Pay It Back or Pay It Forward
I've seen some great posts on critique partners and critique groups. Myra McEntire did a great series on writers and their critique groups like this one where she interviewed Maggie Steifvater about her group with Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff. The three are also the Merry Sisters of Fate and they post most awesome and creepy short stories. But I digress. Critique partners.
1) There's always something good in any writing, so I start there.
2) If I find something I think needs to be changed or improved, then I find a way to help the writer with a suggestion, not a condemnation.
3) I always end with something good. There are at least two good things in any created piece. I feel it's my job to find them as well as anything I think could be made better.
4) I remind the writer this is MY opinion. I'm not the publishing god. Others will have opinions that are different. I urge them to seek those.
5) Ultimately, the writer is driving the boat. Remind them . . . subtly.
But what hit me this week is another type of etiquette. I have met some wonderful and talented writers at the many conferences I've attended over the last two years. Understanding the importance of peer critiques and craving the deep feedback that comes from another writer, I've asked a few of them to share work with me. This experience, without doubt, has helped me become a better writer and I have faith that it will continue to do so. There are few emails I look more forward to than chapters returned to me with thoughtful comments throughout. (Okay, I admit, the email I really look forward to is the one from an agent but we're talking realistic here, okay?)
This week, however, I felt a different reaction when I saw an email from my newest crit partner. My reaction was less, "Oh goody!" and more "Oh crap!"
See, it's been a busy month around here, what with baseball playoffs, swim practice, end of year recitals, finishing up at work and getting ready for the MFA program. And I'd neglected to do the critique on my friend's chapters. I had read (and enjoyed) them but a whole month had passed and I hadn't taken the time to comment and return them. Needless to say, her email to me lit the fire under my butt and I had the crits back to her within two days. But I've learned a couple of lessons which I think are singular to critique partners rather than groups. I imagine with groups, the guidelines are laid out and the expectations are clear about when the group meets and how often pages are exchanged.
And really, these lessons are ones I've been learning and re-learning for years in different areas of my life. First, don't be selfish. If someone has offered to take significant time to read your work (or help you in any way) do the same for them or, if they don't need help now, offer your help for the future. In a weird way, this is actually selfish because you have to give it away to keep it. In other words, it helps you to look at another's work and it maintains the balance in the relationship. The second is basic - communicate. If you and your partner have agreed to help one another, be clear on the timeline. If you share pages once a month, once a week or only during tight deadlines, great. But you both need to know when you are sending the crits back.
How about you? What works in your partnerships?