OR: When Good Intentions Pave the CP Road to Hell
Okay, let’s talk critique partners. Indispensable? Time wasting? Necessary evil? Strategic advantage? As with everything else in life, the answer is quite often: it depends.
If your rough drafts are salable as-is, you may or may not want someone critiquing your work line by line, giving you her opinion of the flow and characterization and word choice. On the other hand, if even you can’t locate all the missing plot threads or figure out why the heroine runs away from the nice, safe castle when she knows the hero’s the only guy protecting her from certain death, then yeah, maybe another pair of eyes wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle and all of us have different needs. So let’s clarify what a CP is and is not.
First, a CP relationship is what you make of it, and may not even include editing-style feedback. Crazy, I know, since we’re calling this person a “critique partner”, but there are other critiquable things besides prose.
Many writers bounce story ideas off CPs. Is this premise believable? Is my heroine too wimpy/catty/stupid in the opening pages? Would a reader forgive my hero’s heinous non-heroic act during the inciting incident long enough to learn to love him along with my heroine? Does this sub plot work? Do I even need a sub plot?
Other writers use CPs as beta readers, only turning to them once the manuscript has been written, revised, and polished. Still others use CPs as checkpoints when crafting their queries, synopses, and proposals.
All that sounds great, right? What could go wrong?
Well, everything. Line-editing has the potential to catch the most errors–and the potential to edit out the author’s voice. I’ll give a quick example of each.
One of my CPs noted that I’d used the word “couch” when I’d meant “house”. I’m so glad she caught that, because the heroine walking into her parent’s couch would’ve made her look clumsy (and random, if she wasn’t already indoors!)
On the other hand, I recently received a first chapter critique from a published author who edited the contractions and slang my hero used in dialogue. Now, I’m a firm believer that everyone speaks differently and uses slang and speech patterns in unique ways. Unless whatever the character is saying makes absolutely no sense, I hesitate to mark up a CP’s dialogue for this very reason. Maybe the character would say “I’d've” and maybe they wouldn’t.
That’s character voice, however, and the biggest danger is editing out author voice. Sometimes I use sentence fragments. Short. Choppy. Single-word. (BTW, that was a conscious example. *g)
Microsoft Word goes crazy with the green squiggly underlines. Should your CPs? Maybe. Again, in my opinion it depends on whether or not the usage makes sense. Clarity is key. The reader has to understand the story. (Unless you’re writing something purposefully incomprehensible.)
Let’s say the excerpt is: “Look at those wheels. Shiny rims, fuzzy dice, hula girl… Yowza.” (For the record, I just made that up and it’s not part of any of my stories. *g) IMO, that sort of fragment is just fine. The bad sort of fragment is when the reader has no idea what the sentence even means.
But let’s look at voice from a “big picture” standpoint and see where it can go wrong there. Let’s say the author has a story idea that grips her by the throat and forces her to the keyboard. She bangs out the first chapter or so and sends it off to her CP, who is less than thrilled about the premise/story/characters and suggests changes. (If this is a responsible CP, the recommendations come with good, solid reasoning behind them.)
I have two writer friends who recently found themselves in this boat. One clung tenaciously to her idea and chose to agree to disagree with her CPs. The other invariably takes all advice that’s offered to her and has begun her twelfth or so iteration of chapter one.
Neither of these women are necessarily right or necessarily wrong. It boils down to this. If the suggestions made by your CPs will improve the book, it may behoove you to take their advice. If their recommendations will destroy either your story or your enthusiasm to write the story, you’re better off smiling, nodding, and sticking to your original idea.
Your CP really does mean well. She has your best interests at heart. She isn’t trying to hurt your feelings or stifle your creativity when she says that your opening scene with your stripper heroine boinking your android hero might not be the wisest choice.
All she can give you is her opinion, however, and it’s up to you to decide if she’s right. I, for one, would never be able to pull off a stripper/android erotic romance. Other authors can and do publish such tales to rave reviews.
If you are going to critique someone else’s work yourself, you should keep this in mind. All your ideas are just that–your ideas. Maybe the character/plot twist you brainstormed would make the novel 100% better in your opinion and you can’t understand why your CP isn’t taking your advice. The answer is: because she’s the author and her opinions may or may not coincide with yours. The best thing to do in this situation is to explain your case clearly and concisely, but only once. After that, let it go, unless your CP asks for you to resurrect the issue.
So we agree: no harping on a CP to conform to our ideas. The converse is also true: learn to stand up for yourself! Just because someone’s ideas are different or exciting, doesn’t mean they’re better.
My friend who restarts chapter one at least once a month? I worry if she’ll ever finish. And it’s not because she isn’t a dedicated writer! She is a driven, focused individual who makes writing a priority in her life and schedules time into every day. However, all that time gets sucked away when she takes every piece of advice offered. And many of these suggestions require not only a re-write, but a re-plot. Aargh! I want to buy her earplugs!
The flipside is that critique partners can positively affect your enthusiasm, motivation, craft, self-confidence, and story-telling abilities. My stories wouldn’t be half as good–my writing wouldn’t be half as good–if I didn’t have critique partners.
They point out plot holes before I get 100,000 words into a story, they remind me to add emotion when my pages start to resemble screen plays, and they support my efforts of being published by giving my synopses and query letters a critical eye. They’re my critique partners and they’re my friends.
Your Turn: Have you ever critiqued a manuscript or had yours critiqued? How was that experience? Do you have one or more critique partners or plotting buddies? Why or why not? Please share any tips you may have for getting the most out of a critique relationship.