I apologize to readers who’ve been waiting patiently for me to follow up on my last blog about critiquing. Full disclosure, doing research into “red flags” and how many things can go wrong unearthed a metric crap ton of unresolved issues for me. I’ve been stewing all this time, allowing my thoughts to gel and my wounds to knit (closer to) closed.
Things can go very, very wrong in critique relationships.
Take what lessons you will from my experiences, and feel free to share any wisdom you’ve gained from your own journey in the comments below. These are things that have happened to me, presented here with minimal detail and fake names to maintain others’ anonymity.
Not What Some Think
The worst that can happen is usually not the problem most writers new to critique fear. Newer writers tend to share a worry about their words and ideas being stolen. Rumors abound about plagiarizing folks who wander the authorscape stealing precious work from the unwitting. To be fair, that may happen from time to time (though in a decade of meeting writers, I’ve never encountered one it’s happened to). Still, copyrights are easier to prove than ever if it comes to that.
Words and ideas are, generally, safe. Hearts and minds are much more vulnerable.
These folks just straight up disappear. They’ve asked to read, then *poof*; they never respond. It takes time to get used to this happening, but some portion of volunteer readers vanish once they get work. Whatever their reasons don’t really matter. No one can learn anything from silence, so let it go.
Being ghosted by a potential CP feels like any disappointment or rejection, but it’s a dull ache, like reading bad news regarding a place you’ve never been. It’s concerning but distant. Unanswerable.
But what if it’s a long-time critique partner who ghosts? It’s soul-crushing, confusing, and—in cases where the relationship was virtual only—frustrating as hell. Worse than unanswered, this feels like grief.
I worked with an amazing author woman, RED, for two years, through her first novel’s first draft and two of my own. We talked online every day about craft and process, spending hours on the phone (the actual phone, you guys!) discussing our stories and plans. We had the dream CP relationship, for me, at least.
She became my best friend. [RED FLAG: *ting ting* Here’s where I should’ve checked my boundaries, made sure both of ours were safe for each other.] Our friendship grew beyond stories, and we kept each other up to date on everything—family stuff, personal stuff. I thought of her as a sister, included her in my heart. Then Red stopped returning messages, stopped picking up the phone, stopped posting new work. My dream became a nightmare in an instant, and I was helpless to stop it.
Losing contact with her was like losing a limb, and it still aches to think of her after two years of silence. I don’t know if I did something to hurt Red, or if her life just couldn’t contain “me” anymore, but all I can do is hope she’s all right and wish her well from afar. It hurts every day, y’all. Not just the Red-sized hole in my life but knowing that I must have harmed her horribly somehow.
All critique is valuable, even shallow critique, but it can be super annoying to deal with in a long-term partnership. By shallow I mean these readers skim so fast, nitpicking at minor things that catch their attention but not reading closely enough to absorb any story. The questions these CPs ask are usually answered in-text, often on the same page, and it can be extremely aggravating going through to triple-check that each detail they worried over was, in fact, already on the page. [RED FLAG: If your readers are more concerned about comma placement than character or plot progress, they may just be a bad fit.]
In my experience, this specific disconnect between critique partners is hard to address. Being skimmed by the shallow readers feels like drifting in a void, untethered. Swapping chapters or stories with them can also feel like blowing into a busted balloon. Maybe these readers just aren’t into the genre or style they’ve offered to read, or maybe it’s just the way they read. In any case, if the reading is too shallow and unhelpful, it’s best to move on to deeper waters.
Please don’t get me wrong here: I LOVE REVISING AND READING REVISIONS. To me, this is the most important part of being a critique partner. But… there can be hiccups. A revision is a story overhaul, not a quick-shine polish. Don’t promise a full revision and deliver a meager, incomplete edit. It feels like ordering chocolate cake but receiving a stinky, wet slipper.
I read a book for a guy I’ll call GRAY (super guy, positive, and a joy to talk to), chapter by chapter, critiquing his story in-depth—making notes on character, grammar, phrasing, plot, worldbuilding, style, formatting—the works, really. It took ages and a lot of energy. My investment in seeing his special idea become a published reality was huge. I rooted hard for Gray.
Then many months later I was asked to betaread. I got so excited to see how he’d addressed the problems we’d discussed, how the world came together, how the characters had deepened and grown. [RED FLAG: I should’ve checked myself when my excitement flared here. I had Expectations, see, which means I had some fd up assumption that my and his other CPs’ advice was gold and Gray had fixed Everything. My hopes let me down!] Except… the “revision” repeated all the same problems as the original draft, and only about 100 lines out of 300 pages had changed in any noticeable way. The problems were still problems, and I felt used up, stalled out. I respected him too much, cared too much about his story, to stay invested. It’s one thing to ignore critique partners because of solid story and style reasons, another thing entirely to ignore prevalent craft issues and glaze over the work.
There’s no right way to handle this, and I’m not sure my way was even good enough for me. All I could think to do was say, “I’m afraid I have nothing new to offer” and hope he utilized the dozens of hours of work I’d already invested in his story. Needless to say, with him being a shallow reader of my own work, that partnership fizzled out, despite the years we’d both given to each other. It’s a shame, but it happens.
Self-hatred and/or Misogyny
I’m going to assume for the sake of this blog that the words above make you as sad and upset as it does me. Women writers hating on themselves, men writers hating on women—it’s just gross, and yet at least half the writers I’ve read for in the last five years have put this yuck down page after page.
I try to point it out carefully when I come across it. “This may be problematic,” I comment in my notes. Invariably the response I get from men is, “I didn’t realize that,” then they make no changes to address it. From women, the typical response is, “I don’t think so,” or “That’s the problem she has to learn to deal with better by the end.” And I think, “Oh boy, what self-respecting woman will read to the end to find that out?”
But that’s me, and I’m really sensitive because reasons. A polite “I may not be the best reader for this work” usually ends the partnership quickly. EXCEPT WHEN IT DOESN’T, which leads to the next red flag.
[RED FLAG: My life has sucked a hundred different sick and sad ways that I prefer not to repeat. Any story that plays similar experiences like they’re funny or “no big deal” are gonna rub me the wrong way into a DNF (did-not-finish)]
Sometimes these folks are obvious right away, if you know a draft is crappy and they have nothing but praise. But what if you’ve spent hours refining that draft and really do expect some positive comments to be genuine?
I exchanged queries with a woman, VIOLET, a few years back. She was new to the online writing community and wanted to create a critique group. I must’ve been in an extremely generous-with-my-energy mood (or I hadn’t learned better yet), because I walked her step-by-step through the process of creating a FB group, identifying places to find new members, helping her set up discussions, etc. She sent dozens of messages over the course of a few days, treating me like her personal help line. Meanwhile, she read my query and doted on it with comments like, “I don’t see anything to fix” and “This is such a strong query!”
Until I said the magically-cursed words, “I don’t think we’re a good fit” (because of her work’s misogyny and I didn’t want to keep defining and explaining every craft-term I mentioned). [RED FLAG: Here’s where I should’ve tuned out, because any sort of defensive posturing after I offered an easy out was guaranteed to be nonconstructive.]
Suddenly, Violet flew off the handle, verbally assaulting me, telling me my work was indecipherable trash, and that I was trash for quitting her group of old white women. Her unactionable praise became insults, and I was caught in this whirlwind of her anger, wondering what went wrong. She then blocked me and badmouthed me to who-knows-how-many people I have yet to cross paths with, and now she’s an agency intern. Go figure.
This ordeal felt like having my fingers caught in a garbage disposal. For months after it was impossible to trust my other wonderful CPs, and it threw me into a tailspin of doubting myself, questioning my commitment to the writing community, fearing my judgment of people’s character was worse than I ever imagined.
Racism, Ableism, Homophobia
Again, like with misogyny, I’ll assume these words stir your bile and get you in a resistance kind of mood. These unchecked -isms do more than spoil stories; they poison relationships. Though I’ll only dig into one personal experience (with racism specifically), these each present a veritable land mine of issues to wade through when critiquing.
My first-ever critique partner BLUE and I spent four years working together. I was a nobody who knew nothing and needed a good knock around. He was gentle with me as I took my first steps into critique and craft. If it hadn’t been for his encouragement and guidance, I don’t know where or who I’d be. He taught me so many things about publishing and story I can’t help but be grateful.
Somehow, I assume because I’m cis and white (read: often oblivious) and mask my otherness pretty well, I had no idea how problematic he was. Until I saw it and couldn’t unsee it. That 2016 election really shook the trees, it seems. [RED FLAG: I got warning signs and ignored them.]
I tried to carry on carefully with Blue after I found it he supported Trump by avoiding politics completely, but not only is that impossible, the toxicity in his stories kept bringing all that up. I tried to explain, to show how harmful things were, to give him a chance to be the “great guy” he’d always presented himself to be. Alas, sometimes it’s best to just call a racist a racist and move on.
It still freaking hurts to see a mentor and friend without the rose tint of my unchecked privilege. I feel complicit, guilty, and hyperaware of how my implicit biases keep blinding me over and over again.
These were all critique relationships that ended, most badly. I hope reading this helps someone else learn how to dissolve poor CP fits amicably, or to recognize in themselves what might trigger a disastrous split and avoid them.
It’s emotionally risky, this writing business, so please respect your time, protect your energy, and cherish those CPs you hope to keep.