First Readers and Critique Partners
Today’s post is sort of a catch-all post on critique partners. Links, terms, and advice (hopefully good advice!) follow, but to start, I’ll share the question that prompted today’s post:
Okay, so I was wondering how you set up your critique partnerships and if you have any general rules for who first reads your manuscript, or parts of it… So, how to safely navigate the ‘finding your first readers’ stage? Are there stages within that stage? [Read the entire question here.]
I know I’ve touched on critique partners before, but it’s always worth refreshing and perhaps delving into more deeply. Plus, I know sharing one’s work is always hard and is probably on many of YOUR minds.
Sharing Your Writing Is a Must
I’ve said this before, and I’ll keep saying it until I die: having a critique partner is hands down the most effective way to become a better writer.
I ended up with a book deal in <1 year BECAUSE I worked with other writers. I am a better and faster writer with each new book BECAUSE I work with other writers. On top of that, one of the main ways I maintain passion for a story is by…*drum roll*…working with other writers. 😉
A Note on Terms
There are many ways to share your work and earn feedback, and I’ll explain a few more common terms below.
Disclaimer: I’ve heard people use those terms to mean all sorts of things, but below is how I differentiate.
An alpha reader is someone who reads your first drafts, perhaps AS you’re drafting. Sarah J. Maas and I alpha read for each other. We find this method keeps us from veering off-course with character arcs and it ALSO helps us maintain excitement for the story.
A beta reader is someone who reads your whole manuscript once it’s finished and revised. He/she looks at the story as a whole. I have a few go-to beta readers for once my book is finished and I need high-level feedback. They are invaluable to me for when I want a final gut-check before turning in a book to my editor.
A critique group is a group of fellow writers with whom you meet/exchange work on a regular basis. Maybe you meet face-to-face or maybe you share your writing online. The point here is that you’re critiquing multiple things at a time and you’re also receiving multiple critiques. I don’t do critique groups, but I know loads of authors who do (and who love them).
A critique partner (abbreviated as CP) is someone with whom you exchange chapters, scenes, entire manuscripts, etc. You critique his/her work (be it a first draft or revised) and he/she returns the favor by critiquing your work. Sarah and I are critique partners. I’m also critique partners with Erin Bowman, and sometimes with other people (a lot of my partnerships depend on who has time/deadlines!).
I seriously cannot stress enough to you guys how important and incredibly life-changing a good critique partner/group/alpha/beta can be. THAT SAID, it’s not easy to find The One. I’ve likened finding a good CP to dating, and honestly, the process is VERY similar. You’ll go out with (a.k.a. exchange scenes with) a few duds–or maybe a lot of duds–before you’ll eventually meet someone with whom you click.
Now, rather than reinvent the wheel on WHERE to find a CP, I’ll just direct you to this fabulous overview from Erin Bowman. Once you’ve found your “date”, take a look at these guidelines to see how best to approach this possible partnership.
A Few Guidelines for “First Dates”
1. Always start off with just a few chapters. If you hate the person’s writing, you do NOT want to be committed to reading an entire novel. For that matter, if you hate the person’s style of critiquing, you don’t want to waste his/her time by making him/her critique the whole darn book. So only exchange 10-50 pages to begin with.
2. Agree on a turn-around time. Nothing sucks more than waiting and wondering and slowly freaking out because a reader is taking forever. We all have busy lives, so if you don’t have time to critique, then don’t agree to do it. If you do have time, agree on a reasonable return date–and stick to that date!
3. Make your critique sandwich DELICIOUS! A “critique sandwich” is a method I learned from Sarah in which you frame your critique (the issues) within positive points. In other words, you open your email/doc/critique letter with what you LOVED. Then you offer the issues you spotted. Then, you wrap up with more of what you loved. This way, you really emphasize that, despite problems, there’s still a lot of potential and wonderfulness in the manuscript, AND you leave the poor writer with a good taste in his/her mouth. Make sense? Good feedback + issues + good feedback = a delicious critique sandwich!
4. Know that your skin will get tougher. If you’re new to criticism, then I’m going to send you to this ooooold post from me for dealing with it. Just know that the more you receive criticism and the more comfortable you become with your CPs, the easier hearing negative stuff gets. After all, your CPs are just trying to help you! We’re all in this together. 🙂
5. If someone who IS NOT A WRITER offers to read your book, I urge you to SAY NO. Many people will offer to read your book for you, but as a rule, only fellow writers will have the proper knowledge to help you pinpoint issues. My husband and my mother mean well (and my mom is AWESOME at spotting grammar/punctuation problems), but they can’t verbalize what’s wrong on a larger scale. They might sense the setting is wonky, but they won’t be able to tell me there’s a confusing infodump in scene 2. For that matter, they can’t even spot issues that an experienced writer might see (like character inconsistencies, plot devices, wonky emotional dominoes, etc.), and they definitely can’t help me find solutions to my issues.
How I Get Feedback
Since the questioner specifically asked who reads my manuscripts, I thought I’d share a basic timeline for how I seek feedback and from whom.
First, as I write the book, I will usually send chunks to Sarah J. Maas (and she will send me chunks of what she’s writing in exchange). We tend to chat on the phone to discuss issues–it’s just easier than typing out thoughts. PLUS, since so much of our books are “collaboratively inspired”, chatting on the phone allows us to brainstorm/snowball/bounce ideas.
Sometimes, we might spend 1-2 hours a day on the phone. For a while, Sarah was drafting her fourth Throne of Glass book at the same time that I was drafting Truthwitch. We would exchange scenes and then chat the next day about what we liked/didn’t like in each other’s work. We have SO MUCH FUN doing this. I’m not gonna lie. It’s why we love coauthoring The Starkillers Cycle–exploring ideas and characters together is so, so, so exciting. Even if I don’t always agree with Sarah’s suggestions/ideas (and vice versa), her comments ALWAYS help me snowball into what does feel right.
As I draft this way, I will make notes of the issues Sarah points out, and then I will address those issues when I revise.
Second, once I have a finished manuscript, I will revise based on Sarah’s feedback. Once I have a revised book, I tend to break it up into 3 parts. I send part 1 to Erin Bowman (unless she’s busy, then I have a few other dear CPs I turn to). Once I have her feedback on part 1, I’ll revise part 2 based on that feedback. That way, I can send Erin a modified part 2 without making her read an entire manuscript with some gaping plot hole or broken character arc.
After I have Erin’s feedback on part 2, I revise part 3 according to that feedback and send that along to her. 🙂 Then, while she’s reading part 3, I go back and revise parts 1 and 2 to line up.
Third, I EITHER send my revised book to my editor now. Or, if I changed a lot based on Erin’s feedback, I’ll try to find 1-2 beta readers. I will give the WHOLE book to these people (*waves at Meredith McCardle and Vanessa DiGregorio*), and then await their feedback. 🙂 After receiving and revising according to their comments, the book is usually strong enough to give to my editor…So I do!
A Whole Bunch of Links on Critiquing and CPs
To wrap up this post, I have some links from my blog and Pub(lishing) Crawl about critiquing. Also, if you guys want, there’s still this forum for CP-matching from 2013’s NaNo. We can revamp it/restart it if any of YOU are in the market for The One. 😉
- Finding a Critique Partner
- The Steps to a Good Critique
- Writing Critiques
- 3 Ways to Improve your Critique
- Gaining Some Perspective on Criticism
- A Conversation Between CPs: Maintaining Passion for a Story
- A Conversation Between CPs: In Defense of Sharing Ideas & Stories
- A Conversation Between CPs: Trusting Your Own Work
- Asking the Right Questions
Now, you tell me: How do you meet readers for your writing? How do you like to critique/receive feedback?
May 5, 2014 @ 4:11 pm
I haven’t tried an alpha reader yet, but I agree with so many of your points. Someone else’s opinion can really help you figure out how to fix problems in a MS or spot things you’ve missed. I like your process of revising and getting feedback in three parts-I’ll have to try it!
May 5, 2014 @ 4:58 pm
I just hate making my readers read a WHOLE book if it’s broken–it’s a waste of their time, you know? Better to find out soon if something vital isn’t working. 😉 Plus, it allows me to work while I wait on CP feedback.
And yes! Objective eyes are sometimes the ONLY way to find problems, and I find reading other people’s work helps me improve mine!
May 6, 2014 @ 3:12 am
One of my Alpha Readers isn’t a writer (he dabbles, but he’s not done much of it – yet) but he’s really good at extracting things I didn’t see from my drafts and asking good questions, or offering up ideas of where he thinks the story could go. He’s a software guy and an engineer, so maybe that’s why. He’s a priceless help.
On the whole, though, yeah, non-writers tend to not really understand how to help. They’re excited but give me back things like grammar errors or ‘awesome, can’t wait to read more!’ which are nice but.. uh… not exactly what I need in a beta read/CP.
If you re-open a CP-Matching thread, I’d be interested. I miss the last few I came across because I was at a weird place in my writing process but now I’m definitely seeking a CP or two.
May 12, 2014 @ 3:13 pm
That’s awesome that you have a non-writer who reads for you! I know a few authors whose spouses play that role (my poor husband cannot…especially since English isn’t his first language. His feedback–though well-intentioned–is thoroughly useless).
I will definitely re-open the CP thread, though I see a few people have already popped on there–if you want to go ahed and drop in. http://forum.susandennard.com/?topic=cpbuddy-match-up&paged=2
May 6, 2014 @ 7:02 am
*le sigh* I always browse the CP forums and never have the oomph to respond – the few times I’ve attempted in the past (like years ago past), it REALLY hasn’t worked. I’m still madly in love with (and married to) my first boyfriend, so I never had to experience all the hassles of the dating world (haha poor me!). Thus, all this disappointment and “failure” to find “the one” right at first attempt was discouraging. BUT I’m trying to get pumped and motivated and consistent to prep for your workshop, so if you were to restart that particular forum (or a similar one), I would participate! I always love the back and forth that you and SJM have in your blog posts together, and the intense jealousy your CP relationship inspires might also be a motivating factor here 😉
May 12, 2014 @ 3:15 pm
I don’t know about intense jealousy (that sounds so negative!) but there’s definitely a desire to improve and push each other to always do better. 🙂
And yeah, I went through a LOT of CPs before I settled into my current partnerships. I mean, I must’ve worked with ~7 people before I even met Sarah. So persevere!! It’s SO worth the effort and slight heartache!
May 12, 2014 @ 6:23 pm
Oh I meant I am so jealous of your CP relationship that it makes me want to try again, however frustrating the process!!
May 6, 2014 @ 7:04 pm
I’ve never had good luck finding a CP. I’ve read several “meet up” posts and corresponded with a few people, but it’s never worked out. It’s very discouraging! I’m going to check out all your links and maybe my hope will be restored!!
May 12, 2014 @ 3:16 pm
It took me many tries before I finally clicked with SJM, so don’t get discouraged! I know it’s frustrating, but it takes a few different people and it also takes TIME with one person to really click.
May 6, 2014 @ 9:25 pm
Sooz, thank you thank you THANK YOU for providing such a delicious buffet of advice on seeking feedback and embarking on critique partnerships. 🙂 I’m grateful, too, that you shared so many of your own experiences and CP relationships! Your approach is WAY more organised than anything I could dream up.
I’ve held my novel close for so long that to share it with somebody – anybody – will be a relief. But you’ve helped me see that I need to approach feedback and critique with as much care and deliberateness as any other part of the refining/revising process.
Mmmhmm, lots to think about. Thank you for answering my question so thoroughly! 😀
May 12, 2014 @ 3:18 pm
You’re SO welcome, Rosanna!! And I know about holding a novel close. Every time I share is terrifying–every darn time–but it’s definitely always scariest the first time. You might try the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (if you write those genres). That’s one of the first places I started and it got me used to feedback. 🙂 http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com/index.shtml
May 9, 2014 @ 4:58 pm
Oh, please open a CP-matching tread. I’m desperate.
May 12, 2014 @ 3:18 pm
Yes! I will rejuvenate this once I get back from RT next week. 🙂
May 12, 2014 @ 3:56 pm
Thanks! Hope you have a great time 🙂
May 12, 2014 @ 1:17 pm
I’m definitely going to have to try the “split it up into three parts” technique for CP notes the next time I have a new MS ready. My CPs recently had to slog through a pretty broken MS (which I feel sorry for making them wade through!), so I think sending it in parts the next time would be really helpful.
Love all your helpful tips! 🙂
May 12, 2014 @ 3:19 pm
Yesss! The splitting helps me save time and also saves my CPs time! I’ve definitely given someone a broken ms and then made them slog through it all…and I’ve definitely slogged through entire broken mss. Thus was the 3-part system born! 😉
May 22, 2014 @ 4:42 pm
Excellent advice, as always! Your synopsis worksheet really helped me stay calm while writing a synopsis recently. I almost lost my cool–never a good thing!
May 25, 2014 @ 4:08 pm
So glad it helped!! 😀
May 24, 2014 @ 11:09 pm
I have an inquiry – I saw in the forums you answered a question about formatting, but I was wondering if you could perhaps do a post expanding on formatting guidelines for manuscripts during the querying process? Is there a certain font you should use? Size? Any sneaky punctuation standards? I read a very adamant (and surprisingly self-righteous) article a few months back saying that double spacing at the beginning of sentences is not only wrong, but unprofessional… my third grade education was horrified and offended.
What’s the professional way of begging for insight from you? “Please advise”? 😉
May 25, 2014 @ 4:13 pm
I posted a screenshot (you have to be logged in to the forum to see it). Was that not clear enough?
Font isn’t standard, but Times or Times New Roman is definitely the most preferred (size 12). And sneaky punctuation standards…erm…Just follow the rules of English and I think you’ll be fine. 🙂
Re: two spaces after a period, yes. The rule changed a long time ago when people shifted to computers from typewriters. There should only be a single space after a period.
Honestly, though, no agent is going to reject you because your manuscript isn’t formatted a certain way. If they do, then they’re a crappy human being and you don’t want them as your agent. I definitely still used two spaces when I was querying and only learned the new rule after I had an agent. 🙂
If you’re still unsure, you might try googling the proper format. It’s really straightforward, though, so I’m not really sure it warrants a whole post. Again, try looking at the attached image of my manuscript page if you need more guidance. 🙂
June 6, 2014 @ 12:24 am
Oh yes, I must have missed that! Thanks so much:)
January 4, 2015 @ 3:08 am
I’ve never had much luck with CP’s. The few people I’ve corresponded with seem to disappear off of the face of the earth after a few messages. Most anyone ever read of my stuff was the first page… :/
I used Ladies Who Critique as well… Everyone else seems to have good luck with finding a CP. Just got to keep trying!
January 12, 2015 @ 8:54 pm
Hi @pixie22462:disqus ! I’m sorry you haven’t had much luck with CPs, but maybe there’s an issue with what you’re sharing. Maybe read through it all carefully and make sure you’ve made it the best you can possibly make it…? Or that the people you’re reaching out to actually read the genre you write in? I don’t know what else to suggest other than–as you say!–to keep trying. 🙂