All Hail the Critique Partner

If you’re a writer and you don’t have one… stop.

Go right now (before you touch that cup of coffee) and find a critique partner… or twelve. It can be a nerve-wracking thing to put your work out there for someone else to see. Not just read, but have an opinion about.

Gather your courage and know that there’s an evolution to all writing that can only happen outside of ourselves. Here are a few reasons why I recommend at least three critique partners.

I. Our Knowledge is Limited. When I first took the plunge to get random ideas out of my head and on paper, I was struck by how difficult this was. During that time I was in college, a single mother, working, and barely surviving. I mean barely. The only thing I had going was the ambition to make a better life for me and that little girl. World-building became a hobby, and somewhere stuck in some of my old notebooks are sketches, writing systems, notes on magic, character ideas, and even a bit of Elvish (I studied Tolkien’s languages for years) sprinkled in. It didn’t amount to much, but it offered me two things. First – a place to throw down ideas and unclog my thoughts. Second – a beginning foundation for what has become a series of stories and parallels that merge medieval fantasy (sword & sorcery) with empirical science-fiction (spaceships & science). When I look back on some of those original notes, I can’t help but wonder where they would have ended up if they’d stayed locked up tight in my own head and never grew them up.

II. We can’t see the forest for the trees. I wrote a story once called Outsider. At the time I was so proud. It’s about a tiny, marginalized society of tribesman that use shaming as part of their everyday lives. And by shaming – I did some research into male rituals of tribes in Africa, South America, and blended my own twist into it of how the males of this society grow their power and become honorable men. They hold all the power, except one female position in the tribe holds power – the healer. She is the only one who has magic, and so when the old healer dies, the woman who begins to show the marks of magic is the one tribe member that everyone else has shamed to the point of suicidal for years. A few years later I went back and read that story… and died a little inside. Okay, a lot. After growth and evolution as a writer, I looked at this forest of words I’d created and realized it was little better than a very, very rough outline. Very. Hell, I’m not sure I’d even call it an outline.

III. Writing is evolution. For those that subscribe to the theory of evolution—I’m not talking fish to humans, but unlocking already-present genes to be dominant as environmental stresses occur—writing takes many of the same paths. I’ve heard rumors about self-published authors who write a story, slap a cover on it, and put it out in the universe. That thing is a gem, right? -coughs a little- Probably not. See above, please. They’re not publishing a story… they’re publishing a first draft. No one wants to see a beautiful cover image about dragons, open up that adult fantasy book, and read a fifth grade rendition of My Pet Dragon. First draft gets the ideas out, but it’s the evolution of subjecting that story to several rounds of edits, beta readers, critique partners, and even editors that really unlocks the beauty of your words and bring them into a larger arena of readers.

IV. No man is an island. The first time I took on a critique partner, I was so excited and terrified at the same time. But… I was also very curious. Would the lines I loved in my story be their favorites too? How about the villain, would the CP love and hate the character as much as I did? Guess what? Nothing I could have predicted came to light. In fact, my first critique partner fell in love with one of my secondary characters (one I had purposely kept a bit in shadow).  The second one showed me I had some strength in world-building details. The third discovered she wasn’t a harsh enough critic, and the fourth discovered that in some places I came off as too dry and predictable. Each one discovered something different – about my writing and about their own writing. Each one has taught me so much about my voice, and where I can afford to take the kid gloves off and get a little dirtier.

If you don’t have a critique partner, get one. Mine range from first to third person voices, and romance to military sci-fi writers. We support one another’s goals and try to focus our comments in that direction, taking both voice and style into consideration. Though at the end of the day, I’m usually the one pointing out how they got the technology wrong. >.< Neeerrrrrd.

Also, make friends with editors and swap with them too. It’s amazing how clean you think your grammar is, then they jab in a stick of dynamite and light the fuse.