Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Blog Chain: How I Work with Critique Partners

This blog chain was started by Sarah, who asked:

Do you work with critique partners? How did you find your crit pals, and what influence have they had on your work?

So I thought I'd tell you all a bit about my history with critique groups and critique partners.

Before I started blogging, I was all alone. At least as a writer. I didn't know a single other serious writer in my "real" life. After I (thought I had) finished a novel, I started querying it way too early.

The inevitable rejections came. And came. I got a bit of interest here and there, but my book was clearly not ready. After several months I was ready to give up.

But then I got lucky.

The inspiration hit me to start blogging. Even if I could never get published I figured I could help other novice writers avoid the mistakes I made while querying (and deciding whether my novel was even ready to query).

Thus was born this silly blog with the ridiculous title. But that's enough about that.

A few months into blogging, after I had begun to build some great relationships, I realized that to fix my book, it was going to take more than just two eyes. A lot more.

I came up with the idea of starting a critique group. A formal one, with hard and fast rules. I reached out to some bloggers I knew who were also pursuing publication as novelists, and we started a group. We lost a few members here and there, and gained some others along the way. We were very organized for a few months, and exchanged simultaneous chapters (or sections for those of us who unlike me did not write massive chapters), every few weeks. It worked well for certain things like line editing and suggestions for style and other little-picture stuff, but it was impossible to get the full scope of big-picture things like character arc, plot twists, and so forth.

So we decided to change tactics. First the group disbanded, because of time constraints of some of the members, but then the rest of us decided to keep it going, on a less formal level, and just exchange work when the need arose, and with whom the need arose.

Now instead of a formal group, I have lose connections with several writer and editor friends who help me with my work. They've made a huge difference in my writing.

Simon C. Larter is the master of the big picture. He makes the best suggestions about how the plot can be re-arranged to maximize twists and surprises.

Ted Cross has the best balance. He is great at spotting "out of voice" instances, and is good at both big and little picture things.

Bryan Russell is critiquing my novel now, and I his. It's the first time we've worked together so I can't tell you what his strengths are yet.

Both Leigh T. Moore and Sarah (Falen) Ahiers are critiquing it as well, but they did not have anything ready to send to me. I hope to repay the favor someday.

So that's it. Great idea for a topic, Sarah! The post that came before mine was Kate's, and the one that comes after will be Sandra's.

61 comments:

Mary said...

Wow. My experience is pretty close to yours (although I was blogging before submitting, but not blogging about writing). I have a group who exchanges chapters and we Skype almost every week. It is really interesting the way the conversations can point out things you've missed the mark on, and ways to fix it.

Thanks for sharing!

Bish Denham said...

I was in a group for a while but I wound up spending more time reading and critiquing other people's work than I spent writing my own. I got over-loaded. It's hard being a slow reader.

Then I had a group that I really liked, but, alas, it fell apart. No one seemed interested in actually sharing their work, only in meeting once a month in a chat room and chatting.

I don't have a "group" but through blogging, I feel like I've found a few people to who I can send my writing. It's been very helpful.

Ciara said...

I was in a loop but found it too difficult with peoples schedule and too many conflicting opinions. I found two or three that I love and continue to work with them to this day. It's nice to have those people who have been on the journey with you.

Joe said...

I was with a face-to-face group that met once a month for almost ten years (though the last year was scattered as we fell apart). There were between three and five of us with only an original two staying in till the last meeting. I find face-to-face reading out loud to be the most helpful in addition to the critique and cross-critique that occurs in a small group. When I read out loud I hear what works and what doesn't.

The problems that arose included, just as those stated above, schedules (even for once a month meetings), sticking to our 10 page (double spaced, 1-inch margins) limit, and making sure we got out by midnight (we started at 7pm) so we could all go to work in the morning. We also networked and updated each other in our roll-call to find out what steps forward we'd taken from the previous month.

This is a rich topic and fascinating to hear how the internet has allowed more long distance work to be done.

Ashley said...

I met a woman at a SCWBI meeting and we decided to swap chapters (two at a time or twenty pages whichever was less). When we were done - we reread each other's manuscript (hopefully with the suggested corrections) all the way through. That helped with the big picture. That process was invaluable to me.

A Daft Scots Lass said...

I don't like critiquing other writers stuff. Its a personal thing.

Rain Laaman said...

Wow, your group sounds awesome. I WISH I had reliable critique partners that I trust. I've done exchanges with a couple of people in the past and it's never worked out that well for me. I put a lot of effort and thought into what they sent me, and what I got back on my stuff was, "This looks great! I love it. It's so funny!" Etc. That's great, but what I really need is cold and ruthless critique. I'm really at the point where I need a couple CPs, but I don't know where to start anymore.
Thanks for the post; it's reminded me that I need to get moving somehow!

Michelle McLean said...

I had a similar experience. I had my mom and sis read my first book. And my brother even paid for an editor (who didn't know much about fiction and nothing really about my genre). They all caught some good things, but it wasn't until I found some crit partners that I start really learning how to write :)

Slamdunk said...

Having those in your life that will give honest feedback on your creations--folks that will pat you on your back or kick you in the rear whatever is needed--is a treasure.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Sounds a lot like my journey, sans the querying-too-soon part. I have several #awesome crit partners that I swap with and I'm always looking for fresh eyes to pair up with. I'm reading a new MS right now with all kinds of great Tesla lore in it! #SOFUN Crit swaps are one of the best parts of this job. :)

Kristen Pelfrey Faulconer said...

I have a great crit partner that I met during an open critique session at an SCBWI conference over a year ago.
Finding a great crit partner is a tremendous thing. She has helped my writing so much, from word choice misfires to voice issues to "big picture" stuff. She calls me on the weak stuff, which is one of our rules, because having people just tell you, "This is good" is not helpful. And in many cases, with me anyway, not true.
So when you find a good crit person, hang on.
One thing I took away from an Andrea Brown conference: No one who you feed, or feeds you, should be taken as a serious critiquer.
And she's right. Find other writers who are serious. Take succor from friends and family, but a glad union of ruthlessness and kindness is better for your writing.
That's what I've learned.
Great topic, Matthew.

Kristen said...

Loved this post and all the comments (don't usually read ALL the other comments, but today I did.) Good to know everyone has their own way of doing things. I've got a handful of readers who don't know each other but who read my work--it is a lot of ask people but it's so important. I love to exchange--I feel much less guilty that way.

E. Arroyo said...

Much the same here. Critique partners/betas are an asset writers shouldn't be without.

Beverly Diehl said...

I have a fabulous crit group - but they don't fall into one's lap very often.

I joined a local writers group many years ago, only it was mostly screenwriters. There was a fiction crit group arm, but it was weak, and not many people participated. Still, I did, and learned many invaluable lessons there. (Though I too didn't want to hear that my work wasn't ready And it wasn't.)

Later, I formed my own, and over several years, we developed rules & guidelines that gave us a safe place to share our work. We had many wonderful writers participate - and some terrible ones, and many newbies with more enthusiasm than skill.

When I had to take some time off from writing for personal reasons, the group fell apart. Within the last year, I've gotten the band back together, with the cream of the crop, so to speak but although we are all taking turns hosting, I am still the organizing & driving force.

Bottom line - if you want a good crit group, you may have to build one for scratch, and it is something that will not be months, but years in the building.

Abby Annis said...

My experience is a lot like yours. Until I started blogging as a writer, I didn't have any connections with other writers. And I queried my book long before it was ready. My critters have made all the difference. Great post! :)

Little Ms. Fun said...

Networking is the best way to become successful in anything.

Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm following back and can't wait to ready your posts! :)

Jessica Bell said...

You're one very lucky guy! I only have two and they're both pretty busy most of the time ... me thinks I need me another one!

Em-Musing said...

I belong to a writer group who has critiqued some of my chapters. But, I'm really, REALLY bad at reciprocating. I don't mean to, but I do. And I don't like when I disappoint people. So if I want construction critique now, I pay a professional editor.

Christina Lee said...

Lots of help--good for you!!!

Amanda Bonilla said...

Great post. Like you, I didn't know anyone in the writing community when I started and I queried a completely un-critted novel. (Which crashed and burned) I wouldn't have met anyone if I hadn't started blogging. In fact, I met one of my best friends and crit partners through the blog chain. The writing community rocks!

Richard said...

This is a topic I enjoy reading about. I belong to two groups, one for about ten years through the adult education program here in Jax., FL. Can't tell you how many writers I've met through the program. It's been the most valuable thing I've done for my writing--being a part of this ever changing group. The second group is a spinoff from the adult education program. Unfortunately, except for the first year, I've had to participate by email (a year or two now). It's also been valuable, especially whenever I've been able to attend in person.

Ted Cross said...

I know this new system may be better for finding big picture issues, but it is also more daunting. When I have only two or three chapters to do in a month, then it feels so managable,while being given an entire novel all at once feels overwhelming at times. I'm about 200 pages in so far...

Carolyn V said...

Wow. That's amazing. I'm in two crit groups with some published authors and editors. It's a lot of work, but so well worth it.

Alexandra Shostak said...

Very interesting! I've gone through my share of failed critique relationships. I've never tried a formal group, though. Only ever done one-on-one critiques, and never with rules, really. My favorites are the people I can go to with anything, and can discuss my plot issues with before they've even seen them.

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

I'm like 150, 200 pages in on your MS. I'm planning on trying to get in another 30-50 pages.
And dude, i would totally LOVE it if, when Break Free is ready to be read by outside eyes, if you would take a look at it.

Bryan Russell said...

I am good at cutting huge bloody chunks out of your flesh. Heh heh.

It might be good to have a blood transfusion handy.

Michael Offutt said...

I critique work from Munk Davis, Steph Schmidt, and Misha Gerrike (sp?). I sometimes wonder if I get over zealous with the red but no one has complained yet. Steph Schmidt once said "Eeep" after getting my suggestions back and since then hasn't sent me anything more. Hmmm.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I have a wonderful critique partner who is absolutely amazing at spotting characterization issues, plot holes, and details. When my next novel is ready, hopefully I'll be able to find a couple more as well. :)

D.G. Hudson said...

My best critique partners are hubby, who is Ideal Reader and fully knowledgeable about the techie aspects of my sci-fi novel, and a writer friend in Florida who I met in an online class on writing. They are the most reliable, honest critique partners I've found.

My critique partner and I exchange work via email since we're on opposite sides of the continent, and we work well together. We both write science fiction as our main focus. That's what brought us together. I also encouraged her to blog (she had a web page.)

My experience with online critique groups has been unsatisfying, and I haven't seen the value for me -- the smaller groups work better, IMO, because too many opinions, by too many people who have no clue how to critique can be damaging.

In one situation (this was an online course run by a creditable organization), the 15 members were erratic in their critiquing, picking only the stories they liked, and ignoring others.

Some people just can't play well with others...

BTW - I write large chapters too, when it fits.

Good Luck with your book. You're lucky to have a variety of critique partners, especially the ones you identify.

Tere Kirkland said...

Can't live without mine! And blogging is a great way to meet like-minded folks who write the same stuff you do.

They've definitely helped me become a better writer.

Jenny S. Morris said...

That's cool that you have different people, for different aspects of your book. I have one CP, right now and we've working together for just a few months. I heard, over and over again, that you should even send a query in, unless you get a CP, but I didn't realize how necessary it was until I got my first set of comments back, and was like-OH yeah, I didn't see that at all.
Great post!

Michael G-G said...

Great post, Matt. It sounds like there are a variety of experiences out there.

I belong to two face-to-face groups. (It's probably easier in Portland where you can't step in a puddle without splashing a writer.) Both groups have published writers in them and both are very stable. One group meets monthly and is a read-aloud group, and the other meets twice a month, with pages read beforehand.

Sounds as if your experience, though online, is equally great!

Jeffrey Beesler said...

The act of writing itself is solitary, and fits the profile of the lone wolf well. However, the act of publication requires the lone wolf to find a pack, and fast. Otherwise, said lone wolf will howl at the moon in sorrow over the dream that shall never come to pass.

D.G. Hudson said...

@Jeffrey: Well-put, and I like the lone wolf analogy.

LTM said...

your experience mirrored mine exactly up to the "formed a group" part. I never actually formed a group, but after the whole kicking the dirt, mumbling about the weather, talking politics and religion (w/THJ ;o), I managed to get some great critters who I worked with and still sometimes read for.

Looking forward to starting those Warrior Monks... Today! :o) <3

Margie said...

Everyone works so differently, and it's great that you found a core of people who meet your needs. Great post!

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

It's important to have several crit partners with different strengths. Looks like you have a good group!

Barbara Watson said...

Only recently have I entered the critique group. Although my group is not a group as in we don't all critique the same writers. I have two critique partners I exchange work with as we write, and I have one big picture reader who reads my entire MS after I've had a few (thousand) rounds with revision. TOMORROW (!!) I'm sending my entire MS to that big picture reader. And my knees are knocking.

I started writing, thinking I could do it on my own. Thankfully, I never queried anything (huge Whew!) before I realized I couldn't go it alone.

Special thanks for Michael G-G for telling me to get on over to your blog.

Carrie said...

Cool post. I like that you found your critique partners through blogging. Also that you reached out to help other writers learn from your experiences.

Sub-Radar-Mike said...

You know what they say, if you want something done right, you do it yourself! It's always good to have multiple eyes on any project you're working on.

Ninja Girl said...

Great post! It definitely brought to light how sometimes you just have to buck up and search out your own critique partners and also that everyone has their strengths. I did the same thing as you with my first novel. Queried, got rejected, then I wrote another novel and another :) I'm currently on my fourth, and with each story I learn something new.
Ninja Girl

Ninja Girl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marsha Sigman said...

I had a small group for a while but once we finished our then current manuscripts it sort of fell apart.

We still keep in touch and are still friends, but I think it helps if your group has varying levels of experience so you're not all shooting in the dark.

Hart Johnson said...

My more formal participation has ALSO gotten a lot less formal (I feel I need whole book stuff less frequently rather than chapter a month type stuff). I think over time you learn the strengths and weaknesses and who to ask to read which draft.

Leigh is AMAZING by the way--she did a run of one of mine and her professional editing experience really comes through.

Angela Brown said...

I've actually joined a site, Ladies Who Critique...not sure how it will pan out. I've gotten a couple of bites but nothing hard and steady.

I think I long for that time about 3 years ago when I was living in San Diego and I was part of a face-to-face crit group that met at least once a month. It was the best feeling ever. I rarely felt out of place but I was overwhelmed by the expertise I was surrounded by. They were also very encouraging though they sometimes had to slap me around a bit to remember things like conflict, showing-no-telling, so on and so forth.

I'm glad you have a loose circle of friends you can turn to for the help you need. That is really awesome and keeps you in mind that you're not alone any more.

Southpaw said...

Thanks for the information. Do you all write in the same genres?

Natalie Aguirre said...

I did have a critique group that met monthly in person but we recently disbanded. I've been working on the same thing for so long that I didn't feel critiques by this group was helping. So I was only critiquing. And with my daughter's schedule & work, I can't submit every month right now.

I met a woman at a SCBWI conference who I click with and we submit to each other but not every month. I also found another person, a blogger friend, to be a beta reader. So for now I'm okay though I may look for another group when things slow down.

Wine and Words said...

I think that's great. You writers have found a way to support and assist one another and it all seems very positive. Way to go!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Multiple critique partners is a big plus. With my first book, I had two test readers, one who was awesome with dialogue. With the second, I found three critique partners who each brought something different to the table. None of their suggestions really clashed, but each one saw something different that needed fixing.

Melissa Sugar said...

Wow, what perfect timing. I am just now trying to get a blog up and running, which by the way I owe a debt of deep gratitude to you and Alex for your blogfest help, and I posted about how to find a critique partner or beta reader a couple of days ago. I received quite a few comments with helpful information and advice on this topic.

Your group sounds awesome. I am already learning so much from other bloggers. The lonely route is hard.

Thank you
Melissa

★ Sara McClung ★ said...

Oh man, that "inspiration" to start a blog? BEST THING EVER. It seriously changed my writing life. Heck, it pretty much changed my entire life.

I've tried a few things, but have ended up a bit like what you have. Connections with several writer friends whom I exchange with as necessary :) I heart them ALL.

CherylAnne Ham said...

My CP's and I sort of gravitated toward each other over the last year or two and our group just evolved on its own. Though there is definitely one member I'd consider our "glue".

I'd be a bit lost without them and am so thankful for their feedback.

Stacy Henrie said...

I've got a live critique group that I love. They've helped me so much even if I'm the only non-YA writer in the group. :)

Jonathon Arntson said...

This may surprise you, but I envy you in many ways. Your relationships is just another tick on the list. It's all good though, I see you as an inspiration rather than...competition?

Carol Riggs said...

That's a REALLY great point--when you swap little chunks of a manuscript, just a few chapters at a time, it's often difficult to get the overall picture. Hard to critique, because it's all broken up. Especially if you're critiquing more than one person's stuff. The best would be to swap entire mss, but whoa, that's a lot of work!!

Draven Ames said...

Love the blog and how comments is replaced by 'opinions that matter.' Anyway, can't wait for the blog hop, so I've been starting a little early. I had thought it was only two we were posting, so I'm glad I read this.

~Draven
http://dravenames.blogspot.com/

Christine Fonseca said...

Wow dude...look at all these comments! You have done such a great job building your career...oh, yea, and I like all the CP info too. What a great group you have!

Heidi Windmiller said...

Hi. New follower.

I love the idea for the bloghop and am excited to meet lots of new bloggers tomorrow.

I also moved from a more traditional critique group structure into working with individuals both online and in person. The first critique group really jump started me on writing for publication, and I'm very grateful for that experience. I would never want to be without the critique partners I've met online, but the structure of an organized exchange was good for me, so I'd love to find something like that again.

Michelle H. said...

Having lots of eyes can only help with the crit. Great post.

Karen Kyle Ericson said...

So glad I found your blog through the Blogfest. I'm trying to get all this together for my grand beginning. Just reading this post helped.

Eric said...

Dude, You Da Man! Your process sounds very organized and is probably quite effective, given the strengths of your crit partners.