The Care and Maintenance of Critique Partners
by Sally Rigby
I’ve been a member of the same critique group for fifteen years. Yes… a life sentence! When I talk to other writers about my critique group, they often admit to being envious and ask where they can find one. It’s not easy, so I want to share with you what makes our group special and give you some pointers about what to look for in a critique partner.
Before I get to the nitty gritty, here’s the government health warning: these are our experiences. Not all critique groups are the same and what works for us might not work for you.
So, what is a critique group/ critique partner? Simply put, it’s a fellow writer with whom you share your manuscripts and give feedback, with a view to helping you improve your writing and make your book the best it can be. It’s different from a beta reader, who gives feedback on a completed manuscript from a reader’s perspective.
Let me tell you about our group – affectionately known as the Tiara Girls. I don’t want to digress so won’t go into the reason why (if you really want to know just flick me an email). Alcohol might have been involved! Who are we? We are two Brits (Christina and me) and an Aussie (Amanda). Currently, we all live in New Zealand/ Australia – I say currently because Amanda and I have been known to country-hop. However, we’re both back in NZ and are planning to stay (with our families, in case you thought we lived together).
We met in 2003 on the Harlequin boards – an online hangout for writers who were aiming to be published by Harlequin. We were all unpublished at the time. Amanda and I were targeting the chick lit line and Christina category romance. Over the years, however, we’ve all gone in a variety of directions. I ended up writing contemporary young adult books, on the darker side, and am currently writing adult crime fiction. Amanda writes paranormal young adult, paranormal mid-grade and contemporary adult romance. Christina writes steamy historical and steamy paranormal romance, with some contemporary romance thrown in. We’ve all been traditionally published, and we’re now focusing on indie publishing – very often one of us will make the leap into something and the other two will follow.
Now I don’t want to get all woo woo here, because that’s not who I am, but all of our birthdays fall on the 18th. It’s a sign, right?
So, how have we managed to sustain our group? I’ve come up with a list of eight areas, all of which embody our relationship with one another (in no particular order, as they say on TV): communication; emotional support; professional support; critiquing style; habits; experience; genre; individual expertise; and likeability.
This is key. Very few days will pass without us being in contact with one another. Sometimes it will be about personal stuff – we have seven children and two grand-children between us, and there are always issues. Other times it will be writing related. The majority of our contact is via email and every email is sent to the other two. We do email individually, but mostly it’s to the group. It’s not unknown for me to pop out for an hour and find a trail of twenty emails when I get home.
The publishing industry can be brutal and definitely not for the faint-hearted. That’s why we need someone in our corner. Before we broke into publishing, we supported each other through the constant stream of rejections we received from agents and publishers (and to call it a stream of rejections is an understatement). We all had times when we wanted to call it quits, when we were convinced we were writing a pile of crap and no one in their right minds would ever want to buy it. Luckily we didn’t all have these moments at the same time, which meant the other two could give the support and encouragement that was needed.
We were also there for each other after publication, when things didn’t turn out quite as we imagined. I sold my first book in 2006, and it was published in 2007. I assumed that I’d be publishing books regularly from then on. Wrong. It took until 2012 before I could sell another. My first book hadn’t tanked, but it hadn’t gone gang-busters either. There were times that I wanted to give up… but they wouldn’t let me.
It’s not all negative. The emotional support we give each other when things go well is fantastic. Christina sold a book a couple of years after Amanda and I did. We’re not often together, but luckily we were all at the New Zealand Romance Writers conference when we found out. Our cheers echoed around the hotel. We were all so invested, that Christina’s success was our success. We celebrated well into the night (invoking the ‘what happens at conference stays at conference’, clause).
It would be remiss of me not to mention that we also provide emotional support for anything that arises in our personal lives – both things to celebrate and things to commiserate. Whenever anything does happen, the critique group is usually the first place we go.
We share a lot about the industry. Anything we read or hear about we will send to the other two. There is so much out there on the internet that it can be hard to discern what’s reliable and what isn’t. There are a lot of scams, with people quick to take money from writers, especially pre-publication. With our joint knowledge we didn’t fall foul of any of these. We also shared our experience of entering some of the big writing contests, and were very supportive and excited when we did well.
Critiquing and being critiqued can be highly charged. You’re putting your baby in the hands of someone else. There are two types of people who put their work out to be critiqued. There are those who genuinely want feedback on their work, and there are those who love what they’ve written, have no intention of changing what they view as perfect and only want validation of this from you. Don’t be one of the latter. Anyone who’s ever received an editorial letter knows that no one’s work is perfect. There’s always room for improvement. On more than one occasion I’ve received an editorial letter, seen how much they want changing, and wondered why the hell they actually bought my book in the first place (without exception, every book turned out better).
So, how do we critique? We’re kind in the way we make our comments, but don’t hold back. If we see something that – in our opinion – could be better, we’ll say so. ‘In our opinion’ is key. Because that’s all it is. One person’s opinion. If I’m not sure of a comment Christina or Amanda has made, I’ll wait to see if the other person has said something similar. If they have, then I’ll usually make the change.
When we critique, we look at the work as a whole. We consider the characters, their arcs, the plot, the writing and the structure. We’ll also pick up any typos or grammatical errors that we spot. Copy editing isn’t what any of us do exceptionally well, although Christina is probably the best.
When we first started to work together, in our return email we’d always say: this is just my opinion, so please disregard anything that you don’t agree with. Fifteen years down the track we don’t do that. We trust each other implicitly. That’s so important, I’m going to say it again. We trust each other implicitly. We’ve also developed a shorthand in our critiquing. For example, if we say ‘you’ve Master-Chefed the ending,’ we all know that it means the ending of the chapter or book has been rushed and needs to be slowed down and developed further. The master-chef ending stems from when Master Chef was on TV and it started at 5pm. Because I wanted to watch it, I’d rush the end of the chapter to make sure I didn’t miss the start of the show.
If you’re in a critique group and don’t work the same way in respect to your turnaround time and how you critique, it can lead to some members of the group being disgruntled. Again, what we have is special. We all turn around a critique within a day or two. This is very different from other groups. We prioritise each other’s work, especially when there’s a deadline. For example, Christina was recently given a huge rewrite on one of her books, with a week to turn it around. The changes were so huge that she didn’t want to hand the book back in without us going through it. Amanda and I both got it back to her the following morning. I’m not saying you should be like that – it’s unusual. But when you start working with other writers, set the ground rules so you know what to expect. Maybe you’ll decide against working with certain people if you don’t have similar habits.
When you’re working with other writers, it’s important to assess how you feel after you’ve experienced their critique. You need to assess the type of feedback you’re given. Did the critique leave you feeling down, and lead you to question your ability? Were you happy with the timeliness? We don’t take any of this for granted, and even after fifteen years we will often double check with each other that the critique was okay. Only recently, Amanda slashed and burned my manuscript – in the nicest possible way, I might add. After the initial shock (always expect to want to bash your head on the screen when you receive a critique, it’s a rite of passage), I could totally see how what she’d suggested could improve my book. Before I had time to thank her, she was on the phone, checking I was okay with what she’d sent.
It’s often recommended that you work with writers in your genre. I totally agree with that. When we started we were all writing contemporary romance/ chick lit. We learned the conventions of the genres together and helped each other grow as writers.
Even though we all now write in different genres, we wouldn’t ever consider changing our group. We make it work.
Over the years we’ve all developed different skills in critiquing, and we make use of these. Amanda’s knowledge of structure is incredible. She advises us on all the beats and makes sure we hit them. She’s also our Blurb Queen, and always fixes our blurbs after we’ve made pathetic attempts at them.
Christina brings to the group an amazing ability with language, and can get emotion out of a stone. Injecting emotion into my work doesn’t come naturally to me, and whenever I’m writing it’s like Christina is sitting on my shoulder going: “And how do they feel about that?”
I bring world building into the equation. If anything doesn’t seem realistic I’ll pick it up. If Christina is writing a steamy love scene and she tells me someone is positioned in a certain way, I’ll sit at my desk making sure my leg (or whatever) will actually go into that position. I also help with the business side of things, and don’t let either of them get away with not sending emails or prevaricating over important decisions.
Finally, let me state the obvious. We’re still together because we like each other so much. We’re best friends. We have been for a long time and we will be for years to come.
That’s it. My take on how to care for and maintain your critique partners. If you’re looking for a critique group or partner, check out the groups you’re a part of for people you think you’d work well with and ask if they’d be interested. That’s how we started. I wish you every success in finding one that works as well as ours does. You’ll never regret it.