You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours…

In 2012, I got back on the writing saddle. Independent of one another (they didn’t even KNOW each other), two friends of mine challenged me to write a page-a-day to get back on track. Jen, the first person who approached me, did it out of love: she’s been a fabulous voice in the past when it came to giving me feedback, and she really wanted to see me put my work out there. The page-a-day project was something she’d done the year before, and she knew how beneficial it could be. Alicia, the second friend, was also wanting to get back into the writing saddle, and she wanted a partner in crime. I figured, hey, two people are basically feeding me the same idea, so I should take them up on it. So I did. Magic Elves was the result.

Every night, I uploaded my page (or two) to Google Docs, which allowed both Jen and Alicia to read at their leisure and cheer me on. It was a very informal process: Jen knew that in order to get me back in the saddle, I couldn’t take what I was writing too seriously, so the rule was general support in terms of feedback, to show that they were reading. It morphed into something else over the year, though: they were able to ask questions about what was happening and draw my attention to things I might’ve forgotten about. They also became a sounding board for ideas. It was mightily useful.

Alicia had her own project, so what she did for me, I did for her. Jen, however, was on a different playing field, sending out queries for her YA fantasy World Maker and hoping an agent would bite. Fortunately, one did, and last weekend, I spent my time reading her “getting-it-ready-for-an-editor” draft. I’d only read the first chapter of the project before, and the premise interested me enough that I was curious to see what the book was about (spoiler alert: it’s awesome. It beats the pants of a lot of published YA that came out last year).

Here’s the thing: Jen is one of those people that I’ll read anything for. She’s been a tremendously huge support for me and my writing, and better still, I really love reading her fiction. That she’s not published yet makes me want to cry, so I really, really hope it happens for her.

This sentiment of “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine,” is what I want to talk about when it comes to critiquing, because believe me, just because someone’s willing to read your work and vise-versa doesn’t mean it’s going to be a pleasant experience on either side.

I’ve been through a LOT of critique groups. Tons of workshops in undergrad. Tons of workshops in grad school. And in grad school, aside from actual workshops, we did have critique groups we swapped with during the course of the semester (once a month). Those, we got to pick. I’ve been to summer-long workshops, where I didn’t get to pick my readers. Out of school, writer friends of mine have formed loose online groups to swap work and provide feedback, and those have been met with various degrees of success.

So I’ve spent many, many years learning how to critique. How to accept criticism. I’ve spent many years figuring out what I need as an author, and who I need it from. Gone is the girl who gets so excited to trade manuscripts with someone. Critiquing is hard work, especially when done well (and make no mistake, I do it well; I don’t expect the writers to take every suggestion I make or even agree with said suggestions, but they can’t deny I put TIME and EFFORT into their manuscripts). I’ve learned over the years I’m more effective critiquing novels over short stories, and when it comes to novels, I’m best at whole manuscripts (but can suck on the timetable unless you give me a hard, fast deadline), but work well when I’m getting a smaller chunk at a time.

Critiquing is a reciprocal format. If you critique someone’s manuscript, you have every expectation that they should read and critique something of roughly equal value. And here’s the rub: it’s one thing if you’ve never read that person’s stuff before. It’s like a blind date: you don’t know what you’re going to get. But when it comes to picking people that you turn to when you need feedback on a regular basis, make sure of two things:

1) They like your work. Not so much that they’ll kiss your ass and not give you anything useful, but they like it and get excited about your ideas. They’re quick to offer suggestions, help you brainstorm, or even listen while you talk something out.

2) You like THEIR work. Hey, it’s awesome if they give you awesome feedback, but when they send you THEIR pages, are you going to dread every word of it? Do they write stuff you just can’t get excited about? Stuff that’s so out of your wheelhouse that you know that while the basics of every story are the same, you know you’re just not their target audience, that you wouldn’t read their work if published if not for the fact you know them?

It seems obvious, but these two lessons haven’t always been obvious to me. And I’m still struggling with them on various levels. And I’ll be honest: it’s not easy finding GOOD critique partners. You have to go through a lot of trial and error to find the people who really seem to get what you’re doing, people from whom you can accept constructive criticism without curling into a ball and crying your eyes out. I can count on one hand the people I’ll turn to first when I need feedback and help, and I only use half of my fingers. It’s not that all of my other writer friends are bad at it either: it’s just that some of my writer friends are better at the end of it, when I need help with line edits but don’t need a lot of feedback on the story itself. Or some readers I don’t want line edits from at all, but need their opinion as if they were going to give me feedback on a published book.

That’s another thing: it’s important to know what kind of feedback you need at different points in the process. For example, with Telepathic Soulmates, I’m after a very specific thing: how to tighten the damn thing up so I can reduce the word count. But with Magic Elves, the draft is so rough that if I do decide to get feedback beyond the cheerleading necessary to help me finish the damn thing, it’s going to be with a huge warning label: THIS DRAFT IS CRAP. IT WILL BE REWRITTEN ENTIRELY. NO LINE EDITS ALLOWED.

An aside: people who ignore such a warning label don’t need to critique your work until you’re in the line-edit stage, because they waste your time otherwise. Nothing’s worse than you needing big-picture feedback and the critiquer is fixing your grammar, even though you told them you’d be re-writing. Some people can’t help it: sometimes, I can’t, but I try to reign it in and point out a chronic problem that may be necessary to correct in the rewrite.

Finding the right people to share your work with isn’t easy. Like any friendship or marriage, it takes work and love and tears on both sides. You have to WANT to help each other out. It doesn’t work if someone’s just not into your work, which is why it’s so important to make friends with lots of writers, trade work in a safe setting (some kind of workshop, in person or online), and figure out what you need from your crit partners. Don’t be upset if you think you’ve found THE ONE, and they come back and say, “You know, if I have to read that story again, I’ll gouge my eyes out,” because some day, you might have to say that exact same thing to someone else.

When it’s all said and done, though, I love helping people with their work. I just don’t have the time that I used to, which means I can’t devote to helping properly, which is why I’ve narrowed my circle. Because as I said before, I’ve learned that if I want feedback from someone, I have to be willing to read their work too. I’m not sure if I’ve got a clean slate right now or not, but it’s what I aim for.

9 thoughts on “You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours…

  1. Yeah, I have had wildly varying results when it comes to critique groups. I have found a handful of really good critters, a lot who are useful inasmuch as if several people say the same thing, it’s worth taking a closer look, and some whose feedback was a big WTF?

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    1. That’s one good thing about getting a lot of feedback: if everyone points to something and says they have an issue, you know something’s up and you need to fix it, even if you don’t take any of their suggestions. 🙂

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  2. i need someone to critique something, and these rules are good rules.
    but it’s a personal something, so finding someone i trust? not happening. sigh.

    just me whining, don’t mind me at all.

    in the meantime – i’d like to critique, but i’ve not been trained in how to critique fiction [non fiction, yes] but if you ever need someone to TRY, let me know.

    because much as i love to edit, i CAN manage to not do so 🙂

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    1. That can be tough. If you ever have something that’s not personal, you can always look for free online groups: Critters Writers Workshop has a lot of praise: professionals such as C.C. Finlay and Rae Carson workshopped there, I’m pretty sure.

      With critiquing fiction, part of it’s talking about how you’d react as if it were a published book. The difference being if something’s wrong, you have to be able to talk about why it’s not working. If you hate a character, what is it about the story that’s making you do so, or is it something in your own biases? That sort of thing. Offering a fix is always helpful too. 🙂

      Hey, if I need a line editor, I’ll let you know. Nothing wrong with editing, nope!

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      1. i actually used to be part of Critters, then i had to have more surgeries, and, well…

        like i said, i was only bitching 🙂
        and … well, i never exactly had complaints when i critiqued at Critters, but compared to what *I* got as critiques, i felt, i dunno – guilty?
        meh

        as for editing not being anything wrong – i’ve had several dozen people ask me if i’m insane or an alien? *G* it’s amusing

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        1. I can see how it’s rough when the level of crit YOU give doesn’t match what you get, and the only advice I have there is to keep trying different people until you find someone who gives what you do too. It’s a hard thing. :-/

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  3. I have tried reading a story my relative wrote for NaNoWriMo a few years back. The experience taught me that I am NOT going to be good at critiquing, because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.

    On the other hand, I AM pretty good at line editing – it’s a good thing that grammar, spelling, and phrasing don’t have feelings to hurt 🙂

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      1. true that! But at least they don’t have to hear me refer to their actual writing as “бред сивой кoбылы в лунную ночь” (a Russian expression, loosely translated to “delirious ramblings of a gray mare on a moonlit night” – NOT a compliment, unless they are actually trying to describe a delirous mare at night 🙂 , which would probably offend them A LOT more *evil grin*

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