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Friday, August 15, 2008

I get by with a little help from my friends...

If you don't know a writer, you may think of a novelist slaving away in isolation, chained to her desk, going half-insane until she produces her new masterpiece.

Well, yeah. I did get up at 4:30 a.m., I've been working since then, it's now 1:13 p.m., it has just occurred to me that I should take a shower before I pick up my son from school, and I spent only 5 minutes on lunch (raisin bran).

But I don't feel like I'm in isolation. I have writer friends across the country who are doing the same thing and probably haven't bathed today either (speak up, dirty writers!).

It hasn't always been this way. For many years and many unpublished manuscripts I struggled alone until one day I said to myself, "This is not working." (I never claimed to be quick on the uptake, people.) I decided that I would try this "critique partner" thing in which you trade novels with other novelists to make sure your manuscripts are not offensive/squicky/full of bad jokes before you send them off to an editor. I also gave in and tried this "networking" thing in which you make friends with people and help them and they help you in return. Lo and behold, I was published soon after. I would never crawl back in my hole now, because I can't imagine doing this without my peeps. Who knows? I might have been published by now if I were still working in isolation. But I do know for certain the journey wouldn't have been nearly as much fun without them.

I've been thinking about this today because my friend Marley is kindly taking a look at a novel for me as we speak. I've traded novels with MTV Books author Barbara too. My long-time critique partners are Catherine Chant and Victoria Dahl.

Cathy: When I decided I needed some peeps, I posted a want-ad on a critique partner listserve, and Cathy answered. I was immediately taken with Cathy's beautiful, crystal-clear writing. Cathy gets my manuscripts last because she is a stickler. She goes over them with a fine-tooth comb, not only for grammar and clarity, but also for that button missing from the heroine's shirt back in chapter 2 that I completely forgot about by chapter 17. Cathy remembers EVERYTHING, and when editors tell me they appreciate me so much because my manuscripts are always so clean, I just smile and take the compliment and pretend it is not all Cathy's doing.

Vicki: Things were going so well with Cathy that I decided I needed a second critique partner. Vicki was being very funny online somewhere, so I asked if we could trade manuscripts some time. She said no, she didn't need a critique partner. But you see how THAT turned out, and now she relies on me completely. Vicki has vast knowledge of what a writer can and can't do in a manuscript, how far is too far, so I lean heavily on her in the planning stages of a book (ask her, she will gladly tell you).

The problem with both Vicki and Cathy is that they will laugh at anything, so I have never gotten over my initial problem of writing bad jokes.

Then there's my local writers' group, Southern Magic. When I moved from Atlanta back to Birmingham a few years ago, I researched this group on the internet, and I joined them before I had the gas turned on at my house. Recently we were thrilled to be featured in a magazine article called Sex and the Magic City that I'd say is an excellent representation of what we're all about. The article also includes my book covers, a nekked man, and Fabio. Perfect!

Do you write in isolation? (This actually seems to work GREAT for some people.) If not, who are your peeps? I'm always fascinated at these networks, because some you could predict, and sometimes the paired-up novelists write genres that are wildly different.


Barbara Caridad Ferrer said...

One critique partner for the last seven years. Eight. Maybe. But, as you mentioned, there is the occasional exchange of books/MSS just for that fresh eye perspective. Otherwise, though I do like working alone, for the most part. I'm not big on the feeling of too many cooks adding stuff to the soup.

Kelly Parra said...

I have one strong partnership with YA author Tina Ferraro. I think we've been together like 6 years, and we just hit it off from the get-go. We write very different type of stories, hers are contemporary, sweeter with more humor, while mine are a little edgier and now I'm heading into paranormal territory, but it doesn't seem to matter. We balance each other out with our strengths and I value our partnership all the time. :)

Danielle Joseph said...

I really value my relationship with my in-preson critique partners. I have a couple of people that always read my mss. However, I do like to get a fresh set of eyes whenever I can because it keeps you on the ball and stops you from getting lazy with your writing.

Jenny O'Connell said...

I've never had a critique partner. I send my best friend (and co-author on a non-fiction book) a chapter or two for her opinion, but more because she's just smart not because she's a "writer." Just never got into the habit of having someone read my writing before it's done - or even then. Maybe because I'm afraid they'd tell me to start over!

Jan Blazanin said...

I wouldn't trade my writing group for anything. At writing conferences I've heard horror stories about critique partners from hell. But somehow the four of us have managed to strike the perfect balance between constructive criticism and enthusiastic support.