Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On writing

You know, I just realized it's Tuesday. Yeah, yeah - insert joke here. In all fairness, we've just gotten off a holiday. And copious amounts of chocolate have melted my brain.

But this is actually good because this morning, I probably would have talked about something more general, and right now I'm involved in a rather interesting discussion on my Facebook page about the nature of the critique partner relationship.

Now for those of you who aren't writers by trade, a critique partner is another writer - usually in your genre - who reads your work and tells you what kind of adjustments you want to make. Perhaps something isn't clear or a character isn't coming off well (too weak, too strong). Maybe your pacing is off or you're not explaining something.

Or in my case this week, I've been mud wrestling with a chapter in The Monster MASH, this new book I'm writing for St. Martin's Press. The story is coming along really well, but this one chapter has been giving me fits. Something wasn't on the page quite right and I had no idea what was wrong or how to fix it. Just that "something" didn't work.

Rather than force it, I decided to talk it over with my critique partner, Jess. I thought I had a decent idea of what to do, but I still wasn't feeling 100%. I'd sent her a few earlier chapters to look over - chapters I knew were solid - and that's how she caught me. Jess called and said, "why did you give away the farm in chapter three? You need to keep the reader guessing longer. That's why chapter 6 isn't working. You killed your tension." I looked and she was right.

Ha - I love it when she's right. But how did she know? Other than the fact that it's always easier to see the overall picture when it's not your book, I also think it's because Jess and I don't write the same. She's a plotter and I'm more organic. She writes plot-driven stories. I write character-driven stories. She writes dark, angsty sci-fi. I write quirky books demon slayers and supernatural doctors.

And we think so differently that we can look at each other's work and dissect it. You don't have to approach your work the same way in order to be compatible. It's not about being in the same boat. It's about being able to look at the other person's boat and give them advice on how to paddle.

I think my biggest piece of advice to unpublished writers would be to find a critique partner who isn't like you. Search for the ying to your yang. I'm sure glad I found mine.

So thanks for the advice, Jess. You're quite good at paddling. And I'll send the readers after you when they complain they were up too late reading because they just had to see what happens next.


Reina said...

Thanks for this post. I've been struggling with my crit group and this gives me hope and another idea of what to look for. All the best to you!

Sharon S. said...

I became a beta reader for a new author recently. That is pretty much what I do for her. A new set of eyes is the best thing for some writers. I enjoy doing too :)

Casey said...

You're so right, Angie! A good critique partner is invaluable. But writers need to remember that a BAD critique partner (or partners) can kill their enthusiasm and their self-esteem. The trick is to find what works for you, the writer, and if a partner or group isn't working, to find another one.

Reina said...

I agree with Casey, but how do you know when you've found a "good" crit group or partner? Anyone know any other helpful posts, articles, or resources on this? I've found a few, but they're pretty vague. Thanks!

Angie Fox said...

No problem, Reina. It's all about finding that right balance for you and your writing. It's never easy - even as a group forms and the members get to know each other.

Perfect example, when Jess and I first got together, neither one of us thought it would work. She didn't like or read first person (I write a lot in first). We weren't familiar with each other's genres or methods of approaching a book. But that ended up being a good thing for us. The trick is figuring out what works for you and what your good match looks like.

Angie Fox said...

That's great, Sharon. Beta readers rock. And its such a generous thing to do, too.

Angie Fox said...

That's a good point, Casey. I didn't even cover that. If you have a critique partner who makes you not want to write, it's time to run (run far away).

Luckily, I've never had a bad critique partner, but I have had relationships that just didn't work. Either you're in different places in your writing or maybe the person is too similar to you.

For awhile, before I was published, I wrote with a crit partner who has my same sense of humor and writing style. We never got any better at our craft because we had the same strengths and the same weaknesses. Only we couldn't see the mistakes because we were both making the same ones.

Angie Fox said...

Hi Reina - you asked how do you know when you've found your crit partner match? It's hard. And yes, it drives me crazy that the articles are so vague. I think that's because there's no one right way to do it.

But from my experience, I'll tell you that I didn't know Jess was right for me right away. We had to grow into things. In fact, I'd say it took about a half of a book for me to realize that, hey, I had something pretty neat here.

Then it took until the next book, where she'd say, "You know, you fell into this trap last time. Why do you feel the need to add characters when the ones you have are working fine? Streamline, Angie!" And I'd realize - holy heck - I do that. A lot. I've always done that.

Having someone who can look at your work and know your quirks is huge. Because then you can choose to do something or not.

Now if I add a character in just because it amuses me, I do it with the full knowledge that I can't let it get out of hand and I'll even sometimes write a note to Jess as a I send her a chapter. "Yes, I meant to add the narcoleptic werebats - it amuses me. So deal with it."

But we have that kind of give and take. So I suppose you know you've found your right match when you're having these "ah hah" moments about your writing. You're comfortable to explore, knowing the other person has your back. And the reaction to your writing is getting stronger. Maybe that means selling or maybe it means getting more partial and full requests from agents.

Jess and I were both unpublished when we started out together. The first books we did together were the first ones we sold to NY. (For me, it was The Accidental Demon Slayer; for her it was Beyond the Rain) We each needed that little extra shove that we found.

Reina said...

Thanks for all that, Angie. I appreciate you taking time to respond. I'm going to keep looking and trust my instincts. :)

Casey said...

Here's a sort of easy rule to follow, Reina:

If you're critique partner(s) always praise you the high heavens, never say a bad thing, always end up with comments like, "This couldn't get any better," you should probably find new parterns.

On the other hand, if they leave you feeling like you should slit your wrists, or go to welding school, that's not working, either.

The fine balance is somewhere in the middle. You want praise, sure, who doesn't! But you need tangible advice, too. Not just "this doesn't work," but "this doesn't work because..." Not just, "This is fabulous..." but "This is fabulous, and if you did something similar with ..."
Like I said, fine balance, and not easy, but well worth striving for.

Angie Fox said...

No problem, Reina. And very true, Casey.