Friday, 26 October 2007

Morning Beverage Break - Critters and Readers

Good morning, Racers! Belly up to the bar and tell me what you drink in the morning to get the old synapses firing. Personally, it’s coffee for me. The stronger the better.

Since last week’s whole ‘getting to know you’ thing had an addendum about critiquing and beta reading, I thought I’d carry the idea over to this week and talk about CPs (critique partners or critters) and BRs (beta readers). Now rather than reinvent the wheel, I wrote about this on my blog in June, and I’m just going to copy some of it here. (Not that I’m lazy, but it’s been a crazy week. Those parts in italics are from my original post.)

From my perspective, and stop me if I'm way off base here, a CP is someone who is also a writer. They read your work, mark the hell out of it, provide useful suggestions on style / technique / story. They are people for whom you do the same. A CP also provides moral support, industry news, and a shoulder to cry on when you've just gotten about the worst rejection ever and you feel like you can never write another word. (My CP and I also swap books via mail, but that's not a requirement. It's just fun.)

Now I realize not everyone needs or wants a CP. Sometimes you just have to go it alone. I get that. But if you find the right people to help you with your work, by all means enter into this kind of relationship. I know my writing has improved because of my relationship with my CP, and I hope her writing has improved as well. Neither of us is published yet, so only time will tell on that front.

Still I think everyone can use the eyes of another person, if only for proofing. I know after the gazillionth draft of a story, I can’t see the typos any more. This is where the BR comes in.

A BR on the other hand may or may not be a writer. Look at these folks like your test group. They're going to read your book to make sure it makes sense to the general public. They like to read, and they read whatever genre you write. (If you're writing thrillers, and you've got a beta who only reads romances, how much help are they really going to be, other than any romantic subplots you might have?) These are people who you can trust to be totally honest with you. If they think a scene is pointless, they're going to tell you. (Which pretty much leaves most family members out of the BR group.) If possible, these folks also look for typos and errors. … They are also people who can provide intelligent commentary, but sometimes the best they can do is say "This part is really good" or "This part stinks on ice" which at least gives you a flag about a scene. Your CP can help you from there.

What kinds of criteria do you use when looking for a CP or a BR? Do they have to write your genre, or can they write something else and just be a fan of your genre? If you have CPs and BRs, have you ever met them? Or if you don’t, why do you choose to go it alone?

Enjoy the morning, and I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say.


liz fenwick said...

Strong perferably Italian coffee which I really shouldn't love as much as I do :-)

Good topic BE. I had a go with a CP but it didn't work because I couldn't be as tough on her work as she wanted me to be. I can be brutal to my own work but i have a tough time being really tough on someone else work. Maybe it's a skill I could learn.

However I do have a beta reader who is brilliant. She reads everything and is very helpful...

Through the Romantic Novelist Association as part of the their New Writers Scheme I must submit a manuscript for critque every year. The writers who have resad my work have provided me with really invaluable insight.

Finally I have invested in my writing using professional readers - Hilary Johnson and Caroline Upcher. I have to say I have found their comments very useful. They know the markets and don't mince their words.....

And yes,I am still writing:-)

I would say that I would happily beta read for the Novel Racers time permitting - mentioned my problems with cping above.

Going back to last week......I'm also happy to put my work out their for critique on a new private nr blog if we go that way.

BTW Wordtyst has great news that she shared at the tail end of the coffee last week that hopefully she will tell more this week :-)

Rowan Coleman said...

Hi B.E! I am caffeine free for almost a year now, so its lemon in hot water followed by a decent decaff coffee for me. As long as I have the taste I don't miss the caffeine and I am a lot less jumpy!

While i'm writing I have three readers - my editors and my agent. Sometimes I go to them for feedback before the first draft is finished, sometimes I wait until it's completed but either way I trust their opinion completely and welcome the creative in put they give me, the clarity of vision and spark for new ideas.

Can't wait to hear wordtryst's news!

Flowerpot said...

I cant take caffeine either so it's Rooibosh tea for me. I hve 2 regular CPs as part of my writing group and 3 intermittent ones as part of a wider group, which works really well for me. I'd bhe happy to take part in critique on a private blog if time permits.

Juliette M said...

Morning B.E. and fellow Racers! I have a piping hot cup of Whittards chocolate truffle coffee here. I like normal coffee, but I am a sucker for any kind of interesting flavoured hot drink, as the packets of Christmas-Pudding-Flavour, Melon-Grape-Aloe flavour and oh I dont know, Wallaby's-Tail flavour tea I have kicking around in my kitchen.

OK now you all know me for a tea-collecting freak.

I have neither a regular CP (critter is a great word) or a BR. I sent off the first 10 chapters of my fairy book to a select few people and two of them have made a couple of comments back in the body of an email, but nobody has sent me a proper crit. The best crit I have got since my MA classes, when we all HAD to crit or die, is the 'first page challenge' stuff I have done recently.

My friend Wildwinter (linked from my blog) posts Friday snippets of his work, and jolly good they are too, but I am paranoid that someone will nick my work or ideas (not you, my lovely Racers, of course.) So I sometimes wonder if Friday snippets could be a good thing for me to do (when I am not feeling paranoid.) Maybe I could password them?

My friend R, who writes herself, has offered to BR some of my work, but mostly the fantasy as that is a genre she enjoys.

Plus the Lovely Bloke has mentioned that friends will not always give you an honest crit or beta comments, as they are your friends, and can then only be trusted to say "oh how wonderful, it's the next Booker winner" even when they mean "what a load of tripe, but of course I can't tell you that because you'll never speak to me again."

So on reflection maybe I should sort out a CP (and a BR who reads and enjoys chick lit) for my non-fairy books...

Fiona said...

For me its a leaded coffee as unlike the pirate, who is a lark and -dear of him - brings me the caffine, I can't even mumble in the mornings without one.

I don't have a critter but recently some of you dropped by my place and were very helpful with my first page. I know how difficult this is as reading more than a couple of hundred words on a computer screen is tiring - why is that?

Who made the suggestion of a first paragraph challenge? I am sorry, I am so forgetful but that sounded like a great idea.

For newbies, is great...and free but it can be hard not to do a Violet Elizabeth when you get a brutal crit back.

Great coffee morning question - are you a lark by any chance?

NoviceNovelist said...

Morning BE and racers - It was hot water with lemon and honey this first thing this morning but I'm ready for a latte now - with a chocolate biscuit! I have a couple of writers groups that I go to - one is very small - only 3-6 of us who all did a Masters together so we know each other's style quite well - we meet every two months and I rely on them for criticial feedback.

I have one dedicated CP who I swap work with which is very useful. We don't write in each other's genre but do read in them so have an understanding. I'd be a bit lost without her as she has a good eye and tells it like it is - in a constructive and incisive way. I'm also learning to trust myself and this week I 'murdered a few little darlings' as I redraft my novel - very liberating to do!

ChrisH said...

Hi all,
Strong coffee today, please, I'm really firing! (Gawd! That sounds a bit scary!). I tried working with a writing buddy and for me it didn't work - neither of us could had the guts to wield the knife. I run my finished work past my other half who is Mr Pedant but as well as moaning gently about grammar or typos I trust him because he is excellent at picking up on passages which are not crystal clear to the reader (usually preceded by cries of 'Chris? Did you REALLY mean to say ....?). As for a second opinion on whether the typescript itself hits the target? Like Liz, I went to Hilary Johnson.

Btw, some of you already know, thanks for your support, I'm taking a few weeks off blogging to concentrate on wrapping up my rewrite. Even skipping a week has made a huge impact and I'm delighted with progress on the book so, forgive me if I'm not actively blogging at the mo but i hope to start again before too long.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

I can't do caffeine either, so it's peppermint tea for me. I've learned something today, I had CPs and BRs but I didn't know that was what they were until now! I was very clear, for my first draft, that I wanted writer-readers and reader-readers (that's what I called them, up to today). And very useful it was too. I also act as a critter for several people, I have no problem whatsoever being blunt and upfront, it's not going to help them if I pussyfoot around. Having said that, I know my views are only those of one person, so while I will tell my crittees exactly what I think, I won't expect them to implement everything; I know from my own experience that they need to go away and think about my input, and about the story as a whole, before making their own decisions about how to proceed. Criticism of our writing can be hard to take, but we need practice from our CPs and BRs to steel ourselves for agents, publishers and reviewers! (Why do we do this again? ;-))

Lane said...

Thanks B.E and morning all.
I'm in awe of all you non caffeine racers. I'm probably on my sixth this morning and fully wired.

I've never had a CP or a BR or even heard those terms until a while back. The only person who has read my work is The Grammar King (him indoors) and even that has created grammatical arguments.

Why no CP or BR? Well, I don't know any and I haven't asked yet because for short stories I really wasn't aware of needing them. Now I'm on the long WIP there will come a time when I will be grateful for input however blunt/harsh. The good folk of the Novel Racers will be the perfect place to turn as we have got to know each to varying degrees. To that end, a dedicated blog sounds good to me.
I will hone my brutal honesty skills in preparation:-)
Have a great weekend all.

Cathy said...

It is half term so I'm just popping in for a quick much needed caffeine fix...

The only serious reading and critting I have taken part in so far has been within the relatively safe and supportive environment of my OU writing courses. I have looked at a number of online groups but am not sure I would want to put any of my work there..some seem to be unnecessarily brutal whilst others give constantly glowing crits to their 'online friends' even where to be honest, the writing is not very good. I'm unfortunately unable to attend the local face to face writing groups, but even if I could, I know I might not find the right crit partner, as groups cover such a broad range of writers.

My ideal crit partner? Someone who writes at the darker and more literary end of women's fiction, or reads a lot of that that type of work, someone with a good grounding in the technical aspects of writing and who is prepared to offer constructive criticism, perhaps a bestselling novelist? OK, I can dream...

I think finding beta readers is actually easier. I have a number of friends, on- and offline who could probably do that job well, if asked nicely or bribed! When my novel is finally finished I shall probably also seriously consider using one of the literary agencies for a professional reading too.

Erica Ridley said...

Coffee, baby, coffee!

I think you nailed the CP and BR descriptions pretty darn well.

The only thing I'd nit on is this part:

I think finding beta readers is actually easier.

In my experience, finding people who *want* to be BRs is easy, finding *good* ones almost impossible.

Too often the feedback I get is, "I loved it. Good job."

While that's the sort of response I want from reviewers (hehehe) if I'm prepping something for an agent/editor/contest, I'm really looking for both constructive brutality and also more specifics on what *did* work.

Something more useful would be, "I laughed when... I couldn't put the story down when... I slogged through Chapter X just because I promised you I'd beta-read. It got better after that, except for the ridiculous part when..."

Not CP-style crits about prose and GMC and character arcs, but the same sort of thing you do when you walk out of a movie and say, "Seriously, why didn't she just call the cops if she thought a ninja was hiding in her pantry? And what were the chances of a briefcase full of money breaking his fall from that skyscraper? That thing with the giraffe and the pogo stick, though--priceless."

That's what I want from a BR. =)

KeVin K. said...

What are my criteria for a BR or a CP? Not a clue. My straight-ahead, get-the-words-out-of-my-head-and-on-paper-then-forget-them method of producing stories does not lend itself to a lot of introspection and revision. With the exception of the editor I'm trying to sell or the instructor/assigned critic at writing workshops, I've never let anyone read an unsold story of mine.

For the first time in my writing career I am seriously thinking about finding a beta reader. Or a critique partner. My full-bore methodology got a stick in the spokes on my original mystery novel; my work in progress is no longer in progress. I had to table it for other work-for-hire projects. Looking back at it now there are a couple of mutually exclusive things going on in it and I'm not sure I'm headed the right way. Normally I would deal with things like the fact it has two completely different opening/introductions or my first-person protagonist being in two places at once for a key sequence as I wrote -- one or the other would make more sense as things took shape and the other would be deleted. This whole stop dead and look business has thrown my perspective -- and trust in my eye -- all off.

My first thought, of course, is to delete the whole thing and start over. That's my default response when I lose sight of a story. But fresh eyes may be something to consider. So. While I have no criteria in mind (okay, maybe "brutal, unmincing, and informed honesty"), I may start shopping around for a BR or CP. I'll let you know how that turns out.

KeVin K. said...
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Leatherdykeuk said...

Tea for me, please; Rington's for preference.

I have a couple of beta readers who are very helpful in pointing out mistakes in the grammar and in the plot. I've also had whole plot twists occur because they thought something and I felt it a good idea.

Nothing professional as I'm still unpublished until next year.

sheepish said...

Well it's evening now so a glass of wine would go down well.Another interesting post and good to be clear as to CP's and BR's. I haven't shown any of my wip to anyone yet as I don't think it's anywhere near ready yet and the OH is not a reader of books so he can't help!. I am certainly not ready for full on criticism yet it would probably unnerve me completely. It would be good to have someone just read some of the bits I am reasonably happy with, but I am a bit short of english readers here. I am trying to summon up the courage to ask one of the NR's to have a look. But I am still a long way from finishing the first draft so there is no urgency. I would be happy to be a reader for any NR's but I don't think I would be any good as a CP as I wouldn't want to upset anyone with my comments. I'm a bit of a softy I think.

hesitant scribe said...

Hello! *huffs and puffs - out of breath* Interesting topic B.E.! I've been run ragged today but managed to introduce a class of first year lang students to Linton Kwesi Johnson - so that was most excellent.

Writing a novel for my PhD means I have no choice but to have readers. I go to a small monthly meeting in which we critique the wips of others. I find it useful if only because it means I actually have a deadline to produce something too.

My supervisor caught up with me today and asked for the first draft of my novel. I gave her 1,000 words and sad puppy dog eyes but she's a tough nut to crack and had little sympathy. "But I've been to Spain... researching..." I whimpered. She's going to arrange a meeting shortly so it's high time I got all this stuff down on paper!

I have a reader though, who I adore. She knows me and my work, and is objective, critical, and has a very good eye for detail. I'd be lost without her, and no, she isn't a writer herself (but she is an avid reader).

Oh, and tea with cinnamon is loverly!

Caroline said...

I am late! I was going to ask for hot chocolate, but then saw a reference to Rington's tea. I so miss Rington's tea (and ginger biscuits) ... anyway.

I have a CP who is another writer. And it works really well for us. I like to bounce ideas around and talk about plot developments.

Hope everyone is well.

JJ said...

Sorry I'm so late. I know I'm meant to be all serene and relaxed following my holiday, but we came rushing back full speed into life with a two day swimming competition.

Well, I have neither a Critter nor a Beta Reader. I have really only just been able to say out loud that I'm writing, so the idea of showing someone something fills me with terror. However I have one or two people in mind when I come to the point where I may need one or the other.

One person is my best friend (I know, not always the best candidate) but she's an English Teacher and passionate reader, whom I trust infinitely. While I know she won't be cruel (I hope no-one would) I think I'd be able to hear that it's not ready yet for these reasons... I haven't had the conversation with her anyway so she might not feel able to do it for me.

The other person is my ex English Teacher, with whom I made contact several months ago on my blog, having written a post to people I was grateful to for my love of stories, words and literature. She rather rashly asked/offered to read some which I turned down because I'm not ready. Again, I haven't asked her; she may feel unwilling or unable, but she's another person whose judgement I trust.

Otherwise, another Novel Racer (Helen has read one of my short stories and Hesitant Scribe has read some other material) or possibly I just haven't met them yet.


Leigh Russell said...

May I join the discussion? It's so interesting. I love the idea of a CP and a BR. Sadly I think I should come clean right from the start, and confess I'd be a lousy CP. I'd be too nervous about making hurtful comments or even being rude. How can you tactfully criticise someone else's work? I know people do, and I admire them for having the skill to do it. I just don't think I could.

Secondly, I'm not sure I'd have the confidence. How could I be sure my views are 'better' than the writer's? I guess in the end it's just my lack of experience and skill that's the problem. Maybe one day...

A BR sounds a good idea too. But that brings me to my other problem. This is where I may sound a bit weird - but I don't like showing people my work. Is that common? So far the only two people who've read my writing are my publisher and my editor. I'm comfortable with the idea of people reading my work in published book form - no one can laugh at my inveterate scribbling then, can they? - but until my first book comes out in the spring, I'm feeling coy. So I guess that rules me out as a CP and a BR for now. I hope I'll feel less shy about my work as I gain in confidence and experience. Writing is very new for me and I'm still finding my way.

Leigh Russell said...

Forgot to say - I'm a coffee addict. Try to be moderate, but it's hard to resist....

KeVin K. said...
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KeVin K. said...

Leigh -- I hate showing people my work in progress. In fact, I never have. Which is going to make one of the paragraphs coming up in a moment all the stranger.

I would never want tact in a critique. I'm notoriously unsubtle, even for an American, and if you go clouding the message with things like tact and courtesy I'm likely to miss the point entirely. I want honesty unvarnished. As someone else posted around here somewhere: I started out in theatre. Criticism -- and rejection -- lost the power to hurt me around 1972.

I discovered in conversation with a neurologist that my pathologist brother-in-law gave me bad advice. (Talking about my mystery novel here.) The nail in the brain I gave my protagonist will have the effect I describe -- but only on one side of her body. For it to be uniform (as I need it to be for something that's going to happen late in the novel) I either need two symmetrically placed nails or a neck injury which will not have the effect I need but would be uniform. There is hysterical response, wherein the brain thinks it can't do something and shuts down a perfectly sound system. (Temporary blindness was a big favorite on TV detective shows in the 60s.) So her uniformity could be half legit and half hysterical, suggested the helpful neurologist. Not sure I like that.

I was just looking over Coastal, Carolina, the wip in question. It has two mutually exclusive beginnings. It has two biographies of the protagonist. It has a pretty straightforward 20 0r 30k setting things up. It has a half-dozen scenes for later in the story which I wrote first. I'm not sure where I'm going with Terrance, I really need to change the names of two real people I used as a characters and described right down to their automobiles, and I can not for the life of me remember the name of that big South American rodent.

I have another order for four more articles -- 750 words each -- in one IP. I've been given the green light on a novella in another IP. The editor in the UK I keep mentioning has read some of my Trek and my MechWarrior novel and told me to stop sending her fantasy proposals. She wants me to study a military science-fiction game her company produces. Then she wants me to submit short fiction for an anthology and pitch novel ideas set in that IP. Given some novels and a couple of anthologies to read as homework. And I have to tackle each of these projects in sequence, because unlike many writers I admire, I can not write in more than one IP at the same time.

In other words, it will be mid-January at the earliest before I can get back to Coastal, Carolina. By then I'm afraid I will have lost all contact with the story -- and it's something I really want to finish. So I've been trying to think of ways to keep the novel alive while I work on other things.
Which led to the shocking idea I warned y'all about in the first paragraph.
If any Novel Racer is interested in being -- well it's much too early to be a beta reader. Gamma reader? Or I guess just seeing the mass of words that will one day be Coastal, Carolina, let me know. What I'd like to hear are any insights, criticisms, observations, suggestions, etc., 100% tact free.

wordtryst said...

Love all coffee, but must stick to herb tea because I get addicted to caffeine and get raging headaches when I go without...

I have a CP, and I sort of stumbled across him accidentally. He used to be my son's math teacher and we happened to find out that we both write, so we started exchanging books on writing, then he asked me to critique some of his work. I was shyer about letting him critique mine, but he prodded me into letting him read, and now we depend on each other for that input.

Even though we write in entirely different genres, we do help each other tremendously, in different ways.