Friday, February 16, 2018

How to Choose Good Writing Partners--Making the Process Less Trial-and-Error

They say it takes a lot of support to write a book--the process is long, hard, and personal for most writers.  We need encouraging words and people who believe in what we're doing, so we can keep doing it when the journey feels useless.  I know most writers who complete books gather a team of supporters by the end.  Supporters like writing groups, writing partners, or hired editors/coaches. I don't know many who get published without this kind of backup.
Recently I taught a week-long writing retreat in Tucson and two of the participants were returnees from last year.  Between then and now, they had been accountability partners via email, logging their progress with each other each week.  Not exchanging writing, but keeping each other on task via encouragement and support.  Another writer in the retreat talked about her two writing groups, formed after taking online classes--she had found a small circle of support that kept exchanging after the class was over.  Not surprising that all three of these writers were still moving forward with their books.  They'd found the secret of good writing partners.
Others aren't so lucky.  Even excellent writers, even published writers, can inadvertently fall victim to unkind feedback.   
One of my past students joined a writing group where an unknown writer was keen on giving feedback. The exchange looked promising, but the reader was of the slash-and-burn mentality, so even this skilled, experienced writer felt "yucky" afterwards.  She's strong enough not to stop her project, but I've heard stories of one bad feedback exchange devastating someone enough to quit their book.  That's a shame, and it's not necessary. But unfortunately, this happens more often than not.  
A bad feedback exchange is NOT a reflection of the value of your book.  Many times it's a marker of poor communication skills, or training that leans towards critical rather than supportive.   
In my book, Your Book Starts Here, I devote a whole chapter to getting and giving feedback.  Since support is essential, it's also essential to know how to take care of yourself and your book idea or manuscript, as it gets ready to be born.  
But how does a writer find a safe home for their work, at any stage?  Here are some tips from successful partnerships forged by students in my past classes.  They might be helpful to you, too, if you're looking for a writing partner. 
1.  Most said that the safest way to find writing partners is through online classes, where you can test out feedback skills in a moderated environment.  The teacher makes sure folks are kind to each other.  You get to see how the other writers respond.  Eliminate the ones who simply parrot the teacher's remarks, or say they just love the piece but have nothing more to add.  Also avoid those who give only "surface" feedback--spelling errors, for instance.  That's proofreader stuff and not necessary until you're about to submit to agents.  
Look for those who share original, helpful comments that make you think.  The comments might sting a little, but they don't flatten you.  Often, the best comments  are in the form of questions--that's the mark of a really superior reader, in my experience.  Questions open doorways for the writer. 
2.  Look, also, for gratitude in the partnership.  If a writer in one of my classes receives but doesn't thank the people who give her feedback, it doesn't bode well for future writing partnerships.  Partners who are good bets long term are usually very aware of and grateful for feedback.  They know how valuable it is!
3.  Look for consistency.  Does the writer post regularly?  Are they moving forward on their book, steadily? This is sometimes harder to assess, since some people in classes can show up to please or impress the teacher, not for themselves or their books. Some writers also feel more comfortable giving feedback than sharing their own writing--another danger sign. You want someone who posts their own work as often as they comment on others' work.  
4.  Always vet the partner with a sample before you begin.   Even if you know each other from class, share only a little outside, at first.  See how it goes.  Be prepared to say no thanks.  You HAVE to safeguard your work, no one else will do it for you, and you have the right to first refusal, even if it means making up something like, "Got suddenly busy, have to pass, but wish you the best!"
5.  Don't ask too much in the beginning.  If you're used to inline comments from class, you may need to start private partnerships with something easier.  People don't always understand how much time a regular exchange takes, and it can be harder to maintain without a class structure.  You want this partner for the long haul, not a short flash.