Monday, July 27, 2015

How to Be a Good Critique Partner

Image courtesy of anankkml at
I wrote here about ways to find a critique partner, and today I want to talk about how to BE a good critique partner.

1) Discuss a good return time with your partner and make sure to have it back to them by then. I like to return my critiques within two weeks, some people like a month, some even like six months to read. Make sure you are on the same page as far as expectations of timing go—and return it within the promised time frame.

2) Ask if there is anything in particular they want you to look at. Again, setting expectations right at the beginning is really important. You may spend your whole time doing line edits when they’re not at that stage yet.

3) Look closely at plot, pacing, characters, and structure. If you find holes in motivation or consistency, point those out. Comment on the places where the book lost your interest for a scene. Believe that the person you are reading for is highly capable of writing an amazing book and help them dig deep into their story. Don’t let them be lazy with clichés and boring, overused tropes. They can do better, and if you believe it, they’ll believe it.

4) Look for threads of theme that they may not realize are there—or that they could explore more and point those out. Sometimes an author can be so close to a manuscript, they may not realize a reoccurring image or idea that they could play with.

5) Read a lot so you know what’s out there. Some of the best critique partners are voracious readers. à This is also good writing advice as well. JUST READ.

6) Learn the “track changes” function in Word. For too many years, I didn’t know that existed—and I may be the last person on earth to realize that it’s there—so I had an entire complicated, time-consuming code for editing. What a waste of time! Track changes marks every change you make to the manuscript and with the reviewing pane, makes it easy for the person you’re reading for to go straight to where the changes were made.

7) Be Kind! Remember that this manuscript is someone’s baby. They have poured an irretrievable chunk of their soul into that story and those pages, and they need to know where the good parts are JUST AS MUCH OR MORE than they need to know all the areas they need to improve. Because this business is hard. And rejection is around every corner. And it is so, so easy to doubt yourself, your story, and your ability to write because someone gave you a very harsh critique. You can give a thorough and honest critique, and still be kind.

8) Don’t rewrite their book the way you would have written it if it was your story. It’s not your book. Instead, point out the places that aren’t working for you. If you know why it’s not working, let them know. Ask questions that will get them thinking.

9) Be willing to answer follow-up questions they might have. For my very close critique partners, I will often reread passages (and in a few cases, whole novels) and brainstorm new ideas. We’ll even chat on the phone to workshop the story. For everyone—even for first chapter reads—I am willing to answer as many follow-up questions as is needed to help them understand my thoughts.

On that note: One thing that’s helped me the most is to make sure me and the potential critique partner are a good fit before I commit to critiquing a 400 page manuscript. To do that, I suggest exchanging first chapters to start with—especially if it is someone that I don’t have any sort of prior relationship with or have never read anything they’ve written.

It doesn’t do anyone any favors to read a book you don’t connect with because you’ll likely give it a harsher critique because you don’t like the genre/writing style/etc. Additionally, if you spot a lot of problems in the first chapter—no clear sense of character/place/time, an implausible plot, lacking in research, starting at the wrong place, etc you don’t spend hours (and hours) on a manuscript that can be revised based on the feedback from chapter 1.

*Note: Just because I only read a first chapter and don’t ask for more doesn’t mean I hate your book. I love mentoring and I love critiquing, but I’m so busy with my family, writing, church, and conference planning that I don’t often have time to read entire manuscripts—and for that reason alone, I will read pretty much any first chapter that someone sends to me, but rarely more than that.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Where's the Love?

There’s a trend on social media that’s being talked about a lot lately: How awful people can be to each other.

I know a lot of it has something to do with the anonymity that comes with screen names and avatars, and there’s this self-righteous buzz that comes from “setting someone in their place” or calling someone out for what you perceive is incorrect. Monica Lewinsky addresses the social media meanness in her TED talk (which you should go watch if you haven't already.)

Just this week on Facebook, one acquaintance talked about the ugly emails she’d received after a guest post she wrote for a popular online blogging site. Things no one would dare say to her face if she were there and things that should never be written.

Another woman talked about how she shaved her head—a bucket list item she had. After posting a picture of herself, she received so many hurtful, hateful emails that she ended up deleting her inbox without reading the rest of them.

What is going on?

Are we not allowed to have opinions, live our lives the way we want, look the way we want, or express our beliefs without hatred being flung at us?

A few months ago on Twitter I posted about how I came across a rattle snake on my morning walk. I had all of my kids with me and was nervous that it might strike at us. Rattle snakes are common in the desert, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing them. We skirted around it carefully and continued down the nature trail. On the way back home a man told us that he had killed the snake because it was on a very commonly used path—especially by kids walking home from the elementary school not too far away.

After I posed about it on Twitter, I was attacked by the snake-loving community (they exist). They told me I was a horrible person, that I didn’t deserve to live, that I should have my head cut off like the snake's. They called me names and wrote many other horrible things that really upset me. Dozens more people came up out of nowhere, sending me awful tweets and tagging each other so more could join in.

I made the mistake of engaging, first by apologizing for offending them, and then by justifying my feelings of relief that the snake was dead. MISTAKE. Things only escalated from there, and I ended up blocking all of the attackers and deleting the post. The whole thing blew me away and turned me off of Twitter for months. I’m still a little nervous when I post on there. (I hate that I gave them that power, by the way.)

My plea for today is that we all be a little bit kinder. It's not your place to offer your opinion on every life decision someone makes. It is not your place to arrogantly assume that your hateful comments are relevant. And it is definitely not your place to tear someone down. 

Where is the value in that? In trashing someone’s day, disparaging their character, and making them feel bad about themselves. It's too common now to take a complex, multi-dimensional person and boil them down to one characteristic that gets picked out from one tweet, one picture, one blog post and then branded to their chest like a scarlet A they have to wear around for the rest of their life. 

These commenters feel like they’ve done something powerful. That they’ve made a difference, when in reality, all they’ve done is added more hate to the ever-growing pit of hate that people seem to love swimming around in.

Want to know where REAL power is? 

It’s love and kindness.

So my challenge for us all is to be a little bit kinder today than you were yesterday. Respond with love, not judgement, not hate, not trying to push someone down or prove that you’re right.

Words are powerful. Let’s use them for good. Let’s make them meaningful.

And maybe together we can start a new trend.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

4 Ways to Find Critique Partners

FIRST: A critique partner is someone who will read through your book to give you feedback. They can focus on big-picture aspects (plot, theme, pacing, character) or micro-details (grammar, punctuation, narrative flow) or a combination of both. They will prepare thoughtful feedback—both positive and negative—so that you can improve your story.

Four Ways to Find Critique Partners:

1) Go to writing conferences. I have met my very best critique partners at writers’ conferences.

a) Sign up for boot camps, primers, and group workshops and connect with the people you meet with. If you really like something that is read, go up to that person afterward and let them know. Exchange contact info and approach them about trading critiques.

b) Be adventurous at meals. Don’t talk to just your friends! Include other people into your conversation. They might be a great CP fit for you, if you can be brave enough to reach out.

c) When you go to class, look around the room and see if there’s anyone else sitting by themselves. Sit next to them and strike up a conversation. Ask them what they write, and if it’s similar and you seem to connect, bring up the idea of exchanging first chapters.

d) Go to any meet and greets you can. Be prepared to put on your extrovert persona and meet new people. This isn’t junior high. You don’t have to be worried about being ostracized. Just be you—the social side of you no matter how small that side is—and meet new people.

e) Follow up on any social sites the conference is on. If there is a conference FB group—set up for social interactions—join it and be an active participant. Connect with people who you met, even briefly, and talk about a chapter exchange. Be willing to put yourself out there first.

2) Join professional writers groups like SCBWI, RWA, etc.  I belong to ANWA and Storymakers and have met most of my critique partners through the online forums. Be active and connect.

3) Find other online forums to join and meet new authors. I belong to one called Think Tank on Facebook and I know there are several more set up just for finding critique partners.

4) Put yourself out there on social media—meaning don’t be afraid to tell people you’re an author and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your followers and friends. I’ve critiqued for authors who I have connected to because of mutual friends. I know someone who has met most of her critique partners on Twitter, through mutual friends. I’ve “set-up” a couple of critique partnerships because after reading their books, I know they’d be perfect for each other—but I wouldn’t have known that had they not put themselves out there first.

  • Do a first chapter exchange before you agree to a full manuscript exchange to make sure you’re a good fit before you commit to an entire manuscript.
  •  Be willing to put yourself out there first and ask if someone would be interested in a manuscript exchange.
  • Don’t expect someone to read your manuscript without a trade. If they spend 20+ hours critiquing your manuscript, you need to be willing to do the same for them.
  • Find a critique partner who is at a similar place as you in this writing journey. The NYT bestselling author whose class you just took would make a better mentor that critique partner (they’re too busy) but those mentor relationships have to come organically—not by asking them to be your mentor.
How have you found your critique partners?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

June Reads (What I Learned)

I'm the kind of reader who doesn't finish every book I read. Something about the book has to grab me enough to keep me along for the ride (even if I'm not completely in love with the book). Plus, since becoming a writer, I can't seem to read without analyzing everything anymore. In some ways it's taken the enjoyment out of reading, and in other ways, it makes me more of an active reader--constantly learning from other authors from what they do well and where they lost me.

So here are my books from June and the things I felt like I learned from them:

The Fill-In Boyfriend

This book was a sigh-worthy book. I think something that is reinforced in my mind every time I read a Kasie West novel is how romance for teens can be written in a light, non-angsty way and still be un-putdownable. Conflict doesn't have to be death and guns and drugs and gangs to catch a reader's attention--we just have to love the characters enough to want them to succeed in their goal (in this case, she didn't want her friends to think she made up the boyfriend she always talked about, but when he dumps her on prom, she enlists a random boy in the parking lot to pretend to be her boyfriend). This book was a cute read appropriate for even younger teens.

Outlander (Outlander, #1)
Wowza. That's all I can say about this book. Almost 1,000 pages of action, history, adventure, and romance. It has a very epic feel. Because the content level skirted past the line I'm comfortable with, I didn't feel like I could ever let my guard down in this book--and contemplated stopping reading it several times--but her twists and turns and the way she built up the rivalry and conflict kept me turning the pages. This book always had something going on, people moving, another conflict embedded in, and it was never, ever boring.

With No Regrets

This has to be one of the most atmospheric novels I've read all year. I was transported to the South while reading it. I felt like the setting was a huge part of the story and grounded me there. It wasn't a women's fiction that could be set in any time, any place. It had to be in the South, it had to be a woman from a wealthy family, and she had to learn the lessons she learned.

Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass, #1)

Throne of Glass is something I've had on my Kindle for forever, but I finally got down to reading it because I was in the mood for a romance/fantasy and this one fit the bill. I loved the climax in the story. The climax felt inevitible, like she had led us there all throughout the story without us even know it, with tension at max capacity. 

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