Part Three of the Critique Series
So you want a critique partner? Well of course you do. You want that camaraderie. You want someone you can call on to help you through a scene during a moment of crisis. You want a brother or sister in arms. Just be wary when you go out and look for one. Even when you have great critique partners (like I do) there is both good and bad that you have to watch out for.
One on one dialog: I find that gathering ideas from a message board just doesn't work for me. As I mentioned in Talking Through Writer's Block, sometimes you just need to talk it out.
Intimate connection with your story: You eventually have another specialist in your work that you can turn to for help. They know the characters, how they would act, where you're going with it. This person can call you on things that others, who are unfamiliar with the work, might miss.
Cheering Section: We all need someone in our corner cheering for us. “Alright, now get it finished and send it off.”
Commiserate: You're going to have bad days, you're going to be rejected, slammed by decision makers, ignored by agents, and that's when having someone to help you come up with the perfect torture scene for those individuals is key. They know your pain because they've been there. Or better yet, they can be there to get excited with you about a rejection. Honestly, can you imagine getting all giddy about a personalized rejection letter with feedback in front of a friend that knows nothing about the publishing industry?
Community: Writers tend to be loners. We like to sit in coffee houses and observe others. Trouble is, we need to get out there and experience life as well. You can only get so much from reading about others' experiences. Besides, who are you going to attend cons with?
Trust: Need I say more?
Desensitizing: After a while they might gloss over things that they've grown used to in your writing.
Power: You might end up taking their word as the end all be all when what you really need is another opinion.
Colored lenses: The more your crit partners know, the harder it is to count on them to respond honestly to twists. They know where the story is headed, and can help map it out, but if they know the destination, your twist might be obvious to them whereas it wouldn't be to those with virgin eyes.
Crutch: If you can't get anything done unless your crit partner helps you through it, there's a problem. I've actually critiqued with folks who took suggestions for rewrites word for word and inserted them into their stories. We would honestly stop during critique reviews and reword sentences for this person. It got to a point where I just stopped giving suggestions because I knew that we would have to stop during the review to work through it with them. "Well, how do you think I should say it?" "Uh, I don't know. I can't really think of anything (lies all lies)."
Enabler: The wrong crit partner might simply be enabling you to continue to produce bad work. Granted, we need some praise from time to time, even Countess Bathory manages to dole some out for me from her tub from time to time, but when all you get is glowing reviews you run the risk of floating away with your inflated ego (as the Countess is always sure to remind me).
Voice Killer: And here's a good one that I never thought of that I found on another blog while researching this post. “Which brings me to critiquing. I have confessed in the past that I don’t critique—other than the occasional read-through for a friend—because I’m a voice-killer. I have this compulsion to rewrite the manuscript until it’s the way I would have written it. It’s wrong, I can’t help it, and therefore I’ll only read for writers I know are strong enough to ignore that aspect of my critique. Beware of authors like me. We are out there and not all of us recognize this tendency in ourselves.” (source: http://shannonstacey.com/2009/06/09/critique-partner-or-enabler/)
The Dating Game:
Unless you have a frequented blog spot and can put up a crit dating request on your blog like Maggie Stiefvater, author of Shiver (made it up to number THREE on the NYT best sellers list), you'll likely need help searching someone out. And finding the “One” can often be as tricky as finding the one you'll spend the rest of your life with. Remember, you're not just looking for a friend. Just like in marriage, you're looking for a business partner as well as a friend. They have to fit what you write and they also have to bring their own strengths to the table. You have to feed off of each other. You have to inspire along with being inspired.
Damihjva, who shall henceforth be referred to as Paris because of her purchase of a rat dog, I found via a MySpace search. I wanted to find someone who lived nearby that I could commiserate with. That was the luck of the draw. She had a crit group that needed another critter; I needed a crit group. I made her cry with a short story and it was critter love.
Countess Bathory is a part of a fantasy forum that I'm on. (Oddly enough, Paris was a part of the same group years ago and remembers my handle from back then; guess we crossed paths but didn't meet up.) She sent out a request for off board crit partners and I made the audacious suggestion that she post something and get it critiqued by a few people and then pick out those she liked; I still think this is a good idea -- sort of like speed dating. She replied to me off-board, asked if I'd crit her chapter, I did, made her cry for an entirely different reason, was dubbed Attila and voila, critter love.
What can we learn from this? Make people cry.
But seriously, you have to try people out. It's like dating; you have to open up and expose yourself before you can find the right one. If you're too guarded, then you apparently aren't ready. You're also going to have to go through a lot of duds. That's the way it is. True love doesn't knock at your door; you have to go out, find it, hit it over the head, and then drag it back home.
Places to bird-dog partners:
Writing forums: This is kind of a crap shoot but worth a shot. Many forums want you to participate and critique others' work before you post anything of your own. If you've got the time, go for it. I don't critique in forums because I don't have the time. I give advice when I can and if someone finds what I say useful and decides they'd like to hear my thoughts on what they've written, they can ask and I will crit.
Critique Circle: There are a few sites that specialize in critiquing stories. Some of them are pay sites, others are not, but everyone there is there to critique.
Social Media Search: In the same way I found Paris, you might be able to find someone near you.
Dating: Maggie Stiefvatter mentions in the above linked article that she was starting a critter dating board over at her fan site. I couldn't find it, otherwise I'd have linked to it, but it's a good idea.
Blogosphere: Seems like every writer has a blog these days. What better way to get to know a person before asking them out on a crit date than by reading their blog?
Keep a couple things in mind as you head out on your search. First, this is not a Hollywood Romance. Love and crit partners don't work like the movies would like us to think. My wife and I don't see eye to eye on everything, nor would we want too. The same holds true for crit partners. Don't try to make them fit an idealized mold of “the perfect crit partner” because you're going to end up frustrated.
That said, keep this second piece of advice in mind: Remember, it is better to not have a critique partner at all than to have a bad one.