How to (finally) Find Critique Partners

Maybe you all already have a stable full of writing friends and critique partners who read your work at lightening speed and give the most amazing life-changing feedback and offer book recommendations that are in perfect line with your tastes. 

Lucky you.

It’s taken me years. 

It hasn’t been for lack of trying. Since 2013, I’ve done it all, multiple times in multiple ways, for multiple WIPs. I’ve:

  1.  Attended MeetUp groups;
  2. Attended SCWBI regional conferences;
  3. Emailed people on the boards on Absolute Write;
  4. Emailed people who commented on Maggie Stievfater’s critique partner hookup blog post;
  5. Emailed folks who commented on Susan Dennard’s CP hookup blog post;
  6. Reached out to already existing groups listed on the local SCBWI writing group boards;
  7. Co-hosted a writing social through SCBWI;
  8. Shouted from the rooftops on Twitter, putting out an open call 

In the past three years I’ve swapped partial or full manuscripts with more than 18 people, poured hours of my own limited writing time into reading other people’s work in the hopes I might make a connection, find a writer with a like mind, with a WIP that suits my taste so I want to read every word in slow-motion (this might be a poor way to explain what it feels like to give detailed feedback, but let’s just go with it), who opens my eyes to problems I was blind to in my own manuscript. 

And I’m happy to report that finally–FINALLY–I think I’ve found a small handful of people who are my people. People I trust, who’s opinions I respect, who’s writing talent I totally admire, who wrote books that are just my cup of tea, who I want to be friends with. To be clear, this isn’t a knock on those other folks who I haven’t continued to swap pages with. None of the writers were untalented or anything like that, nor was I alone in ending these critique partner relationships; sometimes someone didn’t work for me, sometimes I didn’t work for them. Not everyone in the world is your people, which is why it’s important for writers to test each other out, try each other on for size before going all-in and investing the time to read each other’s full manuscripts. 

As frustrating as it may sound, from what I’ve gathered from other writers this isn’t an uncommon experience. Finding a critique partner takes time and patience. 

If you’re currently hunting for a critique partner, a few general guidelines I’d offer from my own experience:

  1. Only swap a sample to begin with, a few pages, a few chapters. Remember, you two are (probably) total strangers! If you don’t end up liking their writing enough, or their feedback doesn’t resonate with you, no hard feelings if you decide not to go all-in. Less wasted time and disappointment on both ends.
  2. Agree on firm deadlines. There’s nothing worse than swapping chapters and then not hearing back for three months from the other person. This puts your revision on hold for months, unnecessarily! Or maybe you move ahead without their feedback and by the time it arrives, it’s worthless. 
  3. Communicate. If you’re going to miss the deadline, tell the other person. If you’re not enjoying their chapters and feel like you have nothing valuable to offer, tell them (nicely!). If you’re decided to quit writing and have abandoned your manuscript, shoot them an email! I lied earlier–there is something worse than not hearing back for months and that’s not hearing back at all. It’s a horrible feeling when you send something you created to someone else in the world and you take the time to read their work and then…they disappear into the void like a phantom.
  4. Don’t settle. I promise you, the right writing friend/critique partner is out there! Don’t agree to read someone else’s manuscript if you dread working through it and are just doing it for their feedback. That’s not fair to either of you. You both could have spent all that time working on your own books or looking for your ideal critique partner instead! 
  5. Be kind. The purpose of a critique partner is to build someone up, to help, to offer a new perspective on their writing. Don’t tear someone or their craft down. All feedback should be constructive. No matter what. 
  6. Be respectful. A critique partner does not work for you. It’s an equal partnership and you should maintain that balance. 

While a critique partner is an incredibly valuable thing and I truly believe it can help you get your writing to the next level (certainly has for me!) just having a critique partner won’t fit the bill. Make sure you do your due diligence and find a critique partner who you’re compatible with for the long-haul, all 50,000-120,000 words of it. 

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Designing Your Characters Names

Typography glossary

When it comes time to name a cast of characters in a new manuscript, I tend to surround myself with thick-spined baby naming books (or long lists online) and get bogged down in the meaning of a name–king? queen? strong one? mouse-like? darkness?–and sometimes the pattern of sounds. For example, in a recent manuscript I had a group of siblings all share names with double letters in them and end with a y-sound (example: Billy, Jennie, Bobby, Annie) to connect them as a unit. As writers, common assumption is we can control the content of our stories, but not the design: publishers, being the experts they are, usually take on the responsibility of cover design, and for interior pages choose the fonts, design the layout, determine the look of the running heads and page numbers.

But what if content and design are so linked that writers can choose one and affect the other? If we could, in fact, design our character’s names?

I am taking a super interesting typography class for my day job–my book-nerd and word-lover heart is so happy learning about fonts and design principles and practicing making words pretty–but something from the first class tickled the writer section of my brain.

The professor was talking about how our brains associate certain shapes with certain meanings. For example, straight lines indicate power and strength. Richard Campell Gansey (Raven Boys, anyone?) is an interesting name in it’s own right, but Richard Campell Gansey III? Something about that particular Roman numeral (rather than any other Roman numeral, say, IV) really does whisper the idea of strength, both in meaning (family dynasty and power), and in form, the actual shape of it.

In our culture, curved lines often imply feminism and our professor argued curved lines also command immediate compassion. For a soft, sympathetic feminine character (of course, there are tons of other sorts of lady characters!), a name composed of rounded letters, o’s and s’s, a’s and j’s–perhaps Sophia? Or Amelia?–could do the trick.

The letter X has traditionally been associated with mystery. X marks the spot, solve for x in algebra or a word problem (always the greatest mystery of all, for me in high school at least!).

Other things to think about: horizontal strokes imply no movement, while vertical strokes imply alertness. Diagonal strokes–whether ascending or descending–are full of energy (increasing or declining). To me, the trump letters of diagonal strokes in the English alphabet are Z, W, and V. Think of what a name with the letter Z in it, like Zelda, or V like Victor, or W for Wanda can trigger in a reader!

Obviously, this isn’t the end-all-be-all way to name characters, and all readers might not pick up on the cues you were going for in designing your characters’ names, but it’s kind of a fun perspective to consider.

Even as writers, there is no end to where typography can take us!

April/May’s Too-Few Reviews

For a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 3,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,330

Date Published: February 2014

Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books

How I Discovered this Book: Read the first book and found out it was a series when exploring on Goodreads. (As they say, backlist sells front list!)

Thoughts: Just as adorable as the first book, full of voice and humor, the tale of a child detective agency in a rural southern small town, with the added bonus mystery of a haunted historic inn with a real true ghost. If you haven’t read Three Times Lucky, get on it, then read this. If you have read Three Times Lucky, what are you waiting for??

Book: Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,883

Date Published: December 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Young to Publishing Little Big Mouth promotion sent me an ARC.

Thoughts: A mash-up retelling of The Seven Swans (Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, take your pick) and Sleeping Beauty–though way more original material than retelling–this was an epic fairytale adventure story. Tension, emotional rollercoaster, one of the best romantic subplots I’ve enjoyed in a while, fairy-trained princess warrior on a mission to save her brother from soul-sucking ogres…need I say more?

Book: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,440

Date Published: March 2015

Publisher: HarperCollins

How I Discovered this Book: I feel like this book was ALL that Twitter was talking about for weeks before it published. I grabbed a copy as soon as I could get my hands on it–the hype was high.

Thoughts: Masterful. I read in an interview that this was intended to be a retelling of Persephone, but it’s so subtle, so original, so NEW that I didn’t catch on to the hint of a retelling without having it pointed out to me. Set in contemporary farming/small town Bone Gap, Illinois, there’s something odd, magical, and sinister going on. Told from four different perspectives–two brothers and two kick-ass ladies who save themselves from dire situations over and over again–I don’t know how to express how completely wonderful and perfect this story and these characters are. There’s a magical horse. And so many different forms of love. Honey-dipped s’mores (this sounds like an awesome idea, I must try it). And creepy creepy corn fields that dance and whisper in the night. I honestly haven’t loved a book as much as this since Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. I know they’re set in totally different places–imaginary British island vs. land-locked midwest–but they FEEL like they’re in the same universe. That might not make sense, but read it and you’ll understand.

Book: The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,522

Date Published: September 2012

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

How I Discovered this Book: First introduced through the Cabinet of Curiosities, which Bachmann contributed short stories to. I enjoyed his stories in particular so much that I picked up a copy of his full-length work.

Thoughts: Poetic and amazing world building. It had me totally believing that fairies really did live in Edwardian England (perhaps they did!). Evil political schemes and half-fairy children being hunted down by a mysterious force combined to make a charming and page-turning adventure.

Book: Hexed by Michelle Krys

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,389

Date Published: June 2014

Publisher: Delacorte Press

How I Discovered this Book: Stumbled across this title on a blog post somewhere. Upon looking up the description on Goodreads, I was intrigued enough to get my hands on a copy.

Thoughts: A fun, snarky, spoofy story about a cheerleader who finds out she’s a witch with a family history of protecting a very important spell book. She experiences more death threats than I could count (okay, I can count that high, I just choose not to, hence, why I do not follow basketball) made by nasty enemy magicians hell-bent on killing the entire witch population while also trying to deal with her social life shredding to pieces. If you want a book with magic that has you biting your nails until the end, this be it!

The Magic of the Perfect Writing Retreat

I went to a magical place last month: A three-day writing retreat in upstate Pennsylvania at the Highlights Foundation.

Highlights Writing Retreat

The welcoming view when we pulled up.

I was torn two ways about sharing it with you all on the internet. Half of me wanted to sing from the rooftops that everyone should go to said magical place to experience the spellbinding calm, to rest and write, to snuggle in the adorable cabins, and to chow down on the out-of-this-world menu the nicest chefs in the world serve up. The other half of me wanted to keep it secret, so it was my magical place and tourists didn’t start crowding in. But I like you all a lot (and Highlights publicizes the retreat on their website, so I suppose the secret is already out there anyway), so here we are.

Highlights Writing Retreat

View from my cabin’s front porch.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Inside my quaint cabin.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on my morning runs.

Highlights Writing Retreat

Views like this on our after dinner walks.

I’ve looked at writing retreats in the past, read the raving praise Nova Ren Suma has given to the several she’s attended, and always longed to go to one. But I always shied away for reasons. They seemed (at least from my casual research) primarily adult literary writer focused, too expensive, too far away (if the retreat was affordable, the flight was not), and too long (I only get so many vacation days a year, taking an ENTIRE week off for a retreat, and extra days for travel, was not in the cards). Writing retreats, I concluded, were for the literary elite, full-time writers with the flexibility to travel as they pleased. Highlights Foundation’s Unworkshops had none of the above deterrents. It’s only 2.5 hours away (or, at least, that’s what Google Map tells me it should have been, if I wasn’t terrible at directions), incredibly affordable (especially when you consider you get your own cabin, three AMAZING meals a day–seriously, gourmet, I would show you pictures but the food was never on my plate long enough for me to take one), access to hiking trails, the most kind and helpful staff you could imagine, and, thanks to its association with Highlights for Children and Boyd’s Mill Press, the Unworkshop attracts tons of other children’s writers in all stages of the writing process and writing careers, all eager to discuss the pains of drafting, the structure of story, and the adventures of publishing. Basically? It was like a spa for writers (minus the massages, but plus lots of wine and cheese hours). I felt like a pampered princess all week. It was the most relaxing, productive, balance-inducing, cheerful “working” vacation I could have imagined. Look how productive I was!!!!

Highlights Writing Retreat

During the retreat, I dove into heavy revisions on the third draft of the WIP and managed to jump ahead about three weeks in my revision schedule with all the time and inspiration Unworkshop gave me! So much progress. Also, those green stars indicate I ran too, two miles a day! (Something that seems impossible to set aside time for in my daily routine at home.)

Conclusion: I never wanted to leave and I’m definitely going back (can I move in, full time, please??)

Highlights Writing Retreat

My very own cabin. I want to go back [sniffle]

Binge-Worthy Stories

Like a bear, I tend to hibernate in the winter. I curl up inside under blanks and in many layers of clothes. I pull the dog up onto the couch with me to increase the snuggling and warmth factor and allow myself to binge on a lot of things I wouldn’t normally allow when the weather is nicer and I have less excuses for being an inside hermit. So while I say I hate winter–I do, I’m totally a summer kind of person–I’ve also made the best of it. It’s the only time I really allow myself to watch TV without personal judgment. Hours spent in front of the TV, paging through blogs, reading obscure articles, reading for hours on end while I let the dishes pile up? TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR IN WINTER. Totally permissible choices for winter leisure activities.

Summer is for outside and for travel and for doing things and seeing things besides book pages (though book pages while laying out by the pool or beach is also totally acceptable!)

So I read a lot in the winter. But I also consume stories in other ways, usually in a binging sort of way. Netflix and podcasts and series totally accommodate that craving. Also, there is the associated binging sort of consumption of fresh-from-the-oven brownies and chocolate chip cookies and hot chocolate and homemade soup (to balance it out).

Despite a big ‘ol snow storm on the first day of spring, we’re finally starting to get some nice-ish weather here in New Jersey. It’s time to pack away the Netflix and other things (though podcasts are all-seasons friendly! Won’t be giving those up!). Winter was pretty much a montage of the following:

First Draft Podcast with Sarah Enni. Interviews with awesome YA authors, many of them debuts, as they discuss their childhood, how they came to fall in love with writing, and their writing process. Love!

Broadchurch, Season 1. I’ll admit it. I watched all of this in one bleary-eyed evening on Netflix. I HAD TO KNOW WHO ‘DUN IT! It was fantastic. I am told that this was also Americanized, with the same main actor David Tennant, in the show Gracepoint, but…who in their right mind would prefer to watch the same story played out in an American setting when it could be set on the English coast with all the people speaking in ENGLISH ACCENTS? I question these sorts of life choices other people make. I really do.

Serial Podcast. I was probably the last person in the world who listened to this–you all already listened to this too, didn’t you?–so I didn’t understand why everyone was talking about it all the time at work. By the time I finally listened to it–barely pausing for breaks, listening to it while I walked the dog, drove to work, took my lunch hour, did the dishes–nobody wanted to talk about it with me anymore… I have complicated personal feelings on the American judicial system for reasons and this podast really made me critically think.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 1. I was also late to the game on this one. Funny, fluffy, different. Binged it in a week on Netflix.

Parks and Rec, All the Seasons. I watched all the seasons this winter, except the final one that just came out. I know. YEARS late to this fangirl party. But OMG. This show got me. And–many can attest to this–I rarely think anything is funny. I often watch comedy show standup and shows like The Office, totally open to laughing, but instead, while generally enjoying it, usually only cracking a few smiles total. But I cried happy tears so many times watching this show! Among other things, it had the best representation of best (girl) friends I’ve ever seen in a television show.

Agent Carter, Season 1. I have already spoken about this before on the blog, but this was SO GOOD it begs repeating. As a general rule, I love Marvel movies and Agent Carter was like an eight-hour long, kick-ass Marvel movie finally staring a smart lady AND IT WAS IN 1940s PERIOD NEW YORK CITY. It gave me superheros and supervillians and historical fiction and amazing costumes/shoes in one tidy package. Perfect.

March’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: Kursed by Lindsay Smith

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 3

Date Published: March 3, 2015

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press

How I Discovered this Book: I initially discovered the author Lindsay Smith through the lovely podcast series, First Draft (if you haven’t started listening to this and you are a writer and lover of YA/MG…start with Lindsay’s interview here). As a result, I started following Lindsay on Twitter. She tweeted that the prequel to her YA book/series Sekret was on sale for only $1.99 and I preordered it on the spot! I had been curious about her writing and this seemed as a good a place to start as any!

Thoughts: WWII Russia. Plus scientists. Plus PSYCHICS. Using mind powers to bend enemies to their will and have Nazis expose their research secrets and proceed with general bad-assery, I picked up this book soon after I finished binge-watching the Marvel/Captain America TV spin-off, Agent Carter, which was so perfectly spies meets superheroes meets awesome 1950s outfits and heels. I could TOTALLY imagine this little novella taking place in the exact same universe/time period as Agent Carter, but half a world away. What else could you ask for?! This taste definitely got me interested in picking up the first full book in the series.

Book: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,830

Date Published: September 30, 2014

Publisher: Harlequin Teen

How I Discovered this Book: Similar to Lindsay Smith above, I discovered this author and book through the podcast First Draft. If you’re interested in Robin’s interview that got me hooked on picking up her book, try here.

Thoughts: Segregation-era Virginia, telling the story of the first black students who attend the previously all-white–and still very much wants to be that way–prestigious local high school. The scenes in this story were so interesting because though I studied segregation in a variety of history classes in my academic career and have experienced a lot of museum exhibits on the topic, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of the experience, the horrors big and small, from the perspective of children and young adults. Add to that complex situation the fact that one of the black and one of the white students start developing feelings for each other…and they’re both young women. Perfect book to pick up if the We Need Diverse Books campaign has you itching for something different.

January’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 404

Date Published: May 2006

Publisher: Calkins Creek

How I Discovered this Book: Went to the History Museum of Catawba County in North Carolina a few months ago, which had an exhibit on the polio hospital that had been run there in the 1940s. I expressed a deep interest in the topic (GOD I LOVE THE HISTORY OF PLAGUES…ESPECIALLY polio) to the museum curator and she pointed out that a children’s historical fiction book set in the hospital itself, written by a local author, was for sale in the gift shop. Obviously, this book was meant for me and I bought it immediately.

Thoughts: MG historical fiction always has a sweet spot for me as a reader. The voice of the story, and the main character narrating it, was so distinct, uniquely her and also uniquely of that place, both historically and geographically. It’s a perspective of WWII from the home front, the families and children left behind when their fathers went to fight overseas. I don’t think there are enough books that have this perspective, particularly from a character living in the south, as a region, and, let’s be honest, did you even know that there was a polio outbreak during WWII in the United States. (I only learned this in college during a really specific history course, but otherwise I think I’d still be totally clueless about this usually “hidden” history.) I love that this book was set during WWII, but wasn’t about every single battle fought during WWII, which made it feel more realistically like it was from a child’s perspective, for me personally. Perfect if you want a historical fiction read that will surprise and charm you.

Book: Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,387

Date Published: May 2012

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

How I Discovered this Book: Digging through the OverDrive audiobook archive my library provides. Looked up Cornelia Funke, a favorite author, and found this lovely gem.

Thoughts: Love. Love love love love. Set in charming Salisbury, England, this is EXACTLY how I like my ghost stories: creative and historical (there are medieval KNIGHTS, folks!) and spooky and funny, with saucy spunky characters, alive and dead alike. This reads like my very favorite MG books when I was a MGer myself. I also happen to think this is the best comp book out there I’ve found for my current WIP (so I’m totally referencing this book in my query letter in a few months, when I finally can compose said query letter, thank you very much!) if you’re interested. PS: If you’ve read and loved this book in the past, let’s be friends. Also, will you please be my beta reader? (I’m kidding…but not kidding.)

Book: Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blackman

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,290 (it was at under 2,000 when I started reading, though!)

Date Published: April 2014

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

How I Discovered this Book: Mentioned in a round-up most-anticipated April releases over on the YA book blog, Perpetual Page-Turner.

Thoughts: Intensely detailed historical fiction that makes you feel like you’re there, in the early-early years of Nazi German. I could actually see the brick of the cobblestone streets, the world building and setting was so detailed. The twist of this story is that the main character is trying to solve her father’s murder…and her Uncle Dolf is no other than Adolf Hitler himself. An intimate, up-close, and brave portrayal of a massive historical figure who usually remains distant (in a far-off-famous-person sort of way) in young adult fiction.