How to Find the Perfect Critique Partner - Jessica Andersen
NIGHTKEEPERS is dedicated to ‘the other Jessica’… and no, that’s not a sideways reference to my darker half or anything; she’s my long-time friend and critique partner (CP), who many readers know as J.R. Ward, author of the uber-bestselling BLACK DAGGER BROTHERHOOD series.
You can join us later today when we do a live chat about our differing styles and critiquing relationship (and our new books, NIGHTKEEPERS and LOVER ENSHRINED), but I thought I’d kick the day off with my thoughts on finding a good critiquing relationship. To make it more interesting, I figured we could look at it in the context of a blind date turning into a long-term romance (or not!). I figure the parallel isn’t too far off the mark, given that a CP relationship needs to involve a deep level of trust and give-and-take that really isn’t that easy to find.
One of the most common questions that comes up when discussing the critiquing relationship is: Where the heck do I find a CP? In my experience, most CPs find each other at local writers’ group meetings, on genre-based email loops, through friends and/or at writers’ conferences. But it’s not just about finding other writers, is it? The critiquing relationship involves reading and commenting on each other’s work; there’s an intimacy in sharing in-progress projects, and it can leave you vulnerable when things go wrong.
In my opinion, the biggest problems come from a lack of communication.
You deserve a stud (or studette): figuring out what you want from the relationship.
I think it’s important to identify what you consider the most important aspects of a CP relationship. What are you going to expect to get from your critique partner? Do you need a fast turnaround time? Are you going to want face-to-face meetings, or do you prefer to work by email or phone? Are you someone who mostly wants positive feedback with a few gentle comments? Do you want a nitpicky grammar and typo edit, or are you more interested in the broader strokes of the story? Do you want your partner to have an understanding of the market you’re targeting? Do you want story suggestions and brainstorming? Each of these things (and many more) might deserve a look-see before embarking on your new relationship.
Now do the same in reverse. Go through the questions we discussed above, and decide what you can offer your potential CP. Then maybe decide on one thing you’re very good at, and one thing you’d like to improve in terms of writing skills.
Once you’ve figured out your priorities, it’s time to get out there and mingle!
Flirting with your CP-to-be.
Beware of partnering with someone who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you on the fundamentals that are important to you. However, just as opposites attract, it can be helpful for critique partners to bring different strengths to the relationship. For example, JRW and I are very different as writers. She’s amazing at characterization, while I’m a little more action and plot-focused. Up until I sold NIGHTKEEPERS, she and I were writing in two totally different genres. She outlines extensively, whereas when I sit down to write a story I have a good idea where I’m going but no idea exactly how I’m going to get there, on a scene-by-scene level. Our differences work well for us because neither of us is looking for line-by-line comments or structural convos- we most often run scenes by each other and ask deep, meaningful questions like, ‘does this stick you out too much?’ or ‘does this say what I think it says?’ However, depending on what sort of feedback you’re looking for, you might find that you actually want someone who is writing in the same genre, or has a voice similar to yours. I think that will differ depending on your goal in finding a CP.
The first date: taking each other out for a test drive.
Just as we all have awful first date stories (like the time I drove three hours to hook up with a guy I’d met at a frat party, only to find that he’d invited his whole ROTC unit along with us), not every critique partnership is guaranteed to flourish. Don’t be afraid to exchange a few trial pages and agree that either of you can say ‘no thanks’ afterward if your writing, critiquing or personal styles don’t mesh.
No, you may not use my toothbrush: setting boundaries and expectations.
A critique partner agreement can help define expectations and keep everyone on the same page. You might even want to go so far as to write up a contract of some sort. For example:
We, (names), agree to exchange a maximum of (number of pages) every (number of days/weeks/ months). Critiques will be returned within a maximum of (number of days). Failure to comply with these terms will result in (dire bodily threat) or (suitable chocolate bribe).
In addition, it is important that critique partners trust each other in terms of privacy and implied copyright. Have a dialog about deleting/ returning/shredding material, and the privacy of your email communications.
Now, on to the critiquing…
What are you in the mood for? Chinese? Italian? POV?
It’s helpful to set the expectations on both sides. Depending on where you are in your project, you might want to receive big picture comments or maybe you need very tight, line-editing assistance. Tell your CP what you’re looking for. In return, ask what your CP is looking for when you receive material. It can be frustrating (and not very helpful) to receive line edits when you’re for big picture stuff, and it can be discouraging when you’re ready to submit and are just looking for grammar and typos, and you get a three-page explanation of why your plot doesn’t work. That is not to say, however, that you should hold back your comments if your CP thinks something is ready for submission and you disagree. I think that’s something you’ll have to decide on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s not what he said, it’s how he said it!”
Remember that this is a constructive relationship. When critiquing your partner’s material, try to start with what you liked and be gentle about the things that you feel need improvement. Phrases like ‘IMO’ and ‘IME’ are good. I’m big on using ‘If I were writing this, I would…’ And always remember that these are your suggestions; the other person isn’t required to agree with or act on them.
Sleep on it.
Criticism, however nicely couched, can be difficult to hear. When you receive your critique, it may be tempting to fire off a knee-jerk email you might regret later. Remember, your CP isn’t criticizing you, she’s commenting on your work. [If she is criticizing you personally, you might need to skip to the next section.] My best advice is to read over the critique, and if you have a negative reaction to it, wait 24 hours (or however long) before emailing/calling your partner with feedback on the crit, so you can take the emotion out of your response. Maybe even ask yourself if the feedback you want to give your CP is necessary- will it improve your critiquing relationship? If not, maybe just file the comments and do what feels right to you. In the end, it’s your story.
It’s not you, it’s me: ending a critiquing relationship.
Just as romances can end with a whimper or a bang, sometimes it’s necessary to break up with your critique partner. Maybe it’s because your styles don’t mesh, or you don’t feel like you’re getting an equal return on your investment, or maybe because your needs have changed. Regardless, be gentle. Often, CPs later become partners in goal-setting groups, cheerleaders and real friends, all of which are just as valuable (if not more!) than a good CP.
And that’s about it for my perspective on critiquing. I’ve gotten very lucky over the years, sharing critiquing relationships with a number of very talented writers in addition to J.R. Ward. One of those CPs is fellow TKA client Marley Gibson, who introduced me to Deidre Knight when I was looking for a hard-hitting agent to represent NIGHTKEEPERS. With Marley helping me win an awesome agent and JRW helping promote NIGHTKEEPERS to readers, it just goes to show that the actual critiques are just the starting point of a good CP relationship. So have at it, and good luck!