Tag Archives: friends.

in which Mackenzi and Anna-Marie talk about being critique partners

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. 

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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.

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in which dead authors meet

My friends tolerate me.

That’s really the best way to explain it.

I’m sure they must find at least a few redeeming qualities in me because they’ve stuck around this long, but if you hang out with me long enough, you will start to realize that I am that person who will interrupt a totally lovely and normal conversation with an out-of-the-blue phrase like, “Guys, we should take mushing lessons1!” And then they all sort of pat me on the head and say, “Yes, Mackenzi, that’s a great idea,” and then go back to their totally lovely and normal conversation.

So when I sent out an email a few weeks ago telling everyone that another friend and I were having a joint birthday party and I wanted them all to show up to my apartment dressed as a dead author so we could have a literary salon, I expected them all to say, “Bless your heart,” then show up with the food but not costumes, and definitely not be on board for the whole literary salon thing.

So imagine my surprise when a parade of my lovely friends arrived at my house dressed as dead authors and were totally game to play along with my weirdness. I was very pleased by this. I was even more pleased when David Foster Wallace and JK Rowling2  discovered they went to the same elementary school3.

Lately I’ve been feeling like everyone is leaving me and I’ve been sort of glum about this. Most of my friends stem from my MFA program and since most of us have graduated, people have begun to disperse across the country to start their respective lives post Simmons. But having a night of hanging out with people who both tolerate my crazy and embrace it because they apparently sort of like me made me sad and happy all over again. I’m so glad to have had a group of people in my life who will show up to my house dressed like Jane Austen and Edward Gorey just to humor me, even if they inevitably abandon me for their respective lives. I will try not to hold that against them.

  1. This is a real thing. I am still on a campaign to get someone to take mushing lessons with me so I can fulfill a lifelong dream of being a musher in a dog sled race.
  2. Who is not dead, but we made an exception because my friend’s boyfriend looked so smashing in Marx’s wizard robes.
  3. Where they did a lot of flu powder
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in which a friend visits

When you move around a lot, there are lots of people who come into your life, and then when you leave, they sort of drift out of your life without much consequence. Being apart is too hard, or too far, or you change and become too different to like each other as much in the present moment as you did in the past.

And then there are the people that stick with you. That no matter how far apart you are, it never gets too hard.

For me, this person is 14.

14 and I met in seventh grade health class1. The random seating chart set off a chain of events that shaped a good portion of my life. We were friends all through middle school. Took the same classes in high school2. We did theater things together. We went to our first school dance in the same group. We were roommates in college, tested out papers and outfits and flirty texts before we sent them to our crushes on each other.

And then I went to Chicago. Then Boston. And then 14 went to Norway. Then back to Salt Lake. And after spending almost every day together for years and years and years, suddenly we were far apart.

But with 14, the distance didn’t matter so much like it did with other friends. Sure, it sucked to have to synch our time zones for a phone call or to not be able to invite her to do crazy stuff with me. And yes, I missed her, but I never felt like we lost anything because we were far apart.

Last week, 14 came to visit me in Boston. As my mom pointed out, it was the first time the two of us have been around each other for an extended period of time since we graduated from college. There was lots of potential for things to go wrong. What if in our time apart we had both grown into different people that weren’t compatible anymore and we didn’t realize that until she was off the plane?

But it just felt like picking up right where we left off. Like nothing had changed3.

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14 and I are really different, but that’s never really mattered. Being friends with her has always been so easy. And that’s how friendship should be.

Here’s wishing you all a friend like 14.

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  1. 14 is the only good thing I got out of seventh grade health class.
  2. And often sat by each other often because we both have end of the alphabet last names
  3. Except we were exploring Boston instead of Salt Lake, and Boston is awesome. Though we could have done without the freezing rain that plagued the city all week. However, we still did some really awesome things. Like getting enlisted in the War of 1812 Navy. Here we are on board in our bunks:

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in which I celebrate valentine’s day

For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in the same place. Same city. Same neighborhood. Same house. The biggest move I made was from my upstairs bedroom to the downstairs one.

But then I moved away to college, and never really stopped moving. In the last five years, I’ve moved five times. Salt Lake to Logan, Logan to England, England back to Logan, Logan to Chicago, Chicago to Boston. So I’ve lived in some great places, and had some great times, and met some amazing people.

But when you move that much, you don’t have enough time to really make friends. You find people you have things in common with, have some wild adventures with them, but then you leave and fall out of touch, only occasionally communicating on Facebook. I have friends from childhood I still talk to pretty consistently, the friends of the life-long variety, but even that’s different when you only have texting and emails.

This is not necessarily a bad way to live. I met some really amazing people and had some great times, but it also taught me to be self-sufficient—I learned to function independently, go to things on my own, and be my own emotional crutch when things went south.

These last two years in Boston have been the longest I’ve stayed anywhere in a while. And I’m starting to feel like I actually live here instead of just passing through. I know the subway system. I’m no long alarmed when traffic seems to be coming from twelve directions at once. I have heard the phrase “wicked hard” used ironically. I know what people mean when they say Allston Christmas.

And, as I realized the other night, I have friends here.

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Real, great, honest-to-God friends. Friends who I drag on my crazy adventures. Friends who laugh at my references even when they don’t get them. Friends who do more than tolerate me, friends who are friends for more reasons than just shared classes or living in the same place.

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Friends who sit on my bed and eat ice cream with me when I had a crummy day, or talk me down from my anxiety, or encourage my weirdness, or don’t make fun of me when I really let my fangirl show. Friends who pick me up from the airport. Friends who listen to me. Friends who like me.

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So this year, on Valentine’s Day, I’m celebrating my friends, who I love and adore and am so thankful to have in my life. Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone—here’s celebrating all the weird kinds of love in your life.

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