Yesterday, a friend of mine and I were exchanging emails about writing accomplishments for the day. We tend to keep each other honest.
Her: I wrote 2,978 words today.
Her: You know, I’m 22 words away from 3,000. And I thought, no, I’m too tired, I’m letting it go at 2978. You may have just changed my mind.
Me: Wiener head.
Her: Nah, I don’t have 22 more words. Unless I cut and paste wiener head 11 times! Eureka!
Me: I’m going back to bitch. Bitch.
And yet, she knew, without question, that I was completely proud of her. She’s stellar at capturing world and tone and nails me when I get too wordy, phrase things awkwardly, or when I muddy an issue. I help her with world building, motivations, pacing and logic. (Well, we probably do about the same thing for each other.) We’re brutally honest.
Another friend and I exchange rough drafts for each other’s take on certain issues. She always (always) nails me when I tell instead of show something. She’ll catch psychological motivations and ask difficult questions ahead of where I’m going which help me sort out the kinds of complexity I want to give the characters. I tend to nail her on lack of imagery, lack of showing, and logic issues. We trust each other to be brutally honest.
I read something of hers a long while back, and I kinda loathed the main character. A lot. A whole big fat barrel of a lot. Right off the bat, and I started making notes in the margin about this issue. I was very tactful:
“I’m hating her here.”
“Geez, she’s a bitch.”
“Okay, she’s making me itch, now. I want to slap her.”
“Never mind slapping her, I want to set her on fire.”
“I’m lighting the match now.”
Luckily, she didn’t send a hit man out to get me. (Well… yet.) And also, luckily, she’s as blunt as I am, and that works for us.
There are various writing friends that I have a wonderful brainstorming sort of relationship with; we will call or write and toss out a problem and everyone will throw in their two cents, knowing the writer is going to take it and run with it. No one feels proprietary toward their idea mentioned, and no one feels slighted if their idea doesn’t fit the writer’s needs. We can’t always know what else the writer is doing / working on / seeing for the future of their book, so we can’t know exactly what will spark that epiphany for them… what will combine with some other random idea that the two meld into the perfect thing to do. I trust these people know that I’m not going to ever worry or care if they use something, and vice versa. I also know that anything I discuss with them won’t go anywhere. (Not that anyone else would care–it just feels freeing to have that trust.)
Some people like to write and brainstorm completely alone. I would go batshit. It’s a matter of personal preference, and there is no one right way. It’s whatever works for you.
After writing for over twenty years, though, I’ve worked out a few guidelines of writing “partnerships” if you will–people you’re willing to share your work with and get feedback from. [I’d like to take a moment and state here that, for me, getting feedback is extremely helpful. It speeds up the process, because I see much faster if I’m doing something that’s working across the board or is confusing and/or not successful. I don’t need my ego stoked. I need to know what’s working (so I don’t go screwing that up) and what’s not working (so I know what to focus on).]
Here are a few rules, though, that I think are a healthy way of working together:
1) never, ever, on pain of dying, will there be any personal insults. It’s okay to say how a character is making you feel. It is not okay to say to the writer, “You write crappy characters.” If you are getting feedback from someone who crosses that line, find someone else. This person doesn’t know enough to know when they’re being hurtful… how can they know subtle shades of characterizations in fiction? If you tease (like I did in the first example), make sure that’s okay with the other person, that they’re on the same wavelength. My friend and I have known each other for… er… close to 15 years. It’s a pretty safe bet she knows how I mean that.
2) agree ahead of time as to your style of critiquing. I don’t read for very many people any more. I’m too rough, and I came out of an MFA workshop background, and then a screenwriting background–both of which are like being in the trenches in open warfare. Neither one of those situations encourage kindness and tact, and while I will strive to be tactful if it’s a new writer, I’m generally not very successful. Here’s why: people vote with their pocket books. They’re not trying to be tactful, either. If I coddle someone because they can’t handle the truth, I haven’t done them any favors, because the time they could have used to make improvements gets thrown away.
However–my style is not right for everyone. In fact, it’s probably not right for most people. That’s okay. Talk to people about their style of critiquing.
3) agree ahead of time as to the depth of critiquing you need. Let’s say, for example, that you’re in first-draft mode, and you just need to know if the logic of the book works. People go from point A to C to F to D for specific reasons and is that clear? But you get back a critique that focuses on the fact that it’s not polished, and they harp on a bunch of little details about sentence structure and language… and they’ve just wasted their time, and yours. Now, sometimes, you can tell someone, I need a logic check, and they’ll see a motivational problem that doesn’t track… these are both big issues, about the same level, so that’s a good catch. But when you’re looking for the big things and someone focuses on the minutiae, you’re at the risk of derailing. Because what generally happens when you see the minutiae is the equivalent of “Oh, Woe! I sucketh much! I shall throw myself off the ledge and never write again!” or worse, you get caught up in fixing the minutiae and forget to fix the bigger issues.
4) expect every critiquing partner to have different strengths. I’ll tell you right now, my weakness is going to be spotting awkward phrasing, unless you lose me completely. I’m not a grammar buff, unless you totally suck, and I’m not one who really cares if the language is profound or workmanlike. What I care about is story. I can generally assess someone’s style within the first paragraph, or at worst, page, and I’m entering into a contract with them: okay, I’ll think, I get your style, I’ll not question it unless you betray yourself… I’ll go with this flow as long as you keep me in your story. Some people can’t do that, and that’s okay. In fact, that’s kinda helpful at times, because they are wired to notice stuff like style, so if you are inconsistent, they’ll catch it. I’m very good at catching logic problems and motivational issues, and whether or not a character’s thoughts/needs/desires tracks emotionally throughout the story. I’m pretty decent at catching how you describe your world, though I tend to not care if the story is compelling (which means, in critiquing, I’ll miss stuff if I’m interested).
After the rough draft phase, I’ll get two or three close friends to read the work, so see if it’s working. At some point farther out, maybe a draft or two later, I’ll get fresh eyes, people who need to see things more polished, because they excel at language and resonance and subtlety.
5) plan ahead as to how much you’re going to share, and how frequently. I have several friends who can read almost whenever I send something. I try never to send really big chunks, though, unless I’ve checked ahead of time. I also ask how long do they think their turnaround will be. That’s not to put pressure on them, but so that I don’t sit around, wondering and fretting. If they’re running behind, they let me know. And vice versa. I hate not knowing. I’d rather have the bad news, if you hate it. I can learn from that. I can’t learn from not knowing.
6) know that you do not have to use everything the other person says, and vice versa. The upside to having other writers read and critique is that they “know the language.” They know story arcs and motivations/goals/needs. They know pacing and structure breakdowns and turning points and McGuffins and red herrings and on and on. This is useful because they can articulate better what they think the problem is, and why, and where. Readers may or may not notice the issue and if they do, they may not realize what’s causing the problem… so you’ll get something like, “page 30 was really slowing down for me” and you’ll look at page 30 and it’s a high-speed chase. So “slowing down” isn’t quite logical… but probably, what really happened, was that they stopped caring about the character somewhere earlier and didn’t fully realize it until page thirty and they realized they didn’t care if the character survived the chase. Changing page 30 won’t fix the problem, and you’d be mislead if you did so; changing the issue earlier could mean page 30 is now perfectly fine. Or it may mean there’s no longer a chase. Hard to know, but you have to get to the underlying problem.
Having writers read is, therefore, helpful, since we speak the same language.
However, it’s also a trap, and one you have to be very wary of, because each and every writer has a way that they would do that story. And as objective as they may think they are being, they aren’t you. If it’s your story, and what they’re saying doesn’t really resonate, then set it aside and think about it. You may recognize that there is a problem and find a completely different solution. You may also recognize that this is their particular bugaboo, and it’s not bothering anyone else who read it, and so you can easily chalk that one up to “it’s just them” and let it go.
The real trap, though, is to get too heavily influenced because they are enthusiastic about their ideas for the solutions, or they explain them so dynamically and damn, you do have a problem there, everyone says so, and you don’t know what to do, so what the hell, you’ll do that one, and before you know what’s happened, you start feeling bored with the story, or disconnected from it, or you have longer and longer periods where you struggle with it… because it’s no longer your story. So watch for this. Use something only if you love it. Discard it if it’s not resonating with the story in your head that YOU want to tell.
7) Don’t let anyone try to guilt you into using what they suggested. Even though this is almost identical to what’s above, it’s a little different. People who give you notes have got to be willing to then let go. If you have someone in your life who’s critiquing for you, and then checking to see if you followed their suggestions, they’re poisonous, whether or not they mean to be, because they’re dictating. And you’re not there for dictation.
8) No whining. Seriously, no whining. If you send something out and ask for feedback, 99.99999% of the time, people are going to have notes. Not because what you write needs notes, but because you asked for them, and people like to please. They do. They want to help. You asked them to help, and they’re going to feel like they didn’t help if they don’t give you notes. So while they may have picked up that book in the store and read it and loved it and could have been perfectly happy with it, you’ve now indicated that it’s not, in fact, perfect, because you want notes on it, and they’re going to nitpick until they find some. Know this ahead of time, shut up about it, and deal.
9) Do not argue. Seriously. Again. SERIOUSLY. Shut up. Don’t argue. You are not required to agree with the notes. You are not required to do the notes. You aren’t even required to understand the notes. Just express gratitude, if you hate them, for the person’s time and effort. They probably meant well. (For the ones who didn’t, this also tends to shut them up.) You can ask more questions for clarification, you can debate the subject, if the other person understands you’re trying to grasp their point and get to a deeper understanding of why they gave that note… but you cannot argue and try to convince them that they’re wrong and they shouldn’t have given you the note. If you find the desire to do that repeatedly with someone, they’re not the right critique partner or group for you.
10) Be thankful for the person’s time. Respect their time and reciprocate in a timely fashion. If you find you’re reading frequently for someone who doesn’t read quickly/frequently in return, then they’re not the right person for you.
So, there you go… a few guidelines to help with finding a critique partner or group.
How about you–do you have a CP? Do you write alone? As a reader, do you ever want to see a work in progress? Or do you feel “please-God-no, just show me the finished work?”