Thursday, April 23, 2015

Everyone’s a Critic, but Few People Make Good Critique Partners

by Sophie Perinot

You can’t pick your relatives but you CAN pick your critique partners.  And a wise choice will make you a better writer.

The tools in each writer’s kit vary—sometimes wildly (if you don’t believe me, put a pantster and a plotter in the same room).  But whether you write long hand or go straight to your keyboard, whether you do a quick-and-dirty first draft or agonize over every word, there is one tool essential to turning out a novel worth reading and that’s a good critique partner.

Given that critique partners are so essential to authorial success, it is perhaps not surprising that newbie writers snap up the first living breathing body available to them.  That is a mistake, a big mistake.

The selection of a critique partner should NOT be driven by desperation or sheer gratitude.  I mean imagine if people got married that way—if they were just glad to be asked by someone, anyone?  Shudder.  Yet I've seen people acquire critique partners in that manner, and then try to “make it work” when a divorce would be a mercy.
So how do you interview someone for what is basically an unpaid and sometimes thankless job without seeming rude? And how do you and make a reasoned selection?

Let’s start with the most basic qualification: the person under consideration needs to be a writer.  Save your grandma/best friend for the role of beta reader.  Yes, I am sure she reads hundreds of books a year and will offer an honest, unvarnished opinion of your wip (actually I am not sure, but that’s beside the point).  BUT she is not a writer.  Would you hire the bag-boy at your grocery store for legal advice?  When it comes to critiquing your writing you want someone who can write and write well, which leads me to point two . . .

When you meet a fellow writer (at a conference, in a virtual community, through a “critique partner’s wanted” posting) and you start thinking “maybe this one is the one,” be smart—start by offering help before requesting it.  Offer to critique something for the candidate: his first three chapters, her query letter.  Get a sense of whether he/she is not just a writer but a GOOD writer.  Personally, I looked for critique partners who write better than I do.  No matter how nice your critique-partner prospect is, if you don’t respect their work you need to finish critiquing the portion of manuscript you've been given, smile nicely, say how much you've enjoyed it and then walk away.

Assuming your possible partner survives this first hurdle, you will want to refrain from doing a little victory dance until you find out if this person—let’s call him tall-dark-and-talented—can edit.  Or more specifically, can edit in a way that is useful to you in shaping your manuscript.  A surprisingly large number of awesome writers cannot critique the work of others.  Why?  Three problems are common:

  • Some people are just too nice.  They might be willing to circle a comma fault, but they aren't willing to go much further.  They desperately want to tell you your book is great (primarily because they desperately want someone to tell them their book is great).  This is useless to you.  If you want to hear your book is great you can go back to grandma.  I am willing to concede for a moment that your first draft IS great, but you want to make it better, right?  That’s why you are seeking a critique partner. So you need someone who is willing to say the tough stuff: your protagonist lacks dimension, your back-story isn't working, the manuscript could start two chapters later without losing anything.  In other words, someone who can see big-picture developmental issues, not just catch misspellings.

  • Some writers can only see your work through the lens of their own style.  I call these the “my way or the highway” crew. Such a partner is more than willing to mark-up your manuscript, and every edit they suggest will make your writing more like theirs.  But you don’t want to be them, you want to be a better authentic YOU.  A good critique partner gets your style and holds you to it.  They will identify an awkward sentence without rewriting it in their signature style.  So when you get your first chapter back from tall-dark-and make sure his comments are not just an attempt to turn you into his clone.

  • Sometimes there is a basic incompatibility of vision.  This is the would-be-partner whose comments just don’t resonate.  Every partner, even the best, is going to make suggestions that have you thinking “huh?”  These are changes you will ultimately leave on the table—after all it is your book and you can be selective.  But if a majority of tall-dark-and’s comments simply don’t add up for you, than however many his other attractive features, there is no chemistry and he is not your match.

When you find someone who can both write and edit you celebrate!  And you also commit.  I mean if you like it then you better put a ring on it—metaphorically. Be ready to become your new critique partner’s ally, giving your time (sacrificing the occasional a weekend when she has a deadline) and best efforts to review her work.  Like most things in life, you will get out of the critiquing relationship what you put into it.  It is not a coincidence that so many critique partners climb the ladder of writing success together.  They are boosting each other up the whole way.

Sophie P’s has two critique partners of her very own--one of whom has played that role for eight years (yes, the woman is a saint).  Sophie's next novelMédicis Daughter--set at the intrigue-riven, 16th century French Valois court--will be out in December of 2015.  But you can ABSOLUTELY pre-order it now.  To find out about Sophie's previous literary endeavors, visit her website, or her FB page.  You can also  follow her on Twitter as @Lit_gal 


Debra McKellan said...

Great post!

Daveler said...

I love this!

I've actually found the most success getting non-writers to read the work first, writers to read it last. The non-writers are usually less biased and more likely to be honest about how it directly affect them. They're less likely to say, "You're not supposed to have a prologue," but, "I was more interested in your chapter one than your prologue." After getting the opinions of non-writers (who will often have a hard time articulating their opinion or solutions) I then turn to the writers who help to clarify and solve the opinions of the non-writers. Writers tend to have better understanding of the situation, but they also, as you said, have pre-existing opinions that don't change in context. Non-writers who don't know the rules have to argue their points in their own words and can't fall back on, "Hemingway says," which never works for me.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm lucky enough to be in a wonderful critique group with 7 members, 3 of them men. We write in different genres, which is good, and we each have different critiquing styles and hone in on different manuscript issues. I don't know what I'd do without them.

Elizabeth Hein said...

Wonderful post! I have had great critique partners over the years, as well as some not-so-great ones. Finding someone who understands your style and wants to help you be your best is invaluable. It took me a long time to recognize the my-way-or-the-highway type can be counterproductive, no matter how good a writer they are themselves.

Sophie Perinot said...

Patricia--SEVEN? Wow, you must have more time and energy than I do. I guess groups don't work for me because I've found the most fellow-writers I can commit to at a time and do a good job is two. Also I think if I were receiving seven sets of comments I would just become muddled.

Elizabeth--it took me a while too but once you recognize m-w-or-h types the first time it get's easier and easier doesn't it?

Daveler--I use my non-writers as beta's and they have their role but "knowing what you like" (which readers do) is not the same as "knowing the industry" and my critique partners are published and repped so they bring that to the table.