How to Maximize Your Critique Partner Experience

If there’s anything I’m an expert on in the literary world, it’s how to luck into amazing critique partners.

They are encouraging and supportive, and they kick my metaphorical butt when I need it. Like the time my friend Charlie threatened to have a box of live crickets delivered to me if I didn’t meet a specific deadline. They believe in me when I forget how, and they love my words when my brain is too fogged over by doubt to see them properly anymore. I need my critique partners desperately, and I think they need me too.

While I can’t give you my luck, maybe my thoughts about critique partnerships will help you build or strengthen a fantastic partnership of your own.

How to Maximize Your Critique Partner Experience.png

Be Thorough

What do you expect in a critique? And what does your critique partner expect of you? Here are three key aspects of critiquing that might make a good starting point for such a discussion:

  • Technical Editing.
  • Content Editing.
  • Validation.

Some partners are going to specialize in one of these areas. Some spread their skills across two or three. Make sure you know what kind of critiques you’ll be offering each other. If you only give general content feedback with a sprinkle of validation, make that clear. If you’re strictly a copy-editor with an eye out for technical issues, make that clear.

There are few things rougher than pouring loads of time into a critique and getting just a few lines back in return. Your partnership will be stronger if you give as good as you get. And some partnerships may develop even further to the point that you brainstorm together, vent to each other, and become dear friends.

To that end . . .

Be Kind

Take a little extra time to point out what’s working in your critique partner’s pages. Yes, it’s faster to just highlight what needs work, they’re praise is a vital component of any critique. If you have favorite lines in your CP’s work, tell them so! Someone else might be telling them otherwise. Plus? Warm-fuzzy feelings from being told you don’t suck can give you the strength to fix what does need work.

Most writers have a voice in the back of their head, pointing out all their inadequacies. Try to be louder than that voice. Of course, critiques that are only compliments aren’t really critiques at all, are they? A good balance of compliments and constructive criticism will help you build up your critique partner while giving them tools they can use to improve their work.

Be Genuine

Confrontation is hard. Telling your CP to kill their darlings? SO hard. Sometimes it’s easier to pat them on the head, avoid eye contact, and say, “Yeah . . . that’s good. Real good.”

Remember the heading of the previous section? Be Kind? Avoiding the truth isn’t kind when it comes to helping your partner improve.

When you do offer genuine criticism, make sure you give context. Simply saying “I don’t like this” isn’t helpful. Whenever possible, try to give context:

“Her reaction here doesn’t ring true for me because X.”

“The flow of this sentence is awkward. Maybe it would work better if you broke it into two?”

“The backstory in this scene is slowing the pace and I don’t feel like I’m really with your main character anymore.”

“The POV feels too distant here. Try to zoom in so we can get a sense of his emotional reaction.”

Your genuine opinion is far more likely to be helpful if you actually give it.

Be Prompt

I’m not saying you need to work at breakneck speeds and pull off a twenty-four hour turnaround every time. But if you say “I’ll have notes back to you next week” and your partner doesn’t hear from you for two months, that might be a problem.

If you only remember to critique after being reminded several times? That might be a problem.

If your partner has critiqued seventeen chapters for you and you’ve only critiqued two for them? That might be a problem.

I say “might be” because this is something you and your partner need to figure out between you. Communicate. Establish up front what your expectations of each other are.

Maybe your partner has four kids and works a graveyard shift at the local hospital, but their critiques are so amazing you don’t mind if they only do one for every five you do.

Maybe you have seventy kajillion things going on in your life and can only manage to critique a chapter a month for awhile. Or maybe there are times when you can only give general feedback and not line edits, or times when line edits ain’t no thang, because you’re swimming in spare time.

But if you don’t communicate, your partner might feel like they’re hanging off a cliff’s edge, dangling over the revision pit, with no clue if you’re ever going to help pull them up.

It’s okay not to have time sometimes. It’s even okay to get swamped and forget. But if you do? Apologize. Then establish more reasonable expectations of each other. Being human and being prompt are often mutually exclusive. Own up to your humanity, and accept your partner’s humanity*.

Quality critique partnerships aren’t born; they’re created. And creating, as we all know, requires effort.

*To a point, of course. If they’re being a jerk you’re allowed to say goodbye.

Be Grateful

Whether you’re starting a new partnership or enjoying the blissful comfort of an old one, SAY THANK YOU. Not just for the first critique, or the best critique, but ALL critiques. Whether they’re as helpful as you hoped or not. Whether they send you into a tailspin of despair or soaring to new heights where you can see the “possible” of your story better than ever before, express gratitude for the time that went into the critique.

No matter how effectively the time was spent, it was SPENT, and that deserves your thanks. If you constantly struggle to feel enough gratitude to put into words, it might be time to ask yourself whether that particular partnership is worth continuing.

Above all, keep in mind that the ideal critique partnership is worth searching for AND working for. It requires so many leaps of faith. I know. And there’s terror in that. Of course there is. But the best partners, the ones worth keeping? They catch you when you leap.

And you catch them back.

And your stories become more than words on a page. They become worlds you build and visit together. I hope you find that. And I hope you get to be to someone what my critique partners are to me.

It’s one of the best kinds of magic.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

The Lego Effect: Why It’s Okay to Have the Same Ideas

Life is like Lego, and so is writing. We all have our own bin, full of everything we’ve experienced on a sensory, intellectual, and emotional level. Yes, there are probably more levels than that, but I’m trying to be brief here.

Some of the pieces in our tub? They match the pieces in other people’s tubs. Because we’re all people*, and there are certain commonalties to the human experience.

*If you’re not a human person, or if you’re a sociopath, this post might

not make a whole lot of sense to you. But hey, I’d LOVE to interview

you for this book I’m writing . . .

When we pursue creative endeavors, we shake our metaphorical Lego bin, then pull out the shiniest pieces. We move them around. We experiment with different ways they could fit together. And then? We create. Or maybe you just dump them in the middle of the floor and put them together at random.

Like a monster.

One way in which life and writing are very much not like Lego, is they don’t come with instructions. Oh, there are resources—books, website forums, Facebook groups, and Twitter hashtags (and a certain incredible blog run by a group of Master-builders). There are also finished products we can study, trying to puzzle out how on earth they made something so intricate yet cohesive.

“Look,” these creators say. “Here’s what I built.”

And all too often we feel like the tent poles of our lives have poof! disappeared, leaving us a saggy-slumpy dejected mess.

“They used one of the same pieces I used.” [Insert Eeyore Sigh] “Guess I’ll give up now.” Smash, crash, clatter. Back into the bin the Lego pieces go.

New Metaphor (because I can’t mix them if I don’t use more than one): If two people decide to paint a picture of a bird, you wouldn’t say, “You both painted a picture of a bird. That’s lame. Which one of you copied the other one?”

  1. Because you’re not a jerk like that.
  2. Because there are different kinds of birds, and different painting styles.
  3. Because people love a good bird painting. There should be more than one of those.

For the Birds.jpg

In fact, it was recently brought to my attention that our very own Melanie Jacobson wrote a blog post a few months ago ON THE SAME SUBJECT AS THIS ONE. Okay, maybe that’s not so strange. We’re both brilliant, and TTOF contributors don’t compare notes on our topic picks, after all. But guys? Her post talks about birds too.

Seriously. BIRDS. But a different kind of bird reference and a different picture with birds in it.

So instead of destroying your Lego creation or burning your birds—don’t burn your birds, that’s cruel—pause to marvel over the connection you have with your fellow creator. You both love building sharks out of Lego! You both love painting birds! You both love writing stories about a secret clan of tiny blue people who live underground!

True story? I wrote that book when I was eleven. Then I read Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men when I was twenty-five. What a weirdly fantastic thing to have in common with an author I greatly admire.

Celebrating our differences instead of squabbling over them is one of the most beautiful things human beings do. Creating stories with common threads also connects us in beautiful ways. Yes, strive for a unique approach. Create sentences and paragraphs and pages that could only come from you. Shun clichés and subvert tropes. But also trust that no matter how many things we human beings have in common, twelve authors writing the exact same story concept will produce twelve very different stories, varying on a plot, character, POV, and/or stylistic level.

Yes, I know there are more levels. Shush.

Please don’t despair if you see your own ideas reflected in someone else’s work, because what that really means is you’re seeing a part of yourself in another human being. And in this Lego builder’s opinion, that’s a huge part of what stories are for.

Optional Exercise: In the comment section below, write a one paragraph story concept based on the following prompt. Check back later to see if anyone else got tricked into letting me give them homework, and enjoy how different your final results are.

A woman discovers she can read people’s thoughts . . . by licking them.

________________________

kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Character Authenticity: How to Nail Shut the Trap Doors in Your Story

Lack of character authenticity is the trap door of the literary world. Readers can be skipping along, humming cheerfully to themselves as they explore a lovely story and then whoosh! Down they go. Because a character did something inauthentic. Because suddenly, NOTHING MAKES SENSE ANYMORE.

You can have the most FLAWLESSLY crafted plotline in the whole history of bloody creation, but if character motivations and actions don’t line up, IT WILL ALL BE FOR NAUGHT.

I’m using a lot of caps-lock here so you know this is serious stuff.

Character Windows.jpg

Main Character Inauthenticity:

This. Is. The. Worst. Sometimes, we get such a firm vision in our minds of how the story is supposed to go, we forgot that the plot isn’t the only path that needs to be followed.

Picture yourself as a builder of roads, except you’ve got to lay two roads at the exact same time: the plot road, and the character road. These roads should never diverge from each other, no matter how many obstacles your character comes up against. What we sometimes see is a straight plot road with the character road wibble-wobbling all over the place. Those wibble-wobbles are the places where your main character is making no sense whatsoever.

For instance: Despite having been a complete coward thus far, the main character runs toward the bloodcurdling scream. Out of curiosity. I’m sorry, but cowardly people do not run toward bloodcurdling screams. It’s not in our nature. True story. I actually heard one once. And no, I’m not proud of the fact that I froze, wondered if I should call 911, and then decided everything was okay when the screaming turned to laughter.

Someone might have been tickled to death because of me. I will carry that shame with me for the rest of my life.

Say you need your main character to run in that direction. Pause for a moment and consider what motivation would be required. Perhaps they have reason to believe someone they care about is doing the screaming? Perhaps they finally mastered their power and are ready to kick bad guy behinds now? Perhaps they think it’s a television set playing a favorite horror movie they’re keen to see? Whatever the reason—make it a good one.

Another example: Your main character decides to go somewhere with a hot stranger who’s giving off a dangerous vibe. I see this situation in a lot of fiction for teens and frankly, it ticks me off. Just because a teenage girl thinks a guy is hot, doesn’t mean she’s going to ignore the warning signs and toss aside all the advice her parents have been hammering into her head since she was three years old. She’s much more likely to play the “Stranger Danger” card and make a run for it.

It comes down to who your character is, how they were raised, what their basic beliefs are, and how they react in difficult situations. And don’t forget the crucial element of what’s happened in your story up to that point. A character who’s been put through the emotional wringer will react differently than one who’s had a pretty happy go of things so far.

Consider the emotional angles of each scene. People don’t always make sense, looking from the outside in. But if you’ve got a decently deep POV going on (something I highly recommend), your reader will be looking at the story from the inside, which makes emotional authenticity all the more crucial.

Secondary Character Inauthenticity:

Does your best friend/sidekick character blithely go along with whatever the main character says, seeming to possess no free will or independent thought of their own? Do the parents never worry about their teen’s whereabouts? Can your adult main character skip work without their boss making a stink?

I sometimes mollify myself with the thought that these secondary characters might turn out to be cyborgs, but I am almost always disappointed. Usually, they’re just cardboard cut-outs of the people they could have been if the author brought them to life properly. Thankfully, there are ways to avoid this:

  • If your main character says/does something dumb, have a secondary character call them on it. Real friends don’t let friends be stupid. Unless they’re super sadistic and like watching the inevitable fallout, of course. Which could make for fantastic
  • While your main character’s story arc is important, your secondary characters should have some input. They can make suggestions. Try and fail at things. They can grow pissed off at your main character for ignoring them due to their pursuit of the main goal. They have feelings and opinions of their own. We should see them.
  • Try writing a scene from a secondary character’s point of view. Visit the inside of their head for a while. Characters are the windows of your story. Open all of them!
  • You should know what your secondary character’s personal goals are. Even (and especially) if their main goal is to support the main character. They need to have a reason for sacrificing their time and energy. If their goal contradicts the main character’s goal at some point, all the better. This is where conflict is born.

Your reader doesn’t have to love the decisions your characters make, but they do need to understand them to a certain degree. All of your characters should be three dimensional, flawed human beings (unless you’re writing about aliens, in which case, more power to you). In other words, THEY SHOULD BE LIKE YOU (unless you are an alien, in which case, AWESOME. Let’s do lunch).

Nail shut the trap doors in your story. Build your roads as parallel to each other as you can. And don’t mix your metaphors the way I always do. It’s kind of lame.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

The Five Pitfalls of Author Interference

Freedom of the press leads to a free society.Words. Worlds. Characters. We create them, so we should be able to control them, right? But there are consequences to holding the reins too tightly, and carpal tunnel is only one of them.

Here are some pitfalls you might want to avoid:

1) “As You Know Bob” Dialog

This is when the author makes the characters talk about things which it makes no sense for them to talk about. Characters who have known each other for years chat about each others’ hair and eye color, the number of siblings one characters has, and other facts that should be long-established.

Characters who talk like this are pale shadows of who they could otherwise be. They’re the monsters on Dr. Frankenstein’s table who never received the lightning strike. Worst of all, they’re gigantic red flags that remind the reader “None of This is Real.”

Tip: Don’t use your characters as your personal ventriloquist dummies. This is their story, not yours. LET THE LIGHTNING STRIKE. Let them talk like real people. Let them be real people.

Yes, I know I’m mixing my metaphors. I am the Neapolitan ice cream of writing advice.

2) Overt Use of Inner Dialog

Some authors think they’ve found a lovely little loophole and use inner dialog instead. Their main character runs into someone they know and immediately starts thinking about their friend’s backstory. How their parents divorced two years ago, that their dream is to become a champion chess player, and how they really hate onions.

Tip: Normal people do not think like this. If you mentally assess everyone you encounter and do a quick inner monologue about their life story and dietary preferences, you might need help.

Spend a little time thinking about your mental reactions to various situations. Do you mentally describe rooms to yourself when you walk into them? Do you synopsize the lives of everyone you know? Do you regularly ponder your own tragic backstory?

There are moments when these things need to be touched on. If your main character doesn’t have a certain amount of introspection going on, we’re not going to learn a whole lot about them and their world. But please, dial it back. Keep it natural. And make sure your main character doesn’t end up sounding like a sociopath.

3) Imposed Morality

Your characters should not be a clone army of mini-you’s. They should have their own sense of morality based on their individual upbringings and life experiences. Now me, I’m religious. I believe in a loving God who wants me to live my life in a certain way, and (most of the time) I act accordingly.

Many of my characters do not.

The world is full of a rich variety of cultural, moral, political, and religious beliefs. Ideally, our stories should reflect this. Let your characters be who they are—not who you are.

4) Purple Prose

This is one of my personal weaknesses. I love pretty words. I love stringing them together in poetic ways. And sometimes I get so caught up in doing so, I slip out of my main character’s voice and into my own. When I’m revising my manuscript and come across a particularly flowery passage, nine times out of ten it’s coming from me rather than my main character.

Just because it’s beautiful, doesn’t mean it fits.

5) Emotional Inconsistency

When your character is having a no-good-very-bad-day, there shouldn’t be a switch you can flip to make everything all hunky-dory again. Real people don’t have them, so your characters shouldn’t either. If your writing has emotional switches in it, build a wall over them.

We NEED to lose control of our stories sometimes. We need to create characters and stories so powerful, so alive, that the notion of controlling their every move becomes laughable. This is what we can and should strive for. Giving up a measure of control—not all, but definitely some—is one of the dividing lines between mediocre stories and extraordinary ones.

Make sure you’re on the right side.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

How to Write with Penguins

I’ve met a lot of penguin lovers in my day. They all have one thing in common—the persistent delusion that all penguins are cutesy-wutesy like this:

Penguin 1

Or elegant, dashing creatures (the James Bonds of the ornithological world) like this:

Penguin 2

Personally, I’m not a fan. With their ominous waddling, and their “claim” that they can’t fly—not to mention those beady little eyes—I’m only one small step away from having a full-blown phobia of the dastardly creatures. Because in my imagination (and in real life, people), they sometimes look like this:

Penguin 3
Now, I’m a pacifist by nature so I’m not suggesting we do anything about this blatant threat to humankind. But I’ve found a very effective stress relief method that keeps me stable as I wait for the inevitable invasion.

I call it . . .

THE PENGUIN WRITING METHOD

november is drug awareness month

A few years ago, while working on the first draft of a new story, I found myself wanting to move forward despite not having finished the section I was working on. I decided to put in a unique word that I’d cut out of an early chapter, and then “search” for it later. As I continued with the draft, I used the word more and more often. When I needed to do more research. When I hadn’t figured out certain details about a character yet. When someone or something needed a name and it just wasn’t coming to me right away.

After I finished the draft and was ready to tackle revisions, I typed the word “PENGUIN” into my search bar and whispered “Find the penguins” at my laptop. If you think that’s super weird, we are obviously not well-acquainted. On the Kim Scale of Weirdness, this is small potatoes (which is sad, because I love potatoes).

Basically, I’m the Elmer Fudd of the literary world, except instead of hunting “Wascally Wabbits,” I’m hunting “Pernicious Penguins*.”

Writing is mentally exhausting, and sometimes we have to trick our brains into doing it. My brain likes to throw “But what about . . .” stumbling blocks at me as I draft, and penguins have proven to be an unlikely (but very effective) cure. Unfortunately, brains are clever creatures (they’re known for it), and what works for one writing session doesn’t always work for others. Here are some other Tips and Tricks I’ve picked up along the way.

  • Write hungry: This sounds cruel, and if you did it to a pet or a kid, you’d be facing criminal charges, but I’ve found that telling myself I can eat after I write 500 more words can be remarkably effective.
  • Alternate tasks: Some days my brain gets jumpy and doesn’t like to sit still for too long. I write until it fizzles, get up and do something, come back and write some more, and lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Use Writing as a Reward: On days when the notion of drafting feels like a chore, I do actual chores and “get to” write a certain amount for every chore I accomplish. This has a rewiring effect on my brain, and I end up looking forward to drafting rather than dreading it.
  • Use Writing as a Form of Self-Defense: When I’m putting off a dreaded real life task (like laundry*shudder*), I tell myself I don’t have to do it as long as I’m writing. Could-have-been-laundry-days often yield my highest daily word counts.
  • Imaginary Conversations: Sometimes I imagine that my character is mad at me and knocking on the metaphorical door of my brain, demanding to have their story told.

How about you? What cool things do you do to trick your brain into churning out words?

*No actual penguins have been harmed. Not even the vicious, probably-man-eating ones. Promise.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.

Perfectly Imperfect

We are thrilled to welcome Kimberly VanderHorst to the Thinking Through Our Fingers family.

***

I’m going to make a possibly radical statement:


Technically perfect writing is not always the most compelling writing.


That’s a claim one could easily pick apart, but I think it holds a kernel of truth worthy of exploration.


Are you familiar with 
spoon theory? It’s a concept applied to those with chronic energy deficits due to physical or mental health issues. The idea is that you only get so many “spoons” every day, and that every action you take costs you precious spoons.

better


The same can be applied to writing. You only have so many writing spoons per day. You can spend your spoons on pouring new words onto the blank page, revising (which costs more spoons for some and less for others). You can spend a spoon trying to deepen your prose or strengthen characterization, or you could spend that same spoon (and a couple more besides) fussing over every, single, word, on every, single, page. 


I’m not saying meticulous revisions aren’t spoon-worthy. Line-by-line editing is my happy place. But I’m putting forward the hopefully-not-too-crazy notion that in striving to spread a shiny veneer of “perfect” over our writing, we sometimes pass up the opportunity to make our writing BETTER. 


It can be easier to tinker till everything is technically perfect, than to push deeper into our characters’ points of view and wring raw, wrecking prose from those depths. Leveling up our writing is hard, soul-wearying work, but personally, I prefer technically imperfect LEVEL 73 writing to polished-till-it-glows LEVEL 14 writing. 


That said, if I have a choice between LEVEL 73 riddled with typos and grammatical errors and technically perfect LEVEL 52 . . . Well, that gets a little tricky, doesn’t it? Just keep in mind that readers are looking for stories to live in, not frame behind glass. Strive to writer better, deeper, stronger. Don’t fuss with your semi-colons and em-dashes when you have a one-dimensional villain to develop. It’s worth the spoons. Promise.


Technical perfection is the icing on the cake, and man oh man do I LOVE icing. But make sure that cake has more than one layer and plenty of filling before you frost it.


And if you have a spoon left over, use it to eat your cake.

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kimKimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.