Last week I was at RT with a bunch of my closest writer friends and we had an absolute blast! Because we’re all so spread out geographically, we only get to hang out once or twice a year so we really try and make those few days count. And because a bunch of us were together, I thought I’d take the opportunity to answer some questions I get frequently about my critique partners—and have them chime in with some thoughts as well!! They were all so generous with their time despite a packed schedule at RT, and I’m so grateful that they were all willing to share their thoughts!
Fair warning: this is a LONG post. But hopefully it’s a fun read/cool to see the insides of our very weird brains. Or I should say, coherent versions of our brains. In person we make a lot of very lame jokes and laugh for hours about literally nothing (you think I’m exaggerating but we will laugh over a single word for days.)
Janella: Okay, correction: we only hang out physically once or twice a year. In reality, we Skype like fiends and pretty much keep in constant contact with each other. How’s that for Stage-5 clingers, eh? (Blog) (Twitter) (Akshaya: She just signed with an agent GO CONGRATULATE HER!!!)
Katy: I’m Katy! It’s been AWESOME getting to actually hang out with these fools the past few days. Well, Akshaya and I are lucky enough to actually live close to one another… which was something we didn’t realize until a couple months into exchanging emails. So we get to actually hang out a little more often, and go to book events together! (Twitter)
How did you meet?
Akshaya: On the amazingness that is the interwebz! I met Maddy here and I met Katy, Erin, and Janella here (both are FANTASTIC resources and I highly recommend them). Funny story, Katy and Erin had both already been CPing with Janella when I met them! So after a bit of “OMG I can’t believe you know each other!!” we all started talking.
Maddy: Yeah, basically Akshaya emailed me one day because I’d posted my info in Sooz’s forum, and we got to talking/exchanging life stories… and proceeded to get mildly creeped out as we discovered we were low key the same person. Seriously – we’d both just graduated, both were living at home, both working on the first of our young adult fantasy series… so basically we’re narcissists and it was instalove.
Janella: This entire story is seriously a further reminder of just how small the publishing world is. You know a person who knows a person and then BAM—they know your people, and then become your people. Totally agree with Maddy on the instalove thing. Even though it’s awful when used in novels, it’s pretty magical when experienced in real life.
Katy: Yeah, it’s actually happened more than once that I would start chatting or exchanging work with another writer, only to find out that they already knew one of my other CPs! So it’s nice we’ve been able to make like this little extended family of writers who are all at roughly the same stage. It’s excellent to have a support network like that.
Erin: Bahaha, this story actually makes me laugh because I got an email from Akshaya last summer and later found out that Akshaya and Janella knew each other when I noticed them talking on Twitter. Then, I later found that Amanda and Akshaya had also already met as well!! Sooooooo yeah. It’s all just a whole crisscrossing of people.
Akshaya: It all boils down to: I am the creepiest and the YA community is a pretty small place to be.
But weren’t you worried they were creepy old men/not who they said they were?
Akshaya: Not gonna lie, that was a possibility. But like we’d already registered for RT last year and bought our plane tickets so I guess that was a shot we were willing to take?
Janella: To be honest, I think everyone else around me was more concerned than I was! As the daughter of a psychiatrist, I have a pretty good radar when it comes to crazies and shady characters. Unfortunately, I was already in too deep when I realized just how insane we all were.
Erin: To be honest, I don’t think I was ever super worried about accidentally picking up a weird CP masquerading as a young adult writer I was just lucky enough that I found true, honest writers who were looking for friends and serious writers.
Maddy: I mean I am a creepy old man. I have a weakness for scotch and am fairly crotchety/hermitlike. As for the creepy part, I mean, I do stare at people intently and observe them from a distance (for book inspiration, of course) so…
And you all just happened to be around the same age, in similar stages in the writing process, and have a ton of other interests in common? How is that even possible?!
Akshaya: Sorcery. I’m pretty sure that’s just a sign from the universe that these ladies were badass and I needed them in my life.
Maddy: Not a coincidence at all. All part of the stalking I’d done for months before I arranged our meeting. I mean… Sorcery.
Janella: I’m throwing in a bit of ~destiny~
Katy: I think something that was told to me over and over in college is that “You will find your people.” And that’s true now that I’m out in the real world. You can always find your people, if you look for them.
How did you get so close in so short a time?
Maddy: Well, when the dark forces started to take over and our magical wizardry school was usurped by toad-like ministry officials, we were basically forced to overcome my differences and bond in order to teach ourselves defensive spells in secret. I mean…Skype. And a shared love of fermented grape juice. Mostly the latter. REAL TALK NOTE: Skyping with your critique partners is actually the best idea ever. Do it. Seriously.
Akshaya: I saw one of my favorite authors mention that she Skyped her critique partners. I was totally new to the industry and had no idea that this was not the norm so I threw it out there. Maddy loved the idea so we tried it out. I remember scheduling an hour for our first call. Yeah, we talked for like four hours. Since then, we’ve all been Skyping to do our critiques and sometimes just to catch up!
Janella: With ladies this fabulous, it really wasn’t hard. It’s common knowledge that writing is a very solitary activity—and when you talk about writing with people who don’t quite get it (which is not their fault whatsoever!) it can feel even more lonely. So to be able to find people this wonderful was very earth-shattering to me, and ultimately, to my writing journey. We started off with very long emails (some filled with obsessive fanfic ravings), and then as my lovely partners in crime have stated above, we began Skyping. These hours-long conversations really sealed the deal. We realized that we weren’t just critique partners who could talk about our work, but we were also fast friends who could bond over all the ridiculous things and life.
Erin: I’ll admit… This is always hard for me. I’m very shy and I’m very awkward, so I do feel like this was one of the most challenging parts. And honestly, I think I met the right people. People who were not afraid to say, “HEY, LET’S SKYPE!!!” And while I was nervous to Skype with people I’d never met before (okay, let’s be real, I’m nervous to Skype with people I do know—I’m much more comfortable with sticking to email and writing), I’m so glad I did it because it turned out to be a lot of fun and I got to know my beautiful CPs so well!!
Katy: I think also when you’re sharing something as personal as your writing with someone else, it’s necessary to get to a place of honestly and realness that you might not get to so quickly with someone else. Like, these guys have basically seen inside my brain and they still want to hang out with me. That’s pretty amazing.
Do you really spend that much time talking about your manuscripts?!
Akshaya: Well sometimes! If things really aren’t working we may spend that much time talking about our books. But most of the time we drink wine and laugh about really dumb things. It was very important for me to find critique partners who were also friends. I love that I can call up any one of them and talk about really random bookish things or really serious life-ish things. Even if we’re not actually critiquing anything, just being able to talk to each other about the writing process and how our drafting/brainstorming/revisions are going is so cathartic since they have also struggled with the same things.
Maddy: Basically, we all share a brain. A rapidly devolving brain that wants to be reunited more and more with each passing day, kinda like Sauron and his one ring. So life is much more comfortable when we’re Skyping.
Katy: Welllllll we can get a little sidetracked (Akshaya: see above). But I’ve definitely spent a solid two hours talking about a manuscript. But considering how long it takes to write a manuscript and to read it, it’s not that crazy.
Erin: Yeah, it’s pretty funny that we spend so much time Skyping. Time goes super fast when you’re talking with CPs. I’ve also learned that no matter how times you try and say, “I’ve got to go, guys!!” it always ends up being half an hour after that you’re actually able to get off Skype.
Did you just email them and ask if they wanted to read your manuscript?
Akshaya: Pretty much yeah. One of us had a post saying what our manuscript was about and maybe a little bit about ourselves. Then one of the others would email that person and say “Hey you sound really awesome! I’m really awesome too! Let’s be friends!” Okay fine, we were a tad bit more professional than that.
Maddy: Lies. Pretty sure those are exact quotes from my emails.
Erin: We started with chapters to see if our writing and critiquing styles jammed. We included a lot of information about ourselves, including our loves and interests (par exemple: Harry Potter, Happy Endings, Arrested Development, 30 Rock) to see if we clicked!
Akshaya: If we connected well, we would exchange more, like I did with all these lovely ladies!
Maddy: And Akshaya was incredibly kind/generous/indulgent with my horrible first drafts… Seriously, I wonder every day how I got so lucky/why she kept emailing me. <3
Janella: I second this. My manuscript was awful simile soup in the very beginning, and somehow these lovely people were kind enough to stick with me through it all.
Akshaya: Awww!! Spoiler: it’s because their manuscripts were AMAZING. And at that point, we generally graduated to Skyping, and if it was still going well we naturally became friends for life. (Not kidding about the life thing—Janella, Maddy and I are making arrangements for a shared mausoleum…)
Maddy: You think we’re joking :)
Akshaya: I never joke about mausoleums…
But what if it didn’t work out?
Maddy: If you plan on critiquing anything ever READ THESE ASAP, MEMORIZE THEM, PRINT THEM OUT, THEY ARE GOLD.
Akshaya: If we’ve agreed to CP, I always start with just a few chapters and make sure we’re sending each other roughly the same number of words. I try to get a sense of what kind of feedback the other person wants (big picture vs details, character arcs vs plot development etc.) and settle on a turnaround time that works for both of us. I also try and fit my critique into a nice and delicious critique sandwich, (Janella: YUMMY YUMMY YUMMY) where I start with stuff I loved, followed by the stuff that needs work, and end with more of the stuff I loved.
But sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Maybe I didn’t like their writing or they didn’t like mine. Maybe I didn’t like how they structured their critiques– or maybe it was my critique that was the issue. At that point I always thank them for their time and we part ways amicably. I think the most important thing is to be polite. Don’t offer unsolicited feedback or argue if you disagree with a point. It’s hard and scary for everyone to put themselves and their writing out there so just be courteous.
Maddy: Seriously, this is actually the important part. It’s like dating… if your dating pool was tiny/the relatively small community in which you’ll build your career. Don’t be an ass, don’t burn bridges, and don’t leave someone hanging if they critique your work–always reciprocate critiques (even if you move on/end the critiquing relationship afterwards), always be courteous, and always assume you’ll have to deal with this person for the rest of your writing career.
Katy: And I think we all had had critique relationships that didn’t work out for whatever reason, and even if those relationships didn’t pan out, we were able to learn from those experiences and figure out what we really wanted from a critique partnership.
Janella: I ditto what everyone has said so far! But clearly from all answers above, this publishing and writing community is a very small world. Be kind and don’t burn bridges. You never know who you’ll meet or encounter again in the future.
Do you read full manuscripts or just go chapter by chapter?
Katy: It depends on the person and the project, I think. Some of us prefer to send out more complete work, some prefer to send out portions of manuscripts, etc. etc. I think the important thing is we always have someone who is not only willing but eager to read our stuff, and that alone can be a huge help. Just knowing you’re not writing in a total void.
Janella: Full manuscript reads usually happen if we want to tackle big picture things, or if fresh eyes for a full beta read is needed. It really depends on what the other person feels would help them most in terms of where they are/how they feel about their manuscript.
Erin: I personally prefer to polish my story as much as possible and get it as clean as I possibly can by myself, which usually means multiple, multiple drafts and my lovely CPs asking me “WHEN CAN I READ YOUR STORY?” (which is always, so so sweet and so nice to hear). Of course, sometimes when I’m in doubt, I might send a chapter or two to my CPs to see if it’s going in the right direction, but for the most part I do like full manuscript critiques. Like Katy said, I just want someone who is passionate and truly cares about my work and vice versa. I LOVE my CPs’ work. I think they have the most amazing ideas and they have such great writing that I’m always so excited to read their work!!
Okay but what if they steal your idea?
Maddy: LOL I’m pretty sure I’m half-insane to be attempting to make readable the mess of a world that is my story. Why would anyone else be crazy enough to willingly sort through my chaotic half-disaster of an unfinished manuscript, when they likely have their own books to work on?
Akshaya: I know this seems like a terrifying thing but it’s not actually something I worry about. For starters, while we all write YA fantasy, we all have VERY different styles. We all love different things and get our inspirations from different places. A lot of the times, we love reading what our critique partners write but wouldn’t want to necessarily write that specific subgenre of fantasy. For instance Janella is working on an incredible pirate fantasy. (Janella: *blushes*) I LOVE pirates and would read/watch the crap out of any pirate story, but I don’t really have any desire to write my own.
Katy: I can say with full honesty that I have never once ever worried about this. Because as similar as our interests are and as much as we all get along, our writing is very specific to who we are as individuals. And if you’ve ever met a writer, you know that they’re drowning in their own legions of half-finished manuscripts and partly-plotted ideas, so why on earth would I imagine that they would be looking to take some of mine?
Akshaya: And there aren’t really any new ideas anyway. It’s just how you present it that matters and each person would present it in a different way. Even if they stole my idea, the story they wrote would be WILDLY different from what I wrote.
Erin: I’m with Katy!! I’ve never really had a worry about someone stealing my work! Like everyone says, I do think that your vision for a story is COMPLETELY different than anyone else’s.
Janella: Even though there are horror stories out there of this happening, I definitely trust my CPs enough to have faith that this will NEVER happen! We love each others’ ideas, but not at a level that would cause us to steal them.
So you’re all friends and you hang out and talk about writing and drink wine. That sounds great in theory, but there must be a lot of competition and weird group politics…
Janella: Absolutely not! What’s so wonderful about finding your writing herd (Akshaya: or as we like to call it, our cult) is that we are all obscenely supportive of each other. We are all different kinds of writers in different places of our writing journey, but that doesn’t matter. Through all of the ups and downs, we’re always here for each other.
Akshaya: Okay time for some real talk. While we all started in very similar places, now we’re a bit more spread apart in where we are: some of us are revising, some querying, and some working with agents. It seems like being in different stages would only increase the competition, but we’ve actually gotten closer as we support each other and celebrate those successes. We don’t put each other or ourselves down for being in a different stage. Is it always easy? Of course not. (I’ve linked to it before but I will link to it again because this is seriously such a fantastic post on dealing with writer envy). We all have days where we feel like crap. But it really is powerful to remember that we control how good or bad we feel when we hear about other people’s success stories.
Truthfully, publishing is a strange industry. While there is a very low barrier to entry (you don’t need to have contacts—you only need to write a book and query agents) that also means it’s luck dependent. You have to have the right book at the right time that resonates with the right people. That’s not something that is in anyone’s control. Going your own pace, whether that’s slower or faster than your friends, is no indication of success or failure. It’s most important to stay focused on the writing, because the fact that a friend got an agent or a book deal or reached whatever milestone you were aiming for has nothing to do with whether or not you will get an agent or a book deal or reach that milestone.
So yeah, I can spend all my time and energy comparing myself to my CPs and feeling miserable. Or I can be proud of and happy for them and know that their successes don’t mean that I’m a failure.
Maddy: For me, it’s this simple: if you start to feel yourself getting envious of one of your critique partners/friends/anyone important in your life really, remember how much you love them. And be happy for them. Because you do love them. And loving people means being there for them in their hard times, celebrating their successes, and trusting they will also be there for you, when the low times and the high times come to call.
Besides, we chose each other. It wasn’t like we were put into a group at random and forced to work together. We actively sought out people we connected well with and whose writing we loved. It’s not that surprising that we would want each other to be successful.
Katy: Akshaya and Maddy really said it best! I can definitely see getting jealous or envious of people on twitter who sign with dream agents or get amazing book deals but when it comes to my CPs, I KNOW these people, I KNOW how hard they work, and I know how great their writing is, so why wouldn’t I be happy for them?
Erin: We are all super supportive of each other and only happy for each other’s successes. It is a very competitive industry, but we know how hard we all work. I have definitely have met jealous/competitive people, but for some reason, this just WORKS. I don’t know if it’s the YA community or whether it’s that I’ve been lucky to only have met supportive friends, but I have never really felt this way with writing before.
Wow this all sounds really awesome!
Akshaya: I know. And this is why I can’t shut up about how amazing my critique partners are! I’m incredibly lucky to have met such a fantastic group of people!! I don’t even know how I found the most amazing people, but I would not trade this for anything.
Maddy: Blushing hardcore over here. So much love to all my CPs!!! Cannot emphasize how lucky I am to have found them/not made them run away screaming. If you’re still searching for the one/ones–don’t give up. You will find your people. And then you will know just how worth it the search is. <3 <3 <3
Erin: Like I said, I’m SUPER lucky to have found these great group of friends and writers. I honestly did not think that I could meet such great people and I really did not think that I would ever get to be such amazing friends with these lovely peeps!!! I’M SO LUCKY, GUYS!!!!!
Katy: And we didn’t even MENTION our Disney-and-Hamilton-sing-a-longs!
Janella: STOP GUYS I’M CRYING.
And there you are! Insight into how our friendship/critique partner relationship works! Now go follow these lovely ladies on their own blogs and Twitters because they all have fantastic things to say and are writing some truly wonderful books! <3