Beginning writers quickly learn the value of working with one or more critique partners. It helps to bounce your ideas off someone else, to have assistance when figuring out which point of view works best in a particular scene, to let another set of eyes catch blatant grammar problems. Critique partners also come in handy when plotting a new work. They offer tension heightening hints and throw additional roadblocks into the journey your characters follow. But by far, the largest benefit to working with a critique partner is the way it prepares you for working with an editor.
Not that it’s one in the same. Not at all.
For one thing, a good critique partner will surround their criticism with good news, kind of like bread surrounds the meat in a sandwich. An editor might not have the time or inclination to hold your hand. Most editors expect to deal with their authors on a professional level. And that means an author must listen to constructive criticism and handle it.
How do you get to that point? Enter contests that give feedback. Join a critique group. Learn to listen when your critique partners speak. You might not always follow that advice. Say your critique partner suggests your heroine should be a brunette instead of a blonde. You can brush aside her recommendation. Especially if your critique partner is a brunette who sees herself as your title character.
Not so when working with an editor. An editor’s suggestions require careful consideration. Unless you’re prepared to defend your position with a truly good reason, you’ll make the changes he/she requests because your editor has a finger on the market’s pulse. Their advice comes from a more informed perspective.
My editor’s job is to know, not only what is selling “out there” but what works within her publishing house, imprint or line. My editor realizes, more than this newly published author, that the bones of a story might be good while the details—the setting, the backstory, the characterization—can be changed without impacting the basic story.
That’s what happened to me when I was developing the proposal for my third Harlequin American Romance. I woke up one morning convinced I’d “seen” my heroine in a motorcycle shop in Daytona Beach. Instantly, I knew all I needed to know about her—that she’d come to Bike Week hoping to find a vintage bike like the one she used to ride with her Dad, and in essence, she was all about re-creating the safe, family-first environment he’d provided for her when she was a kid. With that, I had my hero—her opposite in so many ways—who had come to Bike Week hoping to sell his ex-wife’s old Harley. After some time when each was less than forthcoming about who they were and where they were headed in life, this pair next met in family court where she represented his ex-wife in a custody fight for his little girl.
A great story, I thought.
My editor, Laura Barth, had a slightly different opinion.
“Love the characters, love the plot,” she said. “But Bike Week isn’t really the right setting for a Harlequin American Romance. Can you move the story to a dude ranch?”
And, because I’d worked with critique partners who’d suggested fundamental changes to my work in the past, I took a deep breath instead of shouting, “No way!” It took a few minutes, but I dredged up the advice Cherry Adair gave at a recent RWA National Conference.
“Of course, I can change it,” I said. “After all, it’s fiction.”
Thus Rodeo Daughter was born. My slightly steamy reunion story with a twist of mistaken identity became a sweeter version of itself. One I love so much more! One involving a former rodeo star turned family law specialist and a driven, career-focused prosecuting attorney. Though my character’s backgrounds and physical characteristics changed, and though the plot gained a new setting, it remained the story of two people whose first brush with love ended badly. When they meet this time, the stakes are much higher since the story plays out against the background of a custody battle.
Thanks to my editor’s suggestions and my willingness to follow them, RT Book Reviews gave Rodeo Daughter a top ranking of 4 ½ stars and named it a TOP PICK! for June.
So, my advice to you today? If you’re unpublished, join a critique group. Learn to handle constructive criticism. If you’re published, listen, really listen to your editor.
Leigh Duncan writes the kind of books she enjoys reading, ones where home, family and community are key to the happy endings we all deserve (The Daddy Catch, June 2011 and The Officer’s Girl, June 2010.). Rodeo Daughter, her third book Harlequin American Romance, received a 4 ½-star TOP PICK! from RT Book Reviews. Leigh is a long-time member of the Romance Writers of America. When she isn’t busy writing or helping aspiring authors, Leigh enjoys curling up in her favorite chair with a great book. To learn more about her, visit www.leighduncan.com