out embarrassing grammar errors I’ve skimmed over after numerous re-reads, and hone in on weak points to a story. They tell me when they love what they’ve read, but they’re also honest when they don’t love it. That’s what’s valuable – geez, what if I didn’t give my books to my critique partners before they went to my agent? He’s a busy guy. I have to make sure my work is vetted before I toss it into his inbox.

If you are a writer, and you are looking for a critique partner, the first question to ask yourself is what approach you want from a critique partner. Be honest. I’ve had writers I’ve exchanged with who love it when they get line edits and they’re told honestly that their story needs to be restructured. On the other hand, I’ve had writers who have argued with me when I tell them that something that happens in the novel isn’t physically possible, or distracting, or that a character isn’t well-developed. It’s subjective – everyone says take what’s valuable and leave the rest when it comes to comments.

Do you want someone who will be honest with you? How critical is too critical? (There’s a distinction between constructive criticism and being plain mean). Or do you just want support?

The next question is what you want from a critique partner. Do you want line edits? Overall comments? Do you know what you want them to focus on with a particular piece of work? (such as dialogue, character, whether a certain plot line works). This is important, because when it comes to critique partners, it can be imbalanced. I’ll tell you, I’m a line editor and I give an overall critique – I don’t think I could do it any other way and be happy with myself. This takes an enormous amount of effort, and sometimes I feel a little let down when I swap with someone new and it’s obvious I spent hours and hours critiquing their book when all I get is a few lines in the margin on mine. That’s not anyone’s fault – it’s just different styles. However, if you have a critique partner you’ve worked with for a while, you know what you’re getting and they know what to expect from you.

A lot about finding the perfect critique partner comes down to trial and error. You exchange with another writer, and you see how it goes. Ultimately the relationship fades out, or it stays. I am lucky enough to have four critique partners that I’ve worked with for at least three years, and each of them has read at least three of my books. (And for anyone who is actively looking for places to find a critique partner, I found all of these individuals on query tracker).

The longevity shows that we’re doing something right: Ashley, Veronica, Kate, and Rachel, I appreciate you! I’m a better writer because I listened to you.

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2 Comments
  1. teresa permalink

    How did you manage to find your group? Did you do it online or were you referred somehow?

    • It was all solely online – I paid attention to who I thought wrote well, and had a similar or complementary style to me on query tracker, and I reached out to them.

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