If I were to have a FAQ section for email inquiries, this would be at the top, right above the request for my banking information because I’ve inherited 500,000 USD from a prince in Nigeria.
(I mean seriously. Does anyone fall for this? And why don’t they use the dollar sign?)
I have two main critique partners.*
1) Bobbie. Bobbie has been there since the beginning. Since I thought it was acceptable to query a 130,000 word vampire novel. Since I had no idea how to make every scene move the plot forward one step. Since before I knew about Miss Snark and every other blog out there. Bobbie is one of my closest friends and I tell her everything. I’ve known her for five years, and I’m so frigging lucky, because she’s insanely insightful. I’ll tell her I’m struggling with a scene, and I’ll get back this in depth character critique like:
So you’re unsure of where to go now? How to resolve the moment between Michael and Gabriel? I can see how it’s a pivotal moment and you want to play it right. You can’t have them hug it out or Gabriel won’t need the fire as much as he does now–it’s his escape. If all is well on the home front–or even heading there–he won’t have the need for release. I like that Gabriel’s immediate feeling isn’t anger but a sense of betrayal. He seemed to be feeling, before Hannah showed up, that he and Michael could at least be civil to one another and act like brothers now and then. To come home to this accusation would be painful and more isolating.
I think you need Michael to be suspicious, and I think his character would be. But the fire started before he left the house. Hannah could confirm this. But Michael’s suspicion might at some point make Gabriel question whether Garrett is the arsonist. And even if Michael comes to believe Gabriel didn’t start the fire, he’s still going to suspect something’s going on, and Gabriel’s secrecy is going to bring more tension to their relationship.
I mean, you can’t pay for critique notes like that. Sometimes I feel inadequate when I read her stuff, because I can’t see all the angles like this. I feel like a caveman writing things like, “Um. This guy seems angry.” Seriously, I don’t know why Bobbie puts up with ME.
It didn’t start out that way, of course. I’d posted a chapter on the critique site www.mywriterscircle.com, and she left some good comments, along with the line, “I would read more of this.” So I looked up her profile, sent her an email, and said, “Would you really read more of this? I have half a book.”
She read it, she liked it, she sent me some of her stuff. I read it, I liked it. We clicked right off the bat, and the timing was good. We were both beginners, and we were both at the same stage of the writing process.
A lot of that was LUCK. Kind of like love at first sight.
2) Alison: I’ve known Alison for about a year. She sent me a message on Absolute Write when I had a post up offering beta reads, and because I say yes to just about everyone who asks me to crit a manuscript, I told her to send over the first chapter or so. Then I completely forgot that I accepted, and I felt like a total heel when she emailed me 10 days later to ask if I got her email. (I blame my Blackberry.) But I could tell right away that Alison had some serious writing chops (see my last post about her recent signing with an agent), and I gave her a bunch of constructive criticism and sent it back.
That’s usually a make-or-break point with a critique partner. I’m always honest, and I never sugar-coat anything. I’ve had people get back a critique of twenty pages, and move on. Alison wrote back that it was finally the feedback she’d been looking for, and asked if she could send more. I liked her writing and her style, so I read more. And more. And more. She kept offering to read something of mine, but I was agented at that point, with a book on submission, so I was a lot more careful sending things out. Finally we’d been working together long enough that I trusted her enough to send something her way. (You never know what freak is going to post your book on their blog or something.) Alison’s critiques were awesome! Spot on! She picks up on things that I never would, especially when she guesses where the story is going. I remember in one of the earlier drafts of Elemental, she made the comment, “You have all these water bottles popping up everywhere! I can’t wait to see what you’re planning on doing with them!”
I read that comment and was like, “Uhhh…I’m not doing a damn thing with them. People are thirsty.” But it was a great point, and I took out some of the references. Alison is great at picking up on foreshadowing that might not be intentional, or seeing links between characters that I might not have seen. It’s every bit as insightful as Bobbie, just in a different way.
I owe a lot of my success with Elemental to these ladies.
I know, I know, you’re saying, “Shut the F up about your amazing critique partners, and tell me how to find some of my OWN.”
Reading the above, it seems like I just got lucky and found two great people and POOF, my writing life was easy. Brigid has everything! A book deal! Great critique partners! An amazing agent! An awesome editor!
Yeah, whatever. You want to know how many beta reads I did before landing on two people with whom I really clicked? I just went through my email, searched for “beta,” and counted the individual email addresses.
And that doesn’t count beta reads I did directly on message boards like Absolute Write and My Writers Circle. (I do a lot on my lunch hour. Hey, a girl needs to do something while eating.) That doesn’t count people who might have used the words “Crit” or “Critique” instead of “Beta” in their email.
That’s also over the course of five years.
The point? That’s a lot of people. A lot of time. A lot of reading.
Finding a great critique partner is like finding a great husband. (Or wife.) It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take hard work, and compromise, and a solid base of trust.
1) Don’t be lazy. If you were going to a bar to pick up men (or women), you’d take a shower, wear nice clothes, and try to look your best. Do the same thing when you’re sending your stuff out for critique. Now’s the time to be on your best behavior. Sometimes people would email me and say, “I know it’s full of grammatical errors and misspellings, but I’ll fix that stuff later. I just want to know if the story is worth the time to fix it.” I mean, come on. If you don’t know if it’s worth the time to fix it, why is it worth my time to read it? Don’t send out crap.
2) Be honest. Not just with others, with yourself. Maybe someone is AWESOME at critiquing your stuff. If you hate their writing, you’re not going to want to reciprocate. That’s not fair.
3) Critique a LOT. You know those advice columns where people write in and say, “I’m so depressed, I’ll never find anyone. I hate going out and playing the dating game. There must be another way.” Don’t you want to hit those people? Dating is how you find a life partner. Critiquing a lot of stuff is how you find a critique partner.
Kind of like writing a book, finding a critique partner is something that sounds easy in theory. “I can write a compound sentence! I’m destined to be a great author! Here’s where to send my check!” vs. “I’m a really nice person! My writing is amazing, so I’ll quickly find someone amazing to read it! At 3am! In five minutes!”
Everyone can find a great critique partner. They’re out there. I was, Alison was, Bobbie was.
All you have to do is put yourself out there. You know, with a little lip gloss.
* I’m not listing Sarah Maas, who is an awesome critique partner, because we only met because we’re agency sisters, and our relationship doesn’t really apply to this post. I just got lucky with Sarah. Wait. That sounds dirty.