Category Archives: Recovery
Critique Partner Horror Stories: Red Flags & Relationship Ruins
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-presenting 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.
Four Ways to Write Through the Fog #AuthorToolboxBlogHop
When I get stuck on a writing project, it feels exactly like driving through fog—I can’t see far enough ahead to feel comfortable where I am, the clear road behind is as shrouded as the way forward, and there’s no telling when some swift insight will blow through so I can go back to “normal.” So, with the weather forcing my thoughts along this line, here are four ways I’ve found to write through the fog.
1. Wait It Out
I almost did this today when I saw the road, lol. “Ten more minutes,” I told myself, “then the sun will break this up.” Unfortunately, deadlines (this time imposed by my middle child’s early choral practice) don’t always like this option.
Similarly, when I recently ran into a fog with a manuscript revision—I was too close, too attached, to see the “fix” around the corner—I chose this method. For me, “waiting” on a project does not mean putting off the work. Instead, I “wait” by recharging my creative batteries which usually breaks up the fog in a matter of hours. I daydream in nature, rest, and return to whatever original inspiration sparked the story in the first place. This often means rereading stories, rewatching Star Trek (because everything comes back to Star Trek for me), or returning to my story board.
When the fog was at its worst on the highway, my GPS kept trying to push me toward side roads, where the traffic was lighter. In the same way, when I’m stuck on a project, I find my creative thoughts straying to new (and old) ideas.
I used to fight that process, but why bother? Why not cut out 10 minutes to brainstorm a new project or revisit an old idea? If that’s what gets the creative juices flowing easier, take that side road!
3. Lean on Support
I was nearly to my destination when the impenetrable fog got even thicker, and the only thing visible was the taillights ahead of me. Was it foolish to follow? Maybe, but it got me where I needed to go. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed to get unstuck.
Times like that remind me why I’m so grateful for my writing community. Being able to turn to my critique partners and support groups for direction, motivation, clarity, or just to share an exasperated laugh-cry has made the biggest impact on how often I get stuck in a fog. I used to be alone in those moments, but now I’m not. Now I have others’ passion, grit, and wisdom to follow when I can’t find my way. With them, I can bounce ideas, vent, or even learn about new resources and experts. And, while they may not be “my” community, leaning on those resources provided by experts (writing podcasts and videos, editors’ blogs, craft books) are the brightest lights to follow. Isn’t it better to spend an hour building craft, strengthening plot or diving deeper into character than merely “not writing?”
4. Inch Forward
In the end, if the other methods don’t do the trick and there’s no one left to follow, inching forward is ultimately all one can do. So, go on, inch forward at a snail’s pace and plunk one word after another on the page. So what if you delete it all in editing? Who cares if it didn’t feel like flow?
Once the pages are written, revised, and edited, nobody will know but you that those specific words felt like a root canal. Set yourself a short goal, like Shaunta Grimes’ 10 minute plan, and just write for that 10 minutes, if it’s all you’ve got to give today. Maybe the fog will clear as you go, or maybe it will tomorrow. Just don’t give up now!
What are some ways you’ve conquered the fog in your writing journey? Tell me in the comments–I’d love to learn from your experiences!
For more about #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, search the # on Twitter or check out Raimey Gallant’s blog to get involved!
The Right Way to Grieve a Human Being?
Who knows the right way to grieve, to honor the passing of another’s life, to channel and heal the hurricane of emotions?
Oh yeah? You all know how? And your way works for everyone? Every time?
Thanks, Dude. I can always count on you for support at least.
I don’t know the right way for someone else; I’m still learning the right way for me for the first time, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s different for everyone, every time.
In my all-of-one-day’s experience with grief, the best I’ve got is this:
A human being’s life is a sequence of their choices–their words, their actions, and their accomplishments.
But what if most of their words were lies? What if most of their actions were abusive and malevolent, destructive and criminal? What if they had no accomplishments?
The definition of slander is “giving false representation,”
which conflicts with the cultural expectation that no one “speak ill of the dead.”
To speak positively without context is slander, and to speak negatively, in truth, is cruel?
I honor the dead by speaking the truth without judgment. I honor the choices made as the sum of the deceased’s life.
X raped women. Truth. No one made that choice for him.
X was a friend to women. Lie. He was a malignant narcissist always storing up his supply; friends were women he hadn’t used up yet.
X neglected and abandoned his children. Truth. He decided pursuing women, drugs, and crime was preferable to the hard work of parenting.
X was a good father.Lie. He used his children like he used everything else, to make himself look like the person people wanted to see.
Yeah, so truth hurts, much like grief, so let’s try a less “personal” example:
X was a gorilla. Truth. The dead animal was totally a gorilla, with gorilla parents and gorilla babies.
X was a chimp.Lie. Didn’t I just say “gorilla” parents and babies? Calling something different than its truth is destructive, confusing, and complicates the healing process. Just because chimps are more popular or less threatening doesn’t make a dead gorilla a chimp.
It’s not fair to the life a dead human chose to live if we annihilate the facts. It was his life to live, and he chose to live it through these choices.
Death does not rewrite the narrative of a life, and neither should the mourning process.
I honor the dead with the truth lived. That’s not judgment, not demonizing, not damaging. Any damage done by the dead’s choices are their own; that’s their legacy.
And, as every single human being is equally responsible for their choices, so should each be remembered as to whether or not they met their goals, whether those who gave them the *most* were given anything in return, whether or not the facts match up to the hype.
Saying “Yes, X did” when the truth is “No, X didn’t” is slander. I will not call a coward “brave” because he has done what all humans eventually do–he died. The very best talent the person I’m mourning had was his ability to recognize the goodness in others. He knew what was good, beautiful, strong, genius, forgiving, altruistic, whole, kind, driven; his keen perception almost never missed the mark. But he was not those things he saw, targeted, borrowed, then stole, and it’s a shame, because he obviously knew their value.
My testimony isn’t judgment, as I’m not a judge; I am a witness to a life full of choices, and I am in mourning for a person who actually lived–crimes, lies, wasted potential, broken promises, and all.
And it’s terrible and heartbreaking that he’s gone and can never mend what he broke and heal the rifts between himself and those who loved him despite his faults. That our love for him was not blind is a credit, not a failing, and, in the words of his oldest child:
“All I ever wanted was for the good in him to win, but it wasn’t strong enough to win in time, and now it never can. I feel safer now.”
Grieving My Abuser
I was Robert Cook’s first wife and the mother of his first child.
When I met Robert, I was young, vulnerable, and eager to belong. I was swept away by his confidence, his talent, and his potential.
When his abuse began in earnest, it crippled me–mind, body, and soul– and I am lucky I escaped before he destroyed me. The abuse continued up until the day he died, through his lies, his threats, and his neglect of his children. I wasn’t his first victim, and I certainly wasn’t the last, so it brings me great relief that I no longer have to fear that his destructive behavior will explode in my child’s face.
I did my grieving then, for the man who wasn’t ever real. And I learned something about narcissists during my recovery that I feel compelled to share with those who are freshly grieving, who may not have known the dark side of Robert that I did, who knew only the funny, worldly masks he wore.
Narcissists are, by nature, a patchwork of memories, delusions, and wishes. They adopt the traits of others to match what their victims, their energy supply, hope to find.
Because of this, the chameleon collection of others’ best selves, I cannot believe that anything worth missing in Robert Cook is truly gone.
It was never him or his. It’s here. It’s you.
That’s where what goodness he reflected as his own came from all along.
So, as I grieve the last spark of hope for his recovery for my child’s sake, and as you grieve the man you thought you knew, I hope this offers some small comfort during your healing.
Whatever you think is lost with his passing was only a mirror of your own goodness. He took it from you so that he could shine, but now it’s yours again.
Be whole. Be well, for you have lost nothing but a mask, and the world is a more honest, safer place than it was with him in it.