I Couldn’t Have Done It Without You, or Critique Partnering

Amber in tree final

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I have a writer friend who has never used a critique partner or any beta reader other than her husband. She’s done quite well that way, but not all of us could. Whether you’re a writer who hasn’t worked with a partner, or one who has tried the process but not yet found your critiquing soulmates, I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how it works when it goes well. Each member of my main critique team* takes a turn in this post. Although they talk about me more than they mention each other, it’s not because I’m more important in this trio; it’s because I’ve been working with each of them for years, while their partnership is more recent.

Amber

Before I published my first book, I joined an online critique group. I learned much from group members who came and went, but Jordaina Sydney Robinson and I have carried on long after our formal group chose to dissolve.

The Calling, my first book, had been chapter-by-chapter critiqued with a prior partner when Jordaina joined the group, so it’s the only one of my works she ever received in a fairly polished state. For all the others, she’s been the first reader, the person I trust with my possibly off-key experiments in plotting. I appreciate her attention to emotional and psychological detail. She notices what rings true or doesn’t and what needs clarification. And she comments on what she likes as well as what needs improvement. What writer wouldn’t like to know what pops into a reader’s mind?

I found my other indispensable critique partner, Janet Simpson, when I needed someone to read a completed draft of Shaman’s Blues. After processing Jordaina’s chapter-by-chapter feedback, I needed another perspective on the whole book. Janet turned out to be great at noticing the phrases and sentence structures I overused as well as looking at the big picture of the plot and the characters. I added her to my permanent team. A valuable critique partner tactfully but honestly tells you when something doesn’t work. Her feedback on my latest book, Ghost Sickness, motivated me to give a major subplot an overhaul.

When Janet needed an additional critique partner last year, I introduced her to Jordaina, and we are now a kind of circle. We are genuine fans of each other’s work. I think this is essential for writers working together long-term. In the formal group, which was dedicated to paranormal mysteries, there sometimes were members who wrote varieties of the genre such as vampire fiction or YA that didn’t appeal to me. No matter how well-crafted these chapters were, it made my commitment to weekly critiques more of a job than a labor of love. My offbeat variation on the mystery genre—no murders—isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, either. Jordaina’s and Janet’s humorous mysteries delight me. Both make me laugh. This isn’t a chore. It’s a pleasure.

We don’t have a schedule. Each of us sends what we need critiqued—a full manuscript or a chapter or a revised section or two—when it’s ready. Sometimes one of us has a deadline, sometimes not. It works, like a healthy relationship, with balanced give and take. No rules needed.

Jordaina

Personally, I think the biggest hurdle any writer has to overcome (ever!) is the fear of showing someone their work. Whatever state it’s in, whether that be the poorly punctuated first draft that doesn’t really make total sense (I’m allergic to commas – just ask Amber, she’ll tell you!) or the most polished and shiny draft you have in you (what Amber normally sends me under the ridiculous heading of “work in progress”).

It doesn’t matter though, because whatever I send Amber, I feel safe that she won’t judge (except for my lack of comma usage – I know she tuts over that) and that she’s committed to helping me make my story as compelling as I possibly can make it.

My first book, Beyond Dead, looks very different now from the first draft Amber critiqued, and many of the larger changes in the book came from her critiques. And that’s one of the best things about critique partners – they don’t just tell you about typos and plot holes, they give you options of how to fix them. Or, at least, the best ones do. And, with Amber and Janet, I’m lucky to have two of the best.

I have a few friends who are just starting out on the first drafts of their very first novels, and I keep telling them they need to start looking for critique partners now because finding a partner that you trust is more difficult than finding a husband (not that I’m particularly looking for a husband). And anyway, I think I’d rather have a great critique partner.

Note: Some commas in Jordaina’s section come courtesy of Amber.

Janet

 I have been around a bit. I was a good time girl looking for a permanent partner, flitting from critique relationship to critique relationship, never quite finding my perfect fit. And then I found Amber. The first book in my series had been published when we bumped into each other online at Sisters in Crime and we’ve never looked back.

When Amber told me the genre she wrote, I wasn’t sure it was going to be my cup of tea but once I started reading I was hooked. For me, her plots are secondary; it’s all about her characters, and if she takes them in a direction that doesn’t work for me, then I am happy to tell her that her characters are wandering off.

What do I get in return, other than a free read of her books well before the general public get a look in? Commas. Sad but true. I have no idea where commas go either. I go from sprinkling them liberally, like confetti at a wedding, to leaving them out altogether. However, Amber is good for more than a smack upside the head in regards to the proper use of punctuation.

I’ve got a confession to make. Don’t tell anyone, but I used to write romance, and sometimes I get carried away and forget that my Daisy Dunlop books are mysteries. There is a hint of, will they, won’t they, between my two main characters and when I wandered too far down the will they path in my last book, Lost Property, Amber dragged me back on track. A couple of other people who read the first draft loved the move towards a less platonic relationship and the drama of a cliff-hanger ending, but Amber didn’t think it worked. I trust her when it comes to my books, no matter how many other people cheered me on to keep going with what I had. If Amber says don’t do it, then a major rewrite is required. Was she right? Well, the positive reviews the book is getting would indicate that I made the right decision to trust her judgement.

Honest critique relationships take time to build. Some people don’t want the truth; they just want a pat on the head. Other people don’t want to tell you the truth; they just want to tear you down to build themselves up. Amber has never been anything other than honest and open, and I can’t imagine writing a book without her input. Not only Amber’s but Jordaina’s as well. Together they give my books the polish—and commas—they need. Thanks ladies! X

Another note: Amber may have removed some of the commas in Janet’s section to punctuate Jordaina’s.

 *****

*Although this post is about reciprocal critique partnering, I’m equally grateful to my beta readers who have helped me polish my work after my critique partners have worked with me through its early stages. Among them are Claire Murray, who saw why I needed to restore the original ending of Soul Loss, Heather Stetler, who has an attentive eye for the subtle details, and Kate Collier, who knows where to cut.

If you want to explore this topic further, a recent post on Maine Crime Writers, one of my favorite writing blogs, was about beta readers.

http://mainecrimewriters.com/brendas-posts/beta-love

 

Hidden Tracks

Amber in tree final I have files with titles such as “Accidental Shooting Settlements” and “Art Authentication” as well as “Pricing Art” and “Parrot Questions.” I finally deleted the one on 1989 Aerostar vans. The struggling old van made it through Shaman’s Blues and Snake Face and retired, with no one commenting on how I’d handled its various mechanical problems. That’s how it should be. I want to hide my tracks. Readers usually shouldn’t be paying attention to my research, but since this is a blog about writing, I’m going to go backstage and show the process.

Readers notice all the scholarly articles in The Calling. This book may look as though I worked harder on research compared to the rest, but in fact it was the easiest. I didn’t venture outside my areas of expertise, and I set it in places I knew well.When I lived in Norfolk, I’d visited a number of alternative healers there and several psychics in Virginia Beach—out of pure curiosity, with no idea they would end up as background for a book.  An important character in this story is a professor in health sciences and so am I. To find the material on alternative medicine and research in the field, all I had to do was relocate the right articles. I knew where they’d been published and I remembered the content.

More often, I don’t realize how much I’ll need to know about a subject until I’m into the first draft of a book. I immediately start keeping research lists, things to look up or ask experts about, and I dig into these questions as I go along.

When the character of Jamie showed up in Shaman’s Blues, I read books about current Australian Aboriginal culture in order to understand his roots. I studied Aussie slang and was blessed with an Australian critique partner who could tell if I got it right. And then there’s his van. It’s close to being a character in the next book, Snake Face. I took notes during Car Talk. I looked up timing belts and timing chains, I looked up the last year that these vans were made with carburetors, and I looked at pictures of their engine parts. A musician who had toured with a band read the manuscript to make sure I portrayed life on the road correctly. And I consulted a couple of lawyers about a major plot point. I double-checked some details of the medical treatments and outcomes for a particular injury. And I searched out the name of a Greek drinking dance. This is, I think, typical in the creation of a book, more typical than the ease with which I could pull together the seemingly obscure scholarship in The Calling.

For Soul Loss I reread some books on neo-shamanism to refresh my memory of a strange workshop I once attended as part of a conference, and I researched Tarot cards and Cochiti Pueblo beliefs about the dead. I also had to find out what was involved in setting up a festival. For Ghost Sickness I had to study up on parrots, since several play roles in the story, and also looked into rodeo injuries, and many matters related to art. Even though I’d set the story in familiar places, I revisited the Mescalero Apache reservation and took a careful, observant walk through Truth or Consequences to make doubly sure that certain events could happen as I wrote them. I could go on and on. It’s amazing what I discover that don’t know—or what I’ve forgotten that I thought I knew. But that list with the heading “Look Up” eventually gets crossed off and ideally readers have no idea I had to work so hard on that van. All they need to care about is the character driving it.

Stories Behind the Story

Amber in tree final

It was the mystical—some people would say woo-woo—aspect of Santa Fe that inspired the plot of my new book Soul Loss.  I had a friend there, an actress and water aerobics instructor, who channeled beings from the Pleiades, and her husband, an actor, did a little energy healing on the side. Through them I met a man, a gardener by trade, who could see energy. He said that most people had a dark crystal over their heads, and if they were ready, he could remove it, but the spiritual opening would be intense, and once it was off, it couldn’t be put back. This is only a small sample of the diversity of other-worldly connections I’ve encountered in the City Different.

When I started writing it four years ago, Soul Loss was meant to be the second book in the Mae Martin series. I began with the scene that is still Chapter One, in which a fortune teller gets a strange and chilling client. I knew what Mae’s role would be, and the nature of the mystery, which revolved around the troubles affecting a psychic fair. Then, about five chapters into the first draft, Jamie Ellerbee popped up out of the blue as a minor supporting character. With his eccentricities, his complex history, and his intense personality, he took over the book. I set Soul Loss aside and did the final revisions on The Calling, in which Mae’s life took an unexpected turn and a new world opened up for her. Parts of my original draft of Soul Loss split off and became Shaman’s Blues, and then Snake Face, giving Mae time to get to know Jamie and to adapt to living in New Mexico. Then, I could finally get back to what was now book four.

The seed for the scene I mentioned was planted by a sign I saw on the garden wall of a small adobe house many years ago: Fortune teller. Palm Readings. Tarot. I was curious and wanted to go in, but didn’t have time to stop. Later, when I thought to look for the sign again, I couldn’t remember which street it had been on. The idea of a traditional fortune teller in Santa Fe stuck in my mind, though, mixed in with a memory of a young woman of Romani ancestry I’d met while I was in graduate school. She gave occasional Tarot card and palm readings in the lobby of the campus center. I don’t remember what her reading for me said, but I couldn’t forget her forthright personality. She didn’t fit the stereotype of “Gypsy fortune teller,” but she was one. I began to picture her as the person inside the little house with the sign I couldn’t find again.

Another encounter that became a seed of this story took place at a complementary and alternative medicine conference. The workshops and presentations were enlightening—except for one, with a famous neo-shamanist. I wondered if the people who said they had visions and met guides were making things up, or if I was biased by prior experience with more traditional ceremonies. A few years after that, I met two women in a small town who conducted shamanic journey groups for twenty-five dollars a session. Their credentials?  A weekend training with this same famous teacher. Could they really have learned to be shamans? The question stayed with me and found its way into Soul Loss as part of a mystery only a psychic could solve.

soul ebook

Soul Loss

The fourth Mae Martin psychic mystery

Spring winds blow strange times into the City Different:

Mae Martin’s friend Jamie Ellerbee has dropped out of her life—and perhaps his own life as well. A teenaged model breaks contact with her parents after an encounter with a Santa Fe shaman. A psychic fair can’t recruit any psychics. Something is wrong with all of them … except one.

Faced with mysteries that reach into in the spirit world, Mae takes on her most challenging work yet—work that puts her gifts as a psychic and a healer at risk.

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

To learn more about the background behind the book, check out my guest posts on these great blogs:

On a yoga’s healing process: http://killerhobbies.blogspot.com/2015/06/yoga-stories.html

On the concept of soul loss: https://awomanswisdom.wordpress.com/2015/06/08/guest-blog-losing-and-recovering-the-soul-by-author-amber-foxx

To help new readers to get caught up on series, the first three books are discounted to $2.99 through August 18th. Happy summer reading!

https://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/buy-books-retail-links

Goodreads giveaway for Soul Loss: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/143009-soul-loss

Follow:

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https://www.facebook.com/pages/Amber-Foxx/354071328062619

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Amber Foxx Interviews Amber Foxx

AmberMysteriousOn my other blog, I enjoy doing Amber in tree finalinterviews and coming up with questions for the authors whose books I’ve reviewed. So, when it came time to write this introduction, I knew what I had to do: talk to myself.

Q: How did you decide to become a writer?

A: It never occurred to me not to write. I grew up in a word-loving environment. My parents owned—and often played—audio recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, and they frequently brought my sister and me to live theater as well. As a child, I wrote stories influenced by Nancy Drew and poems inspired by Dr. Seuss, and had a short story published in a teen magazine when I was twelve. I think I got paid twenty-five dollars for it.

Q: Do you write full time or do you have a day job?

A: I have two day jobs. I’m a college professor and a yoga teacher. Those jobs overlap, since I’m in Health and Exercise Science, and I teach yoga as part of my course load as well as off campus.

Q: One of the characters in your first book, The Calling, is a professor from New Mexico who practices yoga. Is Bernadette Pena based on you?

A: No, though I do have some things in common with her. When I was working at a college in the South a few years ago, I taught some courses on alternative medicine and non-Western healing traditions. For many of my students, it was their first opportunity to explore scholarly research on things like shamanism, Ayurveda, herbal medicine, energy healing, and other practices. One of those courses on made its way into The Calling. Its potential to disrupt assumptions about the nature of reality fit perfectly into the plot.

Q: Is your protagonist, Mae Martin, based on you?

A:  Mae is modeled after a good friend I met through my work as a fitness director and yoga teacher in northeastern North Carolina. Aspects of The Calling were inspired by some of her life experiences. I admired her combination of practicality and spirituality, and her intense determination to be herself in a situation where few people supported her.

Q: Did you set out to write genre-blending mysteries? You’ve had favorable reviews in which reviewers seem to have a hard time finding the right genre label for your work.

A: When I decided to write mysteries without murder, I wasn’t thinking about stretching the genre so much as being true to the stories I wanted to tell. I’d tried writing a mystery with a dead body in it but half-way through, I realized I couldn’t keep putting Mae in that situation. It didn’t feel right for the character or for me. There are ways people hurt each other, short of killing, that lead to layers of secrets in families and friendships. Phenomena such as psychic ability fill life with mystery as well. As long as there’s something that the protagonist doesn’t understand and neither does the reader—and solving for that X in the equation is central to the plot—then the story is a mystery.

Q: You mentioned psychic ability as if it were a real thing. Do you think it is?

A: Yes. I could take up pages with my personal experiences, and at every college where I’ve taught, students have confided some remarkable psychic events. And then, I’ve lived in Santa Fe and in Truth or Consequences. In both places, not only are art, music, dancing, and eccentricity part of everyday life, so are psychics and alternative healers.

Q: Is that why you moved the series from the South to the Southwest?

A: That’s one reason. In the new location, Mae “fits in” better because she doesn’t have to try to fit in anymore. It’s hard to feel like a nonconformist in New Mexico. There’s not much to conform to. The other reason is to move the plots in new directions. Living in a place where her gift is more readily accepted, Mae encounters new kinds of mysteries, as people ask her for answers only a seer could find. The setting also lets me bring in some of the stranger aspects of “the woo-woo,” with a questionable health-nut psychic in Shaman’s Blues and everyone from a celebrity modern shaman to an artist who claims she channels angels to a medium who speaks with dead in the upcoming June 15th release, Soul Loss.

Q: Thanks. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: Just this:

http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Amber-Foxx/354071328062619

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7554709.Amber_Foxx

http://amberf.booklikes.com/

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