Basically the internet is responsible for everything great: On critique partners

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cait asked: Do you have critique partners? If you do, how did you find them/meet? Do you recommend having them?

Cait, I love this question - I have tons of thoughts on critique partners and getting feedback and the wonders of the internet, and I may go on for a while, so here is the short answer: Critique partners are brilliant and vital, if they're the right ones. You can't possibly be objective about your own work, and neither can your friends and family, as wonderful as they are. The internet is a great way to meet them, especially if you're a shy writer type like myself. (You can skip over the rest of this nonsense and to the end of the post for more recommendations... or you could read all this! Up to you!)

Long answer:

When I was 14-15 I was really incredibly into the whole thing of being a writer, and used terms like 'beta-readers' and blogged daily and read agent blogs obsessively. I was also painfully, cripplingly shy and was completing high school by distance education. I lived an hour and a half by train from Melbourne, which is a very literary city but seemed inaccessible to me, because of my age and my shyness and where I lived and not feeling like a 'real' writer.

So blogging was important to me. I could talk to people about books and writing, including actual real-life published authors. I could play around with identities - if you read my blog in 2009 or 2010, you'll know that I changed the design almost weekly (in 2008 I changed my blog address almost weekly, but all those blogs are lost to the abyss of the internet now) and took tons of weird self-portraits and jumped around subject-wise, compulsively deleting posts because I decided they didn't fit in with what I wanted to say (I haven't done that for a few years now, and wish I hadn't - there's a lot of things I remember writing that I'd like to read again). I was not 'Stephanie' who was awkward and shy and weird, I was 'Steph Bowe' who was awkward and shy and weird in this very specific endearing way that I wanted to project.

People didn't know I was a kid, unless I decided to share that. My family were always wonderful and took me seriously (I was a pretty serious kid, which is probably why I've turned into a silly adult - have to get the balance, you know), but other adults were often patronising, which was endlessly frustrating for me.

(These days, I do workshops in primary schools and secondary schools, and I meet so many kids - even ones who don't consider themselves creative - who are profoundly insightful and imaginative and smart. They use complex words and come up with fascinating stories and I take them just as seriously as I'd take a roomful of adults. Just because you are young does not mean your thoughts and opinions are invalid. Don't let me get old and forgetful and start being condescending towards kids, okay?)

I'm getting back to the point, I promise, and this all has something to do with that point (if only peripherally).

Without the internet, I have no idea where I would be at as a writer. I've met many writers through my blog, a lot of whom I've now met in real life, who have had an impact on my journey as a writer (I do plan on writing about them, eventually, too - though I am always fearful of forgetting people).

I had a real sense of being part of a community. I finished Girl Saves Boy (then titled These Bones and with a ridiculous then-the-kids-get-married ending - I kid you not), and I put a call-out on my blog for anyone who'd like to beta-read, and I got a few responses! One of whom was American suspense writer Sara J Henry.

Sara was thorough, very straight-forward and sometimes slightly brutal in her feedback. Which was exactly what I wanted and needed. Being taken seriously as a writer was pretty incredible. It was also a good preview of what it would be like to work with an editor - sometimes spirit-crushing, ultimately rewarding. She was also impressed enough by my novel to recommend me to a few agents she knew as well as suggesting I enter a blog first-page competition (which is how I ended up with my agent). Sara was in the process of publishing her first novel, too, and was an invaluable source of advice. I'm incredibly grateful to her. There's more about that beta-reading process and my journey to being agented in this guest post by Sara (from four years ago! Extraordinary).

Between Girl Saves Boy and All This Could End I wrote an incredibly tacky murder-mystery novel about a girl going to live with her grandmother in the country following her father's death, and gradually unraveling his dark past. It was terrible, but for ages I was so stressed about writing my next book - and not messing it up awfully (proving everyone who thought I was merely a novelty right) - that all I could write was crap. I couldn't see just how crap it was. And I am infinitely glad I never sent that manuscript to my agent or editor - it was horrific, really - and that was entirely because Sara let me know how far off-track it was. And then I wrote All This Could End, and everything was all right. Until now. When I'm panicking about the next book. Vicious cycle.

Another talented young writer - and now literary agent - Weronica Janczuk also gave me some wonderful feedback on Girl Saves Boy, as did Mya Rooney, another book blogger. There were other writers, but these critique partnerships sort of fizzled before they started, for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because of a mismatch in taste.

So, what I recommend to you: Find critique partners! Except that some match-ups will fail, and it's not really because you're a terrible writer - they're just not the right fit. You need someone who will be as honest as possible, but who also enjoys and respects your work. Putting yourself out there on the internet is a risk but I think it's a risk worth taking. Look for someone at a similar stage in their writing as you. If you're not a blogger, there's always forums like on the NaNoWriMo site or Absolute Write. If you're a brave soul, maybe find yourself a writers group (I would really love to be part of a writers group someday - I've been to a couple of meetings with different groups but I haven't found the right fit yet, and I find it all very nerve-wracking) - your state writers centre will likely have a list on their website (here are writers groups in Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales) (I have found a lot of the writers groups skew towards older people, and how committed people are to writing and the stage they are at varies a lot. So it might be a bit of a search for you. Or you and I could start a writers group! Let's do it).

Friends and family are wonderful to get feedback from in the super-early stages (when you really need someone to tell you how great you are to encourage you to keep going) and in the super-late stages (when you need proofreaders). My grandparents are the first readers of everything a write, and they are always supportive. My mum was an excellent proofreader on Girl Saves Boy. My friend Ashleigh read a draft of All This Could End (she didn't like the original ending, I don't think. But she was too nice to say so). This was all fantastic! But it did not help me grow as a writer.

You really need the feedback of another writer (or two) who you respect the opinion of for the meaty revising bits in the middle. It's an editing sandwich. I'm terrible at metaphors. How on earth did I become a writer again?
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