Sunday, April 6, 2014

Finding the Perfect CP

Two years ago, I was desperate for a few critique partners (CPs). I was madly in love with the novel I'd written, and didn't understand why it kept getting rejected. My feedback at the time was coming from friends and family members, some of whom were well-read in my genre and others who just liked to read. They offered suggestions and much-needed encouragement, and I was so grateful to have them in my corner.

But I realized I needed feedback from other writers--ones who had faced the same writerly issues and would be brutally honest with me. Something in my novel wasn't working and I needed practiced eyes to help me see what.

The problem was, I had no idea how to find a CP. I'd heard other writers talking about the special connection they had with their CPs and I have to admit, I was jealous. (Think, high school nobody hearing the popular girls gush over their perfect boyfriends and wondering why she didn't have one.) So I signed up for a manuscript review session with an agent at a writers' conference, thinking she held the magic key for decoding my manuscript flaws.

The agent I met with was helpful, but at the end I was still unclear as to what, exactly, I needed to do to "fix" my story. As our session ended, she asked me if I had some good CPs.

"No!" I was so glad she'd brought that up. Hopefully she could direct me to the secret society that handed out perfect CPs. "I've had trouble finding a local group." I waited for her to work her agent-y magic.

"Well," she replied instead, "you should really try to find some. I think they could help you out."

I walked away in a bit of a daze, wondering why my fifty dollars hadn't summoned a fairy godmother. I'll spare you the details of my subsequent internet stalking (ahem) research, and share with you some things I have since learned regarding the art of finding a CP.

It never hurts to ask. 
One of the first critiquing groups I found was a local writing group that met once a week and had some great reviews. Their website said they were not accepting new members, but mentioned you could submit an application in the event that a spot opened up. Their group description looked like a perfect fit for me, but because they said they were full, I moved on.

I signed up for a different group. After two meetings, I could tell it wasn't what I was looking for. Another group I joined disbanded without ever scheduling a meeting. Every time I went back to the drawing board, I saw that first group I'd looked at and wished I could join them.

In an impulsive moment of bravery, I filled out an application and hit submit. They responded quickly and asked me for a writing sample. They invited me to a meeting and, suddenly, a week later, I was in! They had been full at one time, but several members had moved and nobody remembered to take down the line stating that the group was full.

So, if you find a group you want to join, JUST ASK! The worst they can do is say 'no'. And, as a writer, if you have issues with 'no' then you have bigger problems than finding a CP.

Your CPs do not have to live in your area
Duh, right? Critiques can be emailed just as easily as they can be printed and brought to a meeting. But for some reason, it took me a long time to realize this. The fact that there was a shortage of local groups in my not-so-big town, led me to believe I'd have to go it alone until I realized I could turn to the incredibly supportive and talented online writing community.

Not all CPs are created equal
Finding a CP is a lot like dating. You have to like your CP. You have to get along well. And you have to have a certain chemistry. Finding this is not easy. When you're looking for new CPs, swap a one-chapter critique. Mention your critiquing style (do you focus on overall plot, are you a great editor, good with dialogue, etc.) and whether you tend to be brutally honest or sugar-coat your feedback. (As a side-note, I believe sugar-coating does more harm than good. You can be encouraging without being afraid to point out what's not working). It is also helpful to establish the time frame for the critique. Do you expect to swap back that same day or is anytime over the next week acceptable?

The one-chapter swap is your chance to see if you connect with the other person's writing, an important thing since you'll be reading a lot of it. Also, do you have suggestions to offer? Feedback that would improve the writing even if you like it? In your critique, make sure you mention things the author did well, in addition to things that need improvement. This is not where you give false praise. Pick out something that was really done well and mention it. Hearing what works in addition to what doesn't, helps an author when writing future scenes. And, of course, don't be afraid to point out what needs attention and offer suggestions for possible fixes.

When you receive feedback on your chapter, read through it and decide whether the notes are helpful and comprehensive enough for your liking. If you want to continue critiquing with that person, let them know. But don't hesitate to break it off if you don't think you'd be a good match. Saying something like "I don't think we'd be a good fit in the long term" is perfectly acceptable. You want CPs that will give you the type of feedback you're looking for, otherwise it will be a waste of time for both of you.

Don't shy away from CPs who write in other genres than you
I write for young adults. But my CPs write adult fantasy, sci fi, horror, and everything in between. The fact that we write in different genres enhances our appreciation of each others' work, rather than diminishing it.

Don't take on more than you can handle
For every critique you receive, be ready to give one out. Critiquing takes time. Don't take on more CPs than you can reasonably give regular critiques to just because you want more opinions on your own work. Critiquing is a partnership and you should expect to give as much as, or more than, you take. By doing so, you will build meaningful, longstanding relationships.

Here are some places to find CPs:

Meetup. Search for writing groups in your area and find one that matches what you're looking for. If you can't find one, consider starting your own. This is where I found the writing group that has helped me take my writing to the next level. They are brutally honest and I love it!

Twitter. Yes, twitter. It's a great way to connect with other writers. I found several CPs through the hashtag #CPMatch. Scrolling through the #amwriting feed is also a good place to find like-minded writers to connect with. Additionally, twitter is where I learned about contests. Which leads me to...

Contests. Participating in writing contests also puts you in touch with other writers. Your competitors make great future CPs. Contests like Pitch Madness and Pitch Wars, hosted by Brenda Drake, and The Writers Voice and Blind Speed Dating, hosted by the anonymous Cupid are just a few examples. 

How About We CP. A tumblr run by the fabulous Jessica Sinsheimer with the express purpose of making CP matches.

Writers Conferences. This is one of the best places to meet other writers. It's easy to tell if you get along with someone when meeting them in person, but you won't really know if they'll work as a CP until you swap writing samples. When you attend a conference, get out of your comfort zone and talk to other writers. Ask if they'd be interested in swapping critiques. Then trade cards and follow up. Just be prepared. It may be harder to "break up" after swapping a sample critique since you met them in person rather than online.

If you write SciFi, Fantasy, or Horror, the SFF Online Writing Workshop is a great resource.

There are tons of other ways to find CPs, but these are the ones I've used personally. There's no right way to do it, and everyone seems to have a different story. For those of you who already have one, how did you find your CP?