A couple months ago, I was talking to my writer friend/critique partner, Mark Benson, about how we should do a joint blog post about being a good critique partner. After I nagged him relentlessly, and the moon was in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligned with Mars, we put this together.
Mark: The reporters I worked with when I was a news editor would be terrified to learn that I’m anyone’s critique partner.
Me: I need your story in 5 minutes.
Reporter: But deadline is 25 minutes away.
Me: But it always takes me 20 minutes to rewrite yours, so haul ass.
That terrible (but also sort of awesome) behavior is oddly appropriate when starting a conversation about being a critique partner for someone’s novel. Byline be damned, that reporter’s story was not their own. It was running in a newspaper, which was in turn putting its credibility in … wait for it … my hands. It was a collective. It was the reporter’s story, my story, the photojournalist’s story, the graphic artist’s story. I not only had every right, but I was paid to defend defend defend that paper’s credibility, and while a particular method or attitude is up for debate, the end was justifying the means.
But that’s not the circumstance when dealing with a novel writer’s story. You’re an honored guest in their world.
Mel: While Mark here is a “recovering” journalist, as he says, I am a recovering…well…I don’t know. A recovering day-dreamer? A recovering bikini waxer? (It’s true. I’m sure there is a novel worth of stories in that occupation alone.) While Mark was off being wicked smart, I was just starting to get my feet wet in the writing world. I started writing again, after taking years off, and found myself submerged in a fandom, writing fanfiction. I know. I know. Fanfiction is that dirty word. But for me, it taught me how to be a better writer. A better reader. And after awhile, a decent critique partner. Storytelling is a deeply personal calling, and most writers are terrified to share their work. Someone rejecting what they have put their heart and soul into is like a punch to the face, having the wind knocked out of you. It’s scary, scary stuff. When you have to trust a stranger to read, and help you make it the best it can be, well, that’s enough to send anyone over the edge. I might have taken a swan dive off that edge a time or two myself. So, basically, what I’m saying is, we writers are a neurotic, insecure bunch and the better we understand this, the better critique partner we can be.
Mark found me on Twitter, probably about a year ago. After bullying me into reading some of his work, I realized I had an enormous problem with him. He was a brilliant writer.
Mark: Brilliant yes, but that other word no. (Insecure, remember?)
What Mel does so well is what I actively try to avoid, because I know it won’t be my strength as a CP. She sees the story as a whole and I’ll find a string of comments in the margins, like “I see where you’re going with this,” or “Okay, this is making me believe X, Y, or Z is going to eventually happen.” She does this well and it provides a real insight into what I most crave: a sense of what the reader is thinking. I write stories that are mysterious, so I get really paranoid about where I’m leading my reader’s mind. When I critique, I intentionally narrow my focus and put on my old copy editor hat, which means that even though I’m sitting at a computer I must have a red pen in my hand.
I focus on sentences. Readability. Clarity. Phrasing. The need for a powerful moment to be captured by an equally powerful sentence structure. This is a huge moment, but the phrasing drags it down. I make in-line remarks and avoid summing anything up … because I’m power hungry, and I’ll end up with “and then maybe you can …” or “and maybe a scene where …” and inevitably the dreaded “what if you wrote it like this: XYZ.” All I want to do is help her tell her story better, clearer, sharper, stronger, faster, less-filling, gluten-free. I’m a copy editor. I can edit faster than I can read. I can edit faster than I can write. That’s my strength, and if you’re brave enough to share your writing with someone, you deserve their best.
Mel: Mark has a hard time calling himself a writer. ::whispers:: He is. I know how good he can be, so, when I see that something isn’t his best, I’m going to push him. I’m going to tell him (and I do) “This is good, but I know it can be great.” I’m able to see his potential while he sits, rocking in the corner, listening to Mumford, and thinking he can’t do ANY more. But I know he can.
I also understand his process, how he works. I’m a firm believer that every writer has their own way of writing. One draft, three drafts, twelve drafts…five revisions, six revisions….leave it for a few weeks, leave it for a month…do the Hokey-Pokey and turn it upside down. Whatever. Everyone has their own way. I know that he’s an editor at his core, so, his first draft, is like my third. He’s very methodical with his writing, while I’m more organic. Understanding, and embracing each others way helps to help each other.
Now, it’s not all sunshine and back-patting. If he’s been too self-deprecating, I’ll tell him to pull up his big boy pants, and get down to work. Everyone is allowed time to mourn that awful query rejection, or when McDonald’s gives you a regular Coke instead of Diet. I mean, that kind of stuff ruins my day. But it’s helpful to have someone around to remind you that, yes…you may wallow in the awfulness that is your life, but then it’s time to get some work done. Like, now, for example. Mark, can you step away from the Xbox and edit these last couple paragraphs for me?
Mark: First off, I’m only playing because I’m researching my next project, which is about a middle-aged laundromat manager who can’t last more than 10 seconds in Call of Duty multiplayer without being humiliated by faceless middle-schoolers who should be doing their ducking homework!
And second, Marcus Mumford’s stubble is my spirit animal. Tread carefully.
When was the last time you dialed a customer service number to tell them how great they’re doing? Yeah, thought so. It’s easy, especially as someone who emphasizes line edits, to only mark up one’s manuscript with things they need to fix. Want to be a critique partner? Then be better than that. If you read a good sentence, if they find a brilliant metaphor or adjective, or gut you with the perfect exchange of dialogue … TELL THEM. Don’t get hung up on finding fault just to validate your own ego.
And Mel’s comments on individual process are correct, and I recommend asking right from the start what they anticipate their process to be for a particular project. The way you approach their chapters, their revisions, their progress can’t be done in a vacuum. You can’t cheer them across the finish line if you don’t know where it is.
Mel: You’re so serious, Mark. I’m all, “PICK UP YOU BIG BOY PANTS” and gifs. You’re all insightful wisdom. Fancy pants.
Mark: It’s speaks volumes that the “serious” one in this mashup repeatedly writes “SALAMI BALLOON” in your margins to get a rise out of you. Speaking of “salami balloons,” genre is a good topic to get into. Don’t go nuts trying to find a CP that writes the same genre as you. Personally, I think it’s better to work with someone who doesn’t write in your genre. It provides fresh perspective. And there is nothing a first draft needs more than a fresh perspective. For example, Mel can really dig into the struggles of MG and YA lead characters, and her stories sometimes involve heart-warming conversations between the kids and their parents. My characters, on the other hand, can’t have such conversations … because their parents were likely slaughtered in front of them.
Mel: It’s true. He writes about dead people, and the family left behind. It’s brutal…and kind of beautiful (but don’t tell him that. He’ll get all schmoopy. You can follow Mark on Twitter: @WaysideWriter.)