Wednesday, October 20, 2010

People who help me not suck:
The value of critique partners & beta readers

Let me tell you about my flaws as a writer.

I should mention this is not the ideal way to begin a job interview.

Nevertheless, here are my major shortcomings:
  • My failure to plot ahead means I sometimes back myself into corners.
  • I lose track of details like the color of a character’s shirt or the day on which a scene takes place.
  • My fashion sense leaves something to be desired.
  • I am an insensitive bitch.
Fortunately, I know my failings. Even more fortunately, I have two amazing critique partners and three fabulous beta readers chosen precisely because they make up for what I lack.

Allow me to introduce them:

Critique partner Cynthia Reese has published four books with Harlequin Superromance, and is an infinitely better plotter than I am. Because of this, she can catch me before I veer too far off track, and brainstorm with me until I figure out where I’m headed. As a multi-published romance writer, she knows the “rules” of the genre much better than I do, and has a strong sense of overall story structure.

Critique partner Linda Brundage is also a much savvier plotter than I am, so between my two critique partners, my biggest weakness is covered. Because Linda doesn’t read or write romance, I can count on her to nudge me outside that box. She's got a flair for scene-setting and description, and is also my most sensitive, emotionally driven reader.

Beta reader Larie Borden an insensitive bitch like me. It makes her a good reader not just because I count on her for the harshest feedback, but because if she agrees with Linda that a character is a jerk, I know I’ve got some serious rehabbing to do. She’s not a writer, but a voracious reader with a keen eye for detail and a strong sense of what she likes. As an added bonus, she’s a savvy fashionista who outfits my characters so they don’t look like they got dressed in an unlit thrift store.

Beta reader Bridget McGinn is a former marketing colleague and the most voracious romance reader in the bunch. She’s been reading the genre her whole life, so she has strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t. Besides being wildly smart, she’s got a sensitive streak like Linda. That means I can count on her to be my second gut-check after I’ve fixed whatever rubbed Linda the wrong way on the first round.

Beta reader Minta Powelson is another former marketing colleague, and she gets the manuscript after I’ve made everyone else's changes. She’s my reader with the keenest eye for grammatical details, punctuation, and consistency, so I trust her for the final polish when I’m so tired of a manuscript I want to hurl it out a window. If a character had a pink bandana on page 64 but a yellow one on page 297, I can count on her to notice.

I do venture beyond these five readers – for example, when I need a male perspective, a fresh set of eyes, or specific expertise – but this is my core posse. It’s no accident their strengths are my weaknesses. I consider this one of the most valuable things I gain from these critiquing relationships.

Incidentally, I met four of the five readers through different jobs I’ve held in the last 10 years. The fifth (Cynthia) I’ve never met in person, though we’ve critiqued together for 6+ years since we met in an online writers’ forum.

So there you have it – the people who keep me from sucking. What do you look for in critique partners and beta readers? What weaknesses do you need help overcoming? Please share.

And don’t forget to thank all the people who make you the best writer you can be. I’ve got some phone calls to make now.

P.S. See that little survey box at the top right of the page? I'm conducting some highly-scientific, very valuable research about kissing. OK, it's not very scientific or valuable. Still, would you mind taking a second to click? Thanks!

16 comments :

Malin said...

I want help with plot, and a sharp eye on my characters. I also like people who can be around as I write, bouncing ideas (such as names, plot changes, random "give me word to inspire me for this scene" etc). Most of all, I don't like unspecific positive comments (such as "I liked this!"). Unspecific negative comments give me a sense of work-needed, so I'm okay with that.

However, negative comments with no suggested way to fix it can leave me completely frustrated. Usually, if I haven't fixed the problem, I have no idea of HOW to fix it. I got a keen eye for weaknesses, but not always the solution at hand.

At the moment, I've been stomping on the same plateau for a year or more and can't find critique partners able to help me up the next slope. I got a new-old friend I'm testing the waters with. Hopefully she can give me a hand.

I think it's great that you highlight your Team, and get them the attention they deserve for being critique partners!

Kristi Helvig said...

I have the best critique partners, some agented and published, some not (like me). They're all amazing in different ways. I call one my 'plot-hole detector' and she can find a plot-hole the size of a pin-prick. Another is great at noticing my use of repetitive words or phrases, and another gives awesome feedback on characterization.

I'm lucky to be part of two wonderful critique groups, and don't know what I'd do without them. Also, out of the 7 of them, I've only met one in person but we're in touch all the time via email, FB, etc. The support is incredible.

LadyGenette said...

I should probably purchase a few of those critique partners, haha.

In my first version of B1, I had this horrible habit of revealing everything too quickly, so I had to create more things to keep the suspense going (hence extremely confusing plot). In the revision, I've been able to squelch a lot of my earlier errors, but I'm sure a critique partner wouldn't be amiss.

My betas, on the other hand, I think were poorly chosen. Not that I can't trust them, but they have had the novel for 3 months and haven't read it yet. I'm not quite sure what to make of that.

Linda G. said...

My CPs aren't at all bashful about telling what doesn't work for them, which is invaluable. Of course, they laugh in the right spots, too, which is good for my ego.

Matthew Rush said...

I would say you're very lucky, but I'm confident you earned all of this through lots of hard work and devotion.

I'll take this moment to thank Ted, Simon and Ryan, who make up my crit group. Also Bryan, who is my writing mentor.

Thank you gentlemen!

Matthew AT Banning said...

I have only 5 other people (so far) who know the entire story of my first book. One of them, being my sister, has already told me to shoo a number of times.

The others (I have nicknames for them), usually pick up my flaws. The Barracuda, is by far the most entertaining to get replies from because she is quite sarcastic herself, and Thing1 (she is a twin btw, hense the nickname) nails me on every single piece of repetition I use. Whether it be "that" or using the main character's name 50 times in one short paragraph!!

Lisa_Gibson said...

Critters and betas are so important aren't they? I couldn't do without them.
Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

Gabriela Lessa said...

I have the plotting problem too! And I'm also an insensitive bitch. Actually, worse. I'm a sarcastic insensitive bitch without social boundaries or any notion of personal space. Thank God I have my critique gals! We have just started and we are learning each other's weaknesses and strengths, which is pretty cool. Betas and crits are definitely necessary!

Demery said...

I'm blessed to have three little writing groups! My dear friends in PA (I moved away last year but we all keep in touch). New writing friends here in TX - we meet monthly. And two online friends. Couldn't do without them. I think each person brings a different gift to the table in terms of what they notice and are able to share. They keep me from writing "over the top" scenes - or explaining too much - which I tend to do when I'm unsure/insecure in a scene.

Claire Dawn said...

I long for the day I'll have eyes like those poring over my work. Lucky you!

As a YA writer I'm always worried about not being able to pick up teens. Wait, ew. I'm 28 and that sounds totally wrong.

As for the kissing, a kiss on the nose drives me mad. It's like you're so close to the lips, you could just... and then my brain overloads.

Dr. Goose said...

Suprised more people haven't responded. I'm actually a sensitive bitch so critiques are difficult.

After the 20th revision of my dissertation I wanted to hand it to my chair advisor and say, "Why don't you write the damn thing."

terripatrick said...

The results of your poll so far may explain the appeal of vampires. The majority seems happy to expose their necks.

urthalun.com said...

terripatrick has a point- that's a little creepy, but in a fun way. I voted. Are there prizes involved? And will you share the reasoning for this extremely scientific study?
Julie

Jen J. Danna said...

I have a critique partner that did such a great job that she is now my partner in crime and basically a co-author. I do the writing, but she assists with re-writes. More importantly, she has a lot of input into planning and researching and story lining. I also have beta readers that are absolutely amazing.

What do I need to keep from sucking at? I'm sure there's quite a list, but the very first thing that springs to mind is to stop using the work 'but' in every other sentence. *eye roll at self*

We don't write alone and giving credit to those that help us along the way is absolutely essential (and the right thing to do) in my mind. I think it's wonderful that you did that here.

Tawna Fenske said...

Malin, I love having the combination of critique partners and beta readers. Since the CPs are writers, they often give suggestions on HOW to fix what's wrong. While I don't usually get that from the betas, I DO get the perspective of someone reading as a real reader might (instead of just an author).

Kristi, "plot hole detector," I like that! Everyone needs one of those!

LadyGenette, sounds like you might need to go in search of some new beta readers :)

Linda G, as long as they don't laugh at things that weren't meant to be funny, you should be good!

Matthew Rush, it does take hard work to cultivate the CP/beta reader relationships, but as I'm sure you know, it's well worth the effort!

Matthew AT Banning, wow, the two Matthews posted back-to-back! I love your names for your beta readers!

Lisa, no joke -- anyone who says writing is a solitary profession is clearly smoking crack.

Gabriela, insensitive bitches unite!

Demery, that's fabulous to have so many different voices and opinions. I've known people who try to write with just one CP or beta reader, and I always wonder if they're really getting a balanced perspective.

Claire Dawn, nose kissing, eh? So wait, is it a good thing or a bad thing that it drives you mad?

Dr. Goose, you know what's funny? This post obviously has the lowest number of comments of any post I've written for awhile, but the number of actual unique readers is about the same (according to Google Analytics). Go figure.

terripatrick, good point about the vampires! I hadn't considered that, but we sure do seem to have a lot of neck kiss lovers out there.

urthalun.com, the poll is for my post at The Debutante Ball on Friday. Stay tuned, and it'll all make sense. Well, maybe.

Jen, that's such a cool writing relationship!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Hadassah Fey said...

How funny, we blogged about the same topic on the same day! I just found this tonight, too. My biggest problem is also plotting. I write sci-fi thrillers but I am a far cry from a savvy assassin with a knack for detective work. I want my beta readers looking at my plot points, making sure that one thing leads logically to another. I also want to know how my readers are connecting with my characters, if I've written relatable realistic characters my beta readers want to cheer on to the end. Great post, thanks for sharing!