Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It Takes a Village to Write a Book

I'll admit it. I never understood the reason to have a crit-partner, thinking that a story only needs one author. Right? Wrong. Call me St. Paul, but I have seen the light. I've felt the conversion from "know-it-all" to "don't-know-all-but-learning."

In theory, I'm a great writer, theory meaning it's what I tell myself in order to keep the inner critic's mouth shut. Besides, if I don't believe in myself, who will? But, the fact remains that without the helpful eyes of others, my work goes untested. It's just so-so, and other than friends and relatives telling me they "love" my writing, they're friends and relatives. Either they haven't written anything, or they want to say what they think I want to hear.

I don't want to hear accolades. I want the truth. And the only way I'll get the truth is from someone who knows what it takes to make my work better. Thus, an extra set of eyes necessary, keen ones that tell it like it is, even if it makes me cry.

I didn't cry. In fact, I wanted to book a flight to Raleigh just so I could hug and hug her. After sending her a chapter from my Epic In Progress, Marcia Colette said, "Oh honey, there's nothing happening in this chapter," or something like that.

Exactly what I needed to hear. Not only did she slap me up the side of my head, but she then beat me down to a pulp pointing out other errors of my ways.

That's what friends do. They care enough to let you have it, fearless of the outcome. And I'm finding that it takes more than moi to write a great book. Mind you, others have read my work. There was all those contest entries where I received good/bad/use-what-you-can-can-what-you-can't feedback. And let's not forget the agent rejection via a phone call, praising my voice, hating the main character. Those all helped me develop a thick-skin, however, Marcia backed up her claims with specific advice, ideas and details.

She pointed out why the main character wasn't cutting it and advice on how to improve him, that the back-story dumping should be removed but saved somewhere in order to use bits of it later, and finally, to make the prologue the first chapter (I wanted to dump it - but she convinced me otherwise).

Epiphany is a great thing. I still believe in myself, but I now realize that it takes more than that to arrive at greatness. I find that it's essential to put aside all the stubbornness, ego, and other rot that doesn't get the story into the hands of a savvy agent. It's time to wake up and accept the fact that in order to survive in this business, you gotta have friends who aren't afraid to be honest - friends caring enough to set you on the right path to success.

Maybe in my pre-epiphany phase I feared hearing the truth. Perhaps somewhere deep down I believed I could do this all by myself. Wrong again, and I've never been happier to admit that. Marcia knows me well and maybe that's key. And it's not that we're "crit-partners," it's that we've developed a bond over the years that breathes instinctual, no-holds-barred trust.

I believe all writers like to see others succeed. Maybe that's naive on my part, but in the circle of friends I've made since embarking on the road to publication, we all have each others backs. For instance, take my friend Edie Ramer, who once again has made it through to another round of The Romantic Times' American Title V contest. A few years back I needed help with a great agent hook. No one hooks like Edie. I sent her what I had; she sent back her suggestions, and I'll be damned, it was so brilliant that those I tested it on said, "Now that's a story I want to hear more about," or something like that. Suffice it to say, it kicked some serious buttocks, and that hook's going into my query, once I get that particular manuscript ready for the ride.

See? Writers want other writers to succeed. I want Edie to succeed like I'm the one in the American Title V contest. Since I'm not, myself and all my alter-egos have voted for Edie at You can read her entry here, and then cast your vote, putting "DEAD PEOPLE" in the subject line of your email.

Returning from that segue, I'll conclude with this thought: That the greatest writers didn't get to where they are today on ego. I believe it was with a little help from their friends that got them there. It has to be the case, otherwise there wouldn't be all those lengthy acknowledgments at the end of most books, right? Perhaps the day will come that I won't need the extra help, but I can't imagine not wanting it.

So what say you, my fellow writing aficionados? Crit-groups, crit-partners, beta-readers, or go it all by your lonesome?

Don't forget to vote for my friend Edie.


Erica Orloff said...

Well, I've been in the same crit group (members have come and gone) for 15 years. I swear by my crit group . . . three are repped, one is "thisclose" to a big deal. I've sold 20 books or so. I really believe in them.

I look at it this way . . . ever go to a class and the professor give a lecture that's mildly interesting you but then says this one gem that gives you this major "ah ha." That can only be gotten, often, by being open and hearing others, by learning from other people. In an hour of crit group, I might hear a lot of "this is good, this needs work, this is OK" . . . and I make marks on my paper. And then EVERY week, there will be this moment when someone says something to me that just opens my mind like some writing acid trip. That's through the power of intellgient people connecting.

Kath Calarco said...

Erica, you're living proof that the more you share, the more people care. And I love your professor analogy. It seems at times they're repeating themselves, and it makes me want to nod off, but somewhere my subconscious pays attention, and like you say, you hear the gem and it hits like a shot of of epinephrine.

I don't have a group to sit with live, but who knows, one day it could happen. In the meantime I have Marcia, who IS a shot of epinephrine squared.

spyscribbler said...

I'm mostly a lonesome sort, but I literally beg my pub for thoughts. She only gives them when things really need fixing, but I find it to be such a relief.

I'm quite a people pleaser, though. I will write to please. If I even sense what you like, I will write a novel for you, perfectly to suit.

So, um... self-flagellation helps. But it's constant study, and trying always to see new things, and remember old things I've forgotten. I enjoy the journey, I guess.

Kath Calarco said...

Oh, Spy, would you custom write a book for me? :) That'd be so sweet.

As a writer, I think one of our main goals IS to aim to please...the reader. Those people who will plop down some bucks for a good read, and continue to do so.

Amy Nathan said...

I became overwhelmed in a large critique group - and critique sites didn't work for me either because I never trusted the input.

I have found a few excellent critique partners who complement each other - I critique them in return - but they do not critique one another. I don't even know if they have other CPs or not. I find that they each have strengths that I rely on - they challenge me to challenge and push myself. They write differently than me, so it's never boring.

I've also been SO lucky to get feedback from some authors and writers on small bits of my manuscript - when I just needed an extra push or a pull or calm-the-hell-down.

I was just writing a post on internet friends - and these folks all fit the bill.

Edie said...

Kath, you are an awesome friend! Thanks!

I always wanted CPs. I went through quite a few before I found the two I have. I think the main thing is to find one who doesn't try to change your voice. And one who will be honest, like Marcia.

My CPs are invaluable! Without them my books would be filled with potholes and probably going into a dead end street.

Kath Calarco said...

Amy, it sounds like you have a wonderful group of critters. :) It's almost something you can't put a title to.

As you pointed out, partners in different genres keep things fun, as well as a purer input. That said, there's no risk of voice changing.

Kath Calarco said...

Edie, you're proof of the value of CP's. Look at where it got you, as well as honing your skills to spot the gaffs in others works. Have you ever considered conducting a workshop on critiquing? Maybe jointly with one of your partners - I'd take that class in a heartbeat.

P.S. Greatness attracts greatness, that's why we're friends. ;)

Anonymous said...

Aw, Kath. *sniffle* You're like one of the coolest writers I've ever met. {{{{HUGS}}}}

I'm pretty much a lone gun because I have to have a bond with someone before I'd trust them to give me an honest crit of my work. By honest, I mean tell me what's wrong, why, and what works for them. Otherwise, my inner critic will turn into a demon and send my manuscript into a fiery hell.

My first crit group had people who had a superiority complex where they always thought everyone else's work was inferior. Where are they now, I can't say and don't really care. I know where I am now and it's not that bad at all.

My last crit group (four of us total), was pretty good. Our rule was if something didn't work, then you had to tell the person why. The rules were laid out like that to keep us honest. In a way, if out work was on the line, then so was the other person's opinion. It was a fair trade. Not only that, but we made a point to always find something good to say about a person's work, too. If we couldn't find anything good about it, then we were probably the wrong person to be critiquing it.

It pays to have like-minded people you can trust with your work. Your sanity will thank you for it, too.

lainey bancroft said...

My first group experience was a disaster and I have no desire to hook up with another group. After stumbling along in the dark for a year or so, I found someone I 'clicked' with. She hasn't even written in months but she still wants to crit my stuff.

I can't limp along chapter by chapter. It just doesn't work for me. I'm pretty sure it was a suggestion in King's 'On Writing' to write the 1st draft with the door closed and then open the door for revisions, 'er sumpin' like that. I need to get the body of the story down beginning-middle-end before I ship it off, so my critter gets the whole shebang and we've reached a stage where we're comfortable with each other. She doesn't blow sunshine with little smilies all over and has no problem highlighting entire pages--or chapters--and hitting me with a line of ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ BORING. lol

And I agree, I do think writers really want to see other writers succeed and the support is fantastic!

Kath Calarco said...

Marcia, I'm cool because of the company I keep. ;)

So true! I think it's gotta be essential to have a like-minded partner, but I also think it helps to have differences. But more importantly, it's give and take, and each should be open to the truth and not what they want to hear. If that's the case, they should get their mother to crit. :)

I still would LOVE an in person crit partner. Body language plays a big part, imo. I did it my first semester of Eng. Lit. and it rocked! Maybe this semester I'll find someone from that class who'd be willing to start a "workshopping" group. Other than that, I've got my writing friend who'll assist when they can. (You know who you are)

Kath Calarco said...

Lainey, your crit-partner must work. Look at all those releases you have. And I'm glad your partner doesn't tell you what you want to hear. Talk about spinning your wheels. You may as well stay in the dark cave. The only problem with that is that the book risks staying there too, I think.

Robin said...

It's really hard for me to ask for help. But I have come across two friends/critique partners that have made a world of difference! It's really helpful to get a pair of fresh eyes to read my work because after awhile I feel like I'm not really "reading" my words anymore, I'm just kind of gliding over them. And I do want the brutal truth, otherwise how will I get better? It is hard to hear, you're right, but true friends/CP's know it's not personal.

Kath Calarco said...

You said it, Robin. Fresh eyes are important. Although I have a tendency to forget what I wrote yesterday and pick up stuff missed, I still need someone else to point out the major gaffs.