And my answer? It all comes down to trust.
With THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR (January 2014) I sought minimal feedback before completing the second draft. I’m not a plotter, and I’m a heavy rewriter; one crappy draft is never enough for me. I need to wander all over the place and follow my gut and my research. That can be a long, slow process that leads to many cut pages. While I was working on this novel, my second, I enjoyed some productive brainstorming sessions with my two writing partners—and a few drunken chitchats with my beta reader—but mostly, I kept my ideas to myself. Once the second draft was finished, I handed over my baby to five readers, chosen carefully for very different reasons. I used their feedback to complete two more drafts before submitting to my editor. Her fabulous revisions sparked my imagination and another three drafts. I’m super proud of the result.
Then I met novel three. Nothing about this manuscript is going the way I thought it would, and now the clock is ticking. Already, it’s the wild child, the one that will drive me to rip out chunks of my hair and eat my weight in chocolate. (And we’re talking the expensive, imported stuff.)
I’ve created three damaged characters I love, I’ve thrown them into a horrible situation, and I want to see how they grow and survive. However, I have no idea where the story’s going. And that’s a huge problem, since I have three weeks to create a polished proposal of three chapters and a synopsis. Crafting a synopsis before I’ve bashed out a first draft is terrifying to me—like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. (I would never jump out of a plane WITH a parachute.)
In many ways, I don’t want feedback until I’ve figured out where I’m heading, but I do need black and white answers about what’s working and what isn’t. To up the ante, this is my second go round with the proposal. Everyone I’ve consulted has adopted a contradictory opinion on how to fix the problems. We’ve agreed on one thing only: The synopsis is rubbish.
At the same time, I’ve thrown myself into a secret Nanowrimo splinter group with some of my buddies over at Book Pregnant. We’re a group of thirty debut authors who’ve been together for nearly two years. These people are my homeboys and homegirls. They’re also rule breakers, so no one cares that I’m editing rather than amassing daily word counts. Within just a few days, their support has giving me the motivation I need to concentrate on jolting life into a dead proposal.
It’s also given me a new plan. I’m going to use my daily updates with this mega-supportive group to write a new synopsis—conning myself into believing I have the freedom of a first draft. Then, when it’s polished, polished, polished, I will turn it over to the two people whose opinions I trust above all overs: my beta reader and my husband.
My beta reader has read everything I’ve ever written—including the novel under the bed. She's not a writer, but she’s a voracious reader who introduced me to such authors as Jodi Picoult—when I was banging on about the value of rereading Victorian classics. My husband, a passionate writer of non-fiction, is a big dude academic who rarely picks up novels these days. My debut had been out for nearly a year before he read it. When he said, “You’ve written a beautiful story, Barbara,” I believed him.
First off, these two will literally stop the clocks on their busy lives for me. With the time crunch, I need that more than anything right now. When I give them pages, I know I will get them back the same day with serious comments.
Second, they’re both scary smart, tough critics, and they can find weakness in the tightest argument. Or plot.
Third, they rarely say well done, so I know that when they do, I’ve earned it. But the flip side is the knowledge that they are both proud me. Their faith in my success gives me the freedom to fail.
And I think that’s what really matters when you’re searching for critique partners. They need to be brutal, but they also need to make you feel safe. That allows you to take risks. That helps you to be the best writer you can be—and the best critique partner for another writer.