This month in the Christian Fiction Writers’ Clinic we’re focusing on critique partners. I want to share some things that I’ve gleaned over the years.
Note: I’m using the phrase critique partner but this applies to beta readers or whoever else reads and offers feedback to an unfinished work with the intent on shaping the draft. This does not include grammar or line editors.
The Critique Partner series will be broken into 3 parts.
Part 1: How to find a critique partner and how to be a good critique partner
Part 2: Preparing yourself for feedback and what to do with the feedback once it arrives
Part 3: Dealing with hard to swallow feedback and conflicting feedback
How to Find the Right Partner:
Fast and Free Tips:
~ Look within your genre for readers
~ Look within reader groups online
~ Work with a mix of readers and writers
~ Don’t work with people who are easily offended
~ When working with a writer, preview their writing first
~ If your critique partners are not challenging you, find someone new!
Work with a mix of readers and writers:
I think it’s normal to start out on the writing journey and have your mom, granny, or other close friend or relative read your work and offer feedback. And that’s not a bad place to start! But it’s not the best place to end. It doesn’t matter how blunt honest your momma can be, unless she’s an author, she’s not going to know the finer details of the craft, and you’re going to need the experience of other authors picking and prodding at your work.
Any author who has had their work brutally revised will become sensitive to the very things they correct in their own work. It’s why authors struggle to simply read a book once they begin revising their own. Once you’ve been taught that something is wrong, you can’t help but trip over it when you see it again later. So when you consult with another author, they bring to you their previous lessons to bear down on your work. They’ll call out what they would correct in themselves.
But a mixture of authors and readers can come in handy. The avid reader is still a devoted reader and will have something to offer. It’s a great first test for your novel to see how it’s connected with readers.
When working with a writer, preview their writing first:
Because we can’t help but point out our own flaws in someone else’s writing, it’s a good idea to make sure you like the author’s work before asking them to look at your draft. Even if you don’t like their writing, they may still have something to teach you, so don’t turn your nose up at them just yet, but it stands to reason that you’ll learn best from authors who write what you’d like to read.
Again, this advice is contradictory because we should be challenged outside of our comfort zone. It’s how we learn to write better. BUT if their style grates against you when you read it, you wouldn’t want to mimic their style. And chances are their feedback in some way or another will steer you in that direction.
Don’t work with easily offended people:
There’s a strange balance with critique partners. They offer their best, honest advice but you’re not required to follow it. It’s best when both the author and the critiquer understands that you’re not obligated to blindly follow their advice. And if the critiquer finds it offensive that you ignored their advice, it’s best not to work with them again in the future.
That being said, if you have a critique partner who you ignore large portions of their advice, you should stop and consider why that is. Do you have an unteachable spirit? If so, look for tips on this in Part 2 of the series. If the critiquer is constantly offering you advice that moves your story away from where you had envisioned it, you’ll have to ask yourself why. There are likely 2 reasons: 1) Their vision is not your vision and you’ll need to drop them. 2) You need to strongly consider some solid changes in your story. They may be pointing out major flaws that you’re unwilling to listen to. Part 2 and 3 of this series will address these areas.
Where should you find a critique partner:
You’ve decided that you need more than your granny, but you don’t know where to look. Here are some ideas.
Writer or critique groups. You may find a local group or an online group.
Mingle online in reader groups. You’ll find authors and readers there.
The key is to look within your genre. If you find a suspense author to read your women’s fiction, she may have some things to teach you but she’ll have some expectations that your story should not live up to. So it’s important to work with someone who understands the expectations of that genre.
Goodreads and Facebook have active reader groups where you can find someone.
How to fish for critiquers:
It’s best if you’re already mingling in these groups and chatting up books that you love that have nothing to do with your own work. This will create a friendly image. Someone the people in the group already recognize and maybe even relate to.
When it’s time to ask for readers, simply throw a line out there! Make sure it’s within the group’s laws to seek critiquers in the group. Each group has different rules. You can ask the admins if you’re unsure.
Start a post. Let people know what you’re needing. Something similar to:
I have a Christian Suspense novel that I’d love some feedback on. It is 78,000 words long. It’s about a mouse outrunning a cat. And a cat who is outrunning a fox. …
And when people start responding, check them out!! Make sure they actually read suspense. Check to find out how many books they typically read in a month. Some people just want a free story. If the person reads 4 or more books a month, they’re likely fast readers and will get to it and get back to you. If they read 1 book every other month, they’re not fast readers and may not get back to you at all.
Be sure to let them know when you’d hope to hear back from them. And then go check up on them! Generally, you should probably give them a month to read and get back to you.
But understand that readers are looking for a good time. So while they can be a help, you’re likely to hear vague feedback from them. While an author is most likely to offer detailed feedback. They’ll likely tell you which technique you’re not applying in your work.
Personally, I work with a variety of critiquers and I do it in 2 stages.
Stage 1: My toughest critic. I start off holding nothing back. I have a writing partner who can analyze the draft in great detail. She’ll help me see my plot holes or other inconsistencies.
Stage 2: I use a mix of readers and writers. If there were any conflicting ideas from stage 1, now is the time to test them out. These readers help clean the story up even further, but the biggest part of the work is behind me.
Once I’ve revised the draft based on their feedback, I send it off to grammar/line editing. My critique partners might point out a few grammar errors but it’s not their main focus.
Note: It’s not recommended to spend a lot of time on grammar while the bulk of the story is still subject to change. Correct things as you find them, but NEVER pay for a grammar editor until you’ve made all the changes you intend to make. This process is meant to cut out or add in new scenes and characters. You may be rewriting an entire section of your story. So focus on the big stuff here then focus on the little stuff later.
How to be a good critique partner:
Fast and Free Tips:
~ Begin with praise, offer feedback, and end with praise
~ Keep in mind the genre you’re reading
~ Be as detailed as possible
~ Don’t be easily offended
~ Be available to troubleshoot or further explain
~ Don’t work with someone who argues or is easily offended
Remember that you’re also an author! Treat people how you would want to be treated! If you can stick to this guideline, you’ll be just fine.
Feedback is going to hurt. It’s just part of the process. But you don’t have to make it hurt any more than necessary. So drop compliments throughout the draft. If you like a line, TELL THE AUTHOR! The same way you’d highlight a remark and tell them it stunk, tell them you loved it! Those compliments will go a long way when they hear your feedback and question whether they should continue writing.
When offering feedback in paragraph form, compliment them first, then offer the hard facts, then follow up with another compliment. And don’t lie to them, either! Take time to examine what they did do right. Maybe their characters are weak but they have a good handle on the setting or description. Be sure to tell them that.
Keep in mind the genre you’re reading:
We’re not experts in all genres, so keep that in mind. If you’re reading slightly out of your norm, consider what the norm is for that genre. YA is different from Historical fiction. If you’re not certain, be honest. Don’t make your comment sound like an unbreakable rule.
Be as detailed as possible:
Sometimes we don’t know what to say or how to say it. But other times we know exactly what the problem is, we just don’t take the time to embellish it. Don’t just tell them that this line is weak, tell them WHY it’s weak. How could they change it to make it stronger? If they have a reoccurring problem, stop and talk to them about how to fix it. YOU might know what to do, but they likely don’t or they wouldn’t have written it that way.
Again, how would you want to be treated? If someone gave you vague feedback and you needed to hash some things out with them, wouldn’t you appreciate being able to talk with them? Don’t drop your feedback in their lap then disappear. Be willing to talk or just let them talk. Sometimes they have to verbalize some things before coming to a conclusion.
Don’t be offended:
You’ve offered your advice but it’s their name on the cover. If they choose to ignore you, don’t take it to heart. Hopefully, they thought long and hard about that decision before making it, but either way, it’s not on you. You’ve done your duty.
Don’t work with someone who argues:
Now, every author is prone to getting their feelings hurt at some time or another. I admit that I cling to certain ideas more than I should and have to be talked down step by step. But there’s a difference in someone who is willing to learn and just needs time to process and someone who will fight you over offending their precious messy baby. You can’t work with someone who doesn’t want to learn. It’s sad but true. Some people only want to be told that they’re right and never wrong. They aren’t willing to wrestle with plot points in the trenches. They just want to rush through their story and see it printed.
So step out of their way! It’s hard and it hurts to watch them ruin themselves but it’s not worth it to try to change them. If they have an argumentative spirit, let them go.
For the most part, people will be wounded but willing to grow. They will accept 90% of your feedback but cling to that one thing. There’s still hope for a working relationship there as long as they aren’t lashing out at you for your comments. And that’s really the key. If they’re lashing out, it’s not worth your time.