Thursday, July 15, 2010

3 critique partner myths

With just a few days and a few thousand words to go before I finish the first draft of LET IT BREATHE, I’m starting to look ahead.

No, I don’t mean the wine I plan to celebrate with (Van Duzer’s 2007 Estate Pinot Noir, in case you’re wondering).

I mean the stage where I hand it off to critique partners and beta readers and give them the opportunity to devise creative new ways to say, “what the @#$% were you thinking?”

In all seriousness, I couldn’t do this without these guys. I’ve worked with the same two critique partners and three beta readers since the early years of my writing journey, and we’ve fine-tuned the process a lot.

While I won’t claim to be an expert, I can tell you I cringe each time I see someone state a “fact” about the critiquing relationship that goes against what I’ve experienced. Though we’ve all got our own systems, there are some ideas that seem like a load of aardvark poo to me:

MYTH #1: You should only heed advice from a critique partner who’s published. When I started critiquing with my two current partners over six years ago, none of us had a book deal. Though two of the three now do, I can honestly say it doesn’t make a bit of difference.

One misconception about the critiquing relationship is that suggestions are either “right” or “wrong,” and a published author has more “right” ones. Not true. Good critique partners tell you how your story impacts them and how they – as writers – might improve things. It doesn’t mean you have to take their advice. Plenty of times I ignore it, or use it as a springboard to generate an idea of my own. Other times, I’ll make a mental note of something one critique partner stumbled over. If a beta reader has the same reaction later, I’ll take a closer look.

The idea here is to gather feedback from people with different life experiences and perspectives. A good critique partner doesn’t need a book deal, she just needs a brain. And maybe some good Riedel wine glasses.

MYTH #2: I must have critique partners who write in my genre. I agree with this in part. Cynthia Reese (critique partner #1) writes romance, so she knows the ins and outs of the genre. But Linda Brundage (critique partner #2) writes literary fiction, and could probably count on one hand the number of romance novels she’s read.

This is a good mix for me. I rely on Cynthia to remind me of the “rules,” and Linda to encourage me to break them. Cynthia makes sure my story has enough conflict, and Linda points out when I’ve confused “conflict” with “being a bitch.” Cynthia keeps an eye on my characters' budding romance, and Linda questions whether my hero could really get my heroine’s bra off that fast.

The balance of the two perspectives is invaluable. As an added romance safety net, one of my three beta readers is a lifelong devotee of the romance genre. If I miss the boat, she beats me until I get back on it.

MYTH #3: I need a critique partner in my town so we can have coffee and pillow fights when we swap manuscripts. Once upon a time, I traded hard copy manuscripts with a critique partner. This ended after I had the brilliant idea to critique Linda’s manuscript on a boat in the middle of a lake on a windy afternoon.

These days, everything is electronic. Each critique partner or beta reader gets the manuscript in a Word doc, re-titles it using her initials, and plugs comments directly into the manuscript using a different color of text. It’s easy to spot them and simple to delete or ignore. Though critiques are often followed by lengthy email exchanges and phone calls, there’s no need to meet. In fact, Cynthia Reese and I have never met in person – not once in six years. But I’d sooner cut off my left nipple than do without her perspective.

So there you have it. The three biggest myths (in my humble opinion) about working with critique partners. Do you have any to add? Do disagree with any of my points? How does your system work?

Or if you’re new to the world of critique partners and beta readers, do you have questions for those who’ve run the gauntlet before?

Please discuss in the comments.

I’ll be over here gazing lovingly at that bottle of Pinot. Just a few more days, and it will be mine.

35 comments :

Karla Nellenbach said...

Nice post! I do have one question though: You would rather cut off your left nipple than lose Cynthia...does that mean that she's not as valuable to you as your right nipple? Just wondering :)

Holly Ruggiero, Southpaw said...

I have not joined the world of crit partners. Why? They scare me. It seems like a tough (geez does that would looked spelled wrong for what?) bit of work to find one that you mesh with let alone two. What if I suck at being a crit giver? Yeah, I know suck it up.

Danica Avet said...

I love my CPs and okay, they frequently make me crack up laughing because their comments are so hilarious. They point out things I don't realize I've missed and say whether or not my characters are crazy (um, see, I talk to myself a lot - I'm not crazy - and apparently, so do my characters).

I can't think of anything else to add other than: Share your joys and sorrows with your CP and let them share theirs with you. It helps to have someone on the journey you've traded pages with who is going through the exact same thing you are.

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Hmm, blogger ate my comment, trying again...

Great points! I do have a crit group where everyone writes romance, but all different subgenres--paranormal, suspense, category, erotic. So it works out well. And like yours, we have some published, some not. The combo is great. :)

Dawn said...

These are great tips and I agree. I'd also add that while you don't need a crit partner that lives in your same city, you do need one you can trust. I don't heed every piece of feedback I'm given, BUT, because I trust my partner, the not-so-awesome feedback is much easier to swallow.

Sharon Axline said...

Great advice - as always! My critique group is quite diverse as well and I think it really helps to get different views on things!

Leah Petersen said...

Great post. I love, love, love my crit partners and they don't write my genre and none of them are published yet. But their insights, even just their unfiltered reactions have been invaluable.

Elizabeth Ryann said...

I'm having a hard time picturing Cynthia and your bloody left nipple in the same image.

But I do have a question: How did you find your critique partners (and betas), and know that they were the ones for you?

Jen J. Danna said...

Tawna, great post and I wholeheartedly agree with your three points.

I have one little question though: You refer to your critique partners and your beta readers -- what's the official difference between the two? I'd pretty much consider them to be the same thing, I think...

Patty Blount said...

Great post and what you said about critique partners telling you how your story impacts them reminded me of the great twitter exchange among Bill, Beth and Dan yesterday about digging deep into why we like (or dislike) books we've read.

I don't have partners (yet) though I'd love to find them. This sounds like a relationship well worth the sacrifice of a nipple (or two).

Margaret said...

A very solid summation. I have a critique group and a few long-standing critique associations that have become friendship, but pretty much all of them are online. I use the same method for giving and receiving crits as you do, only we use track changes and comments because they're searchable where font colors are not.

Me, I like blunt, detailed critiques. That's what I give too. And I think most of my vic--umm recipients--would agree that having the crit delivered without an audience so we can go through the steps of grief and come out on the side of productivity in private :).

Sydnee said...

But I’d sooner cut off my left nipple than do without her perspective.

Oh my. She's really important to you, is she? You can have ALL my friends. I'm keeping my nips, thanks.

Candyland said...

Excellent myths revealed! I think the balance is good with un-pubbed/pubbed writers, your genre/not your genre etc. It gives a bit more perspective.

Anne R. Allen said...

A useful post. It's great to see how different writers handle the critiquing process. A diverse group of critiquers certainly can give perspective and keep you from falling into genre ruts.

And more and more of us seem to be getting into online critiquing, although I think we lose the human-contact support group aspect of the old writers circles.

Jennifer Shirk said...

great myths revealed!

I "kind of" agree with #2. I guess it doesn't matter to have a crit partner who doesn't write in your genre if they don't mind reading outside their genre.
I thought I would read anything when I first started looking for a crit parnter, but then when it came down to it, I didn't really enjoy it and felt I couldn't offer that person anything really constructive. But that's just me. :)

Tawna Fenske said...

Karla, I very deliberately mentioned the left nipple because it IS more valuable than the right. Cynthia should be honored. Or repulsed, same thing.

Holly, I encourage you to dive in ASAP! There's no way I could do what I do without the input of my amazing CPs and betas.

Danica, another great reason to start off with CPs at the same level you are -- it's fun to grow and learn together and celebrate each other's milestones (first manuscripts, agents, book deals, etc.)

Roni, yeah, Blogger is eating a lot of comments lately. Not sure what's up with that. Sounds like you've got an amazingly diverse critique group!

Dawn, so very true about having a CP you trust. I've watched other CP relationships in which the trust wasn't there, and it gets ugly fast. Not productive for anyone.

Sharon, don't you love diverse critique groups? I will say that I'd struggle a bit to critique a genre I didn't particularly care for. I'd have a tough time with sci-fi, for example (since that's not a genre I like much) though I had a great time critiquing some crime fiction for someone a couple months ago.

Leah, hang on to those CPs with all your might! Finding ones you mesh with is invaluable.

Elizabeth, great question (and one I should probably address in a future blog post, since I get asked this all the time). Cynthia and I connected on the eHarlequin forums when we were both newbie authors targeting different lines. Linda and I met when we were both working as tech writers and decided there had to be a more creative outlet for our writing endeavors. The three betas are women I've known for 8+ years who are voracious, opinionated readers, super grammarians, and who know me well enough to feel confident they don't have to sugar-coat their feedback. I know lots of people have good luck finding CPs in the forums at Absolute Write.

OK, I'M BREAKING RIGHT HERE BECAUSE @#$% BLOGGER SAY COMMENTS CAN'T EXCEED 4,096 CHARACTERS. WTF?

Tawna

Tawna Fenske said...

Jen, great question about the CPs versus beta readers. The main distinction for me is that the CPs are both writers. When I talk about GMC or BBM or WIP, they don't look at me like I'm nuts. If they stumble over a problem, they're the ones who can say, "here's how I'd fix it." Because CPs are also writers, they're more in-tune with how manuscripts can go off-course (and how to get them back on course). By contrast, my beta readers are strictly that -- readers. They don't write, but all three of them are voracious and very, very critical readers. Each of the three serves a very distinct and very crucial purpose. One is extremely detail-oriented and a total stickler for grammar. She's the one who will notice my heroine is wearing a pink bandanna on page 17 but a yellow on on page 239. Another beta reader tends to be a bit more emotional, so I count on her as my gut-check for when things might be too offensive or out-there. She's also the one who reads tons of romance, so she knows my genre best of all. My third beta is also a voracious reader in multiple genres, and is EXTREMELY opinionated about the books she reads. She's actually a member of my book club, so I've seen her tear apart novels we've read there for the last 10+ years, and I count on her to do the same for me. That's it in a nutshell :)

Patty, definitely start your quest for CPs now -- it's great when you can grow together!

Margaret, font colors are definitely searchable! I didn't figure that out until a few years into it, but it's just an advanced option in Word's find/replace menu. Email me if you want me to walk you through it step-by-step. I've never much liked track changes because a lot of our notes aren't suggested changes, per-se, but mulit-paragraph critiques of scenes or chapters. Not something you can easily "decline" or "accept." But I know track changes works great for lots of people, so if you're liking it, stick with it!

Sydnee, why do I think Cynthia won't be flattered by my assertion? :)

Candyland, indeed -- perspective is what it all boils down to!

Anne, great point! I'm not sure I ever would have functioned well in an old-fashioned writers' circle because I don't think as fast on my feet when it comes to book discussion. I have to mull things over with my hands on a keyboard.

Jennifer, great point -- it's got to be a genre you at least LIKE, even if it's not the one you write. For example, I could do pretty well with women's fiction, commercial fiction, YA, mysteries or thrillers. I wouldn't do as well with sci-fi or paranormal because those aren't genres I normally read or enjoy.

Thanks for reading, guys! Great discussion here!
Tawna

Jamey Stegmaier said...

"the brilliant idea to critique Linda’s manuscript on a boat in the middle of a lake on a windy afternoon."

Wow, bold move. Really bold move.

Elizabeth Flora Ross said...

I just joined my first formal critique group. I have certain people I have worked with for a long time, but when an opportunity was offered to join an "official" critique group, I took it. I currently have a piece out with them, and I am so nervous to receive their responses. I think it is hard, b/c we tend to be SO attached to our writing. And for me, I write nonfiction, about my actual life. So it can be hard sometimes to remember that criticism of the writing/story is not criticism of ME.

Margaret said...

Tawna, I should have said not easily searchable. When we started out, there were blue, red, purple, etc comments to find and they're not easy to put in either. Yes, for non-change stuff (anything not typos) we use comments and there's a simple next comment/previous comment button on the reviewing toolbar to flip through and make sure I've found all of them.

But ultimately, if you've got it so it works for you, don't change. Wasting time changing what isn't broken makes no sense.

Jen J. Danna said...

Thanks for the clarification of CP vs. beta. I had a group of 10 critique readers, but truthfully, we always referred to them as Team!Beta. Of the 10, 5 of them are authors, 3 are professional editors and two are critical readers, so I really had a mixed bag. But the mixed bag was great because the authors homed in on character and story arc points, the editors nitpicked line edits and the readers were kind of a catchall of both. So it all worked out well in the end, no matter what I was calling them!

But having a great critique team really is crucial. You can't make it better without that kind of constructive criticism (even if it something is “what the @#$% were you thinking?” ;)

Terry Stonecrop said...

I value my crit partners too. I wouldn't sacrifce a nipple for them but they do help.

Sometimes, at first pass, a crit comment strikes me as garbage. But, invariably, once I've slept on it, I realize ahha, he's right, now I know what he meant.

Expat mum said...

For some reason, the idea of having fiction work ctique'd like this is scarier than with a non-fiction work. But for anyone who's too scared to even do it, I'd say it's better to have negative feedback from a few than a whole crowd when your uncritique'd book hits the shelves.

Patty Blount said...

OK, next question: where/how do you find crit partners and beta readers?

Patrick Alan said...

There's no pictures with this post. Certainly a pillow fight or left nipple could have accompanied this post.

My beta-reader/crit partner is in Iraq.

Bookewyrme said...

Great post! I don't disagree with it (except I just call them all beta readers and let it go at that. But I still have both kinds so I can't exactly disagree).

Just wanted to add one thing. You mention about adding comments in different colors and I have to spread the...uh, word about MS Word Comment and Edit Tracking. Because, seriously, this thing is the best invention since before sliced bread, particularly for beta-reading/critiquing. It is super easy, all you have to do is go to your toolbars and bring up the Reviewing toolbar. Then you click track changes (so if you delete or add any words to change typos, it will do all kinds of things like underline, change text color to your choice, and add lines in the margins). You can also highlight a piece of text and Add Comment, then type your comment in the margin. The best part is, when the author gets the comments back all they have to do is hit a single button to go directly from one comment to the next, super handy in a long manuscript when there might be several pages between comments.

Anyway. Done fangirling now, I promise.
~Lia

Elisabeth Black said...

Congratulations on almost being done!

I'm reading up on this, because I'm just now realizing how important it is to have the right critique partners. I've never had someone read a first draft of a novel before, though I've finished two. I guess I always thought I'd get it to where I thought it ought to be and then send it out. I'm kind of embarrassed at how wrong it seems like this is - does everyone else really not do it that way?

Deborah Blake said...

I think this is right on. The only thing you might have added is that you have to be careful when picking CP's. I had one that did a lot more taking than giving (I'd read her stuff and do "emergency" edits, dropping all my own writing to do so, and then she rarely got around to doing mine). And I know other folks who have had CP's who were uber-critical or just not helpful.
That being said, I'd cut off your left nipple rather than give up the CP's I work with now, too.
Witchy Betty, following you over from Lucy's blog

Tawna Fenske said...

Jamey, I'm not sure "bold" is the right word. "Stupid" might be more accurate.

Elizabeth, I'd never thought of that, but what an excellent point -- it would be tough not to take critiques of non-fiction too personally!

Margaret, very true, gotta stick with what works. I suppose if my CPs or agent desperately wanted to switch to "track changes," we'd probably make the move. But so far, no one's pushing for it.

Jen, I think a lot of people use slightly different language, and I've heard plenty of folks refer to all critique partners as beta readers. For me, it just makes it easier to distinguish between the ladies with whom I trade manuscripts versus the ladies who read for me out of the kindness of their hearts (with the occasional promise of a bottle of wine for their troubles!)

Terry, oh I totally know that feeling! Every time I get feedback from a CP, I sit there muttering to myself about how he/she totally didn't get it. Within 24 hours, I usually realize it was me who didn't get it.

Expat mum, good point about feedback being easier to hear from a handful of CPs than from a bunch of angry book reviewers or readers. I shuddered a little just then to think of that!

Patty, scroll back up through the comments to the first batch of replies I wrote. I answered that question for Elizabeth re: how I found my CPs/betas. I'm being lazy, sorry!

Patrick, the instant I cut of either nipple, I will be sure to send you a photo. Maybe even the nipple itself.

Lia, I don't know why I've never really gotten used to Word's "track changes" feature. I've always used it for day job stuff, which may be why I've never wanted to touch it for manuscripts -- helps keep the two things separate.

Elizabeth, the way you do it is pretty much how I like to be critiqued -- I write the whole thing, polish it up as best I can, and then start handing it off. Everyone's different though. One of my critique partners sends me one chapter at a time as she's writing. There's definitely no right or wrong -- it's whatever works for you.

Deborah, great point about being careful who you pick for CPs. I've been very, very lucky with mine. Cynthia and I are both super fast writers who do a good job keeping pace with one another. Linda tends to be a little slower, but since I always send her whole manuscripts (instead of the one-chapter-at-a-time thing) she doesn't seem to get overwhelmed by me.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Patty Blount said...

I'm with Beth on this; typically finish the story and let some friends and family read it, but the problem with that is they HAVE to love it. If I get feedback at all, it's limited to a few typos (x-rated, of course).

Okay, I'm puttin' it out there...

Anybody without a crit partner or beta reader and wants one (I DO!) feel free to contact me at pattyblount3 at gmail dot com.

Linda G. said...

Like you, I have both crit partners and beta readers. Couldn't do without any of them. :)

My CPs can have very strong opinions as to what works and what doesn't--and they don't always agree. That's when I let them Jello wrestle to resolve their differences. I pay closer attention to the the winner, since writing is, like Jello, a slippery thing, and I figure whoever can handle herself better in the Jello pit must be right. ;)

Anonymous said...

I am jumping in rather late! But as one of Tawna's critique partners (uh, yeah, this is Linda...) I want to add my .02.

I was slow to expand my critique partners beyond Tawna. Since Tawna and I knew each other before we started writing, she was easy to work with. And it hasn't been easy for me to find new critique partners. Everyone has a different style, and those styles are as varied as writing styles and reading preferences.

But most importantly, I think most all writers need them. I was reluctant to put myself out there because I am rather thin skinned, but in the end, it has advanced my writing faster and farther than I ever could have accomplished on my own! - Linda (lucky to have Tawna as a CP!)

Jan Markley said...

I agree with all your points (except I do like to go for coffee with my critique partners). I'm a big believer in critique groups (have written articles about them). I've been with the same group for over a decade and when we started no one was published and now everyone is. The elements of a good story are the same regardless of the genre (though there are certain conventions with each genre), sometimes it's good to get feedback from people who don't read that genre because their feedback is from a fresh perspective. And finally, my beta reader is an editor trapped in the body of an anthropologist and was an editor in another life. She reads everything she can get her hands on and her advice is dead on. She has become the beta reader for my whole group. Plus there is my young readers group ...

Tawna Fenske said...

Patty, you'll have to report back & let us know if you make a critique partner "love connection" here!

Linda, hey there! Thanks for stopping by for a visit. I know I'm damn lucky to have gotten to work with you & Cynthia for such a long time. Group hug?

Jan, sounds like you've got a terrific CP/beta setup! I'm lucky to have one CP who's local (Linda, right above you in the comments) so the coffee chats are an added bonus :)

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Lola Sharp said...

My CP's are nipple-chopping worthy too. :)