Peeking Inside a Successful Crit Partnership

Today I'm bringing you another person I had the pleasure of meeting at RWA Nationals--Jami Gold. She and her crit partner Murphy (who you met last week) have a great relationship and really are like a comedy team when you talk to the two of them together. So I thought it'd be fun to see how two people who seem like complete opposites have developed such a terrific critique partnership. Take it away Jami...

A Peek Inside a Successful Critique Partnership

Thanks, Roni, for inviting me here!  As Roni mentioned in last Thursday’s post, we first met at the RWA Conference when my critique partner, Murphy, and I shared dinner with her.  I’m sure we made quite the impression, as we’re a bit like Mutt & Jeff.  I’m dark-haired and tall, while Murphy is blonde and…not so much.  We’re opposites in many ways.  Just look at our websites, could they be any more different?

Despite our differences, we have a great critique partnership -- and friendship.  Like other relationships, sometimes the differences will make you stronger, especially if you have the important stuff in common.  So many people have been impressed by our partnership that I thought it’d be fun to explore what makes it work.

Murphy, I know you’re just dying to tell the world what makes me so awesome, so we’ll start off with that question first.  What’s your favorite thing about working with me?

Murphy:  You mean, besides how good you are at planning?  Prime example?  This post.  Yup, don’t think I didn’t notice what you did here. Sheesh!  Cleverly manipulating the situation so it turns your post into an interactive extravaganza where I’m doing half the work!  Kidding -- well, not really.  *grumble*

My favorite THINGS, because there are more than one.  The truth?  You’re freakishly smart, honest, loyal, and you have a genuine desire to help me be a better writer…which is a good thing, because one of us has to be paying attention, right? :)

Yeah, I wasn’t going to bring up your outright refusal to learn how to use commas, but since you did…  *innocent whistle* 

No, I think you hit the nail on the head.  The number one thing that makes us successful is that we’re both truly pulling for each other.  We could be the type of critique partners who give feedback and leave it at that.  But we both have (and here’s one of those important things we have in common) the same drive and determination to make it in this industry.  Accordingly, we respect each other for that -- and we push each other to reach that goal.

And this brings me to my second question:  Murphy, how would you compare our style of editing?

Excellent question. *insert me rubbing my hands together with an evil laugh here*

I have a graduated scale I use.  It’s all very technical, mathematically calculated and vertically calibrated, but I’ll share it with you, even though I haven’t patented it yet.  Should I say patent pending here or something? 

No?  Okay, my comments on your work are brief and relative to the size of the edit.  The list stacks up like this:

Nope. -- That’s for something that just doesn’t sound right.
Um, no. -- That’s for something that isn’t right.
Hell, no. -- That’s something that’s a combination of the above two.
HELL NO! -- Is for something I wouldn’t even have the nerve to put on paper, and reading whatever-it-was made me do a double take.
WTF? -- Is for those special times when Jami has done a hack ‘n’ slash and neglected to get all of the paragraph deleted.  Trust me, there’s been some classic WTF’s.

So, that’s my scale and when there are two or more of these comments in a paragraph?  It’s example time.

Oh, yes, the classic example time.  These are where I usually think, “But I’d never write anything like that,” before tilting my head and reading the example cross-eyed to see if that helps.  Eventually, I figure out some nugget of useful information to incorporate into my work.  Moral of the story:  Even if you sometimes don’t agree with the suggested changes, see if you can figure out why the section felt “off” to the feedback reader and fix it.

Hello?  I think I was talking.

Er, what?  Oh, sorry, please continue…

Your approach?  It’s more subtle.  Yes, that thick red line that goes clear across my cleverly constructed monstrosities doesn’t have a break, a tremor, or a hesitant point anywhere.  Hmm…almost like you’re enjoying what you do.  And you punctuate those FREQUENT strikes with…  Oh, let’s see?  PPP, fragment, or my best buddy ever, dangling modifier.  You do put a smiley face next to them, to ease the burn, I suppose, but I usually just stick my tongue at him and start looking for the vodka. 

Hey, once you gave me a gold star.  It’s true.  And right next to that, you said:  “Good for you, Murphy, you managed to get two PPP’s and a dangling modifier into that short paragraph.  Now, that’s talent!”  I thought so, but after I reread the sucker, I was amazed you didn’t find a partridge in a pear tree in there somewhere -- geez, it had everything else.  :)

Yes, it’s true.  I do enjoy killing words.  Bwhahahaha!  *ahem*  But really, can you blame me?  When one of your sentences has 7 -- count them: 7 -- adjectives and adverbs, I wouldn’t be a good critique partner unless I made you pick 2 and get rid of the rest.  What I haven’t told you is that I’m slowly weaning you down to just one modifier…  Per.  Page.  *evil grin*

I hope you’re all taking notes here.  Do you see any sugar-coating?  Nope.  And that’s another reason we’re successful.  We both know that no matter how soul-rippingly brutal our critiques get, we’re doing it because we want the other one to succeed.  It’s like ‘tough love’.  The “HELL NO!” or sea of red marks might sting for a minute or two (or more), but we know the other person just wants what’s best for us.  That trust helps us take the criticism, to be sure, but it also helps us give honest feedback in return, because we know that if we gloss over problems, we’ll hurt the other one more in the long run by not pushing them improve.

And that brings me to the next question, which is about how to make sure you’re both getting something out of a partnership.  The differences between us ensure that we’re not critiquing in an echo chamber.  Our disparate approaches to wordsmithing, grammar, character development, pacing, plotting vs. pantsing, etc., all mean that we have real value to offer to the other one.  So, Murphy, what do you think is the key for us balancing each other’s needs?

WELL, since you asked, I’d say it was a freaking stroke of luck that we found each other.  I mean, where else could I have found a person who, like myself, wants things done well AND wants them done yesterday!  All kidding aside, I respect your work ethic and your drive.

Again, we’re a good mix.  We don’t over-think anything together, because when we swap thoughts, it’s interesting and inspiring precisely because we think differently.  I love that best of all.  I mean, how boring would it be if I agreed with everything you wrote and vice-versa?  Ick! We’d never grow.  And I’m growing, baby!  And so are you!  What’s my favorite saying?  You learn more from your weaknesses that your strengths.  Hey, it’s true…unless one of them happens to be comma placement.  I’m serious.  Who got to decide where those little critters go?  I want their number.  I’m making crank calls. :)

Hey, don’t blame me.  I’m just the messenger.  I’ve already resigned myself to fixing your commas for the rest of eternity.  But those fluffy modifiers of yours?  And those abundant verbs?

What?  You don’t like my spiffy, spectacular and sparkling prose that leaps off the page at you?  Especially when I top it all off with some clever, yet subtle, alliteration?

Yeah, those?  Those I’m working on.

So there you have it, folks: a peek inside one of the most brutal, yet loving, critique partnerships.  But know that we weren’t like this from the get-go.  Nope, just like every other relationship, we had to find what worked for us.

If you’re searching for a critique partner(s), keep in mind these things:

  • ·         Similar drive, determination, and work ethic;
  • ·         Similar comfort level with giving/receiving criticism;
  • ·         Dissimilar strengths and weaknesses (so you each have something different to offer);
  • ·         Straightforward communication for time commitments and limitations (set expectations for what you do and don’t have time to do);
  • ·         And finally, it’s a nice bonus to have the potential for mutual respect, honesty, and trust down the road -- as these all help with that willingness to give and receive the brutal criticism that will push you to the next level in your writing.

With the right critique partner, you can find someone who will not only help you with your writing, but who will also become one of your biggest cheerleaders.  And on those beyond-hard days, it’s nice to have someone willing to talk you down from the ledge.

What kind of critique partner/group do you have?  If you don’t have a partnership like this, which ingredients are you missing?  Does this post give you some ideas about how to get your partnership to that level?  If you do have a great partnership, what are the keys to your success?

Jami (with many thanks to Murphy!)

**Also, as a sidenote, my former crit group is looking to fill my spot. Details over at Lynnette Labelle's blog.

**Today's Theme Song**
"You've Got a Friend In Me" - Randy Newman
(player in sidebar, take a listen)