Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Shopping for CPs is like shopping for a bra

A good support system is vital.

Photo courtesy of Arlen Roche.

As a writer, a good support system is as important as having a good bra. The fit has to be right, the lift has to be good and the straps shouldn’t hurt. And for God’s sake, make sure there isn’t any side boob hanging out. Okay, that last one is really just for bras.

In my writing career, I’ve had many mentors, many detractors and many people who’ve asked me for help and guidance. Because I received so very much assistance in the beginning, I feel very strongly I should give back to those just starting out. Though I always preface my critiques with the disclaimer that I’m being honest and hopefully helpful, I try incredibly hard never to be rude.

I’d much rather tell a writer, new or otherwise, that her heroine is showing severe lack of judgment by going downstairs naked, carrying only her vibrator for protection to check out that noise. Some people would simply scoff and say “She’s TSTL (too stupid to live).” That may be the case, but the heroine is only a manifestation of the writer. It’s the writer’s feelings you’re going to be hurting if you tell her something so harsh. And, as we have been told for years on end, show don’t tell. Don’t just tell the author, show her why. I’m not advocating re-writing, either. Just guide.

Finding a good fit for a critique partner or group isn’t always love at first read. It might take a few weeks or months before everyone is comfortable with the various critiquing styles. There are a few rules to keep in mind when selecting your CPs:

1. You hold the power. You’re not indenturing yourself to anyone. Not working for them but with them. If you don’t like the situation, leave. Even if the beginning is great and it disintegrates later, the choice is still yours. Gracefully exit the situation. Don’t burn bridges. Writing is a small community and word gets around.

2. Piggy-backing on that is: Be compatible in real life, not just on the page. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people. Dinners, meetings, social and professional gatherings. If they pick their nose in public or loudly put down every person who walks by and these things make you cringe, walk away.

3. Be respectful, but honest. If your CP writes a scene that involves ten pages of describing nail polish, you must let her know it’s not going to work. Don’t put a finger in your throat and pretend to gag because it’s so vomit-worthy, but couch your critique in terms of professional assessment. “You only have a reader’s attention for a few minutes. Spending this long on such a minor detail gives them a place to put the book down.” Now, if that nail polish is crucial to the storyline, then by all means, wax on. Just don’t do it for ten pages.

4. Listen with an open mind. Don’t be defensive or argumentative when receiving critiques. Every single CP has a different point of view than yours and will “see” things differently than you do. It’s their job to point out the things that hang them up. It’s your job to listen and absorb. You don’t have to change the story element if you don’t want to, but you must listen. I’ve seen (and yes, done) this many times, myself. And I always get caught by saying something along the lines of “but I know what I mean.” Well, great. I know, but my reader (CP) doesn’t have a clue in hell what I’m trying to say because obviously I didn’t say it well enough.

5. The internet is forever. Really, need I say more? I do? Oh, okay. So, remember when you were a kid and your parents told you if you couldn’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all? The interwebs is the same thing. If you get into a spat with someone, whether it’s a reader (don’t!), an editor (God, no!), a reviewer (we ALL remember what happened there) or a CP (cue doom and gloom music here), keep the flames off the internet. No group is private, despite the rules. You write one email to the loop you think is private and the next thing you know, it’s gone viral and you’re in a shitload of trouble, dealing with hurt feelings and anger from someone who trusted you and vice versa. Or you post a snide comment on their Facebook page. Or you tweet that so-and-so is a dumbass because they didn’t like your nail polish scene. Guess what? It’s irrevocable. It’s forever. In the words of Stephen of Ireland, “You’re fooked.”

6. Don’t overload yourself. Most writers I know are ridiculous multi-taskers. A lot work at full time Evil Day Jobs, write on the side, take care of the kids, spouse and house, take care of themselves, volunteer countless hours for their writing organizations and just generally run themselves more ragged than a pair of cut-off jeans. Don’t let this happen to you in relation to critique partners. Too many chefs spoil the broth and too many opinions muddle your story. Oddly enough, having too many partners can also cause dissonance in the group and fracture it with CPs taking sides over a particular critique. How many opinions do you need? Only you as a writer can answer that. I’ve been in groups as large as seven and as small as two. Both, and those in between, have worked fine. Only when I added online groups to the mix did things get crazy.

7. The writing mix is important. If your entire group writes historicals, you’re missing out on the modern perspective and vice-versa. If you all write paranormals featuring shapeshifters and vampires, again, you’re critique awareness can become very one note. Variety is the spice of life, so they say, and it’s true in a CP, too. Just try to remember to complement each other while your complimenting each other.

8. Bring work. This might sound like an “are you kidding me? Duh!” kind of thing, but really, showing up to each session with new material is vital to the longevity of the group.  If only one or two members consistently brings a fresh read, you run the risk of frustration and concerns about commitment to both the industry and the group. Make a pact, a rule, a goal, whatever, just make sure all members are on-board and willing to actively participate. Not having anything once in a while is perfectly fine, just don’t let it become a routine. If it does, time to re-evaluate.

9. Location, location, location. Find someplace that is both comfortable and equidistant convenient for all members. With gas prices sky high these days, be mindful of travel distance and times. More and more, I’ve heard in-person groups changing up procedures to alternate meetings with electronically submitted materials.

10. Keep abreast of industry information. All members should pitch in with tidbits about the industry, whether it’s something practical like a plotting exercise they’ve just heard of or changes going on in the publishing world. The wealth of knowledge between members should be coming from all sides, not just one or two. This could also be called pull your own weight. Don’t be a laggard and just milk what you can from everyone else. Actively participate. Not only information but in the social realm as well such as on all the social media sites, blogging, interviews, etc.

In short, finding a critique group or partner is not the easiest thing in the world to do. If I had to sum it up, I’d say this:
Don’t be a bitch.
Don’t be a doormat.
Don’t be disrespectful.

Wishing you naughty thoughts and naughty reading,