Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hallowed be thee, crit partner

My next word in the above statement - Not!!! There's nothing holy about what your crit partner tells you, and you should see it for what it is first and foremost. A critique.

Have you ever watched a movie and then read what the critics are saying about it? Have you noticed that the critics' views may range from this-is-crap to this-is-brilliant and everything in between? Now have you stopped to ponder what your idea of the movie is?

You should be doing the same with your story. After all, who better than you will know what you want to say?

So, am I saying crit partners should be ditched? After all, I'm telling you to have your own opinion, aren't I? The answer is No. You actually need your crit partners, but you also need to know how to weed out what you do need from their words and what you don't.

I came into the writing world armed only with literary knowledge. If you recall my post about the fine line between literature and popular fiction, I wanted my characters to be the foil for a reality I wanted to show. The first thing I realised with crit partners' insight is that I'm not cut out for writing literature. I was blowing too much life into the characters for that, which was making me veer towards popular fiction. I didn't want to write Harlequin type, because I knew it would never be accepted and published in my country. But in the end, I couldn't keep on rebelling. I had to accept the truth - I wrote popular fiction.

My crit partners showed me that, but afterwards, it was very much trial and error that had me pulling my hair out almost every single day! That was the extent of their 'help' - to show me I was better off writing romance but man, did everyone have an opinion about how to go about the task! I met the know-it-alls and even those who thought they knew much when they didn't know a thing - why does your story start here? You'd have more impact if you made the mother come to her doorstep in London, or if you gave the heroine a mental breakdown. You write too far-fetched stuff, life is not like this in the twenty-first century. You're too wordy. You need to pitch the boyfriend with the ex at this particular point or you're completely missing the point. A scene is a minimum of 3 pages long. Less than that, scrape it (even if you have something to say!).

Okay, you get the drift, don't you? One day I stopped listening and sat down with my story. So, what were my strengths and what were my weaknesses, I asked myself. How exactly do I write? What am I aiming to portray and show? Like T.J. said, how can you think you'll make your work better if you don't even have any idea what you need to make better?

Started a long journey for me. I wrote the full story, without getting any crits. I needed to know where I was going. Then I looked up writing resources on the net and devoured everything I came across (site like those of Charlotte Dillon, Holly Lisle, eharlequin Learn how to write, and Romantic Times were the best I found, among others).

I started to see something emerge - some of these articles said the same thing. And this is something you need to take into account. If 5-10 people in the industry are saying something, there's a good chance the thing they're saying is true. Mind, you I never said it was set in stone. You just need to bear this truth in mind.

In the meantime, I had found the last chapters easier to write. Why? Because it just flowed. I could get into the characters' heads and relate their POV, and the words fell onto the screen, even if it was wordy. One scene I remember writing where I made the couple break up. I was shaken for a long time after that, shaken by the violence in their words, in their emotions, in how they used me as a medium to pass through to the reader what was at the very bottom of their hearts.

I didn't send this for crits. Armed with the knowldge gained from the articles I had read, I created my list of strengths and weaknesses and tackled it. Rewrote the ms. Re-rewrote the ms on another read. Polished, editted, became best buddies with my thesaurus. Then I sent it off to the editor. Not pausing to think, I started a second project. Started writing, again a wordy first draft. Finished the draft and tentatively put it up for crits. The know-it-alls no longer bashed me now. They had no opportunity to do so, other than tell me I was wordy and my story was littered with echoes.

From there I read all their crits. Took some of their pointers and advice where tightening was concerned. Used a more appropriate word when they sometimes suggested. Gave careful consideration to plot points they didn't agree with.

At this point, I knew what worked for me and what didn't. The aim of a crit was to show me what my eyes had missed, not to provide my crit partner with an English class exercise of 'rewrite this better'. I also paid attention to the fact that if 2 or more people were going, 'I don't know what you mean by this line', there would be a very good chance most readers wouldn't too. This I changed/rewrote.

It all boils down to this - know thy story and know thyself as a writer. This will give you what will work for you and what won't from the sea of 'advice' you'll get from your crit partners. Read about the business and the craft, and always be on the lookout to learn. The only hallowed word is that of your editor, and even there you have room to disagree and argue constructively.

I am lucky today to have trusted crit partners and also a mentor who has steered me in the right track. They all helped me to find my strengths and address my weaknesses, and that too in a constructive, empathetic and supportive way. Nobody plays the know-it-all with me, and I always remember to never sound like one when I do give a crit. Use or lose is my favourite bit of advice at the end, because this is what you should do - use what will strengthen and lose what doesn't work. The best way to know how to make the difference? Invest in your story and in your own writing. Knowledge is the greatest asset!

Btw, that first story I talk about here is actually The Other Side, my first published novel!

I'd love you opinion on this topic! Feel free to holler!

Aasiyah Qamar - Cultural Romantic Fiction, With a Twist
Coming out October 2 - Light My World - Eirelander Publishing
Nolwynn Ardennes - The Promise of Fulfilment
Coming out in January 8, 2010 - Storms in a Shot Glass - Eirelander Publishing

Aasiyah Qamar/Nolwynn Ardennes - Romance the world over


Chicki said...


Everything you said is so true. I've realized that my toughest crit partners are the ones who help me the most. Of course, I don't always agree, but 95% of the time their comments are right on point.

Have a great weekend!

Bella said...

How true, Z. You have to stayn true to your voice and story, and weed through crits.


Sandy said...


Great post. I found our mentor off of Charlotte Dillon's site, too. Smile. Weren't we fortunate?

I'm not sure if I know my strengths and weaknesses yet though.


Chelle Sandell said...

So true! I've had some hard critters that made me feel inferior and my writing suffered because of it. I write geared toward a specific pub and finally figured out the same conclusion you came to...use or lose. Especially if the comments are repetitive. ;) Great post, honey!

Z(Aasiyah/Nolwynn) said...

Hey ladies!

Thanks all for your lovely comments.

Chicki - I know exactly what you mean. The ones who are toughest do so in a way prodding you to take stock of your writing, not simply bashing for the fun of it. Another good tip about crits received - take a break from it as the first impression will prolly be, No way will I listen to you! Allow yourself a few days or even a couple weeks before you look at that crit again and you'll do so in a more objective manner.

Bella - yes, girl. You need to know your voice and your story to stay true to it, because no one will write and tell a story like you will. Lovely pic, btw! Nice to put a face to the name.

Sandy - yes, lol, we were both very lucky indeed, even if our mentor found me from another loop. Charlotte's website was a treasure trove of links to articles about writing. About strengths and weaknesses, I'm sure you're picking up about them at every ms you write. Don't you look at your previous WIPs and spot stuff immediately? How would you have done that if you didn't know your strengths and weaknesses now, eh?

Chelle - lovely to see you comment here! I'm sorry you had to go through the know-it-alls' ramblings. Nothing more confidence-sapping than that. You need to know what works for you and especially if you are targetting a specific pub. The advice of your crit partners should definitely be helpful though, and not bashful.

Hugs all!!


Anonymous said...

Yes, wonderful post. I guess early in our career we are somewhat insecure about our abilities and instead of doing what you suggested beforehand, learning about the craft and about our own strengths, we give that power away to critique partners - some of whom are at the same stage in their careers. So we flounder around together while our internal critic has a hayday.

I'm just getting to the point where I can say, no, thanks very much for you opinion, but that's not how I want to say it.

Finding a couple excellent CPs is like having a treasure of pure gold.

Z(Aasiyah/Nolwynn) said...

Hi Marley

Thanks for the comment. Lovely to see you drop by.

I agree on the excellent CPs part -they're helpers as well as fast friends, and that's the real treasure.

It's true also that inexperience makes us want to be better, and we follow every bit of advice then without pausing to ask ouselves if the advice is good or not. A lot of newbie writers fall prey to this, and then also there's the case of falling on 'bad' crit partners.

Great that you can stand your ground now! WTG!



Christie Craig said...

Great Post. I've always said, finding the right critique group is like finding the perfect jeans. Some of them just don't fit at all, some of them fit too tight, some of them fit okay, but make your butt look ugly. Ahh, but once you find that perfect pair, you know it and love 'em.


Annie Nicholas said...

Without my crit partners I'd never have reached my goal of being published. Each contributed something different; I have my cheerleader, my grammar nazi, my pov queen, and my 'where's her inner thoughts?' diva. I love them all. Great post Z