Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Critique partners - finding and valuing them

I was asked by an anonymous blog commenter a few days ago, "how do you find a critique partner?" so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject.

I started out, as I think most writers do, simply writing for myself and not looking for critique. However, that phase didn't last long. I knew that I needed other people to look at my work in order to see how to improve it. I did show it to a number of friends, but friends as a general pool (unless you're hanging out with excellent writers) aren't the most reliable for finding really good quality critique.

Because I write science fiction and fantasy, I joined the Critters website as my first critique venue. This site was a great place for me to start, because by critiquing others, I learned quite a lot about how to improve my own writing. I am not a person who writes lots and lots of stories quickly, so I generally found the wait in the critique queue to be too long for my taste. Despite this, however, I did read a lot of interesting work and receive some quality critiques which helped a lot. The best thing that came out of this was that I met Janice Hardy. I'd critiqued a work of hers and we got into a lengthy email discussion about her worldbuilding that ended up getting transferred to telephone discussions and we've been critiquing each other's work ever since.

My luck in meeting Janice was exceptional, and that brings me to my commenter's second question, "What do you look for in a critique partner?" First off, I look for someone who is not going to be kind to me just on the basis of friendship, someone who isn't going to take things for granted. I also appreciate it if that person has an analytical mind and is able to speculate helpfully on the source of any issues that arise. Janice and I are well matched because while we share many of the same values in what we write, our strengths lie in complementary areas. Janice totally rocks on plot, goals, stakes, and general story guts, so she keeps me on track when I have weaknesses in those areas. My own strengths are typically in worldbuilding and character development. Thus we are able to help each other work toward a goal that will be stronger, and which both of us will enjoy reading.

I also have other critique partners. I went to a convention writer's workshop (BayCon) and met Dario Ciriello there, and through him was connected with a face-to-face group which I stayed with for quite some time. Because of my family life - in particular, the demands of full-time motherhood - the face to face group proved tricky for me after a while. However, I am still working with Dario, who has a great eye for quality and is very good at helping me out (thus his status as editor at Panverse Publishing!).

One does upon occasion leave critique groups. There may be many reasons for this. I've heard of people leaving groups for social or political reasons; fortunately, this hasn't happened to me. I've also heard of people leaving groups because they felt the group members weren't at a level to help them any more. This is possible too, but again, hasn't happened to me. I've actually found that in the groups I've joined, the writers there were just as hungry for self-improvement as I was, and thus, the longer I was a member, the better we all became. That is a dynamic that I deeply value, and something that makes me very happy about my current writer's group.

I also occasionally run into people, either at conventions or through my internet writer networks, who take interest in my writing at the same time that I do theirs. These people become critique partners, sometimes only for a single work, but sometimes for more. I can hardly describe how much I appreciate the support of Lillian Csernica and Jamie Todd Rubin, who have critiqued for me and engaged in lengthy discussions of my work (and theirs!).

The important thing to remember here is that no one is ever obligated to read a single word you have written. Even at Critters, where return critiquing is required, people may choose to critique others' work and not yours. Every time someone reads your work and offers feedback beyond "I liked it" or "I didn't like it", that is an incredible gift. Their time is precious. This is why I always remind people that when you meet an established author, you should be very careful about asking them to look at your work. I try never to do this if at all possible, and to let them ask first.

Given that, it only makes sense that one's response to critique should not be to criticize the critiquer. Neither should it be to explain things to them. Remember that if and when your work gets published, you won't be standing beside it to explain. Whatever it evokes in the mind of the reader is a legitimate interpretation. That's one reason why critiques are so valuable - they help you as a writer to identify the mistaken understandings that you've inadvertently left open for readers to find.

Critique is why I am where I am today. I've learned so much from the friends I've mentioned, and from many others - things I never would have been able to grasp on my own. In fact, my tendency to seek critique saved me this past year when my computer was stolen, because I was able to reconstruct almost all of my writing files simply by asking my critique partners to send me what they had of my various drafts.

To my critiquers over the years: I'm eternally grateful to each and every one of you.

To my readers: I hope that you will be as fortunate in finding critique partners as I have been.