I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories. I had a pretty wild imagination as a child that went into overdrive during the summer I had a skull fracture and had to spend months lying down in the dark because everything else hurt too much. I had some little animal family toys that I created elaborate dramas for, and by the time I could go back to school, I began drawing my stories on my desk. I spent many recess periods with a rag and spray cleaner handed to me by the teacher and janitor to clean up my mess.
I wrote. I created. I was lost in my own head, in my weird stories. That was okay. In high school, I’d made my decision, I was going to be a novelist. Nothing would stop me. I’d even gotten an agent as a minor, which I’m actually pretty glad that book didn’t sell and that agented and I parted because whoa…
I showed my work to my friends. I got their feedback, which was pretty consistently, “ILOVETHISWHERE’SMORE?!” Very nice to hear, but it wasn’t really the constructive criticism I needed to learn how to grow as a writer. Even in college, when I took an independent creative writing class, my professor taught me how to make my writing a little more nuanced, but I didn’t know how to get to the next level.
That next level didn’t come for several years. I’d known my first honest-to-God critique partner for years before we became CPs. It was an accident. We were at a mutual friend’s child’s birthday party and she noticed that I looked pretty happy, so I told I was writing again after being in hiatus for several years. She said she was writing as well. We were both paranormal, and she pushed me to show my work to her. We’ve been showing each other our work since December 2008. In February 2009, we met another local writer through QueryTracker, and she sat with her back to the wall at a coffee shop. First question was how serious we were about writing (she wasn’t wasting her time). Second was whether we were insane (we faked sanity well enough to trap her).
I’ve been very lucky to add in other CPs over the years and each of them has pushed me hard. They each find different issues with my writing, teach me something new, help me to be better. They’ve become good friends so that we help each other through personal hardships and joys. My local ones came with me shortly after my youngest child was born and we took turns holding him when he was two months old during Maggie Stiefvater’s signing in St. Louis in 2011. We’ve gone to a shooting range together for “research.” Some I’ve never met in person but have cried with over the phone during their mother’s passing away or laughed with hysterically as their pet goose is chasing their ducks through their property because, hey, such things happen when you live in the middle of nowhere. We’ve all become agented and/or published over time, and not one of us has had an identical journey to another.
Your crit partners see your work before anyone else. They are the people who tell you honestly if your butt looks big or if that hair cut you picked needs to hide under a baseball cap. There is never any excuse for viciousness for the sake of viciousness. I believe that CPs can criticize your work without harming your feelings, and if you ever feel someone is stunting your growth, by all means, get out of that CP relationship. Critique relationships need to be about growth, and if you continually come away from showing your work feeling like you’ve been reduced in some way, it’s unhealthy. It’s not working and not what you need. I don’t care if you’re unpublished and the person tearing you up is agented/published and therefore “knows” what he/she is talking about. No, that person is a bully, and you don’t need that.
Over time, the CP relationship does change as you become more successful, but they are still with you. My core group has been together for over five years, which is pretty long time. We still show each other work, mostly to ask if a project has legs. Often we get together for book launches (YAY!) or commiserations (not so yay). We’ve endured lost publishing contracts and agent switches. We’ve gone to conferences and driven across states together, had babies, moved houses, switched jobs, switched to full-time writing, had health crises, watched our little group expand to include awesome writer pals…If you stick with someone for a long time, they know what you’ve been through during this writing journey and know the baggage and insecurities you’ve brought with you from watching your book be rejected by agents and again by publishers and know that you’re kinda about to pull out your hair because you want to read reviews so badly but know you shouldn’t.
Your critique partners will be among the most important relationships you make as an author, right up there with your agent and editor. It depends on trust, support, and growth. If you can find someone or several someones who give you those things and you give them, that’s a relationship that can flourish for years to come.