Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Value of A Good Reader/Crit Partner

When I finished my first novel, (a contemporary romantic suspense where I killed the hero in the end) I had no idea what it took to be published. (It's safe to say I was WAY off the mark in every aspect.) I had no clue that a romance novel required the HEA (happily-ever-after) ending to be published. I thought I could simply write a story that struck me, find an agent, and sell it. Boy, was I wrong.

Over the past two years I've learned so much about the industry. Note that I said I learned about the industry. It's not enough to perfect your craft. You have to understand market trends, where your novel would be shelved in a library or bookstore, and what audience you're targeting. Is your book geared for Young Adults? Middle grade? Adults? Is the market saturated with vampires? Weres? Are you writing another typical vampire story? If you are, better have a major twist to stand out...

My point is that it's not enough to write for the sake of writing or for the idea of being a writer. Writing is a business. Get to know it.

So how do you know if your writing is up to snuff with your competition? I'd say the first way is to READ, READ, READ other books in the genre you're writing. If you like J.R. Ward's Blackdagger Brotherhood (YOU MUST READ THEM IF YOU HAVEN'T YET--just sayin'), and want to write that style of book, read as much of the likes of her as you can.

Another great way is to land yourself a valuable critique partner. If you're asking yourself what "valuable" is, I can sum it up in one word: HONEST.

The person I let read my first novel (the person who gets the first reads of all my novels, actually) is someone who's been my friend a long time. (I'm talking since the fourth grade, folks.) She's smart. Educated. Reads a ton. But that's not why I initially gave her my material. I had tons of friends offering to read for me with the same qualities.

I knew she wouldn't be afraid to tell me if my writing sucked. No matter how much I knew it would hurt to hear, I needed to know.

And she didn't disappoint. (Oh, I took a major blow to my ego, let me tell you.) She told me it "wasn't good enough" time and time again. Still does. (Yes, we're still friends. No, I haven't thrust her into a story to kill her off in one of my battle scenes. What on earth would make you think that?)

The point is this: when I sent out my first book to be read, I wanted validation. I wanted to be told that my writing had potential--that I COULD be an author if I pushed hard enough. If that's what you want, let your mother or sister read your work. They'll validate you like nobody's business for finishing a novel.

I'll tell you now, it's not enough. Not if you want to make it in the business. However, if you have a mother or sister who's an honest crit partner, I suppose you have the best of both worlds! But for others, we have to pick and choose our readers with care.

Last night I sent over a new chapter to my brutally honest reader. She always calls after reading the pages sounding bright and cheery. (Even when she's telling me it's terrible, there's a smiling lilt in her voice.) I always grimace, waiting for the review. Last night she told me it was Great. She said I shouldn't change a single thing.

What meant the most weren't the words--thousands of readers and crit partners around the country probably tell authors the same thing. It meant so much because only a few reads before, she told me I could do better. She said the character's motivations fell flat. She was disinterested in where a particular story thread was going. (She didn't use those words, but that's what she meant.)

So last night when she said it was Awesome, I know that it is. I no longer wonder if she's just telling me that so as not to hurt my feelings. She doesn't sugar coat. And that's exactly what I need.

What do you need from a reader or crit partner? Do you like their comments to be soft and careful? Or brash and brutally honest? Can you get past the initial hurt feelings if they tell you it sucks? Or do you find another crit partner? I'm curious how the other side lives...

11 comments:

Liz Fichera said...

Some people have said never let a family member read your drafts. I say, "You haven't met my sister Mary." My sister is one of my best critique readers. She gives it to me straight. No sugarcoating. That's how I prefer it.

Kristin Miller said...

I've heard that piece of adviice before, too. Sounds like your sister Mary is a gem! :)

MT said...

I love my crit partners! I had friends and family read my stuff at first, but didn't get far.

You've made some excellent points, and I agree - learning the industry is key (and it takes time).

Shallee said...

I love my crit group, because they are brutally honest, and that's what I need! Like you, I need someone to tell I can be better.

Brad Jaeger said...

Yet another advantage to being an active blogger: finding crit partners.

I know when the time comes, where to look for the meanest, most constructive readers

:)

Kristin Miller said...

MT--You are absolutely right. It takes time...and time seems to move so slowly, doesn't it? (Wait--wasn't that a song lyric??? Hmmm)

Shallee--Seems like when there's someone to push me, I can't let myself settle. A scene can't be "good enough". It has to be perfect. Glad to know I'm not the only one smitten for punishment.

Brad--Meanest and most constructive. Funny how those things mingle, isn't it? :) I'm sure you'll find many readers when you reach that point. Crit groups, reading groups, writing forums, and writing associations being amongst the top of my list for finding help.

I have 4 readers/crit partners who read as I go in about 50 page segments:

1-long time friend I mentioned in the post
2-long time friend who devours books like they're candy--she can shoot back my pages same day.
3-writer/author Lisa Sanchez of paranormal romance--found through author Rachael Herron. I met her at D.C.'s Romance Writers of America conference.
4-writer/author A.J. Larrieu of Urban Fantasy. Her character development skills ROCK.

So that's my crit group. I have other people who read my pages from time to time, but for the most part they're my staples and my writing wouldn't be the same without them. :)

Jamie Gibbs (Mithril Wisdom) said...

Excellent advice. Honesty is always the best policy, so long as it's backed up. Too often I heard people crit things with "I hate it" and "it sucks" without any justification of their opinion, in which case I assume it's a conflict of style interests rather than a crit on the writing itself. It looks like you've found someone awesome in an honest crit partner who's also a really good friend :)

Theresa Milstein said...

How great you have the right readers in your life.

I need the positives and negatives to be pointed out. I want to improve, but I also need something to hold onto. There's someone I know from a critique group who brought up a specific problem to death. Even as they were reading on and I'd fixed it, she kept harping. Needless to say, I don't want to work with her anymore.

A. J. Larrieu said...

One thing I *love* about having you as a crit partner is our complementary skill set. You rock at plot development! It's so important to find crit partners who will help you grow as a writer :)

I've never shown my stuff to my family--even my husband hasn't read my current WIP. I'm afraid of getting positive feedback from people who will love it even if it sucks. It might lull me into a false sense of "this is okay!" when in fact it's awful. Better to let them see it when it's "done."

missaggie101 said...

Okay...it's me...the brutally honest critic. I have to say that it is often just as difficult to give an honest opinion, as it is to receive one. I read, take a deep breath, and make the call.

You are a talented, and creative writer, and I love when that comes together to form memorable characters and an exciting plot. You keep writing, I'll keep reading, and hopefully we will stay friends. :)

AlexOngNYC said...

Brash and brutally honest. I've been blessed to know that I have to learn the industry and that I've found a group of 5 (after searching through almost 30 friends) to be my writing "focus group".

Alex
Breakfast Every Hour