Six impossible things

Finding and Feeding Critiquers

So LizV wants to know how to find critiquers in the first place, rightly noting that the last post I did has more to do with how you deal with them once you have them lined up.

The short answer is, you ask people. The longer answer…

You start with friends who you know read in your genre. Since they are friends, you presumably have a good idea whether you think their opinions will be worth listening to, and whether you will be able to listen to them. (Do not be too surprised if you are wrong; you never really know what a critiquer’s work will be like until you try them out.) If your friends don’t read, or don’t read in your genre, see if the library has a book club. Or troll the local science fiction/mystery club, if there is one, or ask around among fans at conventions. Just because they don’t write, doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t give you good comments.

However, giving good comments is work. It usually takes me a couple of days to do a thorough job on a short story. Novels usually take about a week, if they are given to me all at once, because if I’m doing a whole novel, there usually isn’t a lot of reason to do scene-by-scene analysis because the thing the author wants is macro-level comments on pacing and plot holes and believability and characterization – things that take place in large-scale arcs over several scenes or chapters.

Not everyone is willing or able to do this kind of work. If you start with friends, they may say “yes,” but never get past reading the story, or they may burn out quickly once they realize what they have let themselves in for. Even the ones who labor diligently will get cranky if they never get anything back. Dinner and a mention in the acknowledgements are kind of minimal, and never seemed to me to be enough repayment for what my reader-betas do. So you probably also want to find other writers in your genre who you can trade comments with. (If you are not willing to trade comments, you should probably only ask other would-be writers if you know each other and the other writer is aware of this quirk of yours. Trading is the primary currency of crit; food – dinner or at least snacks – is the secondary one.)

There are lots more ways to find other would-be writers than there used to be. Taking a class is not my favorite thing, but it puts you in contact with a bunch of folks who want to write, and most of the community ed writing classes I’ve taught have ended with half or more of the class forming writing groups. Libraries and bookstores often have bulletin boards with notices for meetings of “open” (i.e., anyone can come) crit groups, or people looking to form a new one. Conventions and workshops also provide lots of opportunity to meet other writers, and the Internet means that you can trade comments/crit without having to live particularly close or having to wait for a week between letters.

The Internet also has seen the rise of on-line critique communities and circles. Like open crit groups, some people have really good luck with them and some do not. It’s not predictable; you just have to try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t, go somewhere else and try that. And you can always ask people who have been part of a useful discussion in comment threads. I got some lovely useful comments from a historian once who I emailed based on her comments in an on-line forum on historical turning points.

Finding/developing good critiquers is not easy; they’re not going to just drop into your lap. If you have smart friends who read in your genre, your best bet is to find some who are willing (i.e., ask them and they say yes) and train them. Ditto for fellow writers. I personally find group interactions especially useful; I get a lot out of listening to everyone else discuss what’s working or not, and a lot of what I know about critiquing, I learned by example, from watching other writers critique me and each other. If you have a couple of non-writer friends who are doing crit for you, think about asking two or three of them over/out for dinner to discuss what they liked and didn’t about your book.

When you ask someone new to comment on your work, make it clear that this is a trial run for both of you, a one-time deal that may or may not be renewed, no explanations necessary. You want to have an out in case the commentor turns out to be an unsalvageable dud; they need to know that it is OK to say “This was fun, but it was a lot more work than I expected and I don’t have time to do it again.” It is also important to let the critique know that you are not going to rewrite the story to his/her specifications. If they don’t like it, fine; if they’d have done something differently, fine; if they were more interested in the tiny subplot or a minor character than in your protagonist and her woes, fine; but they shouldn’t be disappointed if nothing changes in the final version. By the same token, if they hit the nail on the head, they don’t get co-authorship when you promote the minor character to major viewpoint.

I’ve been through three or four completely new and different crit groups over the years, as well as having an ever-changing set of non-writer beta readers. I am always looking for new people, because finding good ones is a slow process. It’s particularly tricky at the beginning, when you are finding maybe one or two people every couple of years, because the temptation is to overload the one good critique partner you have found, which will almost certainly burn them out before you have a chance to collect enough others to share the load.

If the first round of comments you get from someone is annoying, if they are insistent that you rewrite according to their opinions, if they make you feel bad about your work and yourself, then there are two possibilities: either they are most definitely not the critique for you, or you are the kind of person who does not handle peer crit well and who therefore should not push to get any. Thank them and move on. If you get the same result from the second and/or third person, evidence is accumulating in favor of you not being the sort who can handle peer critique. This is only a problem if you insist on continuing to get some. It is perfectly all right to go it alone; you will probably have to work harder at analyzing and correcting your own work, but you can make that easier by volunteering to give crit in exchange for dinner. This will let you practice analyzing on other people’s work, and trust me, you will learn a lot from it.

8 Comments
  1. “If the first round of comments you get from someone is annoying, if they are insistent that you rewrite according to their opinions, if they make you feel bad about your work and yourself, then there are two possibilities: either they are most definitely not the critique for you, or you are the kind of person who does not handle peer crit well and who therefore should not push to get any.”

    And in either case, probably a good idea not to tell yourself, “Well, s/he’s just jealous of my amazing skills.” Seen that, and was floored by it. 🙂

  2. I found my critique group online – after starting a blog and kind of getting established in the blogosphere. After a while, I was able to find others who wrote in my genre and we did a sort of test run. Some of those people didn’t work out, and some of them have critiqued for me for over four years. I definitely agree with your statement to say this is a trial run, and it might only be a one-time deal. Of course, I’m always open to finding new critique partners, so I guess my advice would be to continually keep your eyes open – you never know when you’ll meet someone who clicks.

  3. Thanks for tackling the question, Pat. All good suggestions — though it leaves me feeling a bit like the definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results).

    Oh well, maybe the next time will work, right?

    • More like looking for needles in a haystack – it is a long, slow process that requires winnowing a lot of chaff.

  4. It is perfectly all right to go it alone; you will probably have to work harder at analyzing and correcting your own work, but you can make that easier by volunteering to give crit in exchange for dinner. This will let you practice analyzing on other people’s work, and trust me, you will learn a lot from it.

    I’m in this category. I volunteered as a slush reader for the local university SF&F magazine. We had to give four pieces of feedback for each of the stories we reviewed. They have an online slush pile so I only had to make it to one of their meetings. I would email the editor periodically and ask for feedback on my feedback. I learned a ton.

  5. …the temptation is to overload the one good critique partner you have found…

    Yes, this! Especially since my first critique partner is able to give amazing structural feedback and insists that she loves giving me feedback and wants to do it forever. Yikes! However, I’ve now found another possible partner who has given excellent feedback on my most recent two stories. I think my first critiquer will be refreshed and ready for more when I finish the next draft of WIP, since she’s had a break. Juggling!

  6. I have one beta reader – an amazing young woman with a mind like a steel trap (thanks, Rachel!).

    And a number of regular readers who leave an occasional comment or Like (I’m posting Pride’s Children on my blog, a scene every Tuesday, as I polish it).

    But even though I’ve asked – and several people started reading but quit when they realized it was more work than they were comfortable taking on with a busy life, children, and grandchildren – I can’t seem to generate any more.

    It IS a lot to ask.

    I would add that the best thing you can do with your various readers is to educate yourself (with posts such as this, and other sources – nice job, thanks!) and be as specific as possible about what you want.

    There is an amazing variety of definitions, for example, that go with ‘beta reader’ – and my definition is different from many of the others. The word ‘editor’ is similar – having many different connotations and nuances, depending on what stage the work is at, and what the writer needs, and on who’s paying for the services (publisher or author). Proofreader, copy editor, content editor, line editor – all these have rough general outlines, and details that vary all over the map (you have a nice post on editors).

    It occurs to me that each writer should spend a little time writing a page or two about what, exactly, she expects to get back from a beta reader/editor – so as to be clear up front. Now that I’ve been through the process a bit, I will write my own.

    Just as one method doesn’t work for all writers, one kind of critiquer probably doesn’t either.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    Alicia

  7. Bit late to the party, but Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt’s comment reminded me of this: The Different Types of Critiquers, which I’ve found is a really useful starting point for laying out what kind of critique one does and doesn’t want.

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