Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Writing Wednesday: How to Find Critique Partners

Ah! It's been a bit since I've done a Writing Wednesday! Sorry, guys!! Gearing up for SHADES OF EARTH launch has been all-consuming (speaking of, zomg, Penguin just sent me more ARCs for prizes! yay!).

I also did a (failed attempt at) NaNoWriMo, as well as a "Ask a Published YA Author" forum. I think perhaps the most common questions we've gotten have dealt with critique partners, so I thought I'd turn it into a post.

Q: Do I really need a critique partner?
A: Yes.

Q: Why do I need a crit partner?
A: Because you're not perfect. Because everyone needs help to write better. Because you cannot see the forest for the trees. Because you cannot identify your own mistakes--very few people can. Because critiquing other people's work will help you learn to identify your own mistakes, and because that will make you a better writer. Because it's a part of being professional. Because it's cheaper than hiring an editor--and you can rarely trust someone you pay money to be honest with your flaws. Because if you want to be a professional writer (i.e. published), then you have to learn to work with others on editing a manuscript.

Q: But how can I be sure a crit partner won't steal my ideas/book?
A: Don't be paranoid. Also? If I told you the idea of my next book, would you write it? Or would you rather write your own idea? We all have an idea of what we want to write--and writers are stubborn by nature and are unlikely to abandon their idea for yours. Also also? The key is the writing not the idea.

Q: What kinds of crit parnters/groups are there?
A: Here's a list--and I've used all of these different kinds of readers in the past:

  • Alpha reader: someone who reads pages as you write them. If you have trouble finishing a novel, this might be a good fit--you and the Alpha Reader both swap a set number of pages a week (for example, you each agree to write/swap 50 pages a month). Pros: You get the work done and catch some problems as they come. Cons: An alpha reader will often get too close to the work to see for the forest for the trees; you almost always need someone else who can look at the work as a whole after.
  • Beta reader: someone who reads a complete draft of a novel. If you have a manuscript done, you need someone who can fulfill this role. It's preferable to have someone entirely new (i.e. not your alpha reader)--fresh eyes are important. Pros: You get a holistic idea of what needs to be done to fix your manuscript. Cons: This often takes a long time to complete--make sure you're clear about any deadlines you may have before swapping. Also, be clear about the type of edit you need (i.e. you want the reader to focus on plot and characters rather than grammar).
  • Gamma reader: this is someone who reads after you've finished all edits. I have used gamma readers in the past to make sure that I've fixed everything the beta readers caught and let me know if the book is ready to be submitted. Pros: Usually quicker than a beta read, because the manuscript is all cleaned up now. Cons: Still takes a long time to read a whole book.
  • Critique Partner: anyone who reads for you. The term "crit partner" can refer to an alpha reader, a beta reader, or anyone else who helps critique your manuscript. Note the word "partner"--you cannot expect someone to help you without you offering to help them
  • Critique Group: this is when more than two people are involved in subbing a book. Typically, there's a schedule (i.e. Person A subs a set number of chapters/pages in week 1, Person B subs in week 2, etc.).  Pros: You get several different opinions simultaneously, which is very helpful. Stronger and better discussion on your work. Cons: To get through everyone's work this way may take a long time. 

Q: So how do I find a crit partner?
A: That's a little harder--and easier--than you might think. Here's some methods that have worked for me:

  • Writers Forums: NaNoWriMo was a good place to start, but there's lots of writers forums throughout the internet. Become a part of the community, and then, when you find people who seem to be on the same page as you, offer to swap pages. In my early years, I participated on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest--I didn't come close to winning, but I found my first critique group through the message boards here.
  • SCBWI or other professional organizations: if you have a local chapter, see if there's a chance of meeting in person--that can be invaluable. Even if not, take advantage of list-servs. If there's no crit groups, just ask! Professional organizations are a great place to start because you have a higher chance of working with a serious writer rather than a hobbyist. 
  • Blogs: if there's someone who has a blog and you admire their style, try emailing them to see if they want to swap pages. If you own a blog, you might want to consider an "open call" for crit partners--although do put them on trial first (see below). I've nabbed two crit partners through blogs. 
Q: Anything else I should know about crit partners?
A: Yes. Here's a list:
  • This is a professional relationship, not a friendship, although the lines can get blurry. If you're working with a writer who doesn't get your work, who isn't critical enough--or is too critical, whose work is miles ahead of or behind yours, then stop working with that person. It will do neither of you any good to stay in a working relationship that's not working.
  • Put crit partners on trial before you use them. One method I used was to ask to see the query letter and first fifty pages of a manuscript before swapping the whole book. This gave me an idea of their professionalism (the query letter is a dead giveaway between amateur and pro) as well as writing style. If I wasn't interested in the book, if I felt I had nothing to contribute--or that it would take me too long to help--or anything else that was a red flag, we both agreed to back away.
  • Don't be afraid to break up crit groups. I joined an online crit group where everyone swapped chapters on a weekly basis (i.e., I sent out 2 chapters in week one, the next person sent out 2 chapters in week two, etc., etc.). Out of 5 other people in the group, there was only 1 that I thought was a good connection for my work. So I dropped out of the group, but contacted her separately, offering to work with her alone rather than the rest of the group. It was a great decision--she's still one of my crit partners!
  • Make sure you have similar goals with your crit partners. 
To see a complete list of writing posts as well as request topics, please see the master Writing Wednesday post here.
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