Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A word (or 584) on critiquing relationships

In addition to showing great enthusiasm for discussions of butt hair and garage porn, readers commenting on this blog ask a lot of questions about critique partners and beta readers.

What’s the difference? How do you find them? When do you need them? Is it normal to trade sexual favors for critiques, or did that dude just totally scam me?

I probably won’t answer everything in a single post (except the last one – perfectly normal). But I’ll give you the best overview I can in 584 words or less.

What the @#$% are you talking about?
Everyone uses the terms differently, but to me, a critique partner is a fellow writer with whom you exchange manuscript critiques and brainstorming. As writers, they’re capable of saying not just “this sucks” but “this sucks, and here’s how you might fix it.” Beta readers are just that – readers skilled at catching mistakes and giving you a gut check on how real readers might respond to your book. The three betas I’ve worked with since the dawn of time are exceptionally skilled at spotting specific issues – grammar, inconsistencies, and instances where my characters act like asshats.

How do I find them?
You could try standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, but I don’t recommend it. One of the best online resources for finding critique partners and beta readers is the forum at Absolute Write devoted to this purpose.

Another great option is trolling online discussion forums for your specific genre. I met longtime critique partner Cynthia Reese in the eHarlequin discussion forums when we were both newbie writers learning the ropes. Check out blogs and chat loops for your genre to find other authors in your shoes (which is a little gross, so spray some Lysol before putting your feet back in them).

Organized writing groups are another good resource. At my first meeting of Rose City Romance Writers, someone offered to connect me with critique partners. Sisters in Crime (SINC) offers an online group for new authors called The Guppies.

As for beta readers, all three of mine are former co-workers. It’s a perk of 10+ years working in marketing & corporate communications that I’ve connected with smart, savvy folks who like words, but you can find good betas in many places. Belong to a book club? Mine it for betas. Got a co-worker with his nose in a book on lunch breaks? Maybe he’d like to help an aspiring author.

How does it work?
There are no hard and fast rules about critiquing relationships, except to avoid being a jerk. While Cynthia Reese likes to feed me one chapter at a time and review my comments before writing the next chapter, critique partner Linda Brundage and I both prefer to finish the entire novel before swapping. There’s a fairly even trade of critiques, though slower writers can end up doing more critiques for faster ones.

Since beta readers aren’t getting the same benefit from the relationship, I make sure to let mine know how much I appreciate them. My appreciation usually has a cork protruding from the top, but a heartfelt thank you note will also suffice.

So that’s my quick-and-dirty overview. If you already have critiquing relationships, how did you find them? If you’re new to this, what questions do you have?

Oh, and feel free to use the comments section to connect with potential critique partners. Just try to avoid the whole sex-for-critiques arrangement, OK? Authorities tend to frown on that.

31 comments :

Anonymous said...

tawnafenske.blogspot.com Exclusive delirium, in my opinion

Linda G. said...

Wait...you mean you're NOT going to sleep with me? ;)

elizabethreinhardt said...

My Betas are my roomie from college who has two young kids, limited funds and a really sucky public library; my brother's girlfriend who is young, poor and loves books; and my best friend who is a grammar whiz and knows how to say (in a way that doesn't even make me cry) "This sucks, but you're brilliant. And I love you.".

I don't really have a critique partner (though when my bestie writes her novel I am ALL OVER IT), but am loving your tips on where to find one. Maybe I'll get someone to read my manuscripts and get a little something something on the side! Cha ching!

Izzy G. said...

One of my best betas happens to also be my best friend. She writes novels too, but she's still at the point where she doesn't want to show anyone.

I have two other critique partners who are also great, but they have significantly busier schedules than mine, and this sometimes brings up problems.

salarsenッ said...

Thanks for this post. I'm going to head over to Absolute Write, right now. I had a wonderful crit group, but life got in the way and we feel apart. I'm hungry for that 'other' writer's connection again and my writing needs it.

Marisa Birns said...

Ah, that explains it. My crit partner WAS my sister, but have been so tired that my work was always returned with only this written in bold, red letters: "Mom ALWAYS liked me better!"

Gabriela Lessa said...

Thank you so much for that post, Tawna! Great, as always. I'm just putting together a critique group and your explanations have been really helpful.
One question: do you have any rules, like submitting every other week, or word-count, critique length, anything like that? Or do you just go with the flow?

Claire Dawn said...

I totally read the title wrong. I thought it was critiquing OF relationships. lol! I have only one critique partner right now. I've never met here and we live in different hemispheres. But she's like family!

Claire Dawn said...

Oh, and just to add. Blogging and commenting on other blogs is a great way to connect with other writers.

Danica Avet said...

Both of my CPs found me through the yahoo group Romance Writer Community. To be honest, I'd forgotten I joined and had given up on getting a CP *sniff, sniff*. Then the amazing Daisy Harris shot me an e-mail and I nearly tackled her. She's been amazing and says things like "Again with the voices?" or "You know, some people like sex like this, you don't want to offend them." My other CP JC Deacons has been languishing because I haven't had new material to send to her, but when I do send her things, she's awesome at getting it back to me muy pronto.

The CP relationship is a wonderful thing. Treasure it!

Tom M Franklin said...

When I started my writing blog my first two entries were on things to think about when looking for a critique group (http://bit.ly/aaVbov) and thoughts on choosing a query partner. (http://bit.ly/aSvEV3)

One thing that surprised me: I posted my request for a query partner on several high-traffic sites. I was very clear on what I was looking for in a partner and what I could offer. I had thought I'd get responses fairly quickly. Instead, the silence was deafening.

I wondered if I had been too... direct? harsh? whatever. Instead of second-guessing myself I decided the time I had put into writing my request had been well-spent and had accurately outlined how I felt.

When the silence remained just as deafening, I shrugged my shoulders and carried on with my writing.

Three months later someone read my posting on another web site looking to match writers as query partners. She contacted me saying she'd read my other query requests and thought we'd be a good match. Turns out, she was right.

Like all steps in the writing process, finding a good query partner is going to take more time than you think it should.


-- Tom

Shakespeare said...

Being genre specific is a good idea. I have a playwriting group, and they are FANTASTIC readers for my plays... but not my novels.

I don't really have a crit group for my YA novels, but I do have some beta readers... though their feedback is not as good as I'd like, and some take FOREVER to get back to me. Often I've finished a revision of it (or two) before they return the manuscript, but a few are totally on the ball, reading quickly and offering me comments within the week! Yay!

Choose readers carefully, though, and if someone hates what you wrote (this has happened to me), take the person off the list. I have one former crit partner who tried to critique my work even while admitting she hated the premise, hated the main character, hated YA lit., etc. Her comments were caustic, and I'm very good at taking criticism.

I feel as if I am still working on this, though. I hope to hone it more as I go along. Your insight should help (and I will definitely sanitize my shoes while looking for more readers).

trishaleigh.com said...

I found my best critique partner on Twitter, believe it or not, and then we connected in real life. I'm still looking for another critique partner.

Got the beta readers - my writing partner from college, a cousin who reads constantly and, since I write YA, two thirteen-year-old girls.

LadyGenette said...

I ran in to one of my beta readers yesterday and the first words out of her mouth? "Oh, I haven't started reading your book yet, sweetie." I put a finish date on it--a mere two weeks away so that all of my readers would eventually finish reading.

I think this is the last time I'm using volunteers. Next time, I'm trying people up in my basement and depriving them of food or water until they at least crack the manuscript.

bettyfokker said...

I find it hard to be a beta reader ... I concentrate on the good and I am constantly worried about hurting the authors feelings. For a beta reader to serve the author well, they should be brutal. YMMV

Sierra Godfrey said...

I'm with Anon there at the top of the comments-- LOL!

Good post, good links. I think there are things to be said for critique partners online and off (in person). One thing I like that you report regularly is how well your online partners work for you.

Matthew Rush said...

Well, my understanding of the two terms match exactly what you've described, but I must admit I've never had any luck with Beta readers. They either love every damn thing about the story because they're friends or family or they just don't know their ass crack from their elbow crease.

I have a critique group and they are awesome. We exchange one chapter at a time (unless they're short) and then each critique each others pages giving feedback on writing, story and everything in between. We each have our strengths and weaknesses and it works out well.

I met them blogging. Just by getting to know each other as bloggers and readers of blogs and then I sent a group email to the people I was interested in "getting involved" with. We've lost two of the original members but gained another, so it's going pretty well.

Great post Tawna!

Daisy Harris said...

I found my first CPs through a RWC yahoo group (Hi Danica Avet!) and I've been amassing more on Twitter (Hi Emma Petersen and Sara Best *waves*.) I like trying out a lot of crit exchanges and seeing what works.

I'm with you, Tawna. I like to exchange the whole book. I usually do exchanges on the first chapter or so to get a sense that I'm heading the right direction (esp with a new series.) But I can't do chapters one at a time.

I've found Twittee to be a surprisingly good place to find CPs. You wouldn't think it- but it's easy to get a sense of who a person is and what they write by their feed. You can also tell who has free time . (Smile and wink.) It's been great for me to get to know writers on Twitter before exchanging MSs.

Great post, and thanks!
Daisy

Tawna Fenske said...

Anonymous, OMG, my very first blog troll! I've seen them on other blogs and always wanted one of my very own, but now that you're here, I'm just beside myself with glee. Can I get you a glass of wine? Quick, say something else snarky and mean. Maybe insult my toenail polish or something? Welcome, btw!

Linda G, oh, I'm definitely planning to sleep with you. That was the plan even before you gave me such a lovely read-through on MAKING WAVES.

Elizabethrheinhardt, I swear, I probably misspell your name half the time I type it. Sorry about that. I love the balance of having both betas and CPs since they bring such different perspectives to the table. Sounds like you have some great betas!

IzzyG, you're right, it can be challenging when writers have such different schedules and speeds. I always feel bad for my slower CP who ends up reading triple the volume for me as I do for her.

Salarsen, report back and tell me if you have any luck at Absolute Write. Good luck!

Marisa, LOL on your sister! The nice thing about having three beta readers who are also really good friends is that they know me well enough to know how much and what sort of criticism I can take (pretty much anything, but someone who didn't know me well might not know that and would be tempted to sugarcoat things or hold back).

Gabriela, great question! Nope, we aren't formal at all with our critiques, but we also don't function as a group at all. Though Cynthia and Linda are MY critique partners, they don't critique with one another and each of them also has a couple other CPs who don't critique with me. It keeps things from feeling too incestuous and gives us all a broad perspective on our work.

Claire Dawn, great point about connecting with CPs/betas through blogs. I think there have even been a couple love connections on this blog!

Danica, no joke, good CPs and beta readers are worth their weight in razor clams.

Tom, I'm so glad your story had a happy ending and that you found a great CP! I've watched some truly toxic CP relationships from the sidelines and it always makes me want to go hug mine.

Shakespeare, great point about the importance of finding CPs who at least have some familiarity with your genre. I love having a balance of both so I have someone to remind me of the "rules" of my genre, and someone completely ignorant of them who sometimes prompts me to break them.

Trisha, that's awesome you connected on Twitter! I should have thought to add that to my list of suggestions, but had never heard any good examples. Yours sounds fab!

LadyGenette, I haven't tried the starvation and torture yet, but maybe that's a good idea. Here I was thinking positive reinforcement was the way to go.

bettyfokker, I think it helps having CPs/betas who know you well enough to know exactly how much you can take. Mine all know they don't have to hold anything back and that I won't get bristly or hurt if they flat-out say "what the hell have you been smoking?"

Sierra, great reminder -- I handle all critiquing electronically, so it doesn't matter that Cynthia lives clear across the U.S. and we've never met in person.

Matthew, your critique group sounds great! Have you blogged about it before? I'd love to hear more about how things work in a group like that.

Daisy, great suggestion re: finding CPs on Twitter. I'm excited to hear that's been a good resource for so many folks here, and you're totally right -- it seems like it would be a good way to get a sense of someone's voice and personality.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Elizabeth Ryann said...

I think the sex exchange one's only trouble if you don't pay your taxes on it, though, right?

Katt said...

Although I found a big group useful and a few members really 'stood out' for various reasons, I've yet to 'score' a CP.
Is is acceptable to ask a big group member? or is that bad manners?
Also, my thought of deciding who might or might not 'workout' for me, would be telling each other who we like to read?

jill said...

I found my crit group through a writing conference. This other writer and I were in the same group on the first 'preconference' day. Something about her and her writing clicked with me and I sought her out at meals (not all of them - that would be stalkerish!) and at the end of the conference she invited me (and another writer we both met at the conference) to join her crit group.

We meet online and have a vict -- err, volunteer email out a chapter or scene to be critted at the next meeting. Our group is genre specific (but we sometime throw out stuff from other genres) and have a grammar specialist, a couple of plot/needs-more-action-here specialist. I'm good at adding commas and explaining horse stuff.

My college-aged daughters and one of their friends are my beta readers. The problem with college students is their finding time to read my stuff in between their school work! It's great getting a chapter back with a reader's comments (talking back to the caharacters!) written in the margins - instant feedback.

Jen J. Danna said...

This was a very interesting post for me because what some would call a critique partner, I'd be tempted to call a co-author.

I've mentioned before that I write with a partner. Ann started off as what I'd call a beta and quickly our relationship evolved into what was more of an level partnership.

I do more work than she does because I physically do the writing. But when it comes to what I would consider intellectual property, she shares the load with me. The characters are ours, the storyline is ours and then on top of it she very heavily edits each chapter multiple times, comes up with all chapter titles and the master title and does a lot of my research for me, freeing me up to write. We've been at this for over three years now and it really works well for us.

It's interesting that what I see between you and Cynthia is more of what I see between Ann and myself, minus the pre-planning. Ann and I pre-plan the characters and the storyline (I'm a plotter!) and then work on one chapter at a time. I write, she edits and makes suggestions, I rewrite, she re-edits... about three times per chapter before we move on. Then when the piece is done, we both do a major overhaul of the full piece, first me, then her, then me again. Only then does it go out to the writers and editors that are our critique team.

Where am I going with all this? This post raised an interesting point with me about giving credit where credit is due. I write, but Ann makes such a huge contribution to the process that as far as I'm concerned, her name is on the front cover with mine; to do anything less is not fair to her. She worked for it and she deserves it.

So, the question I pose to you is this -- when does an in-depth critique partner stop being a critique partner and start being a co-author? In my opinion, Ann is a co-author. No, we don't split the work load in half; that's impossible - the main writer will always do at least 75% of the work, and any payments that come from the writing will reflect that work split. But the question is then how much work does a critique partner have to do to get credit, in name and in payment? Just food for thought... ;)

Elisabeth Black said...

I don't know. I just don't know. I need CP's, but I don't know anyone to trade with in my genre. I'm not even sure what my genre is. I'm guessing I have about six more months till I need to address it head-on, so I'm going to do the smart thing and procrastinate.

Simon C. Larter said...

No one's ever offered me sexual favors in exchange for my critiquing services. I'm starting to think I'm going about this all wrong.

Wait...what do you mean the authorities frown on that?

Tawna Fenske said...

Elizabeth, excellent point about the taxes. OK, everyone -- go ahead and shag your critique partners.

Katt, I've never worked in a big group critique situation, but I don't see why it would be a problem to ask one member to critique with you. All of my CPs have other people they work with, and there are no hard feelings over that. It's great to get a variety of opinions.

Jill, that sounds like a terrific critique scenario you have there!

Jen, tough call, and my gut instinct is just to say go with what works for you. But I know a lot of pubbed authors who work in groups where they all meet up once a year and spend a week or a weekend plotting out their books for the year. It's very much a group process in the planning/brainstorming, but then each author goes back to her lair and does the actual writing. In those cases, only one author's name appears on the book (though I'm sure they all mention each other in the acknowledgments). But bottom line, you just have to go with what feels comfortable to you & Ann. Good luck!

Elisabeth, do you have a ballpark idea what your genre is? Literary fiction? Women's fiction? Porn? I'm sure there are plenty of people who'd love to swap with you when the time is right. I actually know someone who might be a good match for you (depending on your genre, but I've gotten a vibe just from reading your blog). Drop me a message if you're interested.

Simon, clearly, you're doing it all wrong. And by "doing it," I mean...well, critiquing, of course.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

PK Hrezo said...

I've found some amazing critique parners/betas on Writer' Digest Community. There are 2 different forums created by two great peeps: Weekly Chapter Challenge--where you can post a discussion (kind of like want ad) and then Beta Readers Central (where you can do the same thing.)
We all follow each other's blogs and work extra hard to meet deadlines for critiques. They're always open to new members and completely free! Can't beat that with a stick!.

Cheers! :)

MJReed09 said...

Interestingly enough, I've found school to be a great source of critique partners...well...taking classes that involve workshopping often points you to people with genuine reader/editing/commenting skills and, if they're in the class too, material to exchange critiques for.

Jen J. Danna said...

But bottom line, you just have to go with what feels comfortable to you

I think you're absolutely right here, Tawna, and we certainly have. I just thought your relationship with Cynthia was an interesting twist on it. Bottom line -- do what works best for each individual relationship and no two relationships will be the same. That's the writing life for you... it's never boring! :)

Jan Markley said...

I wrote an article about writers groups I've loved, infiltrated and ditched. It can be found on my blog. I'm a big believer in writers' critiquing groups.

Anonymous said...

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?