Partner

What is a critique partner?

A critique partner is someone who gives detailed feedback on your writing. Unlike beta readers, these are people you swap stories with. There is a bigger element of give-and-take in this relationship, and it is one I have found incredibly valuable.

To give more of an insight into what a critique partner is and what they do, I had a little chat with my very lovely CP Emma Bradley.

How did you find each other?

Emma: I was inconsolable at not getting picked for the WriteMentor 2019 summer mentor program, but Anna posted in their Facebook group that she was looking for a critique partner. I messaged back to say ‘yes please’ and she’s been stuck with me ever since!

Anna: Ha! I was feeling the same. I was gutted that I didn’t get picked, mainly because I really wanted another pair of eyes on my work. Posting in the group was a bit of a brave thing for me, but Emma responded almost immediately and was super nice.

What boundaries did you have in place before you started swapping?

Emma: I would no doubt have ploughed in with swapping whole manuscripts, but Anna suggested a chapter a week or thereabouts which proved to be a great pace for us to work at. We were both quite clear about wanting someone who could be thoughtful with feedback rather than cutting or blunt, but still able to pinpoint all the niggly (and absolutely glaring in my case) issues.

Anna: I have a tendency to take on more than I can actually manage and then stress myself out, so I was really clear about only wanting to swap one chapter a week, despite wanting to do more! This has worked really well. We didn’t set any firm boundaries in terms of the kind of feedback we would provide, but after the first chapter it was apparent we worked in similar ways – both thorough and enthusiastic!

How did you know you wanted to keep working together?

Emma: We just never stopped! Once we’d finished swapping one MS we would take a break and move onto another, or in my case abandon one of mine most of the way through and get excitable about the next one. It’s not just the feedback either – having a friend who understands the writing highs and lows is invaluable.

Anna: I had a few people respond to the request I put in the group, but it was clear to me as soon as Emma and I swapped critiques that I would want to keep working with her. She returned her feedback quickly, and spotted really helpful things.

I always make it clear when I’m starting off with a new CP that I think we should just swap one or two chapters to begin with to see if we are a good fit. This gives both of us a chance to see if we work well together and there are no hard feelings if one of you doesn’t feel quite right about it.

How often and what do you swap now that you have been critique partners for a while?

Emma: We’re quite flexible now, although I tend to forget to send things and end up flapping when she tells me off! Whether it’s something we’ve been working on or just a quick idea, the ability to get someone else’s thoughts on it before you sink the next however many months is a big help. Anna’s moved more into thriller/psychological of late, while I’ve marched firmly down the middle-grade route, but it’s brilliant to have a completely different brain involved!

Anna: I only tell Emma off because I want to read more of her stories! They are really engaging and working with them so closely means I get really invested in the characters and want to know what they are up to next. Like Emma said, at the moment we are writing quite different books but her input is still so valuable. I also send Emma any blog posts I’m working on so that she can make sure they make sense! She’s become my writing-sounding-board.

Do you gain anything from critiquing someone else’s work?

Emma: I definitely get a lot from critiquing. Aside from the joy of reading unknown stories and thinking I could one day be seeing them in bookshops (and going ‘omg, I know that person’), everyone has a different approach. Your way of describing anger for example could be completely different to someone else’s, and you get great writing/wording insight by seeing the many perspectives. You also start to recognise mistakes in their story and suddenly they’re glaringly visible in your own! 

Anna: I gain MANY things. Firstly, I get to read stories before anyone else, which really makes me happy. I will be so giddy when I see Emma’s books in shops! It also helps me develop a critical eye for my own work. Often, a mistake I spot in Emma’s work is one that I’ll then find in my own. Working on her stories has made my own storytelling stronger.

What are the best bits of having a critique partner?

Emma: It has to be the writer camaraderie. I’m repeating myself, but it’s so important to have someone who understands. They know how crushing a rejection is and can cheer you on when you finally remember where the comma is meant to go! Anna’s recently started her rejection course and it’s been so lovely getting to see her teaching the ins and outs of querying and coping with all the bumps of it. 100% recommend getting yourself a critique partner (but hands off mine!)

Anna: Ha 😊 The same – it is so lovely so share more closely in this writing journey with someone. I love watching Emma’s style develop and change, and reading her many stories is so much fun. It’s reassuring to know that someone will give me really honest feedback – since we have been doing this for a while now we can we a bit more honest with one another!

If you can, find yourself a critique partner. You might strike out with a few people, but that’s okay. Not everyone is going to be a perfect fit. When you find the right person, it is worth it – it will only ever make your writing stronger and hopefully you’ll find a new cheerleader!

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June Reads

I feel like I am slowly getting my reading mojo back. There was a point, early on in the pandemic, when my concentration was completely shot. I think it was also my ability to relax. My brain was too jumpy and settling to read a book was too much. Thankfully, this seems to be abating. If the same was true for you, I hope you are experiencing the same gradual calming.

Three favourites this month. Before I get onto them, the astute among you will have noticed that I went on a bit of a Jenny Colgan reading spree in June. These books are wonderful. Full of kindness and warmth, they are exactly what I needed to help me fall back in love with reading again.

But onto the favourites. Toffee by Sarah Crossan is a must-read for any fans of verse novels. Some poems seemed to almost literally punch me in the gut with their barely controlled emotions. The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur was a reread, but one I enjoyed no less than the first time I read it. Split into sections following a break up, healing, and finding someone new (and better) these poems crack open what it means to be a woman, daughter, lover, and so much more. Such beautiful illustrations as well.

I read cookbooks from cover to cover. I own all of Rukmini Iyer’s Roasting Tin books because they are all brilliant. The Roasting Tin Around the World does not disappoint. I’ve tried three recipes from it so far and they were all delicious, and many more are going to be gracing my plate very soon. If you’re not a confident cook or if you don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen, these are the cookbooks for you.

As always, read them all and then we can be buddies, okay?

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Words

The writing of a first draft

I have just finished writing the first draft of a story. I feel like doing a jig. For anyone who has ever completed a first draft – you know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t YET – it is well worth all the hours put in. This moment is sweet.

There is editing to be done. A LOT of editing. I’m an unashamed pantser so I have no idea, particularly at the start, where my story is going. That means a lot of filling in later on. Maybe at some point I’ll talk about my editing process, but for now I want to focus on how I write a first draft (and I’m going to talk about the book I’ve just finished, because it’s fresh in my head!)

Writing a first draft is something that fascinates me. When other writers talk about their processes, I am THERE. Front row, notepad out. I’m not really interested in changing my approach, writing a first draft is one of my favourite parts of writing, but I love hearing how stories are made.

Because it is magic. Someone has an idea, they write some words on a page, and then that makes something happen in other people’s brains. They can share adventures and fall in love with characters that came from someone else’s mind. Wow.

IN THE BEGINNING

All my ideas start with a person, and they are all already doing something. This time it was a woman called Lina and she was walking home after a party. Pretty basic stuff, until I realised she was limping, it was raining, and she was scared.

Lina came from seemingly nowhere. I think most people have some experience of walking in the dark and feeling scared. I can honestly say that Lina did not come straight from one experience because she popped into my head during a James Acaster stand-up performance, which is probably one of the furthest experiences from walking, scared and in pain that I could get.

But there she was. She was alone and she was afraid. And she didn’t know if she was being followed.

I wrote the first chapter that night after we got home from the comedy show in a flurry. I had so many feelings I wanted to get down. This is often how it is for me with a first draft. The main character walks into my head and they are thrust into some situation and I just really want to follow along with them.

Very quickly, as I was writing, I realised that I wanted there to be a big question mark over whether Lina was being followed or not. In the moment, she felt sure she was. She ducked into a shop but could not see anyone on the CCTV. Only a woman walked past in the opposite direction, drenched because all she was wearing was a green dress.

Fast forward a couple of days and Lina has convinced herself she was imagining things; no one was following her. She walks to her friend’s house and sees a man putting up fliers. His girlfriend (green dress woman) was kidnapped, on the same night and on one of the same streets that Lina fled down.

Lina has to decide whether she goes to the police and tells them she thinks she was being followed that night. She isn’t sure if her information will be helpful, but she thinks that the only consequence if it isn’t is that she will make a fool of herself. As the story continues and Lina tries to act in ways she feels is right, the consequences escalate until being in the wrong place at the wrong time that night might not only cost her friendships, her home, and her job, but also her life.

All that spiralled out of a woman walking home in the rain.

IN THE MIDDLE

This is when I actually figure out what’s going on in my story. A character and situation springs itself at me and gradually I work out how their story will end. Then I have to figure out how to get there. I will be the first to admit that to begin with, I didn’t know if Lina was being followed that night. This story could have gone so many different ways. I find out where I (and the main character) want to take it through the writing of it.

I am a pantser (which to me means generally figuring things out as I go along) but I do make some notes. Some are about characters, so that I can keep them straight in my head. I am terrible with remembering names and that extends to the made-up people in my brain. I make notes about important bits of action that need to happen SOMEWHERE, and little hints I’ve made that I knew I need to resolve SOMEWHERE. As a general rule, I have no idea where.

The middle of the story is the part I find the hardest to write. I still really enjoy it but, unlike at the start and the end, I have to be more disciplined with myself to make sure that I actually sit down and do it. It is the part that is the least clear to me, so I have to think a bit more about it rather than just typing in a mad frenzy.

IN THE END

Although I do enjoy writing endings, and have probably been looking forward to writing the last scene almost since I jotted down the first, this is when it becomes glaringly apparent that there is going to be A LOT of editing to bring everything together. My first drafts are full of massive plot holes.

To be honest, I try not to think about it. I write first drafts to please myself. Since no one else is going to read them, who cares if a character pops into existence halfway through and needs to be written into the first half later, who cares if there is a big hint I forgot to drop, who cares if someone’s name or job or family situation suddenly changes? I don’t. At this point in my writing, that’s future Anna’s problem.

I write a lot of notes while I end my book, because I do feel some sympathy for future me. Then I finish the story. I do a dance. I let it rest, for at least a month, before I start editing. I am a big fan of letting things rest. A month is the bare minimum for me. The longer I can leave it, the better. It means that when I come back to it, I am much further removed. I have a terrible memory, so some things will actually come as a shock to me, and I can approach it more like a reader.

GEEKERY

As a way to monitor my progress, I decided to keep a tally of my wordcount during this story. For those among you who find graphs pleasing (and who wouldn’t?!) – I hope the following makes you smile.

Some of my reflections:

  • Excluding days when I did no writing at all – it took me 60 days to complete this story. I had a lot of breaks though, so from start to finish it was 210 days. I can usually finish a first draft a bit quicker than this, closer to around three months, but my writing mojo was thrown off by a global pandemic so I’ll cut myself some slack
  • The most words I managed in a day was 2696 (not in one go!) and the least was 92. My average words per writing day (including all the days when I didn’t write would skew the results DRAMATICALLY) was 1141. This feels like an achievable number, and makes me think that I could finish my next book in a much shorter amount of time!
  • This way of recording progress kept me accountable. Instead of thinking I’m sure I did some writing last week I could see exactly when I last wrote and that made me get a wiggle on when I was leaving it too long between writing sessions (apart from during April when I wrote nothing because my brain had turned to mush)
  • I found recording my word count rewarding. One key thing I didn’t do, which seems to make a big difference to me, is that I didn’t keep track of what the overall word count was. For some reason, I beat myself up with that and feel quite intimidated by it. But daily ones were fine, and recording them meant at the end I could make GRAPHS

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May Reads

I didn’t read much this month, but revisited four favourites. I’m finding comfort at the moment in the familiar. Reading a book that you already know you’re going to love is a real treat!

Robin Hobb is one of the best fantasy writers I’ve read. Assassin’s Apprentice is the first in an epic series that follows the misadventures of Fitz throughout his whole life. I find these books gentle and engaging, a perfect blend between in-depth character study and winding plot. I’m going to be gradually reading through all three of these trilogies, so why not grab the first two books this month to catch up with me?

I actually have two copies of The Complete Brambly Hedge. This was such a childhood favourite that my original copy is falling apart at the seams. I would spend hours absorbing each tiny detail of Jill Barklem’s beautiful illustrations, my tummy rumbling over the MANY descriptions of delicious food. In this time of huge uncertainty, I found returning to these stories calming. I read one each night before bed, taking my time on every page to mark all those things I’d loved about them when I was younger. This is a book I will read to my children, and that I hope they will then pass on to theirs.

Me being me is exactly as insane as you being you by Todd Hasak-Lowy may be my favourite YA book ever. Told in lists, some with just one-word answers, some that wander over pages, this is a beautiful story of a young man coping with massive change in his family, the adjustment to adulthood, and first love. When I finished it I read the last ten or so pages again, simply because I really didn’t want it to be over.

Read all of these and we can be BEST friends, okay?

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April Reads

I think we can all agree that unless some miracle occurs, I’m not going to reach my goal of reading 120 books this year! Ho hum…

I do have a slight excuse for reading less this month (other than the sense of doom!) – I launched the rejection course and I have begun mentoring the lovely Debbie Roxburgh as part of Write Mentor’s Summer mentoring program 😊

I did read two lush books in April though. If you have never read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, please do! It’s one of my absolute favourites ever. I don’t know about you, but I’m turning back to the books I love as a source of comfort through this odd time. That’s what The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is for me. It’s set on a small spaceship, with a cast of weird and wonderful characters (some are aliens!), and it is one of the kindest and gentlest books I can remember reading. It’s one I’ve already read three times, and I’m sure I will return to it many more!

Read them all and we can be friends, yeah?

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March Reads

My reading in March took a bit of a hit. I can’t think why!

I did read two completely stonking books though 😊 Recursion by Blake Crouch is an immense, mind-bending thriller. I wasn’t actually clever enough to understand all of this book, but the bits I could grasp blew my mind. If you enjoy time-travel and books that hit you in the face with science-based action, then this is one for you! Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce is Completely Lush. Could not put it down. Set during WWII, it follows a young woman’s dream to become a journalist, which is Very Quickly Thwarted. Dealing with profound issues of loss and trauma in a gentle and joyous way, this book is one I would recommend at any time, but particularly in this odd period! One other author I want to give a particular shout-out to is Jenny Colgan. All of her books are a jolly escape into idyllic lives – great for when the world seems to be crumbling around us…

As always, read them all and then we can be chums 😊

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Chat with David Owen

David Owen’s fourth book was released this month, and he generously agreed to answer some of my questions about his books, reading, and writing 😊 If you don’t already, go follow him on Twitter, he is an irreverent voice in the sometimes slightly too serious world of publishing…

Tell me about your latest book

It’s called Grief Angels, and it’s kind of a double-edged sword. On one side it’s a contemporary YA narrative focusing on a new friendship between two misfit boys – Duncan and Owen. On the other side it is a fantasy narrative, as Owen is periodically pulled through to a mysterious forest realm where he must contend with lost spirits, shapeshifting monsters, and newfound powers. Think along the lines of A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness or Eren by Simon P. Clark.

Grief Angels is about grief… shockingly! In its most obvious definition (Owen is dealing with complex feelings around the death of his father), but also in a broader sense; how grief can be tied into growing up, losing friendships, and nostalgia. Basically, I find it impossible to come up with a brief elevator pitch for it!

Thankfully, the frankly jaw dropping artwork by Leo Nickolls, on both the front cover and some chapter illustrations throughout, sell it better than my attempt to blurb it!

Tell me about your writing week

My writing has to fit around my full-time job, so I don’t have a particularly glamorous schedule. I’ll get home from work around 6pm and aim to be at my desk by 6.45pm. Then I’ll write until 9-9.30pm. I also usually try and write for three to four hours on one weekend day, and then have the other off, but if I’m deep in edits or close to the end of a draft I sometimes just keep going for it.

It can be a frustrating way to write because there isn’t time for multiple projects and some evenings I’m just too tired to manage anything, BUT having limited time does motivate me to actually use it productively.

Tell me about your agent

I’m represented by Ella Kahn at Diamond Kahn and Woods. Everybody always spells her surname incorrectly.

I submitted to Ella when she was an assistant at a larger agency. She read my submission and passed it up the ladder, but unfortunately it didn’t get any further. However, Ella was planning to launch her own agency so she tucked my submission away for later. Several months down the line she got in touch to ask if I was still seeking representation.

That’s why she felt like the right person – because she was passionate enough about my writing to keep me in her mind and ultimately make me her first client.

Tell me about the kinds of books you like to read

I generally like to read books that are a little bit dark and have a unique central idea. That might be really high concept sci fi or fantasy, or a theme or voice I haven’t read before. If a book isn’t striving to do something original, I need it to be doing what it’s doing really well.

One of the best novels I’ve read so far this year is Nothing Ever Happens Here by Sarah Hagger-Holt. This is a super-sweet story about a child dealing with her father coming out as trans. Another of my recent favourites was Bearmouth by Liz Hyder. It’s a totally unique young adult novel written in colloquial voice – it really filled me with hope! And one more is Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah, which is like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s like a kaleidoscope of video game NPC side-quests collapsing into each other.

I’ve also got into graphic novels recently. It feels like a different kind of reading that gives me a new perspective on writing and storytelling. That’s proved really refreshing. One I’ve been raving about is Rusty Brown by Chris Ware. It’s a simultaneously sprawling and intimate look at mundane lives in a rural US town, which is insanely ambitious. Usually a bit sad and full of disappointment – a bit like reality!

Any advice for aspiring authors?

My only advice is pretty well worn.

Reading widely will help with your craft, keep you inspired, and improve your market awareness. However, don’t worry too much about the latest trends. Unless you get really lucky, you’re only going to end up chasing them and will always be behind. Write what you feel strongly about and worry about where it fits on the shelves later.

Just keep writing. Even when it feels like you’re only producing rubbish, even when you hit a brick wall, even when you reach the middle of a project and realise it’s not working. Sooner or later something will click and you’ll be glad you persevered.

Buy Greif Angels from all good bookshops (or take it out at your local library), and keep up to date with David’s news (and important pictures of his cats) on Twitter or by visiting his website 😊

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February Reads

Although I read slightly fewer books in February, I am still on my way to reading 120 books this year 😊 All my faves have a little heart next to them.

Heartstopper Vol 3 carries on one of the cutest and most relatable love stories being told at the moment. I highly recommend to any fans of graphic novels! I, Cosmo is a masterclass in voice. The story is told from the point of view of an incredibly believable Golden Retriever. It’s a great one for any dog lovers out there! I’m not normally a fan of historical novels but We Must Be Brave is phenomenal. Set during World War Two and spanning over 50 years, it follows one woman’s journey through destitution, finding family, the struggles of the war, and tells the story of the heart-grabbing love between a mother and a daughter. The Silent Patient blew me away. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to ruin it… so just read it, okay?

In fact, read them all and then we can be friends 😊

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January Reads

This year I’ve set myself the challenge of reading 120 books, and I stormed it in January.

The books with hearts were my faves, and the rest are a jumble 🙂 The Black Flamingo is glorious. Read it if you love lyrical coming-of-age stories. Olive, again was a return to an old friend, and it is beauifully told. If you like character driven novels that aren’t afraid of exposing the realities of human nature and frality, then check out anything by Elizabeth Strout. Love is for Losers is coming out in May 2020, and is one to pre-order (or reserve at your local library) if you like hilarious young adult novels with strangely likeable main characters. For me, it echoed the Louise Rennison books I loved growing up, and I hope Wibke Brueggeman’s books will become beloved by young people just like those were for me 🙂

Read them all and then we can be friends, okay?

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