Wordy Wednesday: Best Critique Partner Traits

IT’S SO WARM OUT.

It was thirty five out yesterday and already it’s forty today and I’ve just been wearing a light utility jacket to class the past couple days and I never want it to be cold again.

Also I forgot to mention in Monday’s post, because I’ve already talked about it everywhere else (but I should probably share it here too): I got hired to write for The Huffington Post last week! I’m going to be a blogger for their College section and I am SO FREAKING EXCITED. Watch out on Twitter and Facebook for me to obsessively share the links to my posts.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. And since I’m currently in the midst of sending a novel back and forth with critique partners, I figured I’d talk a little about that.

Critique partners (and/or beta readers) are so, so vital to writing. I’ve been working on this particular novel for three and a half years now–this particular draft for over a year–and every time I think I’ve finally fixed everything, I send it off to a round of CPs, only for them to find even more issues.

On the downside, this has started feeling like an endless process. On the upside, these issues have been growing smaller and smaller with each subsequent round of notes (so I’ve got to reach the end eventually).

Because I’ve been working on this novel for so long and it’s gone through so many rounds of critique, I’ve worked with quite a few CPs at this point. All of them have brought something different to their critiques and all have been crucial to getting the novel to where it is now and I’m so grateful for each and every one of them.

I’ve noticed, though, that there are certain traits my CPs’ critiques share that make them particularly effective. Some of the critiques have all these traits; others have only a couple, but do those things really well. So I figured I’d share them as kind of a checklist for how to effectively critique someone else’s writing.

Question Everything

First and foremost, a great critique partner reads actively and is constantly on the lookout for things you could improve. This doesn’t mean, like, questioning your every choice as a writer. But also not accepting everything you say as fact. (For example, I had some issues with character motivation a couple rounds of critique ago and one of my CPs basically said, “I could go along with this, because the text has told me to, or you could show me why I should and actually make me want to.”)

Let You Know What They’re Thinking

If a CP has any qualms about something, big or small, it’s his/her job to tell you. Sometimes something might not seem like that big of an issue to a critique partner, but in mentioning it to the writer s/he uncovers a larger issue that really does need to be fixed.

It’s also nice if, say, you’re working on a whodunit and the CP keeps you updated on who she thinks, you know, done it throughout the manuscript. (The novel I’m revising involves a kind of tricky red herring situation and it took a couple rounds of critique to make it work right. I never would have known there was a problem with it in the first place if one of my critique partners hadn’t kept me updated on who she thought was the bad guy, because it didn’t look like an issue from the outside, but definitely was one.)

Editorial Letter + In-Line Notes

This might be more of a Me Thing than anything else, but my favorite way to receive critique is to have both a letter detailing the overall state of the novel in the CP’s opinion (big issues, overall reactions, etc.), along with notes right in the text (usually as comments on Track Changes) for the smaller stuff. This helps you sort through the feedback so you can quickly figure out what’s going to be a big, time-consuming, difficult fix versus an easy, quick one. (And if you’re having trouble deciding whether or not to change something based on a critique partner’s reaction, the fact that s/he thinks it’s significant enough to mention in the letter means it’s probably something you really should change.)

For example, one of my CPs had mentioned in a comment in the text that she was having trouble with a character’s motivation in one scene, but none of the others had mentioned anything there. I probably would have written the comment off as an individual issue (brought on by being tired or having to take a long break between chapters or something), except that the CP then went on to talk in more detail in her letter about why she was having an issue with the motivation there, and it turned out she was completely right and the other critique partners in that round had just simply missed it.

Compliment the Parts They Like

This is such a vital part of critique, because while it’s important to know what’s bad so you can fix it, it’s also important to know what’s good so you can:

A) Aim for bringing the rest of the manuscript up to that level.

B) Not accidentally ruin something that’s working well.

C) Remember that you don’t entirely suck at writing.

I like to think of reading critique partners’ compliments as the reward for slogging through the rest of their comments. If a critique partner compliments a certain sentence or plot twist or scene, it makes fixing all the issues s/he’s also pointed out seem so much more doable (and worth it).

Additionally, this is really useful when juggling several CPs’ comments. A couple rounds of critique ago, one CP absolutely hated the way I’d ended a chapter and another loved it. I hadn’t been sure if I should change it per the first CP’s advice or not, because I really liked that chapter ending myself. The fact that the second CP complimented it reminded me that while my CPs’ opinions are important, they are just that: opinions.

Not everyone is going to like the way you phrase every sentence or end every chapter, but as long as someone likes it, you’re doing something right. And I wouldn’t have known that that chapter ending was okay if all I’d seen was the criticism.

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What are some of your favorite traits of your critique partners? Share them in the comments so we can fangirl over these wonderful people who put up with the worst of our writing. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Story Time: Jump

Before you read this post, please note: A reader brought it to my attention that she thinks it sounds like I’m not willing to take critique, here. That is not my intention.

I love critique. I will always listen to critique, because I know I’m not perfect and I need help to make my writing better. That’s not what this post is supposed to be about. It’s also not supposed to be about me saying that there is anything wrong with my critique partners–between their opinions or the ways they critique–because there is nothing wrong with them. I love them. I love it when they’re sassy or thoughtful or sweet or any combination of the three. Me writing this post has nothing to do with a problem with them and everything to do with a problem with me.

I got so scared of making a mistake, recently, that I could no longer tell whether a decision was right or not.

This post is supposed to be about me learning that my voice matters just as much as everyone else’s–that my novels should ultimately reflect the style and ideals that I want them to–and that I, as a writer and individual, need to learn to trust my own instincts, sometimes.

That does not mean I will not take critique. That does not mean I’m not willing to rewrite scenes and revise plot lines and work with someone else to make my writing stronger. It just means that I’m learning to bring myself into the equation, as well. If I disagree with a suggestion, I’m going to bring it to the other person’s attention, and work with them to come up with something that we both agree on, rather than blindly following what they tell me to.

Critique is good, dear reader. But it’s all about how you interpret it. And that is the point of this post.

I really don’t know how much of all of this I should be saying. And by “all of this” I mean “talking about the revisions I’ve spent the past month doing on CADENCE.”

I wasn’t planning on talking about the revisions at all, actually, but Wednesday felt like a perfect time to mention them. And, here I am again, two days later, writing another blog post.

Because while I wasn’t planning on talking about them, right now I feel like I need to.

I finished my own changes to CADENCE on Saturday. They involved lots of rewriting, cutting and condensing and adding scenes, and attempting to deal with my apparent obsession with dialogue tags (I have no idea WHY there were so many dialogue tags in CADENCE up until this point, but I cut about a thousand words worth of them during line edits last week). Then I sent the manuscript off to four critique partners, all of whom I would trust with my life, and therefore I trust with a red pen.

The first critique landed in my inbox just a few hours after pressing send: CP Numero Uno loved the novel, loved the changes I had made (she and CP #2 had both read an earlier draft, back right before I began querying) and had very minimal suggestions for improving it.

The next day, CP #2 sent me her critique of the first few chapters, with the same sorts of suggestions: “Oh, there’s a typo here, an awkwardly worded sentence there. Maybe add something to further flesh-out what you’re saying in this paragraph?”

–All in all, those are the kinds of critiques I live for, because they mean I must be doing something right. They give me confidence in my decisions as a writer, and make me feel like my “maybe, someday I’ll be good enough to be published” pipe dream isn’t all that much of a pipe dream after all. I happily implemented my CPs’ suggestions and tucked the manuscript away for when the critiques from my other two CPs–the ones who hadn’t read CADENCE before–began appearing in my inbox.

The next couple days passed in a whirl of WriteOnCon and relaxing with books that have already been published (because, believe me: you get tired of reading ones you need to edit, after a while). Then Thursday came, and with it the next wave of critiques.

And Critique Partners Numberos Tres & Cuatro were not nearly as glowing as the first two.

Now, don’t get me wrong: neither CP #3 or 4 were mean or rude or ANYTHING of the sort in their critiques. These girls are awesome, and they really have just been giving me the tough love treatment I ask my critique partners to hit me with. However, their tough love also involved comments on rewriting scenes, restructuring whole chapters, and other major overhauls that made me want to simultaneously vomit my heart out and throw my laptop against hard surfaces. Like concrete, from the top of a very tall building.

I trust my critique partners with all my being. I know they just want what’s best for my novel. There’s a reason I chose these particular four people, out of the more-than-a-dozen who volunteered to read CADENCE without my even asking*, to be my CPs.

But as I sat alone in my room freaking out last night about which comments to take seriously, and which ones to disregard as we-write-different-styles opinion, and which ones to take into consideration but ultimately not act upon right now, it occurred to me that I’ve been spending so much time trusting my critique partners’ judgement–trying to make the novel what they want it to be–that I’ve stopped trusting my own.

As much as I love my CPs and want to make them happy, what’s ultimately important, with CADENCE, is making myself happy. It needs to be the story I want to tell, the way I want to tell it. And if I don’t agree with one of their suggestions, I should trust my own judgement enough to make a decision on how to handle it.

It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true. This is not something to rely on other people to figure out. If they don’t like something that I’m doing stylistically, or they don’t like my plot or narrator’s voice, oh well. It’s not for them to decide. It’s my responsibility.

I don’t know if it gets easier, when you’re older, to look at these sorts of things and go, “Okay. I value your opinion. But since this is my novel, ultimately I need to value mine more.” Maybe it’s just because I’m nineteen years old and everyone always talks about putting others first. But it’s difficult to look at something and truly believe that my opinion matters more than–or even just as much as–someone else’s.

And I’m working on that. When it comes to me, when it comes to my own personal work, my opinion needs to matter, above my friends’ and family’s and colleagues’. I have the final say in what happens with my writing for a reason. While most of the time it’s good to put others before me, this is one situation where it’s important to put myself first, because CADENCE is my novel. I need to take ownership of it. I’m the only one who can.

So yes, it’s important to listen to and respect my lovely, wonderful, brilliant critique partners (you have no idea how much I love you guys). But it’s also important to look at some of their suggestions–like rewriting my opening paragraph because it didn’t grab CP #4 enough, despite the fact that none of the other CPs had problems with it–and say, “You know what? This opening paragraph has been working just fine for me so far. It’s gotten me requests from literary agents. I like my opening paragraph and I worked really hard on it. At least for now, I’m not going to change it.”

Someday down the line, I may rewrite that opening paragraph anyway. But for now, these opinions on CADENCE are just that: Opinions. Not law I need to follow. And they’re coming from only a couple of readers (most of whose advice has been oh-so-helpfully contradicting one another’s), out of what will hopefully someday be many (knock on wood).

It’s time to stop listening to what everyone else wants CADENCE to be, and focus on making it my own instead.

Everyone in the publishing industry is always talking about how you need a thick skin in order to take rejection and critique and reviews. But I think there’s also something to be said about knowing when to look someone in the eye and say, “No.” There’s something to be said for standing up for yourself, against your own doubts and fears; in trusting your own judgement.

I will never be able to please everyone with my writing, but at the least I should be able to please myself.

Of course I’m going to listen to my CPs about some things–like maybe how a sentence reads awkward or a paragraph needs a little more fleshing out or a sequence is confusing. But otherwise, it’s time to start listening to my own judgement. It’s time to start believing in and backing my own decisions. Because at the end of the day, this novel isn’t theirs. It’s mine.

One of my major fears, last night, in deciding what to do about these not-so-glowing critiques, was trying to figure out how I would feel over CADENCE being rejected, based on whether I took the suggestions or not. If I took them and agents rejected me, would I feel like I’d sold out? What would those what-ifs be? “What if I hadn’t listened to my CPs? Would the agents have still rejected me if the novel was more my own?” But what if I didn’t take the suggestions, and they rejected me then? “What if I had listened? What if the agent had preferred the plot to go in that other direction instead?”

I will never know how this whole thing would have turned out if I’d decided to rewrite parts–and possibly most–of CADENCE, based on the conflicting, confusing reactions of my critique partners. But it’s not something I should worry about.

I would much rather have an agent reject me for something I’ve consciously done on my own terms than accept me for something that no longer feels like it’s mine.

This story isn’t over yet. I don’t know how it’ll turn out, where it’ll end. Maybe it’ll be a happily ever after, and maybe it’ll be yet another dead end on the path to publication. But either way, it’s time to start trusting myself again.

I don’t know which is worse, jumping blindly or jumping with your eyes wide open. And I’m not exactly sure which I’m about to do.

But I’m tired of being afraid. I’m tired of not trusting my own judgement and trying to please everyone else, even at the detriment of my own happiness.

So I’m going to jump. And I’m not looking back.

 

~Julia

*If any of you are reading this, by the way, I want to give you a massive hug, because you’re great and I love you and I’m so thankful for having you in my life. (But no, you’re not getting a copy until it gets published. And that “until” should be read as a very big “unless.”)