Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The power of critique partner feedback (plus an excerpt from Believe it or Not!)

Yesterday's blog post about the value of gaining a fresh perspective on your manuscript or your life prompted a lot of great comments, including this one from Suz Korb:
I don't have my work critiqued any more. Every time I did, the "problems" that readers would pick out were subjective. What kind of "problems" get picked out from your stories? Are they definitely "problems?" I'm curious, because maybe I'm missing out and should be using critique partners.
A lot of writers want critique partners to offer a checklist of factual errors and plot issues that can easily be quantified and solved. While that would be lovely, the truth is that you also want those subjective "just my opinion" tidbits. In fact, those are some of the most valuable things you can gain from the critique process.


If you're writing with the goal of publication, it's safe to assume you hope to have readers someday. It's also safe to assume those readers will have varying backgrounds, sensitivities, and life experiences. While it's impossible to predict the reaction of every potential reader, you want a pretty good idea if something you've written is going to annoy, irritate, offend, confuse, or bore someone.

I have three regular critique partners and three beta readers. Unsurprisingly, they're six very different human beings.

My upcoming March release, Believe it or Not, contains a scene I wrote with the goal of showing a connection between my hero and heroine while also showing a lack of connection with their respective dates.

I loved the scene just the way I wrote it. So did most of my critique partners and beta readers.

But there was one voice of dissent. One critique partner found Drew and Violet condescending and rude. The whole scene rubbed her the wrong way.

I'll confess, the feedback annoyed me at first. My other readers hadn't responded that way. They were perfectly amused, and laughed in all the right places.

But that's the crux of the issue – the idea that there's a "right" or "wrong" way to read a scene.

If I were writing only for myself, I could give an indignant sniff and insist my critique partner is a moron who just doesn't get it.

But I'm writing for public consumption, and if one out of six readers gets a bad vibe from a scene, I have to consider the likelihood she won't be the only one.

So I edited. I tweaked. I massaged. I noodled.

And in the end, the scene left a much better impression on my critique partner. Does this mean she was "right" and I was "wrong?" Nope.

Does it mean my other readers were "wrong" for liking it the way it was to start? Again, nope.

But at least now, I can feel assured that the scene is less likely to irritate readers with the same sensibilities as that critique partner. And let's face it – when you're writing for commercial publication, it's important to annoy as few people as possible.

So now that I've talked it up so much, I'm going to include the scene here. Believe it or Not won't be released until March, and I'm not entirely sure my editor would be pleased to have me posting excerpts. Don't tell, OK? But if you want to, you can pre-order the book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Powell's Books.

Here's the scene:
Drew was focusing very hard on trying to remember his date’s name. Did it rhyme with a fruit? No, that was the girl he’d gone out with last week.

It started with a G, he was pretty sure about that. Gilligan?

It didn’t matter at the moment, since she hadn’t paused for breath in over an hour.

“…and so then we broke up, but we had like five more months on our lease, and he couldn’t find another place to live and I was like, ‘Dude, I’m not leaving, this place is like four blocks from where I work,’ so I told him he could crash on the couch as long as he stopped borrowing my underwear, and so…”

Drew frowned. Maybe her name didn’t start with a G. It definitely sounded Middle Eastern. Or maybe it rhymed with a spice. Or was it something that sounded like a cleaning product?

“…so, you know, I like totally threw him out when he climbed into my bed when he was drunk, but he was all, ‘Babe, it’s totally not my fault,’ and I was like…”

Drew swirled the cherry Coke in his glass and tried hard to remember her name. He could almost picture it on the slip of paper at the bar with her name and number scrawled in bubbly writing. How many of those scraps had he collected since his divorce? Too many to count. Too many to remember names.

God, you’re a jerk, his brain told him.

Rhonda? No, that wasn’t it. Persimmon? Bambi? Dammit. It was much too late to ask, since they’d been on this abysmal date for more than an hour now, and he’d been the one to invite her out anyway.

What a dumb idea.

But it had been his habit in the years since his divorce. Call up one of the dozens of girls who’d slipped him their number at the bar—a disturbingly frequent occurrence, in Drew’s opinion. They’d meet for drinks at the Portland City Grill, and if the conversation sucked, at least the food was fabulous and there was always the beautiful view of the city.

He looked out the window and wondered if Violet had ever been here. Would she enjoy the view of the river or seize the opportunity to recite statistics about water pollution and Portland’s freakishly high number of bridges? He wasn’t sure he’d mind either way.

Stop thinking about Violet.

Bad idea on so many levels. He sure as hell didn’t need another high-strung woman in his life. Not even if she had amazing eyes and beautiful hair and breasts that—

“Are you listening to me?”

Drew snapped back to attention. “What? Yes. Definitely.”

“Because it seems like you’re just looking out the window.”

“I was listening,” Drew insisted. “I was just enjoying the view.”

The girl gave him a skeptical look. Mindy? Sarah? Was there any way he could bluff his way through the rest of this date without knowing her name? He felt like peeling the sole off the bottom of his shoe and beating himself on the forehead until he passed out.

“Hey!” his date squealed. Drew looked up to see she was waving at someone over his shoulder.

“That guy over there,” she said. “He did my knee surgery last year, after I injured it in pole-dancing class.”

Drew picked up his drink and scanned the crowd, noticing how packed the place was for a Monday.

He froze with his glass halfway to his lips. Violet?

She saw him at the same moment, and the shock registered plainly on her face. Drew watched in horror as Violet’s companion followed the direction of her gaze right to their table.

“Hey!” called Drew’s date again, waving madly as she sloshed her drink across the table. “Hello, Dr. Abbott! You want to come and sit with us?”

Drew shook his head. “I’m sure he doesn’t want to sit with us. He’s on a date.”

Something in his heart twisted at the word date, and he looked at Violet again. She was smiling at the doctor, her beautiful eyes fixed on his face. Drew’s heart twisted again, so he looked back at his own date.

She slugged him in the shoulder. “I think I hurt my wrist bowling the other night. I want Dr. Abbott to take a look at it.”

Drew sighed, not sure whether to be annoyed with her or with himself for asking her out in the first place. Normally he wasn’t so easily annoyed, especially by a beautiful woman, but there was something different lately. Something he couldn’t put his finger on.

It didn’t matter, since Violet and Dr. Abbott were making their way toward the table. Drew tried not to stare, not to notice the luscious sway of her hips, the way her hand fluttered up to smooth her hair behind her ear.

God, she’s beautiful.

“Wow, it’s really packed in here,” Violet said, clutching her little purse against her stomach. “You guys got lucky nabbing a window seat with these sofas.”

“I come here every Monday night,” Drew said. “Arriving early is the trick to getting good seats.”

He saw something flash across Violet’s face. Surprise? Irritation? He wasn’t sure. She recovered quickly though, and placed her hand on the annoyingly broad shoulder of the man beside her. “Drew, this is Chris Abbott, my mother’s orthopedic surgeon. Chris, this is Drew Watson. He owns the business next to Moonbeam’s shop.”

“Great to meet you,” said the surgeon, giving Drew’s hand a firm but friendly shake.

“It’s so great to see you again, Dr. Abbott,” piped up Drew’s date, scooting over to make room on the sofa beside her.

“You too,” said Dr. Abbott, no help at all with the name.

Violet looked at Drew, then at the girl, clearly awaiting an introduction. Drew opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again. He was completely, utterly blank.

Violet’s eyes held his for a moment, intense and gorgeous and utterly spellbinding. He was pretty sure if he had known his date’s name, he would have forgotten it right then.

God, those eyes.

“Drew, come sit over here by me so these two can have the other sofa to themselves,” his date chirped.

He tore his eyes from Violet’s and offered a weak smile. “Sure, good idea.”

He grabbed his drink and stood up, relieved to realize he’d somehow gotten away with failing to introduce her. He gestured to the vacant sofa in an invitation to Violet. She moved past him, her hair brushing against his shoulder as she slid by. Drew breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of lavender and vanilla. He felt his hand start to rise, intent on stroking her hair.

Are you out of your fucking mind?

He dropped his hand. “Tight quarters.”

She looked up quizzically, her big, violet eyes studying him with an unasked question. Drew lost his breath.

Then she cut her glance back at the other sofa and raised one eyebrow.

Shit. She’d noticed the skipped introduction. Drew raised one shoulder in a helpless shrug and moved around the table to sit beside his date.

Now she thinks you’re a cad.

Okay, maybe he was. Since his divorce, anyway. Funny how it had never bothered him before.

He watched Violet settle onto the sofa and cross her legs primly. She folded her hands over her knees and Drew tried not to stare at her long, perfect fingers and rounded nails, bright with clear polish. He wondered what those nails would feel like dragging down his back and then gave himself another mental kick.

“So how long have you two known each other?” Violet asked as she signaled a passing waitress.

“Oh, this is our third date,” chirped Drew’s seatmate.


Drew took another sip of his drink and wondered if it might be wise pretend to go to the restroom and slip out the back door. He could just avoid this whole uncomfortable scene—the nameless date, the awkward conversation, the sight of Violet with another guy.

Then Violet recrossed her legs, her skirt riding up a little above her knee. Drew sat back in his seat, suddenly interested in sticking around awhile longer.

To his right, Drew’s date had begun to chatter to Dr. Abbott about the pain in her wrist. Drew had to give Violet credit, she’d picked a nice guy. Most doctors he knew would have told the girl to book an appointment by now.

Something hit Drew in the foot. He looked down to see a fork lying beside his shoe. He glanced across the table at Violet, who shot him a look. They bent down to retrieve the fork at the same time.

Apparently, that was Violet’s plan.

“You don’t know your date’s name?” she hissed in his ear.

Her hair tickled his nose, and Drew fought the urge to drag her down on the carpet and grope her under the table.

Classy, dude. Really classy.

“Help me out,” he whispered back.


“I just need a clue.”

“No kidding.”

“Her name’s been on the tip of my tongue all night, but I can’t remember.”

“Maybe you should be more selective in how you use the tip of your tongue.”

He grinned. “Are you talking dirty to me under the table?”

“Merely pointing out that if you dated with your brain instead of your—” She bit her lip. “You wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Please help?”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“I don’t know… aren’t you the psychic here?”

She smacked him on the arm and sat back on the sofa. Drew sighed and sat back, too. Okay, so the “psychic” jab probably wasn’t smart. He was feeling desperate.

Drew looked over to see their dining companions were still chatting away like old friends. The waitress showed up at their table with glasses of water, and Violet ordered a complicated-sounding Chardonnay. The doctor ordered a gin martini, and Drew’s date requested something fruity and neon colored.

“Cherry Coke,” Drew said, lifting his empty glass.

Dr. Abbott raised an eyebrow. “Not a drinker, Drew?”

“On occasion. I just tend to prefer cherry Coke.”

“Hmmm,” said the doctor in a tone that suggested either disinterest or a belief that Drew had the maturity of a third grader.

Probably right, there.

As soon as the waitress had gone, Violet cleared her throat. “So what is it you do?” she asked Drew’s date.

Excellent, Drew thought, shooting her a grateful look. They can exchange business cards.

Violet took a sip of her water and folded her hands again.

“Oh, I’m a cocktail waitress.”

Drew sighed. No business cards.

“Actually,” the girl chirped, patting her left boob, “I came straight here from work and almost forgot to take off my name tag. Can you believe it?”

A name tag, Drew lamented quietly. So close.

“So Drew,” said Dr. Abbott. “What sort of business is it you own?

He looked at the guy and tried not to be pissed that the good doctor had scooted so close to Violet, he was practically in her lap. “A bar,” Drew said. “Voted ‘Best in Portland’ two years running.”

“They have the most amazing male strippers on Friday and Saturday nights,” his date added. “Super hot.”

“Thank you,” Drew replied, feeling oddly proud.

“Male strippers,” Dr. Abbot repeated, looking bemused. “That’s… interesting.”

Violet cleared her throat and jumped in. “Chris and I were just talking on the way over here and he mentioned that he was named after Christopher Latham Sholes—the guy who invented the typewriter in 1867. Isn’t that interesting?”

Drew reached for the lifeline she’d thrown him—lame as it was—reminding himself to show his gratitude in some way that didn’t involve getting her naked.

“That is interesting,” Drew said. “And you’re named for the color of your eyes, right?”

Violet blinked at him. Drew lost his breath again.

“Should we order?” asked Drew’s date, frowning at the menu. “Happy hour is almost over.”

Drew slumped in his chair, defeated. He’d probably never know his date’s name. The only thing mildly cheering was the knowledge that Violet and her date had nothing better to talk about than who invented the typewriter.

Then again, it’s not like he was wowing her with scintillating conversation. Toilet paper? Juggling? The superiority of the term butt rock over glam rock?

Drew slumped deeper in his chair and took another sip of his drink. Maybe he could make it through the rest of the night calling his date “pumpkin” or “love chicken.”

The waitress appeared again, and Drew waited until the others had made their selections before placing his order, not bothering to consult the menu. Violet quirked an eyebrow at him.

“I always order the same thing,” Drew said as he handed his menu back to the waitress. “I come here a lot.”

“You mentioned that,” Violet said dryly. “My mother, on the other hand, did not.”



Violet reached for her wineglass and took a sip, apparently drinking more cautiously than she had the previous night. He studied the way she held the glass, her exquisite fingers curved around the stem. He wondered if she’d learned the precise way to hold a piece of stemware or if it just came naturally.

As if sensing his eyes on her, Violet turned back to Drew. “So, do you have some sort of low-grade hearing loss?”


“You were blasting the music so loud, the mice woke up and started running in their wheel to the beat of ‘Eye of the Tiger.’”

“Sorry about that. Moonbeam never seems to notice, but I’ll try to keep it down.”

“You weren’t kidding about the eighties music.”

Drew grinned. “We’re actually doing this whole eighties theme next week. We were trying to find the right song for Jamie’s routine.”

“Sounded like you found the right one. Either that, or you just wanted to play that stupid ‘867-5309’ song over and over and over—”

“‘Jenny,’” he said, lifting a glass to the most famous—albeit the only—hit Tommy Tutone had ever recorded.

“Hey!” squeaked Drew’s date. “That’s how I got my name. My mom totally loved that song, and my dad was like, ‘Whatever,’ so that’s what they named me, even though the song had been out for like five years by the time I was born.“

Drew stared for a few beats, certain he couldn’t possibly have gotten so lucky. “Jenny?” he asked. “That’s your name? Jenny?”

She scowled at him. “What the hell did you think it was?”

“Jenny, of course,” he backpedaled. “I knew it was Jenny. I just…” Drew picked up his drink and downed it in one gulp.

Jenny was glaring at him in earnest, and Drew wondered if she planned to throw her neon-pink drink in his face. He probably deserved it. Maybe he should save her the trouble and just pour it over his head and call it a night.

Across the table, Violet cleared her throat. “Didn’t that song come out in 1982?” She shot Drew a look that said exactly what she thought of him dating a woman barely over the legal drinking age.

Jenny turned toward Violet, her drink-tossing plans momentarily forgotten. “Something like that, why?”

“No reason,” Violet said. “Actually, 1982 was the year a brutal cold snap swept in from Canada and plunged temperatures in the Midwest to all-time record lows. Even Portland recorded a record low temperature for September, which was forty-one degrees Fahrenheit. Statistically speaking, a meteorological event like that—”

Drew sat back in his seat and let Violet carry the conversation away to safer, albeit weirder, territory. He was grateful. He was relieved.

He was also ridiculously, stupidly certain he was falling for her.



Sarah W said...

You had me at "love chicken."

Suz Korb said...

Great scene, Tawna. And thanks for answering my question!

Leah Petersen said...

Great scene!

It's so true about crit partners and beta readers. Having more than one is also great for hitting you over the head with "this isn't just subjective, stupid, it really sucks."

When more than one reader has a problem with a scene, even if it's not for the same reason, you know you've gone wrong there, no matter how much you love it.

Michelle Wolfson said...

I love Drew. You guys are in for a treat.

Elizabeth Poole said...

I was grinning through the entire scene until I got to the part about Drew lamenting the name tag. I almost spit my tea out at the computer screen I laughed so hard. HILARIOUS. I am sold on the book already.

I was wondering if you would mind showing us the original version? And telling us about why you made the changes you did? I think you did a really good job of balancing how Drew is feeling while him still being likable.

I was also wondering if you will or have written a post about writing comedy? I know a big part of it is writing what you think is funny, but I was wondering if you had any more specific tips. I am writing a book and it's turning out a lot funnier than I'd planned. Which is great fun, but now I sort of feel panicky.

Okay, off to preorder Believe It or Not....

Sierra said...

I was cracking up the whole time. Perfect way to start my morning. Thank you. :D

Nicole said...

Loved this scene. I can't wait for March! Pre-ordering now.

Boone Brux said...

Great scene. Lost track of time while reading it. Crap, gotta get the kids on the bus!

Julie Glover said...

I do not usually read romance, but you are making a serial fan out of me. I loved Making Waves, and I'm eager for this next book as well.

Laura @ Ladies Who Critique said...

Tawna, I always love hearing about your CPs. I bet they have SO much fun reading your work! (How could they not).
It takes a lot of courage to accept negative feedback and do something with it. It's hard to hear that a reader didn't like a scene or character, but if you take on board the comments, as you did, and work with it your writing will be better because of it. Great scene love chicken!

Susan S said...

Loved the scene, and completely agree about beta readers and peer editors. Even if I don't make the change a peer editor suggests, I always take a very critical look at the manuscript to figure out what is causing the negative reaction and how I can change the scene to avoid that problem. Often, the peer editor's instincts are dead-on, even if I end up making a slightly different alteration than the one that was suggested. People who read our work don't read in our voice, and the difference in internal "reading" voice can make a huge difference in text-based dialogue. That's one reason multiple betas are so vital to success!

Tawna Fenske said...

Sarah W, love chicken is one of my favorite terms of endearment!

Suz, thank you for inspiring the post!

Leah, even if only one of my six has an issue with something, it's always a reason for me to go back and read again to see if I need to make adjustments.

Michelle, I love Drew, too. I have to confess, he may be my favorite hero I've written.

Elizabeth, great question about posting the original. I fear it may have been lost in the Great Mac Crash of 2010, but let me snoop around to see if I can find it.

Sierra, so glad you liked it!

Nicole, aw, thanks!

Boone, tell the kids to skip school and stay home reading romance novels with you :)

Julie, yaaay! Another convert!

Laura, indeed, the critique process can be tough, but I can't imagine being a writer without it.

Susan, thanks! So true that even if you don't take a critique partner's exact suggestion, there's usually some gem of useful advice in there somewhere.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Elise Andrews said...

waaaaaaaa!!!!! I don't want to wait till March to read the rest!!!

Lisa Ahn said...

Ah!! I love this scene. March is too far away. :)