Thursday, August 18, 2016

Editor's Notes #22: The Importance of Having a Critique Partner



If we are honest with ourselves, we would always choose to believe our work is great. I mean, what's not to love? We're creative. We're innovative. We think of things no one else can possibly come up with, because we're smarter than all of them.

BUT . . . what if . . . what if, in fact, we're capable of error? Not us, of course, but all those other people: the ones who are not us. What if our their ideas are not as genius as they first appeared to be during those late-night writing sessions? Who is there to shout, "The emperor has no clothes!" when it needs to be said?

Your critique partner, that's who.

Everyone needs at least one. Sometimes more than one, but definitely not zero. Critique partners are often the only thing stopping a person from making a huge mistake, sometimes with a simple phrase like, "When reading your manuscript, I noticed something . . ."

What is a critique partner? A CP is someone with whom you trade manuscripts with the intention of reading and offering suggestions to each other for improvement. Ideally, that person should be an author. Even more important, he should be an author who writes at least as well as you do if not better. A critique partner needs to be able to look at your work from a number of angles and give sound advice and suggestions on how to improve.

This is not to say that your critique partner can't be a cheerleader, but the biggest, most important qualification when seeking one is honesty. Are they willing to be honest with you so your work will improve, even if it might make you temporarily unhappy? If they write in the same genre as you do, will they allow a competitive spirit to cloud their judgement? Face it: you don't need someone to tell you how he would have written it. You need that person to tell you how to improve what you've already written and called your own. They should be able to sprinkle praise in the middle of it all, but if the feedback is all at one end of the spectrum or the other, it won't be nearly as helpful.

Critique partners are a gentle way of thickening your skin for the not-nearly-as-kind reviewers out there. If no one has ever read your work prior to publishing, or if you've only ever had attaboys from friends and family, then that first negative review just may crush you.

Hey, it's even biblical: "Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses" is right smack dab there in the middle of Proverbs (27:6, if you don't trust me and want to look it up). You need to be able to trust the person to love you enough to hurt you, which is an odd concept, but honesty from a friendly voice is always easier to handle when you know that person risks much by their honesty.

Critique partners can be many things, but I'd say "invaluable" is the best way to describe them.

Do you have a critique partner? More than one? Never heard of the concept? Do you go through them like they're disposable? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

16 comments:

  1. I've always had three critique partners and two test readers. The test readers see an early version and tell me what's wrong with the story. My critique partners see a more polished version and tell me what's wrong with the writing. I couldn't do it without them!

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    1. That's an excellent setup, Alex. Each has their purpose. Sounds like you have all your ducks in a row. Anyone who says they can do it alone is either lying or is releasing some pretty awful books.

      Delete
  2. I'm a member of a small writing group most of whom are authors in my genre, and so are familiar with tropes, conventions, and cliches. The most valuable of the lot is not an author himself, but a reader so experienced... well, I can't think of a simile, but he reads in my genre and several others closely related. What makes him particularly valuable is the fact that he is brutally savage in his critiques. Need a comma? Dropped a quotation mark? Teleported a character from one coast to the other? He finds it, and isn't shy about letting me know it. You can't put a value on a reader like that! We all think our own work is wonderful, and for one simple reason: If we knew a way to write it better, that's how we would have written it. It's a simple fact, you can't do your best work without at least one of these standing behind you with a whip and a chair.

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    1. I love that! "If we knew a way to write it better, that's how we would have written it."

      You summed it up in one.

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  3. I actually don't have a CP. Maybe if I had one I'd finish more projects.

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    1. Hmm . . . projects . . . I need a CP. A Cleaning Person, that is. That would help me finish projects, too.

      I dunno, though. I've read some of your finished work, and I like it!

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  4. I've never had a critique partner. I get the feeling that people who read first drafts of my work don't understand where I'm headed.

    Love,
    Janie

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    1. Depends on what you write. I wasn't aware that you wrote as well as edited. I think if a CP has a set of questions that should be addressed, sometimes that helps them to narrow their focus, rather than "tell me what you think."

      For what it's worth, most people who talk to me don't understand where I'm headed.

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  5. Oh, you just KNOW I agree 100% with this. EXCELLENT advice and article all around!

    PS. I don't go through CPs like they're disposable, I save that for my editors. Except my editor won't let me, so basically I'm loyal to all my people . . . whether I want to or not. And I have a couple CPs. I figured I answer in case this was like a serious study you're doing.

    xoxoxo,
    SK, yo!

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    1. HA! You are trapped by the clause in my (nonexistent) editing contract which states oh-so-clearly, "You, SK Anthony, are officially trapped into having me, Lynda, as your Editor for Life, even beyond death, where I will continue to ghost-edit your work . . . free of charge, of course, after my death, because it would be ridiculous to think that ghost-editors need money."

      I'm pretty sure you read that clause with your magnifying glasses on. They brought out the best features in my own glasses, of course.

      Delete
  6. Well, thank God we've never given each other multiplied kisses. Wait, what?

    Actually, this is part of the reason why we work so well together. We're not afraid to be honest and tell one another if something just isn't working, or if something could be better. And even better than that, if one of us is really struggling, the other usually takes over and fixes it while the other freshens up mentally. It's a good working dynamic.

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    1. Hey, you're the ones who keep waking up in bed beside each other in your dreams of waking up in bed beside each other, multiplied kisses or not.

      Without knowing the two of you in real life, I would hazard a guess that you also work well together because neither one of you has an ego so huge as to interfere with common sense. I think that's a huge part of being able to be honest and accept honesty from someone . . . you're willing to admit that perhaps (for just that one tiny moment) your idea maybe isn't the hottest thing out there. Not that either of you has anything to worry about, of course, because your ideas ARE the hottest thing out there. (Word on the street . . .)

      Delete
    2. Wow, you have really nice, flattering streets. Ours are just filled with homeless people, and the words on those streets are typically f-bombs.

      Thinking of overly inflated ego, my cohort once tried co-writing a novel with another dude (it's not cheating if he still comes home to me, or something like that), and it was an absolute disaster. My cohort found out, only after completion, that the other guy had literally rewritten every sentence my dear pal had given him, and please know that I do not abuse the term 'literally' the way my generation is known to do. The guy even went on to remove my cohort's name from the book, and said, "Well, since it's all my writing now, you technically aren't a co-author." Just a really s***ty way of stealing his writing and ideas, basically.

      If you're wondering what happened to the novel, the guy's agent read it and said, "I don't like it at all. I liked the first version I saw way better that included the other author's writing." We know this because he reached back out, begging for my cohort's help. Other B told this guy where to stick it, and the agent, soon after, dropped him as a client.

      I believe that is what we call karma.

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    3. That's a tale worth the tellin'. As frustrating as the whole experience was, I hope at least that the little bit of satisfaction at the end for Other B helped him to not become a bitter, grizzled drunk who shouts "I coulda been a contender!" at strangers.

      I should not be surprised, but I really am consistently amazed at what some people will do to others and still be able to sleep at night.

      Delete
  7. Hi, Lynda. Just wanted to let you know that I posted a link to you on my blog at http://steampunkjack.weebly.com/blog/whos-responsible-for-this - Feel free to delete this as soon as you see it; it isn't my intention to leave a spammish type of ad on your site!

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