The Need for Critique Partners

Have you let your mother read your story? How about your best friend? Or your hairdresser?

What did they say?

They gushed, right?

When I finished my first book, the 489 pages of my tome filled two 1½ binders. To save paper, I’d set my margins to ½ inch and my line spacing to 1½. The font I chose was Helvetica. My estimated word count: 150,000. And, I’m being conservative.

When I finished that story, I experienced a surge of joy on par with what I’d felt on my wedding day and the first time I cradled our daughter in my arms. To say I was proud would be an understatement. I printed that story out and wept over the pages.

What did I do with that ream of brilliance?

I invited six friends to read it. Six friends to whom I will be indebted for the rest of my life.

Bless them, but they waded through that monstrosity, which boasted more newbie mistakes than I’m willing to admit. (At least a kind and tactful friend told me, after reading my first chapter, that she’d be better able to figure out who was talking—and when—if I used quotation marks around dialogue. Can you say “duh”?)

Those friends, without exception, raved about my story. “It’s wonderful!” one said. “I love it!” another exclaimed. Only one ventured a suggestion of how I could improve it, and she only did so because I pressed her for an answer.

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Lesson #1 – Friends and family members are not the most objective readers.

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Fueled by the exhilaration of achieving a lifelong goal of writing a book, I dreamed of publication. I bought a market guide and read the guidelines for publishing houses I thought would be a good fit for my story. I typed “romance writing” in Amazon’s search bar, bought every book I could find on the subject, and devoured them.

And I learned a lot. I learned that my story exceeded the standard word count for a single title historical. I also learned that one aspect of my story would raise an editor’s eyebrow and prevent me from having a shot at a publishing contract—even if I were to chop the extra 50K words.

What did I do?

I wept.

And then, armed with my newfound knowledge, I started my second book. I joined Romance Writers of America® and read each issue of the Romance Writers Report cover to cover.

One section captured my attention. The contests. I entered my second story in the Golden Heart®. My scores were so low they put me in the bottom half.

The “good student” in me revolted. Less than 50% is an F. Unwilling to accept that I was a failure as a writer, I kept on writing, completing three more stories in nine months.

Between July and November of 2007, I sent off 33 entries, submitting four stories at a time to many of the contests. (No. Not my first manuscript, in case you were wondering.) I got to know our local postal clerks on a first name basis.

And then the white Mylar envelopes started pouring in. It looked like a blizzard had hit my home office. With trembling fingers, I would open a package. I’d take a deep breath to slow my racing heart and read the comments.

I wish I could meet those wonderful women (and men?) who judged my entries and made helpful comments and thank them in person. I’ve often said they taught me how to write. They exercised restraint, marking only the most glaring errors. I think they probably felt sorry for me and didn’t want to discourage me. Every one of them said something positive. Some even recommended craft books I might want to read.

I absorbed all those generous judges taught me. But there was a limit to how much I could learn from them. After all, they only saw a few pages of my story. I needed more in-depth feedback.

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Lesson #2: Contest feedback can only help so much.

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One of the contests I entered in the fall of 2007 was the Golden Heart®. I’d incorporated everything I’d learned from the chapter-level contest judges. I sent in my four entries, hoping at least one would come in the top half and prove those contest fees I’d been forking out hadn’t been wasted.

I did far better than I ever dreamed. Two of those entries finaled. Once newbie me found my way to the RWA® website and learned what the GH was all about, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t think my stories were that good. But I was happy with my final because it opened up a whole new world for me.

I’d written in isolation up to that point. I knew no other writers. I’d visited one blog to view a friend’s ultrasound picture and wondered how on earth she’d gotten it to show up. Aside from my monthly RWR fix, I’d spent the previous two years unaware of the wonderful community of writers just waiting to be discovered.

But they found me. I was invited to be a blog guest at The Seekers. Two of the other GH finalists issued an invitation to join the Pixies’ Yahoo! loop. I signed up for Nationals and wandered around San Francisco that summer in a daze.

And I met Anne Barton, one of that year’s Regency finalists. We got to know each other online and met in person at the conference. In the lobby of the San Francisco Marriott, seated on a plush sofa backing on one of the elevators, she asked if I’d consider being her critique partner.

I came close to weeping. Thankfully, I restrained myself. I didn’t want to scare her off. 🙂

I accepted Anne’s offer, and I’ve been blessed beyond belief. She’s not only an awesome CP; she’s a dear friend. She’s helped me take my writing to a new level, and I’ve offered her what help I can in return. Obviously, something is working, because we both have agents now and are getting closer to publication than ever before.

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Lesson #3: Critique partners can help us grow as writers.

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Critique Week is a dual celebration. I’m celebrating two years of having Anne as my CP, and I’m celebrating the fact that Romance Writers on the Journey is two years old..

Over the next six days, I’m going to have daily posts covering various topics related to forming mutually beneficial critique partnerships. Tomorrow, we’ll explore ways to find a CP.

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Double the Fun Drawing!

In honor of my blog’s birthday, I’m giving away two prizes a day, one each to two winners. To enter the drawing, leave a comment on this post by midnight Pacific Time and leave your email address when prompted. (This way you don’t have to add it to your comment.)

I’ll hold the drawing the following day, post the winners’ names here, and contact them via email to get a mailing address (which I won’t share with anyone or add to any mailing lists.)

Congrats to the winners: Julie Robinson won the Dr. Seuss note cards, and Ramblings from the Left won the Wild, Wacky Woman dish cloth.

Note: Offer void where prohibited. Odds of winning vary depending on number of entries.
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And here are today’s prizes:

Set of 16 Dr. Seuss Note Cards

Wild, Wacky Wonderful Woman Dish Towel

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I wanna know . . .

Do you have a CP?

How did you find one another?

In what ways has having a CP helped you?

What questions do you have about critique partnerships?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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27 Responses to The Need for Critique Partners

  1. Hi Keli,
    Congratulations on your Blog’s Birthday Week! I’m so happy to be a part of your online community.

    I have several critique partners and I love them all. Each relationship has grown into something unique. I was part of a large crit group in Alaska–the membership of that swelled to about 10 at one point. Several of those talented women are still faithful crit readers. I also have two official partners here in Minnesota. We meet once a month.

    Each partner has a different strength. Some are great with story holes. One is a superior brainstormer. Two write very short fiction so are fabulous at calling me on my verbosity. (One of my early first drafts ran 178K words.) I appreciate them all.

    My question, though, is how do you deal with the problem of starting to write for your crit partners? I often think — “Hmmm, I know so-and-so wouldn’t like that.” Sometimes that’s good, other times it’s very stifling.

    How often do you and Anne “meet”? I’d love to know a little about how you work your wonderful relationship.

    Thanks, Keli. And congrats again!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Liz,

      Wow! You are CP rich! What a blessing to have so many wonderful writing buddies.

      I hear you on being verbose. I liken myself to Dickens. Since he was paid by the word, he used plenty. I credit my proliferation of prose to my journalism major. I wanted all the column inches I could get, so I wrote lots.

      I’ll do my best to address your questions this week.

  2. christicorbett says:

    Oh how I LOVE this post!

    Your complete and total honest about how you started writing, and all the subsequent learning experiences, is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing all your highs and lows.

    My first novel was well over 145,000 words, rambled into every storyline/plot point it wanted to go, and in short was out of control.

    Reigning that one in was a learning experience, and taught me how not to write a book. 🙂

    I don’t have a critique partner yet, but for the past year I’ve belonged to a local writing critique group. They’ve taught me so much and are so helpful it’s been a wonderful experience.

    Christi Corbett
    http://christicorbett.wordpress.com

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Christi,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the account of my writing journey and how it led to the realization that I needed a CP. I got done writing the post and was sure I’d just proved how wordy I can be. 🙂

      Reading about Liz’s 178K work and your 145K piece makes me feel better. I see that I’m not the only one with a tendency to write sweeping tales. (Do you like how I put a positive spin on that?)

      I wonder if there’s a support group for us. I could benefit from Wordy Writers Anonymous. “I’m Keli, and I don’t write tight.” My saving grace is that I edit and am friends with my delete key. 🙂

      I’m glad you’re receiving support from your critique group. Are you seeking a CP, though?

  3. Cecilia says:

    I love this story, particularly your “good student” response to the low contest scores. Low scores make me just want to hide in a cave – I like your approach a lot better.

    I’ve never had a critique partner. My early drafts are so stumbling and unformed, I’m loath to show them to anyone. (When I was writing the book that eventually sold, I even cut off my single beta reader.)

    I think it must be nice to have one, though, particularly if she, too, felt awkward about the early drafts. So I’ll be following this series with interest 🙂

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Cecilia,

      Showing our work to others, even trusted CPs, can be scary. I plan to touch on that aspect of the CP relationship in one of my posts this week.

      I’d say you’re doing just fine without a CP, since you’ve sold. It won’t be long, though, and you’ll get plenty of feedback. Readers love to write reviews. I hope yours gush about your books.

  4. T.Anne says:

    I had two crit partners for one of my novels. They were both a one off deal. Since I don’t have time to crit someone else’s work, I think I need to spend more time with my editor Tiffany Colter. She also helped me in that first book and was WONDERFUL. I can’t sing her praises enough. Back to Tiff for me. Wish I could find someone who wrote women’s fiction though just to have as a spring board at least.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      T. Anne,

      You’re not the only one who sings Tiffany’s praises. Author Jody Hedlund does, too.

      While I like the idea of hiring a freelance editor, I realize not everyone can afford to do so. For writers who aren’t as far along in their journeys as you, finding a CP can be a starting point. Of course, we have to bear in mind the skill level of our CPs and do our best to seek partners who will challenge us and push us to take our writing to new levels.

      There are various levels of reads within CP relationships, which I’ll touch on in one of my posts. Sounds like if you found just the right women’s fiction writer and didn’t have to make a huge time commitment, you might explore the possibility of a partnership. Is that so?

  5. Thanks for posting this today. Wrote to one of the writers I met at Writer’s Digest on-line community, applied for a CP through RWA on-line.

    Like many others, I meet with a local group for two years. Two hours a week and everyone can read up to seven pages.

    I want a CP or an on-line group limited to three or four where we can read substantial (i.e. 50pages at a time) portions of each other’s books.

    What questions do you have about critique partnerships?

    I have found one “reader” who is tough and honest and has been a treasure. I would love to be able to return the favor, but at the moment she is not writing.

    Do you think the best way is to “swap” X-number of pages?

    How often do you think makes sense?

    What I have learned from my “readers” and my critique group, from small things posted to WD’s community board, is that there is a danger of listening to everyone.

    What we all must learn as writers is who we are and how unique our individual voices are.

    In my group this Friday, ten people were in attendence, including myself. Two just don’t like my work, don’t get the jokes, get annoyed by the pace … the other seven laughed at the right times, think I do a great job and think the pace is perfect.

    When you are looking for a critique partner, don’t feel bad if you have to go through a couple of those who don’t get the jokes …

    Thanks again for this post.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Ramblings,

      You raise some great questions. Not everyone is going to “get” our writing, which is bound to happen. There will be readers who rake us over the coals when they read our published books. I plan to touch on this aspect of the critique partnership in one of my posts.

      I plan a How-to post, which I hope will address the how much, how many questions you posed.

      I’m glad to hear you have one CP/reader who has proven to be a great match. My advice is to nurture that relationship–and maybe send some chocolate. 🙂

  6. Great post, Keli! And you’ve reminded me I need to pay my RWA dues. I’ve always been gun shy about letting anyone read my work. So I recently got The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine to get over this hurdle. As it says, it’s a book on “how to give and receive feedback, self-edit, and make revisions.” I’m anxious to read your post tomorrow—should be informative.

    Congrats on your blog’s 2nd b-day and on your 2-year CP relationship.
    Julie

  7. Keli Gwyn says:

    Julie,

    Thanks for stopping by and for sharing the book information. Have you read it yet? If so, would you recommend it? Why or why not?

    I see you’re a member of RWA. Will you be attending Nationals? Anne and I are eagerly awaiting our first in-person visit in two years. She’ll be the one seated next to me in the Awards Ceremony–the younger, prettier, classier half of our partnership. 🙂

  8. territiffany says:

    Great post! I got my critique partners about a year ago online when I posted about the need for some. Cindy, Jill and Wendy and I each compliment each other in some different way. I adore their feedback and they are honest and push me.
    We cheer each other on and dry each other’s tears when we want to give up. I know they are always there to listen to me whine or answer my questions about structure etc.
    I really don’t have any questions about CPs as so far ours is working well.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Terri,

      I’d say you hit the CP jackpot. What a Dream Team you have!

      Sounds like we could learn from YOU what works well. I hope you’ll chime in on the posts this week and share your perspectives and successes.

  9. Sherrinda says:

    Excellent post! I am really looking forward to reading more about the subject. I have one in Pepper Basham and she is great. She is strong where I am not. 🙂

    I would love to hear how you and your CPs trade work. What works for you all?

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Sherrinda,

      I think it’s great that you and Pepper are CPs. What a great match!

      I will address the issue of swapping work in one of my posts. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  10. Though I’m just starting the book, I do recommend it. She give good examples along with her advice, along with some excellent worksheets for critiquing and for questions to ask yourself for getting what you want out of a CP.

    As for RWA, no I won’t be going. My husband recently lost his job of 15 years. I’m already in the grace period for paying my dues late, and if I didn’t belong to a couple of groups that require RWA membership, I probably wouldn’t renew to save the money. So maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that i “have” to renew and that God’s plan includes a job for my husband in the near future.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Julie. I’ll add the book to my Amazon shopping cart.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your husband losing his job. That is tough. May the Lord lead him to a new job that is even better than the one he had, one well-suited to his talents and abilities that he will greatly enjoy.

  11. Having a crit partner has been great for my writing. We were blogger friends before actually partnering up. But it’s wonderful to have that feedback and the accountability to keep going.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Heather,

      I’m glad you have a critique partnership that is working so well for you. Meeting others writers online is a great way to find potential CPs.

  12. Thanks so much, Keli. I keep your card on my desk, the one that says: Hope is the belief that good things will happen.

    If you g et a chance to look at this book in a bookstore, you’ll want to move it up the list. 🙂

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Julie,

      I looked up the The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine on Amazon last night, liked what I saw, and ordered it right then. Thanks again for the recommendation.

  13. Keli Gwyn says:

    Thanks to everyone who has stopped by to read this post. Everyone who left a comment was entered in the drawing. I’ve held it, and here are the winners:

    Ramblings from the Left will receive the Wild, Wacky, Wonderful Woman dish cloth. Julie Robinson can look forward to a box of Dr. Seuss note cards coming her way.

    Congrats, Ramblings and Julie! I’ll be in touch.

  14. Cool! Thanks, I’m such a kid at heart. It’ll match the Dr. Seuss sticky note holder on my refrigerator. 🙂

  15. And thanks for making my day brighter.

  16. Tonya says:

    No, I do not have a CP. Not really. I have 6 close friends/family that currently work together as my CP. Their feedback is not always umm helpful, but it is sweet 🙂
    I signed up for CritStarters through ACFW and hope to find a CP and build a relationship.
    P.S. Author Jody Hedlund recommneded your page. Thank you for the advice and tips.

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