Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mary's Rants - Guest Denise Patrick on Critique Partners

I blogged on this subject a month or so ago, today I have a guest! Critique Partners: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly! Have you had a critique partner? Have you heard horror stories? Find out some simple guidelines to finding and being the best critique partner.

Welcome Denise Patrick, thank you for agreeing to give me an interview on the topic of Critique Partners. First, will you please tell us a little about yourself and your publishing history and/or background?

First of all, thanks for inviting me.  I still consider myself enough of a newbie that I’m thrilled when anyone asks me stuff.  So, about me. . .I was an army brat.  Although I haven't lived in Utah my entire life, as of now I have lived here longer than any other place in my life time.  I'm going to date myself by telling you that I started reading romances when I was in my very early teens.  My mother was hooked on Barbara Cartland and I read what she read.  From that I developed a love of Traditional Regencies - my favorite genre to write.

I've always loved to write (started out as an English major in college, but switched to History), but I never really thought about publication.  My Aunt (Mom's sister) and I used to read romances and joke that we should write one someday because some of them were so over the top or lame that we just laughed at them. (I’ve since learned that ‘over the top’ is sometimes necessary in a story to make a point.)  Then she died in 2002 and I realized that "someday" would never come.  As a form of therapy, I started writing again.  By 2004 I had four complete 100k novels sitting in my computer and had no idea what to do with them.  I stumbled on the eHarlequin website and the rest, as they say, is history.

Currently, I write Historicals for Samhain and have four books out. Before it went under, I also had two Inspirationals published with By Grace Publishing. My first book was published in November 2006 and my latest was released in print in June of this year. I'm still learning the ropes and everyday I find something new and interesting about this business that I didn't know before.  I’m also a slow writer because: 1) I’m a pantster, so I never outline or plan anything, 2) I have a day job that I love, and 3) I run the youth group at church and that takes a lot of my free time.

Now, I've rambled enough so if you have questions for me, feel free to ask.  I have a website but it's still a work in progress, although the entire first chapter of each of my books can be found there. My blog is more developed and has lots of information and links on it.  I also have an Author Forum at Coffee Time Romance where there is a complete background thread for my Gypsy Legacy Series.

Coffee Time Forum:
Adopting Alyssa, Inspirational, 2006 (no longer available)
The Importance of Almack’s, Regency, 2007
Gypsy Legacy: The Marquis, Victorian, 2007
Strikes Don’t Matter, Inspirational, 2008 (no longer available)
Gypsy Legacy: The Duke, Victorian, 2008
Gypsy Legacy: The Earl, Victorian, 2009

Mary: How many critique partners do you have?

Denise: I have two regular crit partners, and a couple of friends I can ask to do read-throughs at the last minute.

Mary: Do you have a group that you meet with? If so, where do you meet?

Denise: Two of my crit partners are part of what used to be a fairly large group.  A Yahoo group for critting was created by some people who met online and I was a latecomer. Now, all but three (including me) have either stopped coming or dropped out.  We meet on Monday nights through an Instant Messenger program.

Mary: If you meet with a group, how do you stay focused, instead of chitchat and gossip?

Denise: About a year ago, I discovered an online site by Adobe ( You can upload a document there and give others access to it. Sometime around mid-week one of us uploads our document to the site and then sends out an email letting everyone know it’s there. Before Monday, everyone gets out and ‘crits’ the document. It’s great because you can see suggested changes and everyone gets to see what everyone else wrote. This has dramatically reduced the time for crits because now we only need to get into in-depth discussions if someone doesn’t understand or we want further clarification.

Mary: What do you look for in a critique partner? Do you interview them before forming a critique partnership?

Actually, I didn’t interview the ones in my group.  I just joined the group and they are who are left.  But, we have gelled well in the process, possibly because we were lucky that we all write historicals. Recently, we added another person who writes contemporaries, but it hasn’t been a problem. What I look for in a crit partner is someone who enjoys not only history and writing, but also the brainstorming process.

Do you think that a critique partner needs to write the same genre as you?

Denise: For me, yes.  Now, I realize that’s not the case for a lot of people, but I prefer it.  I used to have a single critique partner that I met through an online community. We initially sounded each other out about being partners, then we sent each other writing samples and met online to discuss. We both wrote historicals, Regencies in particular, so we could bounce ideas off of each other when we got stuck in a plot. We are no longer together because a family crisis took her offline and away from writing.

Mary: I’ve heard horror stories. Actually, this is a personal story that happened to me. I had a partner who was so harsh in her critique, after I read her comments I felt like giving up and never writing again. Have you ever experienced this? If so, how did you deal with it?

Denise: I have only experienced it once.  When I got that type of criticism, I just told myself that it was just one person’s opinion.  I also try to look at what she was criticizing.  I have two weak points in my writing - POV and grammar.  When she pointed out POV switching and grammar mistakes, I listened.  If she just shredded the story or plot, I listened, but eventually went with my gut instinct.

Mary: What is your worst experience with a critique group and/or partner, and how did you handle it?

Denise: I’m a fairly easy going person, so probably my worst experience would have been a person who just didn’t like the story.  That’s fine (and she couldn’t see me rolling my eyes at my computer *grin*).  I took what she had to say as her opinion. I do try to find something positive in every critique, but sometimes is just isn’t there.

Mary: What was your best experience? How do you ensure you have this experience on an ongoing basis?

Denise: My best experience is always when I come to a crit with specific questions.  In my group or when I had a single partner, when we sent each other scenes or chapters, I try to ask them to look at something specific. If I’m stuck in a plot point, I love brainstorming, so I ask for ideas and suggestions.  If it’s overall flow, and I’m happy with the way the story is going, I say so.  I do have one crit partner who - even when I don’t ask - will always point out all the grammar problems.  I’m getting better with grammar, so I make sure to tell her when I break the rules on purpose.

Mary: Grammar, especially commas, are so subjective. It shouldn’t be, but I’ve entered several contests where one judge will say my grammar is atrocious and another will give me a very high score and commenting how clean of grammar errors. Do you have this in your critiques? Where one partner corrects grammar and commas, and then another partner comes along and tells you the opposite?

It does happen occasionally, but since we meet and chat in real time, we usually discuss it out.  If we figure out that we just don’t agree, they know that I will go with what I feel is best in the scene.  The bottom line for me is that it’s MY story and I have to answer for it to an editor, agent, or publisher.

Mary: How do you determine whether you’ll go with a suggestion, especially if it’s a radical change in the story?

Denise: It depends on whether I have already thought of and discarded it.  If it’s a suggestion I hadn’t thought of, I might spend some time thinking about whether the story would play out better if I used it.  If I like it, I might incorporate it.  If it doesn’t work, I don’t use it.  My crit partners and I always know that we take each others’ suggestions seriously, but have to make our own decisions concerning our own writing.

Mary: Is there anything that hasn’t been discussed that you think is important in a critique partner and/or group?

I think it’s important to remember that your critique partners are just people, like you.  When I critique another person’s work, I remind them that everything I say is just a suggestion and they need to look at my comments in relation to the overall story they are telling.  Sometimes I may comment on something in one chapter that they have left deliberately vague - and clear up two chapters down the road.  The thing I truly don’t want to do is alter another person’s voice - and sometimes, that’s what happens with critique partners.  If a crit partner suggests you reword something and you know that is not the way you would have written it - don’t.  Every person’s voice is unique and you need to guard yours carefully.

The bottom line with critique partners is this:  It’s YOUR story and you know how to tell it best.  They are there to help and make suggestions, but it’s YOUR name that will ultimately grace the cover if it’s published.

Mary: Do you find critiquing more effective in person, over the phone or by email?

Denise: I don't think it would be very effective over the phone just because of the logistics - I'd get tired of holding a phone to my ear and trying to write at the same time.  But, that said, I've never tried it.

This is what I have done:
In person - as long as there are not too many people and you don't feel rushed, in person group critiques can be informative, fun, and very helpful.  The one thing I have noticed, though, is that no one in face-to-face groups ever wants to say anything negative.  That means that even though you can get some good feedback, it will almost always be purely positive with no one pointing out that maybe your plot has too many holes in it to be believable.

Email - this is a good method if the person you are emailing takes the time to explain themselves as they mark up your document.  Marked up documents with no explanation aren't nearly as helpful as someone explaining why they suggested a word change or moved a paragraph. On the other hand, an emailed critique gives you time to digest the critiquer's suggestions without them waiting for your reaction.

IM Chat - this is the way I do my online critiquing.  It usually goes like this: the person being critiqued uploads a file in the Adobe program in advance, we take a day or two to critique it then we meet on Monday evening on IM to chat.  I love this method better because we have a chance to look at each other's suggestions and think about them before we meet via IM to discuss.

Mary: Should critiquing be done at a high level or down to details like spelling and punctuation?
Denise: Each person brings their own skill set to the critiquing table, but this is something you should agree on before you begin.  In my group of three, there is one who often takes on the role of "editor" and points out grammar and punctuation mistakes.  I don't mind because I try not to give my cp's rough drafts.

 I, personally, am an "overall" critiquer.  By that I mean, does the plot make sense and do the characters engage me?  Has she included all the senses into scenes and does the story entertain?  In other words, do I LIKE it? I don't necessarily think, will I BUY it, but more of if I picked it up to read, would it hold my attention?  In addition, I'm a detail person so I'm most likely to notice things like whether the heroine has blue or green eyes throughout the book, whether the villian is an uncle or cousin, whether she went to the ball in a blue gown but came home in a pink one, and whether the scene starts out in the parlor and ends up in the library but the characters never moved.

Thank you, Denise Patrick for chatting with us about a very important subject!


Cassy Pickard said...

Denise: Welcome to M&M! I will counter your comment about being almost a newbie. Doesn't seem that way to me! Your comments about how to work with CPs are right on.

I have only had one "bad" experience in which I offered what I thought were gentle comments. The writer wrote me back telling me that clearly we were not meant to work together and he would not be sending me any further pages. Phew. I try hard to be honest, kind, and constructive. Guess one of us didn't see it that way.

Everyone else has been great to work with. I think most enter a CP relationship with the best of intentions.

Thanks again for sharing.

Liz Lipperman said...

Welcome to M & M, Denise. Your Regency stories sound wonderful

As for critiquing, I always try to pepper a hard critique with something positive. I do feel if you're going to point out something to me, show me how you think I should fix it. I may not always do what you suggested, but at least it gives me something to think about.

My CPs and I line edit each chapter, then I use beta readers for the final product. My bad habits include wordy sentences and repeats. I love when they zing me on those, but I think I get better with the next chapter!!

Again, I agree you have to verbalize the rules before you even get started.

Great interview Mary. Thanks again, Denise.

Denise Patrick said...

Thanks, Cassy and Liz, for the warm welcome. I consider Mary one of my good friends and was glad to do this for her.
Cassy - What an experience! Clearly the person was only looking for "good" feedback instead of "constructive" feedback. And, yes those are two different things in my book.
Liz - I'm a wordy writer, too. The problem is that I'm an attorney in my day job and writing run-on sentences is what we do a lot of. It takes time for me to switch hats in the evening and get into the flow of writing. Unfortunately, wordy sentences are the result. At least I'm getting better at recognizing them and cutting them down. But, my CP's are wonderful for that.

Clarissa Southwick said...

I have been very fortunate with my critique partners. I always walk away from critique sessions thinking, "Wow, am I lucky to crit with these people." But if I didn't feel that way, I would end the partnership right away. Life is too short to spend it critiquing something you don't enjoy reading.