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    Why a Critique Relationship is Crucial for Better Writing

    A guest post by Adrienne Giordano, Kelsey Browning, and Tracey Devlyn of the Romance University

    Many writers have covered the intricacies of a good—and bad—critique relationship. There are some really good cautionary tales out there on how to establish healthy connections and protect yourself, and your work, during the process. Kelsey, Adrienne, and Tracey thought they’d take a moment to share their own personal journeys.

    ADRIENNE:  I’ve often said finding a good critique partner is similar to finding a spouse. There may be plenty of first, maybe even second dates, but then the novelty wears off and you’re back to the hunt.

    Over the years, I’ve been through a few critique partners. Well, maybe more than a few, but critique dating takes time and a whole lot of patience.  The one thing I can say about every critique partner I’ve had is I learned something from them. The lessons may have been along the lines of yeah-I’d-never-say-that-to-someone, but I walked away garnering something from the relationship.

    Now that I’ve found a wonderful group of critique partners, my process has changed. When I first started writing, I would spend hours getting each word right before I sent  pages. At that point, I wanted feedback on a line by line basis and would send one chapter at a time.

    As I’ve progressed, I find it beneficial to send six or seven chapters of an “ugly draft” rather than polished pages. My ugly draft is basically dialogue, minor setting descriptions and basic blocking. I started doing this a couple of years ago when I sent a critique partner a chapter (toward the end of the book) and she found a major plot issue.

    I had to make changes that impacted the beginning of the manuscript and then had to ask my ever-patient critique partners to read the entire thing again. Now I do the ugly draft of the book and ask my critique partners to give me feedback. This allows me to catch plot issues long before I get to what I think is the end of book. It saves me from having to do major rewrites. Once I have feedback, I then go back and add more descriptive setting details, internal thoughts, etc.

    KELSEY: Some people have critique partners who are CPs only. Tracey, Adrienne and I have had a different relationship from the start. In fact, we launched Romance University together before we became critique partners. So we’ve been business partners for almost four years now (from the time we began brainstorming RU).

    We also plot together once or twice a year. Yes, they somehow talked the girl who lives in Southern California to fly to Chicago in early spring. But more than the manuscript reading, plotting and business dealings, we provide a great deal of emotional support to one another. And we abide by Vegas rules. Nothing said between the three of us is shared outside the group unless we know it’s okay to do so. That means we can whine and moan about anything from bad reviews to disobedient dogs to clueless husbands :D. We try to have a conference call every couple of months and the best part of those conversations is the time we spend just catching up on life.

    So what else do I think is critical in a CP relationship? Trust, utmost trust. Ability to congenially disagree. Understanding of more than the other person’s work. I feel I need to know something about my CPs’ lives in addition to their writing. Benefit of the doubt. If I get a one word email response, I assume it’s because my CP is busy, not because she doesn’t love me. Tough love. Sometimes it’s critical that we slap one another around a bit. Know when to coddle and know when to bring on the hammer. And know when they hammer, it’s out of love and belief in your work.

    TRACEY: Kelsey has a great list of ingredients for successful CP relationships. The only thing I’d like to add is establish a set of guidelines. When the three of us decided to crit for each other, we made a promise to be honest. If a scene sucks, let the author know. If it’s fabulous, let her know. No sugar-coating. No massaging egos. That doesn’t mean our feedback is rough and callous or that we fling insults at each other. 🙂 Even after years of working together, we strive hard to provide honest, yet professional critiques. Our unified goal–make the manuscript better. Period. Otherwise, what use is the critique?

    So using Adrienne’s analogy of a critique partner relationship with a marriage, realize it can take time to develop a deep and trusting bond. You shouldn’t expect to develop this type of relationship with every potential CP you meet. Yes, you may have to kiss some frogs before you meet your prince or princess. And even when you think you’ve found a match made in heaven, realize your relationship will change as you grow as a writer.

    Adrienne Giordano writes at www.AdrienneGiordano.comKelsey Browning and Tracey Devlyn are co-founders of the Romance University blog.

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    About the author

      Adam Costa

    • Loved this post. I recently sold my first book, and I never could have done it without my critique partner. I was very fortunate to find her – she read a flash fiction piece on my blog and enjoyed it, and once we started talking, agreed to look at my work. I learned so much about back story, dialogue tags, and foreshadowing from her, and I truly believe every writer needs a crit partner who will be honest and supportive.

    • PJ Reece says:

      That’s a good question, Jerry! What you ask ain’t easy. You could even join a writers’ group and not find a good critique partner. You really want someone who knows more than you do. Is there any way to infiltrate an arts school, meet some students? Or get to know a publisher, who might introduce you to an author. At the very least you should attend a writer’s festival and schmooze the hell out of it. Those fests are crawling with literary folks. In fact, I would think that’s your best bet. A writer’s conference or fair or festival. Get gregarious and meet as many people as possible. Even as I write this, I’m getting ideas for myself. Good luck.

      • Jerry (Redbear) Hinkle says:

        P J: Thanx for the get-back. Sorry it took this long to extend my thank you for the response, our internet at the Redbear Ranch has been down, but now is up and running. I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy, see by my outfit I’m a cowboy too! Are you from Texas by any chance and if so know of any groups in San Antonio. You mention I need someone that knows more that I do. That would be almost anybody!! I’ve been medically retired for over ten years and started writing as a hobby a year ago to kill the overabundance of free time I find myself burdened with. I turned 70 yrs OLD last Dec. so I’m not concerned with getting published, just want to do it right in case someone goes crazy and wants to read my humble efforts. If you have your own blog I would appreciate it if you would put me on your e-mail list.

        • PJ Reece says:

          Jerry… good to hear from you. I’d love to have you visit my blog. Click on my name or my pic and it’ll get you there. You can subscribe to my blog from there. You can also download a free eBook I’ve just published. The response to it has been very gratifying. Oh, and by the way… I’m not a cowboy, although I grew up on the Canadian prairie. I winter in Mexico. That’s my Mexican persona. Cheers.

    • Jerry (Redbear) hinkle says:

      What is the best way to find a reliable, honest critique partner or partners? Just throw out some of your material and hope for the best? My writings are like my children, it’s unthinkable to entrust them to just anyone. Any thoughts on this woulds be greatly appreciated Thanx: Redbear.

    • Nice tips. Thanks for sharing.

    • I never even thought of getting a critique partner, but it sure is a great idea.

      • Anne-Sophie –

        I latched onto my first CPs when I had a request for material from an editor and didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Two women were kind enough to take me under their wing(s) and help me out. Sometimes it takes a while to settle with the right CPs, but it’s worth it. Not only for the working relationship, but for the personal relationship. I celebrate Adrienne’s and Tracey’s victories with them. No one understands all this craziness like another writer :-).
        a
        Best,
        Kelsey

      • Hi Anne-Sophie. Critiquing is not for everyone, but it’s essential for me. It allows me to see all the things I missed prior to submitting it to my editor. I really couldn’t do this without my CP’s.

        That being said, it took me a long time to find my current critique partners. It really is like finding a spouse!

    • This is a spot-on post. I’ve really valued a critique group I helped form about a year ago. The trust that has developed there is phenomenal, and the feedback is of value. I’m pursuing a low-res MFA, so I receive direct feedback from my instructor each month, but it’s useful to have different points of view. It also says a lot about the caliber of my critique group members that they often seize on the same problems as my instructor.

      • Patrick –

        You sound like a very fortunate writer. And isn’t it wonderful when you begin seeing your CPs’ writing go to the next level? That’s just such icing on the relationship cake to me!

        Best,
        Kelsey

      • Hi, Patrick. I think part of the fun of a good critique group is one when of your CP’s hits on something and it gives you that “aha” moment. That’s the kind of thing that can transform a story.

    • Syaiful says:

      Hi Kalsey, this is a great post.

      Yeah. Commonly, I prefer receive a critique than receaive a commendation.. But, unfortunately I don’t have critique partners

      • PJ Reece says:

        Syaiful… I bet if you posted a notice in your local cafe, or at a college notice board, or even spread the word among your friends, that you’d soon have a klatch of closet writers who would love to get up close and critique-ful with you. Good luck.

      • Syaiful –

        I agree with PJ. I put a call out on a couple of online writers groups and loops. That’s how I found my first few CPs. My connection with Adrienne and Tracey was a little more serendipitous. An editor friend of Adrienne’s hooked us up when she discovered (through my email signature line) that Adrienne and I had both finales in the same writing contest. I met Tracey through Adrienne.

        Best of luck with your search!
        Kelsey

    • PJ Reece says:

      “Prose is architecture, not interior decorating,” said Hemingway. For that reason, I appreciate Adrianne’s “ugly draft” story. The foundation and walls must be firmly in place before effort goes into choosing the right adjective. I find most critique sessions — especially in writing groups — err on the side of decoration. In my experience, it’s hard to find a writing mate who thinks “architecturally”. If you’ve got one, hang on to her/him. Me, I’ve got my wife. Two mates in one!

      • PJ – sorry I didn’t check back earlier. Let’s blame Old Timer’s, shall we?

        Adrienne is my “structuralist” and I’m definitely holding onto her. My husband isn’t particularly interested in story structure. My twelve-year-old son, however, completely gets it. We have a blast talking about turning points, inciting incidents, etc. He’s also a pretty darn good plotter/brainstormer!

        Best,
        Kelsey

      • Hi PJ. Sorry it took me a while to check back! On deadline this week and went into my cave.

        I so agree! If the book falls apart at the 30% mark it’s great to have someone who is not afraid to say that.

        I also tend to follow three-act structure when I write which helps tremendously. I’m a huge Michael Hauge fan and have learned a ton from his workshops.

        • PJ Reece says:

          Romance gang: further to all that, my brain must have kept spinning “critiquely” because I just spun out a blog post on this subject, which might interest you. I also want to alert you to an eBook I’ve just finished (I’m a grad of Mary J’s eBook masterclass) which I call “Story Structure to Die for”. It should be available next week sometime… a free download. UCLA Screenwriting Chairman, Richard Walter, read it and calls it “breezy and engaging and profound in its insights…etc.” I’ll take that and run with it. Although I rely heavily on Cher in “Moonstruck” to make my points, my book offers insights in the male minds of “Rocky” and good “Will Hunting”. Cheers.

    • As long as the partner is giving the manuscript a fresh look and not becoming so close to your writing style that hiccups and bland configurations are no longer obvious–it works well. Sometimes you need more than one critic. Check out the Acknowledgements in any book and you will see more than one reader. Beth

      • Hi, Beth –

        Good point. I know from my point of view, I’ve learned two things from having become familiar with Tracey’s and Adrienne’s critiquing and writing habits.

        1. I know some of my writing “sins” they will catch when they read for me, so I correct them before the material ever gets into their hands (as much as I can :)).

        2. I know some of their weaknesses and watch out for those when I read for them.

        I do have other CPs as well, so I’m able to get a broad perspective on my writing.

        Thanks so much for stopping by!
        Kelsey

    • Hi, Robin and Becke! I don’t know what I’d do without my critique partners. It took me a long time to find them, but it was worth the wait!

    • Hi guys! I can say as someone who has been fortunate enough to see you guys work together and see how well it works. I have trusted CP’s who I know have my back and want me to succeed. That is worth it’s weight in gold.

      • Robin –

        You know, that’s interesting. I guess I have no idea what our CP threesome looks like from the outside – LOL. But you’re absolutely right – trust is essential. Adrienne, Tracey and I have weathered some rough spots and some amazing successes. It’s important to have CPs who will support you during the bad times and celebrate with you and for you during the ups.

        Hugs,
        Kelsey

    • I would go nuts without the support and encouragement of my critique partners. It takes work to develop the kind of relationship that inspires trust, but it’s definitely worth the effort!

      • Becke –

        I just got so darn lucky. But I think CP relationships are a lot like marriage. You have to be willing to hang on for the ups and the downs.

        Thanks for visiting with us today!
        Kelsey

    • Hi, Winifred. I think we all experience being slowed by a plot error at some point. I think it allows us to grow as writers because we need to figure out how to avoid that problem the next time. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping in!

    • Great insights–thank you. The ugly draft review advice is definitely something I wish I had done before being felled by a plot error. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees without someone to drag you back on track.

      • Winifred,

        Believe me, this is one of the reasons I’m so glad to have Adrienne as a crit partner. She’s a plotter, whereas I’m often plot-challenged (why, oh why, aren’t there special parking spots for people like me??). I still get slammed by plot issues, but she and Tracey often help me dig out of them.

        Happy writing!
        Kelsey


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