When I was a kid, the community pool was within walking distance of our house. The only problem was, it was on the other side of a fairly busy street. You know what my mom’s solution to this little problem was?
Take your sister, she said. There’s safety in numbers.
Fast-forward seventeen years to the day I spent in a fancy bridal salon, trying on every fluffy confection imaginable while on my quest for The Dress. Did I go alone? You bet not!
I took my bridesmaids. There’s safety in numbers.
More fast-forwarding (but I won’t say how much) to the day I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a published romance author. I outlined and researched, I toiled and I typed, I labored over a manuscript the way most people labor over a set of nine-pound twins. Was I crazy enough to do this alone?
Heck, no. I have critique partners. All together now— there’s safety in numbers.
Finding the right CP (or CPs) is a bit like choosing a best friend, a drill sergeant and a psychiatrist all rolled into one. You have to mesh on a bunch of different levels in order for the relationship to work. Let’s be honest, asking another writer what she thinks of your manuscript is akin to asking your significant other if your butt looks big in those pants. You might get an answer you don’t want. The trick with a good CP is that she knows how to sing the praises of the good news *and* break the bad news to you in a way that makes you want to be a better writer (and not pick up the Ben and Jerry’s).
So how to find that special someone who will encourage you to make your rough work better (and your better work the best)? For starters, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Chat up fellow writers at local chapter meetings, or do some online searches for local chapter critique groups (many RWA local chapters have these). Remember, you don’t necessarily have to write the same sub-genre for your partnership to be successful— of the three members in my group, one of us writes historicals, another humorous women’s fiction, and then there’s me (writing single-title contemporary). The key isn’t to find someone just like you, it’s to find someone with whom you click, someone who you can share ideas with and get honest, useful feedback.
Once you find a potential candidate, how do you know things will work? Well, the short answer is that, until you try, you really don’t. Starting slow to get used to each other’s styles is usually a good idea. It’s hard to effectively critique someone’s work when you’re still getting to know her writing, and it’s equally hard to really hear someone’s advice when you’re getting used to her as a CP. Trade a chapter at a time to start, and then move into whatever works best for you. I’d like to add here that working out your basic expectations from the start is a good idea. If you’re looking for intense, in-depth critiques, then your best partner probably isn’t going to be someone whose schedule won’t allow for that. Likewise, if you’re just interested in getting some small ideas or swapping general feedback, you’re probably not going to click with someone who wants pages of analysis. Just like any other relationship, effective communication is the key to making a good critique partnership work, so don’t be shy about your expectations upfront.
I’ll confess that I lucked into my critique group mostly by incredible fortune (for those of you who glossed over the part where I wrote about chatting people up, take note! I randomly struck up a conversation with one of my CPs at Nationals in 2010, and I’m not kidding when I say that now, I could not write without her or my other two CPs). Writing can be an extremely isolated endeavor, and sometimes we’re so close to our work that we can’t see the forest for the trees. There have been more times than I can count where something elusive has bothered me (read: driven me utterly batty) about a manuscript, and inevitably, one (or all!) of my CPs will be able to nail the problem instantly. They’re my literary sisterhood, doing everything from helping me sort out train-wreckish outlines to squealing with glee at agent offers and contest wins. After all, through the good and the bad, there’s safety in numbers.
What about you? Who pushes you to write? Do you have a formal arrangement? How did you find that person? How has your relationship changed over time?
Kimberly Kincaid wears many hats, including those of yoga instructor, rabid foodie, total book junkie and happily frazzled wife and mom of three girls. She writes single-title contemporary romance novels that split the difference between sexy and sweet. Kimberly lives in northern Virginia, where she is currently working on a multi-book series of foodie romances set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Find her on the web atwww.kimberlykincaid.com, Facebook at www.facebook.com/kimberly.kincaid1 and Twitter @KimberlyKincaid