Thursday, August 9, 2012

How to Find Crit Partners

Every time I go to a writers conference, many of the speakers will either thank their crit partners for their help in perfecting their manuscript, or give the advice that every writer there should join a critique group.

Crit groups are a tricky beast.  The right crit group can help evolve your work and grow it in places you never knew were lacking.  Bad crit groups can make you defensive, cause stress, and make you doubt you should be a writer at all.

Here's my two cents about how to choose the right crit group.

1) Don't commit right away.
If you are invited to a crit group, be sure to express right off the bat that you are willing to give it a try, but aren't ready to dive right in head first.  Give the group your first ten pages, or the first three chapters of your Work-in-progress (WIP) and see what you get back.  If you like the notes you get back, there's hope yet.  If the notes you get back are not what you are looking for, bow out gracefully, quickly.  There's no point in torturing yourself AND THEM with a bad fit.

2) What makes good notes?
I've tried crit groups that gave notes likes, "I just don't get it," or "This didn't make sense," or similar vague and unhelpful responses.  Good crit notes are specific.  What doesn't make sense?  (Ex. "Why is MC mad here? Need more internal dialogue").  If I can't figure out your notes, how am I supposed to fix what confused you?  Helpful notes tell you what to add, and don't point out what's missing.
Does that make sense?
It's the best way to be helpful and respectful at the same time.
Generally speaking when I get notes I want first and foremost notes on story.  Did it flow?  Did the character's actions make sense?  And this is the one I love the most: how did you feel when you read a certain part of the book?  Did I mention how much I love that note?
Ex. "I'm so pissed off at the MC right now!"
My typical response?  Good!  You're supposed to be!
Ex. "Creepy! I'm glad I'm reading this during the day."
YAY!  It was supposed to be creepy.
This is how the writer knows they are accomplishing what they wanted.  If, however, you have written a love scene and the crit partner notes, "This is hysterical! So funny!" then you know you've missed the mark.
Typos.  Some people might disagree with me here, but if someone finds a typo in my MS, mark it - I want to know.
You don't need to, however, fix all my many punctuation mistakes (maybe one or two examples - I usually have a proof reader go through and fix that after the MS is done), and I hope to God that I am at a stage in my writing career that I don't need crit partners to fix my grammar.
One or two corrections in the whole MS, that's fine - but if your crit partners are finding grammar mistakes in every paragraph, you might want to consider taking a class, or perfecting your craft before joining a crit group.  You won't get an agent or an editor with grammar like that anyhow.  I'm not trying to be cruel, but that's the truth.

3) Personalities.
I one time worked with a crit partner who was smart, articulate, sweet as pie - and made me feel like a complete idiot.  I'm not sure she did it on purpose, but working with her (and this was a long time ago, so I feel safe in admitting this) made me second guess my every word.  She'd complain about things I thought were perfectly fine, and she didn't seem to understand a single word I wrote, as she was always stating, "I just don't get this."  I think it was a combination of bad notes and personality.  Your crit partners should be respectful, and give constructive notes in a polite, but honest way.  You should like your crit partner afterwards.  You shouldn't want to give up writing afterwards, or slit your wrists, or wring their necks.
If you are a sensitive individual and can't take criticism, again, perhaps you should consider another line of work.
For years I stayed away from crit groups thinking that I wasn't emotionally able to handle the criticism until I joined a group last year and got GOOD notes and then I "saw the light."  Not only do I love my crit friends on a professional and emotional level, they are my biggest cheerleaders as well.  My MS was better after they read it and I was and still am so very thankful!
Maybe I had gotten confident enough in my work to take a note, or maybe (and I find this more likely) the other crit reader and I just weren't a good fit.
It happens!
Don't be afraid to say, "This just isn't working for me."
Honestly, my major mistake was not speaking up, and like a good soldier, I tried to make the crit partnership work, when in truth - it was doomed from the beginning.
Again, we were both at fault.
Not being good crit partners doesn't mean you still can't be friends!  But it's also a lot like dating, and you shouldn't date a guy or gal that's going to make you feel worse about yourself.

4) How to Find Them
Go to conferences.  Join message boards.  Follow blogs.  Ask around.  The truth is, you have to be invited to an existing crit group.  I, for years, would ask other people if they were looking for a crit reader and get shot down.  Eventually, after I stopped asking, I was invited to one, and am now lounging in a special cloud in heaven.  Be friendly.  Meet people.  Be open.  Be smart and respectful.  Ask around.  It might not happen right away.  But if you play your cards right, it will happen eventually.  Be patient.  And give good notes so they decide to keep you.  The first time they give you something of theirs to read, it's a test.  Don't blow it.
No pressure.

I hope this is helpful in some way.
As I said before, a bad experience can taint your career for life, but a good one can uplift you to heights you never knew were possible.
Keep searching!
It is SO worth the effort.

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