One of the interesting things that came up in comments the other day when we were talking about how we critique was that many seemed to think having a one-on-one critique partner is best.
I can’t really speak to any other option, because I’ve never been part of a critique group, but I do recall my friend Hank once warning me against them. I was about 23, and he was about 55, and he was a senior editor at a previous job. I leaned on every one of his words as if they were gospel. (And he deserved the adoration, if I must say, because he was great with words.)
Anyway, when I told him I was writing fiction in my free time, he pulled me aside and said, “Whatever you do, don’t join a critique group. Find a partner.” Hank was not always a serious guy, but he was serious about this – as if he were warning me against muggers or crooked IRS agents. I asked why the sudden death grip on my elbow, and he admitted he’d been having trouble with his own group. He pointed out that even though you get six to 10 people reading your stuff, and giving you feedback, you also must invest the time to read the material of those same six or 10 people … every month. And by the time you finish editing, critiquing, unraveling plot holes for all these other people, you often have no time left for your own book.
I took his advice to heart and found a partner instead. I was lucky right off the bat because I had a well-trusted friend from college – someone I not only trusted but loved to read (she was, and is, a great literary writer). (This, incidentally, was in the days before e-mail, if you can believe it. We were literally boxing up our manuscripts and shipping them across the country to each other! Crazy to think of that. …) Anyway, this went on for some time until we both got to the end of our 20s and started families and realized that running a little family is a lot of work. Unfortunately, writing fell by the wayside for both of us.
Flash-forward many, many years, and here I am again, rekindling the writing thing. Of course, I turned to that first college-friend-crit-partner immediately, and she was rekindling at the same time (our kids were at that “old enough for you to write again” stage), but she was staying on the literary track, and I was going to genre. We still read each other’s work, but here’s the thing about genre writers – they write FAST! And I’m trying to keep up. So I’m writing faster, and needing MORE reads than she did, and I realized I needed someone who wrote at the same pace as I did. So that’s my first tip:
– Pick someone who writes at your pace.
This way, you’ll be exchanging favors at the same time.
My second major tip:
– Go where you’ll find like-minded people.
I took several online classes and met people who seemed like terrific possible partners. I was asked four or five times if I wanted to join groups or partner up. (It’s a little like dating, in a way. You take a class, and you have your eye on someone – because you can tell they write like you, or you just like their style, or like their humor, or whatever – and you start e-mailing each other offline, and then … someone asks: “Do you want to be crit partners?” You feel like you’ve just been asked to have dinner at Sutra Lounge or something. …)
Anyway, I found a little critique group, by way of a friend by way of an online brainstorming group, and additionally critiqued with a few different people from here or there. But, ultimately, when the sand all settled, Patti and I continued going strong with each other. We just have a great connection.
Patti and I don’t even write in the same exact genre, which is weird. She writes historical romance, while I write contemporary. But we really click. Here’s why:
- We write at the same pace. I know I just said this above, but it’s really important, because I would hate to ask someone to read three novels of mine when I’ve only read one of theirs. In fact, I think it’s more important to find someone who matches your writing pace than someone who matches your genre. Patti and I keep perfect pace with each other, and we tend to finish writing books around the same time. She has two novels majorly finished (as do I), and another in brainstorming stage (as do I), and we have at least two spin-off stories we each want to write. Whenever one is ready to ask for help, the other seems to be at the exact same stage. And we both write every weekend. We’re of the same level of seriousness.
- Her strengths are my weakness, and vice versa. If you’re both excellent at pacing, but both terrible with point-of-view, you’re only going to be able to help each other so much. Patti and I, on the other hand, have opposite strengths. She struggles with grammar, which is a cake-walk for me. And I struggle with “telling” instead of “showing,” which she never does, so she helps me with that. She’s great at invoking all senses: She’ll say “What does the air smell like here?” or “What can he hear when he steps behind that wall?” and I love when she points that out because I never think of it. And I’m good with pacing in dialogue, so I help her delete the beats that make her dialogue seem unnatural. I think we really bring out the best in each other, and help with the not-so-best.
- She compliments as well as critiques. I’m sort of a baby, so this is good for me. You have to know your critique partner’s threshold for criticism, and know when he or she has reached it. (This would be well before the salty language gets thrown around and preferably before the proverbial “throwing in the towel.”) You have to know how to temper the critique with enough enthusiasm to be encouraging for your particular partner. For me, Patti is great at this. She points out the bad stuff, but knows just how to point out enough good stuff, too, to make me want to sit back down the next day and keep going. It’s a really nice balance she’s hit for me, and I try to offer that back in kind.
So what am I forgetting? Is there a great tip you can share for finding a great critique partner? How long did it take you to find yours? Do you switch depending on genre? Do you prefer a group?