The Story of Open Minds
Ch 5: Why My Critique Partners Are Smarter Than Me
Ch 6: Facing Revisions When It Feels Like Being on the Rack
Ch 7: How to Know When to Query
Ch 8: A Writer’s Journey: Self-Publishing Open Minds (Part 1)
Ch 9: Owning theWriterly Path:Self-Publishing Open Minds (Part 2)
Epilogue: Finding Time to Write the Sequel
Why My Critique Partners Are Smarter Than Me
This title probably sounds like I'm kissing up to my critique partners. And while they are awesome and deserve all the praise I can give them (especially the ones that critiqued my paranormal/SF novel Open Minds), that's not quite what I mean.
Robert McKee, in his screenwriting book Story, talks about how the collective IQ of the audience goes up 25 points as the lights dim down. Every sense is tuned to the visual, verbal, and musical cues on the screen. Years of storytelling in the form of movies, books, and TV have trained the audience's intuition. They know the tropes by instinct, and while they probably couldn't tell you why, they just KNOW that the creepy character in the first act is going to come back and be the villain in the end.
Have you ever watched a movie where you "totally saw that coming"? Yeah, me too.
Writing a story that can keep that hyper-attuned audience in the dark until just the right reveal is an extremely difficult task. The writer has to plant just enough clues, but not too many. Provide just the right mood, but not sloppily slurp into cliché-land. Give just enough romance and meaning and depth to move the audience and not so much that it makes them cringe.
Critique partners are the movie-preview audience of the novel world.
When I was writing Open Minds, I went through round after round of critiques from different sets of writer friends who were generous enough to add their expertise to help make the story better. If you read the acknowledgements page in the back of Open Minds, you'll see what I mean. A LOT of writers helped craft this story into its final form and each contributed an important insight into the story. Any reader can give feedback about whether a story "works" for them, but writer-readers are extra helpful in that they can help pinpoint how to fix it as well.
When I return the favor of a critique, I try to give feedback to my writer friend about how the story would be received by a hyper-tuned reader. But I also try to make suggestions for improvements. Sometimes I leave it vague ("more emotional connection needed here" or "I'm not really liking this character—is that the reaction you want me to have?"); sometimes I get more specific ("Reorder this scene to put the high impact point last" or "We need a kiss here"). When I'm very lucky, a crit partner will ask me to help show how to reword or rewrite a small scene. Somehow these scenes always seem to be kissing related, and I joked with a critique friend that I was changing my business card from "Author and Rocket Scientist" to "Author, Rocket Scientist, and Kissing Consultant." (Note: Yes, there are kisses in Open Minds, but nowhere as many as Life, Liberty, and Pursuit—that was a love story after all.)
I relish these times that I can pay back a small bit of the help I get from my brilliant critique partners.
When my critique partners read my MS, they are hyper-attuned like the readers that I hope will someday read the book. Those readers, as soon as they crack open my book or switch on their e-readers, will become savvy, impossibly smart story consumers. Don't underestimate them. They will see your plot twists coming. They will want to be surprised, moved to tears, made to laugh out loud. If you want to deliver a great reading experience for them, if you want to light up their imagination in a way that will rival two hours in a dark theatre, make sure you pretest your novel with critique partners. They will help you find the sluggish plot points, the stereotyped characters, and implausible action sequences before your readers do.
And if they suggest a kiss, let me know if you need a consultant. :)