Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Quest for the Perfect Critique Partner

Alpha-readers. Betas. Critique Partners. They're called many things, depending on which literary tradition you harken to, but what they describe is the same -- the person who looks over what you've written, and gives you helpful feedback on how to make it better.

The key, there, is that it's helpful feedback. You need to find someone who is familiar enough with your genre to react the way your target reader would, and familiar enough with writing to be able to describe the actual problem ("You're telling instead of showing" versus "This part was boring"), but has a style different enough from yours that they're not likely to have the same blindspots you do. Most of all, it has to be someone who is completely honest, who will not pander to your feelings, while at the same time, being supportive and nurturing.

As you might imagine, this is a tall order. Many writers go for years without finding someone able to fit the bill, or create a piecemeal solution, where they might have one person who looks at dialogue, one person who looks at characterization, and one person who looks at plot.

I was incredibly lucky that my best friend and co-worker was also my critique partner. We read a lot of the same books, we started writing at the same time, and our careers ran on similar tracks, right down to our being finalists for the Golden Heart in the same year. And then I started writing for Ellora's Cave.

And we discovered that my critique partner was unable to read a sex scene if I wrote it. Particularly the more creative scenes in the BDSM romances. The problem, you see, is that she knows my mom. Very well. The woman who turned down an offer to breed her dog because she didn't want him to "have those sorts of ideas." And so my friend kept imagining my mom's reaction to what I was writing, and... obviously, it just didn't work.

So I'd send her versions to critique that had helpful comments in brackets, like [and then they have sex]. Which worked for the BDSM stories, where the nature of the sex is what provided the character conflict and development. But in my latest book, there's a lot of character development that can't be explained without the sex scenes. I needed to find a new critique partner.

I posted to my blog, asking for volunteers. I clearly laid out the nature of the story (fantasy romance, with a F/M/F romance dynamic) and that I was looking for help making sure the character arcs worked. I picked two of the four people that volunteered, and sent them the story.

The first person had already given me feedback on the first chapter by the time I'd gotten home from my "I finished the book!" celebratory dinner. In chapter two, she was able to identify the part I'd been most concerned about, and offer a suggestion to strengthen it, thereby strengthening the character arc. I'm looking forward to getting her comments on chapter three.

I wonder if she'd like to be the beta reader for all my erotic romances?


Anonymous said...

Hmm. I noticed that a lot of writers have critique partners. I haven't tried that because it feels to weird to have someone who KNOWS me read what I write. Luckily, my editor is pretty forgiving.

N.J.Walters said...

It's hard to find a critique partner. It has to be someone you really trust to give you good, positive feedback, and to let you know when you've gone completely off track.

I'm lucky in that my hubby is my critique partner. He keeps me honest, especially when I have a tendency to rush scenes.

Jennifer Dunne said...

ann: I just focus on what's best for the book. Having half-a-dozen people review it would not be good. Having one review it to crystalize my thoughts (or point out any grievous errors) before it goes to the editor is good. Then my editor can concentrate on the really minute details, and make it a great book.

nj: I agree that the trust is important. That's why I posted to my blog asking for volunteers, so I have some idea of what to expect from folks, given that we've been having an online dialogue and exchange of ideas for months now.

Mechele Armstrong said...

I'm lucky to have found a couple of critique partners. You are so right. It's hard to find someone who can critique without criticizing.