Thursday, July 1, 2010

Critique partners: YMMV

First of all, Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadian writers and friends! Enjoy the holiday and the festivities :)

Today's topic was prompted by an angry e-mail I received this morning from a critique partner I have been exchanging material with since late May (May 25th 2010 for you PI out there). Before we continue, let me preface this by saying I don't really believe in online critique groups. I even joined the OWW SF&F for the trial period to see how it works out and read some of the material. I feel like exposing my MS on the entire internet to people I have never met and don't know at all to be uncomfortable. Not that I worry about plagiarism, but I read many critiques and most were overly general and not really worth the monthly price versus my discomfort with sharing a part of my soul (that is what I feel my novel is). In my opinion of course! Plus, my good friend Lisa who was an editor a few blue moons ago really discouraged me from joining online workshops. I wouldn't be opposed to trying a local one, but the only one I know doesn't cover much sci-fi. Therefore, my option was to find critique partners online on a case-by-case basis.

So, Anette (we'll call her Anette) critiqued my first four chapters and provided amazing insight (I referenced to her in an early blog post) and I critiqued her four first chapters. I thought we had a good relationship that was a also dichotomy of sort: while we both wrote sci-fi, her writing skills were much superior than mine prose-wise and we had very different settings. Though her weakness was character dialogue and the authenticity of it, it is my strength. It was a nice dynamic and we both agreed this process required brutally honest feedback for it to work its magic, so for the first three chapters we both each time insisted on keeping it that way.

I sent her an e-mail on June 10th that I was having personal problems and that it might slow me down. A few days later (6/13) she sends me an e-mail saying she critiqued my chapter 4, but I couldn't find any file attached (either she forgot, my AV ate it, e-mail black-hole, who knows? Shit hits the fan constantly on the interweb). I wanted to get back to her but it fell through the cracks, then on 6/29 I send her an e-mail telling her I had needed a break and was now ready to critique some more of her work if she wanted me to (with the fourth chapter attached and critiqued, or so I thought).

This morning, as my Happy Canada Day present, this is what she had to say (this is the full, unedited and unabridged e-mail):

Hello, Francis:

I’m glad to hear that you had a good report on your health and hope
that things continue to go well for you.

However, I can’t exchange any more writing with you. I’m a member of
the OWW, the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and
Horror, and exchange work on the site, plus with a critique partner
outside the site. You are the only writer I’ve encountered who doesn’t
say thank you after a critique, or even acknowledge receipt of the
critique. Every other writer says “thank you for the feedback,”
whether they agree with it or not. That’s the protocol. It takes me a
couple of hours to read a several thousand word chapter and then go
over it line by line, and when I don’t receive a thank you or even any
acknowledgment that it came through the email, it makes me feel like I
wasted my time. The same thing goes for taking a several week break
after you ask to read a chapter. For the future, just tell the next
person you are taking a break for a few weeks and will get back to
them when you can. It’s the professional way to treat your fellow
writers. Also, you said you sent me a critique of my last chapter,
but you didn’t attach anything (and don’t worry about it now).

I wish you the best of luck with your writing.


The passive-aggressive attitude was quite obvious and it made me think: have I really been this much of an asshole? Have I never said thank you when I got chapters or acknowledged their receipt? I was raised a lot better than that, I just can't believe this would be true.

I had to make sure. I went back to my inbox and ran some stats. From 5/25 to 7/1 we exchanged thirty e-mails, twenty-four of which were critique related. I read them all, hers and mine, one by one.

Never said thank you? Here are unabridged quotes from each e-mail that followed an e-mail with one of my critiqued chapter or when she sent me one of hers. All of these were said by me:


"Thank you for allowing me to read it!"

"Thanks for the clarifications!"

"Thank you SO MUCH for your feedback and critique!"

"Thanks again for your amazing feedback, it will be EXTREMELY useful!"

"I will read your next chapter for sure, and provide feedback as you've requested."

"Very nice page, thanks"

"Thanks for the time you give me, it's appreciated"

"Thank you for your amazing chpt 2 critique, again. Very insightful." Followed by an offer to host her website for free (or make her one) on my own server as a token of my appreciation.

"The more brutal you are, the more I love you."

"You're like an angel that fell from the sky" (in regard to some insight she provided)

"Thanks for the words of encouragement."

Now I don't know about you, but I think it shows I was truly thankful for her time. Maybe she was having a bad day? I sent her a somewhat sarcastic message and ended it with sincere good luck in her future endeavors.

What really annoyed me is that she preceded her message with "I’m a member of
the OWW" as if it gave her higher moral grounds or a "Free to be a diva" card. The OWW is open to any and anyone, and unlike the SFWA which requires pub credits to join, all the OWW requires is money. It means nothing other than you are open to online critique groups.

Second, telling someone you've exchanged work with "you are the only writer I’ve encountered who doesn’t say thank you after a critique, or even acknowledge receipt of the critique" like I'm some ungrateful little jerk, especially when it is clearly not true, is truly insulting.

"That's the protocol" she says. As far as I am aware, there are no official protocol that I was aware of or that she wanted to discuss. She knew I was not part of any online group and clearly my 14-days OWW trial wasn't enough for me to acquire these "basic rules". If she was so annoyed by my supposed thankless e-mails, why did she wait over a month to let me know?

Two-faced agents, like two-faced critique partners or two-faced ANYTHING really irritate me. The civil way of handling any matter of discomfort is to calmly bring up the issue as soon as it arises, not one whole fucking month later. I was told taught letting your partner know about something that bothers you before it explodes and makes the issue unrepairable is the way to go.

I waited two weeks and a half to message her back, and that was the once exception out of thirty. Why didn't she follow-up? It was clearly out of character for me not to respond within a few days. She rather waited until I remembered and then decided to write a condescending and pompous piece of advice?

That's not how this works where I live. Communication, I'm told, is of extreme importance in this business, but things do fall through the cracks at times.

As you can see, YMMV a lot with this whole critique partner thing. I think I'll stick to my trusted beta readers whom are capable of patience and comprehending that sometimes, things do come in the way.

It's such a shame too, because it ended a relationship that so far was a good one. She could have just easily ended it by saying she was uncomfortable with the wait time or needed someone more responsive, or that she didn't feel I could help her anymore. Why end it so abruptly with so much tension and ambiguity? Truly sad.

I'm really curious to know what your experience has been like regarding critique partners and online critique groups. I could always use pointers, too :)


Mac said...

Francis said...

Will check it out, thanks Mac!

February Grace said...

Francis, I can't find an email link for you! I'd like to do a four question interview with you for my blog to be posted in the next couple weeks.

Drop me a note if you're still interested!

fireworksflowers at g mail dot com


Francis said...

Sent you a mail bru!

aspiring_x said...

i'm inactive on critters
i thought it was a good site for short stories, but for a full length novel (even excerpts) it's not so good. but i did meet a writer there that we exchange excerpts for help.

besides that, i've had two crit partners and one that i'm critting without expecting reciprocation. i met those three in the bransforums.

one crit partner is AMAZING! helpful to the extreme, patient when i can't get back, and altogether a wonderful person.

the one i'm critting without recip is a nice gal, and listens to my advice without blindly taking it. good to work with.

but the other one i had to break off the relationship (that sounds like dating- which it sort of is like-trying to find a good crit partner) with. we agreed to do a chap or two a week for each other, and after i did her first two chaps, she sent me an email asking me to do her whole novel in a month. i said i'd hurry through as fast as i could- but you know have a life. i kept sending her crits not getting any back. occassionally she'd send a note trying to get me to hurry faster. then there was content in her book i had trouble stomaching. i tried to get through the thing, but only got through about twelve chaps. she never emailed me back to let me know she recieved my crits. that did annoy me, but not so much as the fact that the whole time she only critted two or three chapts of my book. i can't quite remember she didn't give good advice.

well, i was passive about it. tried to just dissappear. didn't email her for a while. i know it was immature, but i hate confrontation. after a month, she asked where her crits were, and i had to tell her that i was quitting. i guess i handled it badly, but she was a terrible crit partner. so, i guess it's better to just speak up early like you said! good advice! sorry this was so long!

aspiring_x said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Suzie said...

I've tried the CC (critique circle) and it just wasn't at all what I wanted. And I've had a couple (literally 2) critque partners that really didn't work out!

The first CP was way behind me in her writing (I mean it read like my ten year old did it- she ran to him. Kissed him on the kips. They were happy...). I tried for quit some time to help her... give her tips and such. But, apparently, it was me that was far behind.

And my other CP wanted to read all my Chapters but always found an excuse for when it was her chapters getting critiqued. You know, come to think of it... I never even read ONE WORD she'd written.

But never would I have behaved the way Anette did! I think my eyes were about to bulge out of my head while I read her email to you! And, even if you hadn't actually said, thank you... it seems like a trivial thing to get all worked up about. An adult would have been like... Are you sure I'm helping you? Because you never say thank you or anything!

Recently I've joined a group of four other women here on blogger (and we have a yahoo group too) that is called Critique_This_WIP... everyone seems very friendly, open, and honest. And best of all, we are all in the same "area" on our writing. I actually had to participate in a contest (of sorts) to be considered for membership. So far it's really working out and I have high hopes for it.

I'm glad I found your blog. :)

Francis said...

I'm very glad to have read your story Suzie! It's kind of reassuring to know I'm not the only one who's had some weird stuff happening in that department.

aspiring_x, would you completely recommend a sub on critters?