Critique Partner, Life Partner: A Risky Proposition? #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop

My critique partner is also my life partner. How do we make this work?

When I tell other writers that my critique partner is also my life partner, reactions tend to fall into two categories: ‘how wonderful’, or, ‘OMG, that would split us up!’. It works well for us, but why?

Just so we’re all on the same page, here’s the definition of a critique partner that I’m using here: A critique partner is a fellow writer with whom you exchange critiques of your manuscripts.[1] In the marvellous article by K.M. Weiland that I borrowed this definition from, she goes on to list and discuss the qualities a writer should look for in choosing a critique partner. I’m not going to reiterate them – you can read the article! Instead, I’m going to look at what matters in the relationship between critique partners, and how we’ve developed these.

  1. Respect

Brian and I are both writers, in different stages of our profession. But our respect for each other’s abilities goes way beyond writing. We’ve been together for 42 years; we met in university. We both did advanced degrees in related subjects, and worked together on research, even co-authoring research articles. My expertise there was more technical; his was more theoretical. We complemented each other. Our next careers, both in education, were again different but complementary. Finally, we share a major hobby: birding. Again, we know our skills support each other. Seeing a bird in flight, I can identify bird families easily; given that, he can narrow down species faster than I can, usually.

Important in this was watching each other (and helping each other) learn, as scientists and teachers and birders. We have confidence in each other’s ability to grow in a field, to take theoretical knowledge and translate it to action. So as we learn and develop as writers, together and separately, we strengthen each other’s writing. For example, he’s a much better plotter than I am, and quick to point out where my plot is weak or inconsistent. I’m a better stylist, hearing the cadence and flow of words better than he can.

Respect for differing skills is an advantage I’ve heard from other writers, too. At Maple Mystery Games, co-creators Jan and her husband John work together. John is best at plot twists, while she is the detail person. “I tend to brainstorm ideas with hubby at the start of writing a murder mystery game and also when I first work on creating characters. His brain works in a different way to mine,” Jan said.

  • Trust

We’re not competing. I write adult alternate-world historical fiction, character-driven books focused on personal choices in difficult times. He writes plot-driven young adult fantasy. But we are both committed to helping each other write the best books we can, and we know how to separate the building blocks of craft from the emotional attachment to the stories we are writing.

An advantage of your life partner as your critique partner is that in the middle of brushing your teeth you can say to them, ‘Do you think Character A would react in this way?’ (While our books aren’t the only subject of conversation between us, it does sometimes sound that way.) We know each other’s world and characters very, very well, but without the same degree of emotional attachment. So when Brian told me a while back that in my latest book (where the previous MC is now a supporting character) that he didn’t like how I was portraying her, I knew he had a valid point. When I told him I thought a supporting character in his series needed a larger role (and why) he agreed, after consideration.

This advantage can also be a disadvantage. Sometimes we’ve had enough of each other’s world and characters, especially if we’re working on a tough plot point, or an external worry or commitment has to take priority – or we just want to shut up and watch television. Trust here means knowing the other one will get back to that question, just not right now.

  • Communication

This is not always easy!  I am the world’s worst verbal communicator, especially off-the-cuff, and on top of that, much of what I know about writing – especially style – is instinctive. Often, I don’t know how to explain my suggestions. Add to that my tendency to pick up terms and jargon quickly, and my explanations to Brian are often sources of frustration. He is much more precise. We can both be very blunt.

But we listen to each other, even when the instinctive reaction is ‘no’. Sometimes the first reaction is right, but most of the time the other person’s opinion needs serious consideration. Mostly we discuss the differing viewpoints, searching out the reasons behind the suggestions and critiques.

Is there a down side? Only, I think, that by the time the work-in-progress reaches the end of the first draft, we each know plot twists and reveals so well it’s hard to read with fresh eyes. But even then, Brian’s read-through of the latest version of Empire’s Reckoning, my WIP, resulted in thoughtful, appropriate and necessary criticisms, which I am in the process of addressing. Then it’ll be on to the beta-readers.

Oh, and yes, Brian critiqued this blog post, too.


[1] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-find-the-right-critique-partner/

The Travelling Writer

When both writing and travel are important, how do you balance the two?  I’m on the road far too often to not write while travelling, or I’d never get my books finished. Over the years they’ve been written at picnic tables in campsites and parks all over North America; in cafes across the world; in planes and trains and ships; and in tents in Mongolia and cottages in England.

There are three major considerations to writing while travelling: teaching yourself to write anywhere; keeping your work safe, and managing the technology. I didn’t used to be able to write unless I had complete privacy. Some of that was the beginner writer’s desire for secrecy, the reluctance to reveal to the world what I was doing. As I became more confident, and as I had deadlines to meet, that reluctance dissolved. The deeper I am into a story, the easier it is for me to write absolutely anywhere.

If noise distracts you, consider earplugs or listening to music. Or start with planning, writing character sketches, descriptions: background information you’ll need, if you can’t get into your story in a public place. I do better with dialogue; often I’ll fill in the description and actions afterwards, but I can almost always ‘hear’ the discussion between my characters, wherever I am.

Several years ago, just before a 9-week, 4-country, 27-flights trip, I bought a tiny laptop: not a netbook, because I am almost always places without internet. It fits neatly into my backpack, cost me $300 Canadian, and it has SD-card storage, as well as USB. Several points here: if I lose the laptop, or it’s stolen, or broken, it was cheap. Secondly, the removable storage was important. My work is not on the hard drive. It’s saved to the SD card, and to a flash drive, and those two things are kept (separately) on my body with my passport and wallet. Plus, I back up to cloud storage whenever and wherever possible, so my work is as secure as I can make it. It’s easy to get sloppy about doing this, but so far I’ve maintained the discipline…and when my laptop stopped working in Fiji (it didn’t like the 100% humidity) I could relax, knowing I wasn’t losing work. (It began working again back in drier, air-conditioned Canada, and has kept on working ever since.)

Managing the technology is again mostly a matter of discipline. Charge the laptop whenever you can: this means ensuring you have adaptor plugs. Carry a spare charge cord – unlike iPhone charge cords, which I’ve been able to buy everywhere in the world except Antarctica, it’s not easy to get a replacement laptop cord. Because my husband and I have identical laptops, we always have two charging cords. If access to electricity is rare, run your laptop on airplane mode, with the Wifi search off too – it will save power. Dim your screen. Turn it OFF, not to sleep. And of course, carry notebooks and pens or pencils. Writing doesn’t require a laptop – I just prefer it.

Finally, don’t leave your laptop at security after it’s been x-rayed. That may sound self-evident – but for all my experience, I’ve done it twice, in busy airports where security was busy and crowded. Luckily both times we were called back! 

What are your tips for writing when traveling? Please share!

From research papers to fiction: an interview with Helen Loney.

People use artefacts to relate to their world emotionally, as well as technologically. I like to explore this emotional and aesthetic relationship in my stories.

Helen Loney is an archaeologist by training and education, but the books she is writing are historical mystery and action/romances. One series, set in Victorian London, involves Lyster Clemens, a spinster who is housekeeper and librarian for her eccentric Uncle in Victorian London. Their house is burgled; the investigating policeman, James Harris, who now works for CID, is an expat American, once a sheriff in the west. Helen has much experience writing scientific papers and monographs, but fiction is a different beast.

What sparked this story?

Probably my childhood following my parents around the west during the summer. They were geologists, and we spent a lot of time in Death Valley, visiting ghost towns and old mining towns. As well, my experiences as an American living in England have influenced the story.

How does your own scientific education affect your writing?

Oddly, archaeology hasn’t really played that big a role so far, except that I like to put 19th century scientific philosophy into Lyster’s mouth. What archaeology has probably contributed the most is driven me to write something I don’t have to provide all the answers for. Archaeology is a pretty tightly controlled discipline at the academic level. With fiction I can dictate my own narrative that is not necessarily logical or rational. That said, I really have to have an accurate timeline, and I’ve spent a lot of time working out how long things take. I have thrown footnotes in the bin, however.

Do you think scientific training changes the way ‘what if’ questions are asked and answered?  Or is it just refreshing to be able to break away from that rigor and speculate without needing cause and effect?

Archaeology really is about connections and lateral thinking. We have very strict evidence-based interpretations and conclusions. Fiction frees me from that. I think you can’t get away from cause and effect, but I do like to allow for random accident, or just unexplainable events. However, archaeology is really about the connections between the material world and the mental one (cultural/social whatever), and I think that really adds to my writing. I’m very aware of how people use artefacts to relate to their world emotionally, as well as technologically. I like to explore this emotional and aesthetic relationship in my stories, for instance, using mundane tools or clothes as triggers for memories and emotions.

Where are you in the publishing process? Are you waiting to finish a series and then query? What route are you considering – traditional, small press, self?

I’m trying to prepare my first novel for querying, which is daunting. I went to the National Writer’s Conference in Birmingham (UK) last month, thinking I’d be relegated to the starry-eyed amateur chair, and instead was encouraged to submit to an agent really as soon as I could. I ought to send it to a couple of beta-readers, though it has been through my husband a few times, but part of me thinks I should just send the current draft when it’s done, hopefully by September.

I am drawn to traditional publishing. I thought about self-publishing, but it doesn’t really interest me, at least, not yet. I also have discovered I don’t like to read on-line, it’s hard on my eyes and I tend to skim, which is a pity with fiction. I want hard copy, and if I’m honest, I’d like my WIP series to be in graphic novel form at some point. I’m going to try and query the first in the series, whilst I’m finishing the second.

Do you think your academic presence will help or hinder publication of your books? Or are you considering a pen name?

I’m considering a pen name. One of my friends, a Romanist, who is a pretty successful fiction and screenwriter was toasted over the academic coals for publishing a children’s book about a female Gladiatrix under her own name. It would give people a chance to spell my name right! I think I would worry that people might be: a) offended because I am writing in some particular events/people into some of the narratives and it might be obvious if they knew my name, and/or b) I would get criticism for my louche approach to 19th century evolutionary theory. Hah!

Not content with one series, Helen is also writing the adventures of the Duchess of Sedgely, Alice Isadore (Izzy) Wildsmith, who disguises herself as a man and joins the Union Army to follow her older brother into battle. There’s also a novella about James Harris’ time as a Sheriff in Eastern California before he came to London, a tie-in to her Lyster Clemens series.