An essential part of the writer life is the critique partner relationship. What is a critique partner, you might ask? It is generally a trusted friend, usually a fellow writer, who you swap projects with, read each other’s work, and give feedback on how to make it even more awesome.
Recently, my beloved CP Anna-Marie McLemore (whose novel, The Weight of Feathers, is stunning) and I did a joint interview for the Fall Fifteeners on the ins and out of a critique partner or CP relationship (you can read the original interview here!). Except we’re novelists, so we got a little long winded and had to cut a lot of the brilliant things we said. Because everything we say is brilliant.
So here is the deleted scenes from our conversation, some additional thoughts on how to be the best CP possible. Anna-Marie’s answers appear in pink, mine are in green. Sorry our favorite colors clash so badly.
On how to find your CPs:
AM: How I connected with my CPs is a mix of in-person and online. Mackenzi, you’re a great example of meeting a CP online, because I first got acquainted with your work through The Writer’s Voice Contest, and then we started talking over Twitter. I read your entry and immediately thought, “I want to read that!”How did you connect with your CPs, Mackenzi? And do they all read your work at the same time, or do you stagger?
M: I remember being very glad you reached out to me, because I read your entry and had the same ZOMG I WANT THIS reaction to your book, but I was still very new to the writing community and too shy to reach out. Plus you just seemed too cool for me. Which I still sometimes think you are.
AM: I couldn’t possibly be too cool for you! You have a mechanical arm and an endless supply of obscure facts about historical figures! Okay, I’m done interrupting…
M: I am lucky to have done a great MFA program and found some writers through that who I’m now in a writing group with. We meet every two weeks, talk about writing and life, and read and critique each other’s stuff. It’s a much more casual relationship, because we have the MFA background together and have been friends in addition to critique partners. Giving feedback is very different when you’re sitting across a plate of French toast from someone than it is over the internet. I love my writing group in person because they are highly brainstormy, and I love being able to talk out problems with them. They are the people I go to when I get stuck.
On what to look for in a CP:
AM: Mostly I first connect with CPs because I adore their work. Their stories are brave, unexpected, and intensely memorable. If I admire a writer as much as I do my CPs, I know there’s a good chance they can help me make whatever I’m working on so much better. With you, Mackenzi, I was struck by how efficiently and vividly you depict time and place, and this became the first of many things I’d come to admire in your work.
Connecting with CPs this way also means there’s a good chance I can be helpful to them. When I critique, I start with what I like about a story—what’s strongest, what’s working, at least for me. It’s not because I’m trying to be nice, it’s just how I work. And if what I’m saying resonates with the author, I try to help them figure out what’s getting in the way of the things that are strongest and most engaging.
That’s not to say that you can’t critique a piece you don’t love. Far from it. Even with stories I don’t quite connect with, that’s usually where I start—what’s working. And this is why it’s helpful to have multiple points of view. Maybe the plot thread that stuck out to me as out of place is the thing everyone else goes wild for. Maybe the scene I loved isn’t serving the story as well as it could. Different POVs are invaluable.
On how to be a good CP:
M: The first thing I’d say on this subject is if you’re entering into a CP relationship, be sure you’re willing to take feedback. We’ve all had that CP or writing group member or MFA student who argues with every piece of feedback they’re given and doesn’t really seem to want anyone to tell them anything except how good their story is. Don’t be this person. But also recognize that not every piece of feedback you’re going to get is going to be right for your story. I’ve also had CPs who took every piece of advice I gave them and applied it and it always made me uncomfortable, because it’s their story. They should be making changes that serve their story. A CP relationship is a mix of being open to hearing what other people have to say about your writing, and going with your gut.
On how to know if a CP relationship isn’t working:
AM: You may not know exactly what you want to do right away, but CP comments should give you a sense of looking at the story with new eyes. If feedback from any one CP repeatedly makes you feel drained it’s probably destructive, and it’s probably not working. The biggest red flag in a CP relationship is if you don’t feel safe. If you don’t feel safe giving them your work, or if you don’t feel safe being honest about how you’re reading their work, then something’s wrong. Whether you both want to work through it or whether it’s best to part ways of course depends on the situation.
On how to end a CP relationship:
M: When I was first starting out, writing was such a solitary practice for me. I wrote things, I read things, I revised things. Then as soon as I started showing it to other people and getting feedback, I thought, “WHY HAVEN’T I BEEN DOING THIS FOREVER?!” Other people could help me identify and solve the problems!? SIGN ME UP. Showing other people my writing and having them help me make it better had literally never occurred to me. So I went sort of crazy and was suddenly wanted to show my work to everyone and solicit their help.
Which, as you can imagine, backfired. I ended up showing my work to a lot of people who just weren’t the right people for me to be showing it to. For a lot of reasons. It wasn’t that I thought my work was perfect and they were giving me feedback and I didn’t like that. It was just that something felt intangibly off to the way they reacted to my manuscript. And it was mutual–I didn’t love their stuff either. Reading it didn’t get me excited. I didn’t want to help them make it better. I just felt meh. And as a result, we weren’t giving each other good feedback. The things I was getting from them didn’t’ feel like it was helping me make my book better, it felt like them trying to rewrite the novel the way they would if it were their novel.
Some of these relationships naturally petered into nothing–we just stopped sending each other stuff. Some of them ended with mutual “I don’t think this is working.” One ended with a writer straight up telling me she thought my stuff was no good.
And so then I went back to not showing anyone my writing ever.
I think it’s important to be honest but kind when a CP relationship isn’t working. I have a friend who I was once CPs with, but turns out in spite of being friends, we’re not good critique partners. We were honest with each other about how it just wasn’t working, returned to friendship with no hard feelings, and still support each other any way we can.
For me, writing and being a critique partner and in a writing group has been a long process of learning who is worth listening to. Which sounds mean and haughty, but hear me out. Some people are going to *get* your writing–they’re going to understand what you’re trying to do and help you do it better. Those are the people you should be listening to and soliciting feedback from and listening to opinions from. Like you said, you want to be taking feedback from people who make you feel excited about the pile of flaming garbage that revision often is.
That was a long story.
On how to deal with professional jealousy:
AM: In terms of professional jealousy, what I’ve more often felt with CPs was intimidation, a sense of, “they’re so incredible, what right do I have to critique their writing at all?” It’s not quite the same thing, but it can be just as lethal to a CP relationship. Early on, I was so in awe of the writers I was exchanging work with that I held back on suggestions because I felt presumptuous. But it wouldn’t have been presumptuous — suggestions were exactly what they wanted, and what they were asking of me! It took a little while for me to understand that they were just normal people, and that their books did not spring from their brains fully formed and ready for copy-editing. Just like me, they needed other writers to make it happen.
The professional jealousy can be hard but it’s also a natural thing. If you’re crippled by jealousy or can’t be a good CP because of it, that might be a sign the relationship isn’t working out or has other deeper problems. Because if you really care about someone and their work, you’ll be happy for them. You can still be a little jealous. But you’ll be happy. I remember when you signed your book deal, Anna-Marie, it never occurred to me to be jealous. In spite of the fact that I had been on sub for a year and was in the throes of “everyone has a book deal but me” despair. So maybe if you can’t handle good things happening to your CP but not you, maybe you should find a new CP.