Jilly: New Year, New Writer – Critique Partners and Beta Readers

Critique Partners & Beta Readers

They can see what you can’t

I’m a newbie at the writing game, but I’m a lifelong reader. I always check out the acknowledgements page, which means I’ve read thousands of heartfelt thank-yous to critique partners and beta readers, usually along the lines of “they read this story when it sucked, so you don’t have to.” I knew before I ever put finger to keyboard that getting feedback was important, but as Justine discovered with conflict and Michaeline learned regarding revision, I had no clue what that actually meant. I had a vague idea that I should ask a few readers for comments and they’d tell me if they liked the characters and spot mistakes in the details. I imagined the contemporary romance equivalent of the online comments on the new Sherlock – the train carriage belonged to the wrong tube line, and the photographers in the press pack were using the wrong lenses. As Justine would say: Oy!

Thank heavens for Jenny Crusie and the McD Romance Writing Program. Jenny showed us the dos and don’ts of giving actionable feedback (more on this next week). We practiced critiquing one another’s work, and I had a lightbulb moment or twenty.  Here are a few of the things I discovered about my WIP:

  • My  heroine was … meh. She got what she wanted without a struggle, so her journey wasn’t interesting and her happy ending wasn’t cathartic.
  • My hero was  … not meh. He was so obnoxious in the first scene that he wasn’t redeemable, and some readers thought he deserved an immediate demise, not a happy ending.
  • The beginning was about the heroine’s goals, the end was about the hero’s. Either of them could own the story, but not both. I needed to choose one protagonist to take the reader with them from start to finish.
  • I left an important sub-plot unresolved.
  • My characters weren’t fully developed, so the reader couldn’t predict how they might behave under pressure.
  • I didn’t provide external support for my characters’ internal emotions – more descriptions of body language would have given depth and credibility to my characters’ reactions.
  • Sometimes I didn’t anchor my scenes with enough physical description, so the reader was left floating.
  • In an attempt to make the narrative pacy and avoid boring the reader, I took out too much back-story, so the reader had no idea how or why the characters had become the people they were.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The feedback identified the gaping holes between the great story that was playing in my head and the patchy one that was coming across based on what I’d written. Luckily we talked a lot in class about how to receive critique – go for a long walk or hit the chocolate stash, but don’t touch your manuscript until you’ve had time to let it sink in. Don’t over-react. Don’t tell your reader she’s wrong – even if you’re right, something tripped her up and that’s helpful to know – but don’t make changes that don’t feel right to you. Use the information you glean to build up a picture of what needs to be changed, and then figure out how to do it your way.

I also discovered that not all feedback is equal. Not everyone will get what you’re trying to achieve, and if they don’t, they’re not your reader no matter how experienced or smart they are. It takes time to find people whose comments ring true once you’ve digested them, who’ll care enough not to pull their punches but who’ll find a constructive way to get their message across. They could be writers or readers or ideally a mixture of both, because they’ll likely see different things. It’s a good idea to be on the look-out for them because the best ones are worth their weight in diamonds, and bad ones are worse than none at all. I’m incredibly thankful for my McD classmates and a couple of friends who’ve turned out to be gems.

I learned the difference between a critique partner and a beta reader. I’m not sure whether this is the accepted definition, but for me the distinction is reciprocity. I’d give and receive critiques from a critique partner, which means they’re fellow writers like the 8LW. I’d receive feedback from a beta reader, who might be a writer or an industry professional or a reader who loves stories like the one I’m writing. Fellow writers and industry professionals will be more likely to talk about craft issues such as POV or conflict, while you can expect bookworms to focus on character, plot and pacing. I’ve heard some writers say that critique partners provide feedback on a partial manuscript and beta readers get involved when a draft is finished, but I don’t get that distinction.

Just as there are a range of tools in the writer’s kit, there are times when a particular reader or type of reader will be invaluable, but that’s yet another thing that each writer has to figure out for themselves. Some authors like feedback chapter by chapter. In general I prefer to wait until I’ve finished a complete draft before I ask for input, and even then I don’t want my readers to suggest solutions, but if I get stuck or I’m worried about something specific then I’d break that rule. I’d probably ask the 8LW to brainstorm as Kat described in this post.

I should have included finding a group of trusted critique partnters and beta readers in my list of positives for 2013.

Where did you find yours (or where do you plan to find them)? How do they fit in to your writing process?


14 thoughts on “Jilly: New Year, New Writer – Critique Partners and Beta Readers

  1. Oh, excellent!

    I think there’s something to be said for on-line critique partners who all know “the rules.” You don’t see them face-to-face (which can be good or bad, for both the critiquer and the critiqued — you don’t see those facial cues of absolute disgust or total joy, or quizzical concern. Like I said, it could be a plus or a minus, depending). You don’t have to sit there and listen for a full session, but can “put them away” until you’ve caught your breath again. You can take them out again two or three or as many times as you like, because it’s all written down.

    I know I’ve learned as much by critiquing as I have by being critiqued. (-: It’s so much easier to solve someone else’s problems, LOL! And, then, I would often come to realize that the problems I had in someone else’s story were actually the same kind of problems in my story! (Which is probably why they caught my attention so strongly.)

    It’s nice to have a lot of different types of readers. At least two, and preferably three critiquers to help point out scene-level problems. (Three for tie-breakers (-:.) Fresh eyes are good, too. The Betas, who are in for the long-haul to give you an overview of how the book hangs together.

    I know I’ve also learned a lot from class discussions of story problems. I think this might work great face-to-face (maybe with some wine and chocolate mixed in to smooth the sting).

    • I’d brainstorm or follow up on specific points from a critique face to face, ideally with wine and/or chocolate, but I’d rather get a critique on-line. I prefer to take time to digest the comments, and as they’re in written form I can go back to them later and ask follow-up questions.

      I like to take my time when I’m giving critique too. I do a much better job if I can have 24 or 48 hours to think things over. I definitely learned a lot from giving critique, and as you said, Michaeline, it’s so much easier to solve somebody else’s problems 🙂

  2. I know what you mean about walking away after receiving a tough critique. The first few I received almost made me question whether I had anything worth sharing or not. Then I thought about it for awhile and realised that some of their points were valid, while some were nit-picky and just their opinion. It wasn’t written in stone, and I didn’t have to follow it if I felt it destroyed my work. Since then I’ve joined a couple of on-line sites, Scribophile and Critique Circle, and have found them to be positive and constructive, much nicer. 🙂

    • Sometimes when you get a bad critique, it feels like a personal attack—either against you, or against the kind of book you write. But, as you say, if you choose critique partners and beta readers who have your best interests at heart and who understand and appreciate your genre, even tough critiques are constructive. The opinion or advice doesn’t have to be followed, but it’s always good to know what tripped somebody up—and then you can assess if that issue can be clarified your own way. I can’t imagine writing anything without my critique partners, and they’ve offered me invaluable criticism and support over the years. Plus, it’s always fun to talk about books, especially your own!

      • Exactly as you say, Kay, tough critiques given in the right way by the right person are invaluable. I got a friend from McD to read the short story I was planning to submit for Stories for Homes. She told me that I’d got the ending wrong and she told me why. I wasn’t happy but damn, she was right. Took me two days to figure out an answer to points she raised. Then I re-wrote the end, ran it by her again, and was so happy when she just wrote back ‘You nailed it.’ The story is much, much stronger than it would have been without that feedback.

    • Tough critiques are a good thing if they’re constructive and come from somebody you respect. If the critiquer is showing off, or making themselves feel good at your expense, or is simply not your reader, then you’re better off without them 🙂
      I’m glad you found a positive environment in which to share critiques. I’ll have to check out Scribophile and Critique Circle.

    • I think most of us here have had a similar experience. I remember several discussions at McD concerning bad feedback experiences that almost resulted in one less writer in the world (several of us quit writing for a time).

      My take away from these kinds of stories (and I experienced this as well with my very first reader) is choose your critique partners carefully, listen to feedback but remember you’re the boss, and don’t ever let anyone silence your voice.

      That’s worked for me.

  3. Susan Elizabeth Phillips talked about this at the RWA National Conference. She said she gets the feedback, apparently over the phone, because she listens to it, makes affirming yet noncommittal noises, then walks away for a day or two before actually dissecting and using the feedback. She said her knee-jerk response is some form of “$^@%# no! That’s my story and there is nothing wrong with it.” But after she walks away and comes back, she can be more open-minded about the feedback. I was in a critique group a few years ago and one of the members refused to accept any feedback we gave her which made the effort of critiquing her work seem pointless.

    • I went to SEP’s talk about character at RWA and really enjoyed it – she’s so smart. A lot of work goes in to a good critique, so even if the feedback is unpalatable it’s good manners to thank your reader for making the effort. And usually the comments that elicit the knee-jerk response are the ones that hit a sore spot, which means they’re well worth thinking about.

    • I heard SEP speak about that, too and it made a huge impact on me, but damned if I didn’t completely forget all her great advice when I got my first negative comment. It’s a universal writing experience and may be the horseback riding equivalent of getting thrown (you’re not considered a true rider until this happens). We just have to get back up on that horse.

  4. This is excellent, Jilly, thank you. I haven’t been distinguishing between critique partners and beta readers but you’re right. Each provides a different type of support and therefore the criteria for selection is different.

    I also found your list of things to fix in your WIP very helpful. No, my list won’t be the same, but I now have ideas on what to look for when trying to identify problems in my WIP (subplots that go nowhere for example or introducing a character in one scene who is never heard from again, as another).

    At this point, I’m fairly sure who I’ll tap as my critique partners. Finding beta readers gets dicer. I have various friends and family chomping at the bit to read my WIP but some of them are clearly not my reader which means I’ll have to be careful how I handle feedback.

    Do you direct your readers/partners as to what you need or do you simply hand them pages and leave them to their own devices?

    • Glad you found the post helpful, Kat. I’m looking forward to yours!

      If I’m worried about something specific then I’ll ask a direct question, like the one I asked here about the role of the hero’s mother in a romance. Otherwise I prefer critique partners to follow the general pattern we learned at McD – essentially, what must be fixed, and what must be kept, or if you really want to spoil me, add who’s the protag/what is his/her goal, who’s the antag and what is his/her goal? I’m not picky though, if I respect the critiquer, I’ll take whatever input I can get. For beta readers, I just want them to let me know what they think about the story, what they liked or didn’t like, where it dragged, what wasn’t credible, anything and everything, whatever crosses their mind as they’re reading.

    • Jilly, this is a fabulous post! It is so important (but sometimes so difficult) to find the right critique partners. The bottom line always has to be to protect the work, whether that means changing some critiquers or learning to avoid others, or setting up rules/parameters to get the feedback you really need.

      Kat, just tread carefully with the family and friends who are chomping at the bit to read your story. The thing I learned the hard way with my first manuscript was that loved ones who are not writers, while they might mean well, sometimes cannot avoid looking for themselves in your work. With my very first ever attempt at fiction (which will never again see the light of day because it is HORRIBLE, but taught me A LOT about writing), someone close to me read it and came back with one comment: “So that’s what you think of my husband.”

      I had to wrack my brain for a few days, then realized one of my characters had the same first name as her husband. To me, they were as different as any two different people in real life with the same name, but to her, it had to be a representation of her husband. I spent a lot of my revision time agonizing over what the character’s new name should be and about whether I’d inadvertently given any other characters the same names as friends/loved ones/their spouses/their children. That’s not the only reason that first effort is still unreadable, but it certainly didn’t help. To quote Jilly quoting Justine, ‘”Oy.”

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