Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Let's Talk about Critique Partners with Critique Partners Anna-Marie McLemore and Mackenzi Lee

Once arch rivals, now friends....just kidding. Always friends. Once mutual admirers of the other's work from afar, brought together by an unlikely twist of fate, now two people who don't stop texting each other, Anna-Marie McLemore (author of The Weight of Feathers, a book about mermaids) and Mackenzi Lee (author of This Monstrous Thing, a book about cyborgs) discuss their turbulent, complicated, fraught relationship (just kidding. It's always sunshine and rainbows here) as critique partners, and the ins and outs of forming a good critique partner relationship (in their favorite colors. Sorry that they clash so badly).

Example of critique partner communication.
Aspire to this level of inspiration. 
Mackenzi: Hello, Miss Anna-Marie. It’s lovely to see you here. So first off, tell me how you found your critique partners. Including me. Who is clearly your best CP.
Anna-Marie: 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!”
Do all your CPs read your work at the same time, or do you stagger?
M: I always stagger who I send my drafts to, because fresh eyes are important on every version of a book. With every new draft, I want someone to read it who has never read it before so they can give me feedback on that draft, not “it got so much better” sort of feedback based on a previous draft.
What do you look for in a CP? How do you know you want to be critique partners with a person?
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.
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.
M: I want to second this--as a CP it is imperative that you say nice things as well as criticism because it is just as important for a writer to know what is working as what isn’t. I had a friend who used to call this strategy of giving feedback a love sandwich--start with nice things, then do the critique, then end with a nice wrap up thing. I’ve found that as a writer, I’m more responsive to the criticism if it’s squished between good things.

AM: And different POVs are invaluable. 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. But how do you reconcile contradicting views? How do you work with the feedback you get?
M: I always sit on feedback from CPs for a few days before I decide whether or not I’m going to apply it. Space always changes things, and can help you figure out what path is right for you. This is a good thing to do when you get contradicting views. I also have a rule of three, which is that if three people tell me I need to change a certain thing, even if I am totally in love with that thing, it’s a sign it needs to go or at least be adjusted.
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. If you’re entering into a CP relationship, be sure you’re willing to take feedback, but also recognize that not every piece of feedback you’re going to get is going to be right for your story.
So how do you know if it just isn’t working out with a CP? Or how do you know if it really is working? What are red flags in a CP relationship?
AM: If it’s really working with a critique partner, then even a critique letter that says “all these things really aren’t there yet” should leave you feeling energized and hopeful. Yes, good feedback will probably initially make you feel overwhelmed—Mackenzi, I think it’s great what you said about waiting a few days to absorb—but soon after that it should inspire you, or at least lead you to questions you want to ask your CPs.
If feedback from any one CP repeatedly makes you feel drained it’s probably destructive, and it’s probably not working. 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.
Mackenzi, have you ever had to end a CP relationship? Or had a CP relationship get off track but that you both were able to repair?
M: When I was first starting out, I took feedback from everyone. Which 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. Something felt intangibly off to the way they reacted to my manuscript. And it was mutual—reading their stuff 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.We were trying to rewrite each other’s novels as we would write them if they were our novels.
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.
For me, being a critique partner has been a long process of learning who to listen to. Some people are 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.
AM: You mentioned things tapering off when a relationship isn’t working, and in my experience that’s been a common result in less-than-great CP relationships. Often when it’s not working for one person, it’s not working for the other either.
M: I think it’s important to be honest but kind when a CP relationship isn’t working. I have a friend with whom I was once CPs, 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. Be up front about how you feel. CP relationships can be broken off without damaging actual relationships.
AM: How did you get to the point where you felt empowered to give feedback to other writers?
M: Practice. My MFA gave me a lot of practice, but another thing is reading published books and then talking about why I do and don’t like them. Not “I HATED THIS I WANT TO RAGE EAT IT!” but “I didn’t connect with this character because the third person narrative created too much distance and I felt their actions lacked motivation.” Talk about the things you read!

But really, you never feel qualified. That’s the whole game of writing. You never stop feeling like a big stupid fake while everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing.
So probably we should wrap this up and get back to writing the things we’re supposed to be writing. Any closing thoughts on CPs? Writing groups? How awesome I am?
AM: And modest, you mean? ;) But in all seriousness, I’m so grateful for Mackenzi and each of the wonderful writers I get to call my CPs. Finding CPs you really connect with can take time, but it’s totally worth it. However you do it. Online. In-person. Over the phone. It’s not just about exchanging feedback. It’s about having companions in the process of growing as a writer, and navigating the road ahead. Plus, though it’s not strictly necessary, you might end up with some new friends. And finding out I adore someone as much as I adore their work? One of the best moments in writing life.
M: Ditto to all that.

Have more questions about critique partners that we didn't answer? Leave them in comments or ask us on Twitter!

Anna-Marie McLemore writes from her Mexican-American heritage, and her love both for cultures she grew up in and others she’s learned about along the way. Among her favorite things are fall leaves, Irish dancing, and lesser-known fairy tales. Her YA debut is THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS, a magical realism story of traveling shows, girls who can make anyone believe in mermaids, and tightrope-walkers who wear wings.

Mackenzi Lee is reader, writer, bookseller, unapologetic fangirl, and fast talker. She holds an MFA from Simmons College in writing for children and young adults. Her young adult historical fantasy novel, THIS MONSTROUS THING will be published on September 22 by Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. She loves Diet Coke, sweater weather, and Star Wars. On a perfect day, she can be found enjoying all three. She currently calls Boston home. Visit her online at her website, blog, or Twitter.

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