Saturday, January 23, 2010

Welcome Donna Alward

To Crit or not to Crit… by Donna Alward

One of the things I heartily recommend to aspiring authors is having a critique partner. I say that because I have one, and I simply wouldn’t do without her.

Critiquing is funny business. There are so many considerations! And there are so many ways things can go wrong and to make the relationship and experience a negative one. In the December issue of RWR (Romance Writers Report, RWA) Carrie Lofty did a great article called Writing By Committee, where she talked about critique groups. If you can get your hands on the article, by all means, read it.

I don’t critique by group, but have one critique partner. Still, the article struck a chord because I’ve seen critiquing when it works and unfortunately when it doesn’t. In particular, I liked Cher Gorman’s quote used, because it really applies to how I feel about my critique relationship: "There is a level of trust involved in a critiquing partnership that must be honored for the partnership to work." Cher likened it to a marriage.

I’ve said for a long time that it sounds like a relationship: My critique partner, Michelle Styles, and I have been together since 2003. It does take trust, respect, admiration and commitment.

So today I’m going to share with you what has worked for us.

  1. Look for someone at about the same level of writing as you are. Michelle was at the cusp of success with a few non-Harlequin sales on the horizon and I was at the point where I’d discovered my voice and knew where I should be submitting – Harlequin Romance. Michelle had already penned Gladiator’s Honour which went on to be her first Mills and Boon/Harlequin Historical sale. She sold it in 2005; I sold to Samhain and then to Harlequin Romance in 2006.
  2. Check your ego at the door. When Michelle sent me my first critique, I was decimated. I went to the garage and told my husband I should just quit. But I didn’t. After a few days I realized that everything she said was dead on and I wanted to be published more than I wanted to be right. (This was a HUGE concession on my part, btw. I don’t do humble pie well.) Sometimes you need to suck it up.
  3. Give as good as you get. You learn as much if not more from critiquing someone else’s work as you do having yours evaluated.
  4. It’s okay to disagree. There have been times when I haven’t agreed with something she’s said, and when she hasn’t agreed with me. It’s okay. Only the author knows what direction the story is going to go in and why your suggestion might not work. At that point, I try to ask myself, WHY is she saying this? What about this isn’t working? I can usually find another way of tackling it to get my own way but solve the problem beneath.
  5. Find your rhythm. Over the years our critiquing technique has become refined. We have a way of doing things that works for us. Not every relationship is the same, so if you find someone you can work with, who gets you, and has invaluable information, you’ll find your own system. I’m always afraid to critique anyone else now as I am so used to doing it a certain way!
  6. Evolve. As your writing changes, so do your needs. Like any relationship, over time things change. We definitely look for different things now than we did in the beginning, because now we both have several books behind us.
  7. Hold on tight. When you find a relationship that works – don’t let it go. Having Michelle be my first reader is so helpful. She points out holes or inconsistencies with motivation, and I know I turn in a better product to my editor as a result. But she doesn’t have a heavy hand – it’s always my writing and my story. That’s so important.

Finding the right person is not an easy job, and I feel so lucky that Michelle once offered to take a look at a manuscript. She is my biggest critic and my biggest fan, and we trust each other implicitly. That’s a trust that has been built and nurtured for six years now. On my bookshelf, you’ll see a line of pink spines of my Romance hardcovers. You’ll also see a very proud row of purple ones for Michelle’s Historicals.

This month sees the release of the first book in my Cowboys and Confetti duet – One Dance With The Cowboy! Meet the Laramie brothers and visit Lazy L Ranch again in March with Her Lone Cowboy, out in March in Canada in the US and April in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

You can find me on my site at and learn more about my brilliant critique partner Michelle at


Caroline Storer said...

Great blog Donna! Caroline x

Pamela Callow said...

I think you summed up the critiquing relationship perfectly, Donna!


Anne MacFarlane said...

Donna, sounds like you found a great critique partner. And great advice.

Michelle Styles said...

Blushing as DOnna will keep telling the story that I made her cry...
And she does not say enough what a great ritque partner she is.

Janet said...

You all started the party without me!

Welcome, Donna, back to The Prairies. We are honored to have you return as a guest. As I said in my introduction, perhaps this will become an annual event!

Great post. I think we all struggle to find the perfect fit when it comes to critiquing. Some of us prefer one or two individuals, some like the group format. I consider myself very lucky to have a group of writers (SRW) who are willing to have a look at whatever you need - at the drop of an e-mail. I employ their assistance after I've run it many times past my wonderful partner, Jana. Or my alternate 'go to' girls, Karyn and Hayley. This is when I need fresh eyes - someone who hasn't seen the thing 50 zillion times.

Great post, Donna. Looking forward to the discussion today ;)

Michelle Helliwell said...

Great post Donna. I really appreciated the part about "check your ego at the door." When I first sat down with my critique partner, I thought I was prepared, but I can't say I didn't go home and want to rethink what I was doing for a few minutes...until I realized that I wanted to be a good writer. Nice to know that everyone has that experience. Great advice!

Jennie Marsland said...

Hi Donna! I've done the group critique thing, and I'll never forget the first critique I got. I was devastated, but it worked. You do have to check your ego at the door and bring along an open mind. The thing I find valuable about the group approach is that if two or three people pick on the same point, you can be pretty sure it needs fixing, and no one's eyes get too stale.

Donna Alward said...

hey everyone!

It's been a crazy morning here so I'm just popping in. Poor Michelle - she does keep getting flack for making me cry. I'm sure she's happy to know I'm not the only one through a similar experience.

THe thing is - it is more about me and my reaction and the steps I needed to take to be a better writer, than it is about her. She was only honest. It is how we RECEIVE that honesty that counts. Briefly, my ego got in the way.

My reaction to that critique is still sometimes my reaction to revisions, by the way. Once you clue it to the process of emotions you go through, it's easier.

Donna Alward said...

And by the way - I keep telling the story because I love her so much and if I'd been more worried about being right I would have missed out on something wonderful.

Vince said...

Hi Donna:

I ‘discovered’ you and Michelle at about the same time as few years ago. I’ve read all of Michelle’s books (except those published only in the UK) and most of yours. Your current book is on order. I love that your books come in larger print.

Here’s the thing: I would never associate you with Michelle. Your styles are different, your voices are different, and your subject matter is different. Do you think it helps that you are not writing the same kind of books? Do you think it would be a problem – or at least make a difference -- if Michelle was also writing HRs?

Also, are there times when you write something and you know (and can even hear Michelle’s voice in your head) exactly how she is going to critique the passage? This happened to me a lot when I wrote speeches as part of my job. It was almost like having the critique partner right there beside you at all times.

I think critique partnerships can be like marriages. An author told me a sad story about how she lost her best friend and critique partner when she published and the CP never did. She wanted to keep the relationship but the CP just couldn’t take her success. This still hurt her years later. It just shows how lucky a writer is to have a successful CP.

BTW, I love your photo but I think it sends the message that you write paranormals. I always ‘see’ you on a horse with a ‘big sky’ background. : )


P.S. Love Inspired Historical has now published a Roman romance. I’d love for Michelle to write more Roman novels.

Donna Alward said...

Vince - your comment about my pic made me laugh. I am looking to get a new one but my vanity says lose some weight first....LOL!

And YES I hear Michelle's voice all the time as I'm writing. Well, not all the time. Sometimes I have to forget about it and forge forward. It is easier to do as I go on because I know I can fix it later. It can be a really good thing when the character's voices are speaking louder than Michelle's! :-)

As far as subject/voice/style I think it can work either way. For us, there are consistencies in storytelling that apply across the board - making sure there is motivation, emotional responses, character arc, etc. I think for me, reading Michelle's stuff I read as a writer but also as a reader since it's not my normal line.

Hazel said...

What a great topic, Donna! I don't have a CP, but I belong to a couple of groups where there is potential to hook up with someone compatible with me, in respect to the aspects you mentioned.

A group provides encouragement and support that is valuable, but I can see that the critical aspect doesn't necessarily bring the depth (and brutal honesty) that we need, and that is more likely to come from someone who has really become tuned in.

It took me a long time to get up nerve to join a group. We'll see how long it will be before I'm begging for a critique partner. You have certainly identified the benefits, and I thank you.

By the way, congratulations on your 10th Harlequin title!!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Happy Anniversary, Donna! I can't believe a year has gone since you became our first Honorary Prairie Chick. And congrats on your success with the HR line!

My CP and I have been working together for 2 yrs now since the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) put us together because we were at the same writing level (although she is agented). We both write contemporary but she really likes my historicals, too.

I trust her judgement implicitly.
I really like that she knows when I don't have enough conflict, strong plotlines, etc and I'm good at picking out the all the details, holes, and keeping the continuity.

And my favorite part is the brainstorming which we usually do via chat but sometimes by phone.

Like you and Michelle, Gwen is my first line of defence. Once it passes Gwen, then I'm blessed to have a group like the SRW and ladies from my other group blog - Inkwell Inspirations - to take it to the next level.

This is a great post, Donna. Thank you for bring it to us.

Karyn Good said...

Hey, Donna. Thanks for stopping by today. What a great post on critiquing! You've listed some very good points and things to think about when looking to partner with someone.

It's pretty hard to go it alone. Somewhere along the line you need feedback, support and someone else's eyes to go over things. I have had members of the SRW and an online group, the Beta Bloggers, read my writing and give feedback. I value their support and they've taught me so much. I shudder to think where I'd be without it. I don't have an 'official' critique partner, partly because I feel I do not have the strong critiquing skills needed to return the favor. But the more I learn about the craft the better I'll get at offering insightful, productive, and useful-to-them comments. Hopefully.

Thanks for the very helpful post, Donna.

Marcie said...

How did you two find each other? Do you correspond by getting together? Or by email?

Carrie Lofty said...

Hi Donna (and Michelle!),

I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Here's a link, for those who might be interested.

All the best,

Jana Richards said...

Hi Donna,
It's so great to see you again! You're always welcome here on the Prairies.

Janet and I critique each other's work, and I also have a group here in Winnipeg that has been really great over the years. I really need a critique partner or group to help me make sure I've got plenty of conflict, motivation, sexual tension and I don't have gaping holes in plot or consistency.

For you it's checking your ego at the door, but for me it's growing a thick skin. At first it was very difficult for me to be critiqued, but I grew a much thicker skin over the years. I think it helped that I've been lucky to have had very kind critiquers! That's not to say they haven't been honest. Trust me, my group in Winnipeg is brutually honest. But the critiques are never given in a mean-spirited way and are always meant to help make the work better.

Whatever critique partner or group I'm working with I always try to remember that it's still my story. I always have the last word.


Lilly Cain said...

I'm late in chiming in! Darn. I loved the blog Donna. You are lucky to have the partnership with Michelle. I've had several partners over the years and all have had their benefits. I'm still looking for that relationship that you have found with Michelle, but I now have a circle of friends and readers that seem to be pointing me in the right direction when I head astray. Without them I don't know if I would have made it with my first book, Dark Harmony. With their help it evolved into the book it is now.


Donna Alward said...

Hey Carrie! *waves* I enjoyed your article a lot. Lots of great info.

Marcie, you asked where we found each other. Ours is a true story of online dating. LOL. No seriously, I sometimes think I was English in a former life or something. I made a lot of friends at eharlequin's thread for Brits - The Mouse and Pen - and went in asking for info on London. Michelle offered to answer my questions. She also gave me my recipe for CHristmas pudding. At some point she asked if I wanted a second pair of eyes. And there we began. :-) That was in 2003. :-)