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The Most Important Book I’ve Read (Or the Importance of Being a Critique Partner)

I’m going to do something a little off here. I’m going to talk about somebody else’s book, but I’m going to talk about it in terms of how it affected me to work on it. It’s a little crass, I admit, but I’m not doing it to shine a spotlight on myself, to say ‘look what I did.’ The author wrote it. My critique helped her, to some extent, I think. But it helped me more, and that’s what I want to talk about. I think there’s a pretty good consensus out there that you need critique partners to improve, but I think a lot of people focus on receiving critique. For me, I think I’ve learned more by giving it.

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I’ve talked about the book before, but when you title something The Most Important, that’s going to happen. You’re going to talk about it. And when I say it’s the Most Important, I don’t mean that in an objective sense, this is the most important book ever written in the world. But it’s important to me, personally, as a writer, and how I developed. Colleen Halverson’s Through the Veil changed the way I think about writing. No…that’s not it. It changed how I think about myself as a writer. I think that’s more important than how I think about writing. That probably requires explanation.

Confidence in yourself as a writer is a fragile thing. Writers of all levels talk about it daily on social media, from those querying for the first time to best selling authors. Sometimes you feel like everything you write is crap. Wait…is that just me? On a good day, when I write something new, I think ‘hey, maybe this *isn’t* crap.’ But that’s about as good as it gets. And so I work on it some more, until I’m totally convinced that it might not suck, then I close my eyes, pour a drink, then send it to readers for confirmation. You’d think that feeling would go away, but it hasn’t for me. I’m assured by many with much more experience than I that it never does.

Being a critique partner helps with that. It doesn’t make it go away–I don’t think anything can do that–but when I read for other people and see things in their work that they can make better, and I’m able to express those things, it gives me the confidence that I know stuff. And when that author takes what I give them and makes their book better, it’s a great feeling. When someone I critiqued for has success, it feels almost as good as having that success myself. And I think as writers we need that feeling, sometimes. Publishing takes a long time, so successes can be few and far between. Piggybacking on the successes of your friends helps keep you going during the slow spots.

The second thing I get from doing critique for people is I get to see what they do better than me. I do some things well in my writing, I do some things less well. When I read critically for talented writers, I always see things that I’d like to do better. To some extent I could do this with any book, but thinking about a book and writing down my thoughts on it carries more weight. It’s like the difference between being the driver in a car and a passenger. When you’re driving, you’re more likely to remember how to get there the next time, because you had to actively think about how you got there.

Finally, as I see things in someone else’s work and I search for ways to explain where it has issues, it allows me to better diagnose the same things in my own work. Don’t get me wrong. It’s harder to find it in my own stuff. I can spot a a lack of character agency a mile away in somebody else’s book, but totally miss it in my own. That’s why we have critique partners. But the more often I find things for other people, the easier it gets.

But none of that explains why this particular book is the most important. I mean, it’s a wonderful book, and it’s extremely well written. But to understand why it means so much to me requires a history lesson. The first time I saw any of this book, it was five pages. In retrospect, they weren’t great, but back then I thought they were. It was definitely better than my writing at the time, so there’s some perspective involved. But more than that, there was a bit of magic in the pages (figurative, writing magic, not literal magic — although that’s there too). When Elizabeth talked in chapter one about The Book starting to change…I got that little chill you get when you read something special. I knew it was good, and that it was going to be something extraordinary. And though it took several more drafts and a ton of work by the author, I was right. Hold that thought.

Since this was one of the first books I ever worked on as a critique partner, I really had no idea what I was doing. I just started reading and writing notes about what I thought. There are a lot of fight scenes, which I’m pretty good at, so I felt like I could help there, but I tried to point out what I saw wherever it was. The two main characters didn’t seem to mesh quite right in the first chapter, so I said something. It wasn’t anything more than how I felt when I read them together.

Colleen made revisions and sent back what she’d done, and it was amazing. She took some half-baked notes of mine that something might not quite work, and she fixed it in ways I couldn’t even imagine. More importantly, she liked the notes. This brilliant writer who was much more advanced than me wanted to hear what I had to say. And the two characters who I thought were awkward together the first time I read them now jumped off the page with their chemistry.

Fast forward through more revisions and more work to the moment when an editor at Entangled saw the thing in this book that I saw, and wanted to publish the book. She saw the magic that I saw a year before. I was *right* about it. I always suspected I was, but to have it confirmed by an editor and a publisher — I’m not going to say that it meant more to me than it did to Colleen. That would be silly. But it meant a lot. This is the first book that I worked on that found success. It won’t be the last. But you know what they say…you never forget your first.

through-the-veil-sales-blitz

You might wonder why I’m writing about this now when the book debuted back in January. Part of it is promotional. Big things are happening right now. The sequel releases at the end of the month, and to celebrate, Through The Veil is on sale. It’s regularly $3.99, but now you can get it for $0.99. But really, I think it just took me this long into my own journey to realize what it has meant to me. What can I say? I’m a slow learner.

Remember what I said at the beginning of the post about confidence, and how important it is to a writer? Knowing that I helped, knowing that I was right about it, gave me the confidence I needed to read for more people and learn more craft. It made me believe I could do it too, this writing thing. It helped me find the confidence I needed to hit send on my own work. There have been other factors, sure, but none as important as this, the most important book I ever read.

I’d tell you how awesome it is, but I’m not going to lie…I’m a bit biased. If you’re interested, you can check it out at any of the following:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
ITunes
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

2 Comments

  • Elesha Teskey says:

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. Over the past week I’d been thinking about many of the things you expressed here. I truly believe being a CP has helped my own writing as well.

  • Lisa says:

    And you are a most excellent critique partner! I want to be like you and Colleen when I grow up.

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I am a Soldier and a Science Fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I'm represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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