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Losing a Beloved Critique Partner

I lost my critique partner, Janna, two weeks ago. She did not die. She did not break up with me. She did not quit writing. No, Janna literally sailed off into the sunset with her husband and two middle school age daughters on what will be a three-year sailing adventure.

I am very mad at her.

Sure, she tells me we’ll still chat, that we’ll still be able to read each other’s work. But really? I’m going to ask her to read half of my novel as she is navigating fifty-mile ice floes and skinny-hungry polar bears in the Northwest Passage? She’s going to want to read my stuff as she homeschools her daughters and boils water for not-frigid sponge-baths? She’s going to help me identify my plot issues while she’s trying to sail very quickly away from squalls and pirates?

Arrrrgh! Me thinks not.

For the record, I am aware of how pathetic I sound. I hope she is too busy navigating skinny polar bears to read this.

I met Janna in 2001, the same year I started seriously writing fiction. We hit it off right away, but I wasn’t looking for a writing partner, and she wasn’t yet interested in dating writing seriously, so we muddled along as friendly colleagues and then as long-distance friends when she and her husband took a two-and-a-half year honeymoon, cruising the South Pacific on a very small sailboat.

In 2005, Janna started writing chapters of what would be her memoir. At this point, she asked me and two other writer friends if we’d ever want to, you know, exchange phone numbers chunks of our writing and offer feedback to one another.

That went on for a while before the other two writers fell away, and Janna and I found it was just the two of us, shyly blinking at each other, hoping the other would want to be monogamous. And then somehow we did become monogamous! I don’t remember how that happened because my memory is ridiculous, but it happened!

Around that same time, I heard an NPR interview with Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken, discussing their “First Reader” relationship. Patchett explains,

I write for myself first and foremost. And then I write for Elizabeth, and then really nobody after that because while I’m in the process of writing, we’re the only two people I could even imagine reading the work.

I remember feeling startled that Patchett and McCracken were so reliant on each other. What happened if something happened to McCracken? Would Patchett have to stop writing? What if something happened to Patchett? Would McCracken have to stop writing?

What would happen to me if something happened to Janna? Equally important, what would happen to her if something happened to me?

It seemed too risky to put that much faith and trust into a relationship. It seemed crazy and dangerous. Like putting oneself quite close to ice floes and pirates and polar bears.

Shortly after we said our vows became monogamous critique partners, Janna got herself a fabulous agent, got a book deal and, in 2008, published a memoir. While she did that, I wrote thousands of pages of unusable junk, plus (with Janna’s help) a few hundred decent pages that would eventually turn into Book #1.

Janna never left my side. She cheered me on and held my hand as my own fabulous agent pitched Book #1. She consoled me as the millions of encouraging rejections from publishers came rolling in.

She fed me ice chips and administered the epidural through my writing of Book #2 and played cheerleader as millions more encouraging rejections came rolling in.

Now, as I am finishing Book #3, Janna continues to patiently read my work even though I must look like that stuck-inside-the-house housefly, hurling its body against the bay window over and over as it attempts to find its way outside.

At least that’s what Janna was doing. And then she sailed away.

Of course, I knew who and what she was when I married her partnered up with her. Deep, deep down, like 20,000 leagues down, I knew Janna was not someone who could ever stay put, geographically, forever.

But for a while, I thought maybe I could change her, that the longer she and I were writing partners, the more she’d realize it was stupid and uncomfortable to sail all over tarnation, that it was much smarter to live in a house that wouldn’t get chased by pirates. I thought she’d see that the word “landlubber,” had a much sexier ring than “cruising globetrotter.”

Aye, what a squiffy lass I was t’ reckon that!

When I have tried to explain to my husband and my not-writer friends why I feel so adrift without Janna, when I articulate why I would be lying fetal in the middle of an indie bookstore Amazon’s warehouse without Janna’s words of wisdom, I can tell these not-writers just don’t get it.

But Ann Patchett and Elizabeth McCracken do. I bet many of you lovelies do too.

We must search for these beloved beta readers, critique partners and cheerleaders because we need people who coax our best work from us, who encourage us to keep going, to keep honing, to keep improving our stories. And our writing partners need us to do the same for them.

It’s hard to find a partner who is the holy trinity: beta reader, critique partner and cheerleader, but I lucked out when I started working with Janna.

Which is why I’m so mad at her for leaving.

But then! Just the other day, I received a text from her.

I think we need to schedule a phone call just bc we can. When is good for youse? Tomorrow or Friday? I’ll call you. If I don’t it means I don’t have service but I suspect I will!

At the appointed hour, I waited nervously by my charging cell phone.

And then it rang! Janna and I talked about her stuff and my stuff, and it was like she was just a few puny blocks away. Only she had the view of dolphins swimming alongside her boat, and I had the view of my houseplants that needed watering and my windows that needed washing. Otherwise, things felt no different.

Until mid conversation, Janna interrupted herself.  “Crap!” she said. “Wind’spickingupI’llcallyouback.”

Yes. The wind was picking up. She needed to help her husband and daughters sail their home up the Canadian coast. And I needed to Windex my windows.

But true to her word, sure enough, after just a matter of minutes, Janna did call back. Right after the wind died down. After my windows were again clear and clean enough to see the peonies in our front yard opening to receive the warmth of Seattle springtime sunshine. It’s really no only a little different having her gone. And I know this to be true: Me matey will return afore I know it.

Your turn! What positive experiences have you had with a beta reader or a critique partner and why was it so positive? Or, why did a beta reader or critique partner relationship not work out so well? Where or how did you meet your critique partner? Sailing through the Northwest Passage: dream or nightmare? And last but not least, do ye ‘ave a fav’rit pirate sayin’?

Thank you, devoted WU community, for reading and commenting. You are an invaluable part of my support team.

And, if you want to experience the cruising life from the comfort of your sofa, follow Janna’s blog.

Polar bear photo compliments of Flickr’s Smudge 9000.

About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.