The True Value of Critique Partners
I remember the first time I walked into a meeting of The Valley of the Sun Chapter of Romance Writers of America. I didn’t know anyone, I was out of my comfort zone, and I was scared to death. Most people would be surprised because I am good at faking being tough and brave when those feelings elude me. Paula Eldridge smiled and offered to share her table. I think that moment was when I remembered to breathe. Paula became my first critique partner. Writing organizations will often assist in finding you a group or partner. Three of us began meeting every week. The other members traded out as life got in the way. I have been the one constant member since 2002. I stayed because my desire to get it right grew with each new piece of information I learned. I became a sponge, taking it all in.
So what does a critique group do? They rip up your work. I am not joking. You write a scene or chapter (whatever the group agrees upon) then either read it aloud (not me) or hand out copies to the others. They tell you what they think needs to be changed and, hopefully, what they like so you’ll get a sense of your strengths. After two years and three practice manuscripts, I finally won a contest judged solely by editors and agents. I had proof I was making progress. That was four and half years ago.
This is when my current critique partner, Deborah McTiernan, entered the scene. Deborah is a force of nature. When you first meet her, you think this is one beautiful, sophisticated, confident woman. (She fakes it just a tad bit, too.) She knew her stuff and I was intimidated. At first, I thought we couldn’t be more different. I look like the girl next door - thirty years later. When working or networking, I’m professional and diplomatic, but when I’m in a relaxed atmosphere and I get a grin on my face, you know the little devil in me is about to come out and play. (Not many people get to see this side of me.) I soon learned Deborah had the same little devil in her. We spend hours laughing.
Luckily, I didn’t have anything to turn in when Deborah first joined and I was able to observe how she worked before giving her my query letter. We still laugh about all of the red on the page. The man she was dating at the time took one look at it and said, “I hope you know this woman well.” It looked like she’d opened up a vein over my work. Deborah used to love to rewrite everything, even the endings of published novels. I knew this and learned to work around it. Every time she gives me my chapters back I ask myself, “Why did she change this sentence? What was wrong with it?” Once I identify the problem, I figure out a way to rewrite it myself so I keep my voice. As the years passed, I found less red on the page. Either I got better or she relaxed – or both. (Most partners don’t work this way. This is just our system.)
Although I try to maintain my own voice in my stories, I did keep the rewrites to a sentence she wanted added to Liquid Hypnosis. I always feel compelled to tell friends that she heavily influenced that line. It’s on page 224 and has the word charity in it. My aunts picked up on it right away because it’s shocking and doesn’t sound like me. I left the line in because it showed how evil the character was better than dialogue could have. Deborah often writes mind-bending scenes with demons and witches in them. I find I start getting carried away with my own work after reading hers. At some point during the editing stage I’ll say, “Tina, you’re a teacher, you can’t have this in here.” Then I take my own red pen and mark out all of the really hot stuff. (Too bad.)
The good part of having critique partners is you have other opinions. They can tell you when you aren’t getting your point across, your dialogue is stilted, the order is confusing, your format is off, your grammar needs improvement, you have typos, your characters are flat, your narrative is cliché, etc. Many writers have several critique partners. As members of our group dropped, we decided not to replace them. Deborah and I work well together. I taught her how to put emotion into her thrillers and she taught me how to tighten up my writing. Our strengths and weaknesses are opposite. She’s my writing soul mate. She also became my best friend - the true value of this critique partner. Like most relationships, we had our hurdles to get over. (This is a tough business.) But, we knew we had something special and we hung in there together.
I am very fortunate in the fact that I can name every person who entered or re-entered my life just before a challenging time. These people leant me their strength and a sympathetic ear. They all have a special place in my heart. I am also fortunate in the fact that I can name every good thing that has resulted from those challenging moments. Deborah is a unique friend in the respect that she was sent into my life when it was time to reflect on those moments, learn, grow, and heal. As we became closer, we started sharing information about our personal lives, layer-by-layer. We soon learned we had traveled a similar path. She gave me insight no one else could offer. She says I have done the same for her. (A wealth of information when we write about the human condition.) We both look back on the past and realize this is the happiest time of our adult lives. Even though we are well over the age of 40, I often feel as if we are really two young girls who have pulled each other through a dark cave. Sometimes she led, and sometimes I did. Together we managed to find our way out. As we walk down the path toward the comfort of our homes, the sun is shining on our faces, warming our skin, but blinding us to what the future holds. It doesn’t matter though. We aren’t afraid. We know together we can tackle anything – we already have.