Food, Glorious Food!

This Labor Day weekend, my critique partner, who also happens to be a Ruby-Slippered Sister and two time Golden Heart winner, Laurie Kellogg, and her hubby made the long drive to the mountains so we could brainstorm, discuss, and critique.  Laurie brought salads to complement the meats I’d prepared—gotta keep the men happy—and we hunkered down in the kitchen to work while the men adjourned to the living room to worship at the altar of ‘The Norm God’ (translation:  watch endless episodes of The New Yankee Workshop.)

Laptops humming, coffee, water, and assorted other amenities readily available, we proceeded to debate, loudly, heatedly, lost in the worlds of our creation.  We argued points, defended choices, pushed each other to delve deeper, reach higher.  No cop out, shortcut, or contrivence escaped unscathed.

When we finally came up for air several hours later, our husbands (both of whom were bright enough to avoid the kitchen) were starving and dehydrated.

We declared a short truce, took care of our neglected spouses (who also happen to be our staunchest fans,) ate, laughed and conversed like normal people, put things away, and picked up where we left off.

More hours—and a very late dinner—later, Laurie headed home, both of us satisfied with our progress and a bit sad the productive and exhilarating day had to end.

My Hubble, having never been privy to Laurie and me at work, later admitted he’d become a little concerrned and remarked to Laurie’s hubby that we were “really going at one another.”  Much to his consternation, Laurie’s hubby simply nodded and replied, “Yep.”

Both Laurie and I are strong, opinionated women, passionate about our writing.  Her sweetie has has often seen, and/or heard, us debating–in the car, on the phone, and in Laurie’s kitchen.  Hubble, on the other hand, was never home for our sparring matches.

I think we scared him.  He usually only sees the woman hammering away at the keyboard in solitude.  The woman hammering away at her friend in high dudgeon came as a suprise.  (I do so love keeping that man on his toes.)

Most folks tend toward a Fitzgerald or Hemingway-esque perception of writers, envisioning an insular individual lost in a fantasy world or diligently researching, spectacled eyes squinting at some obscure fact within a dusty tome.  Or they envision an irascible curmudgeon staring at the walls, muttering and making unexplained remarks to no one in particular, cocktail glass or coffee cup close to hand, someone who drinks too much, smokes too much, and walks away in the middle of a conversation for no apparent reason.

Hollywood has painted writers in general thus (although their perception of romance writers nearly defies credibility, but that’s fodder for another blog,) so thus it must be.

Such stereotypes make it easy to believe every writer writes the same way.  After all, writers all have the same goal—to write a book worthy of publication.  If you put a dozen cooks in a kitchen with the same ingredients and the same recipe, surely you will end up with the same dish, right?

If those cooks are taking a test, hoping to become chefs and one day rule their own kitchens, perhaps.  Other than that?  Not likely.

Artistic individuals, even those working in the same medium toward the same goal, are prone to add a personal flare to whatever they do.  It’s intrinsic and especially true when their endeavors spark passion within them.

Most creative sorts are innovative on many levels, but there is usually one, possibly two, outlets that capture their imaginations and light a fire deep inside that imparts something special to the finished product.  And, should that product be attacked, dismissed, or criticized, they will defend it with their last breath unless some intrepid individual makes them see a tweak or a change will not destroy their work but enhance it.

Writers call these brave souls critique partners.

Writers are artists, too.  Never doubt that.  We are would-be word chefs fighting for our own kitchens, saddled with what is, at heart, the same recipe:  words, imagination, protagonist, antagonist, goals, motivations, conflicts, black moments, resolutions, a hint of heart and soul, and, if you write romance, a satisfying HEA.

So we assess the recipe and scrutinize the ingredients, well aware how and where we acquired them will affect their flavor, add an extra dash of this, cut, chop, or dice an unexpected that, simmer instead of sauté.  We whip something until it’s smooth, fold in something light and delicate, add some zest for texture and an unexpected zing.  We pull out the pressure cooker instead of the roasting pan.  Then we serve it and wait for the verdict, hoping the flavors we’ve blended, the time and energy, blood, sweat, and tears we’ve expended will result in the feast we’ve envisioned; a banquet to delight everyone who sits to our table.

It never does; critics can be such Philistines.

Sometimes we ignore the critics and put the dish on the menu anyway to rave reviews.  Sometimes the criticism contains a pinch of something that resonates, intrigues, expands our imagination so we return to the kitchen curious or, if we’re lucky, inspired.  Sometimes we toss the whole concoction into the garbage and vow the world will starve ere we put our efforts before it again.  However, if we are truly passionate, we soon find ourselves chopping, stirring, mixing, and tasting once more.

Our passion demands it; if we feed nothing and no one else, we must feed our souls.

I admit, Laurie and I do, occasionally, sound like one of us is going to hurt the other.  Our methods are different.  Our themes and characters and genre preferences are different.  Our thought processes and perceptions are different; what seems perfectly clear to me can be quite obscure to her.  In fact, when it comes to writing—or cooking, for that matter—we have little in common–except passion.

And it really is all about the passion, isn’t it?

Because we are both passionate, because we both strive for excellence, because we are different on many levels, we bring out the best in each other; no one is ever slow to grab a seat when we announce dinner served.

The fact is, we’ve each learned to respect the other and the individual strengths we bring to the kitchen.  Those strengths create a strong, finely tuned balance that forces us to think beyond the ingredients to factors like presentation and palate.

Our partnership works despite, or, perhaps, because of the brutally honest tenor of some of our exchanges.  We don’t pull punches because a compassionate lie is still a lie and may be the difference between success and failure.

So, please, should you ever hear us “going at it,” don’t call 911.  While explaining to Hubble—who had visions of handy carving knives and meat cleavers dancing through his head—proved amusing, I doubt law enforcement would understand.

Instead, join us.  We won’t even notice if you laugh.  And, once we come up for air, I promise you will find something, on a plate, a page, or possibly both,  extremely yummy nearby.

How is your relationship with your CP?  How are you alike and/or different?  What tips or tricks have you cooked up to make the partnership work for you?

P.S.  This is not the blog I intended, but while we fed our men, Laur started singing.  I haven’t seen Oliver in years, but I joined her, and  “Food, Glorious Food” stuck in my head.  I couldn’t banish the tune, and, as tends to happen, it morphed into a metaphor.  I used it for my title hoping to purge the annoying earworm.   It’s out there now, so beware!

39 responses to “Food, Glorious Food!”

  1. Vivi Andrews says:

    I have beta readers rather than a critique group or critique partner and I often find myself wishing they would be harder on me. I’m a firm believer in being pushed to reach your highest potential. I know it’s ridiculous to complain about people being too nice to me, but I sometimes wish I had a Laurie to scream at me. 🙂 Sounds like a great partnership. (Homicidal shouts notwithstanding.)

    • Miss Vivi, for those times you need a tough but caring critique partner, I wish you a Laurie. If you really want one, I’m sure there’s one out there for you–complete with homicidal shouting (but no homicidal tendencies!) 😉

  2. Tamara Hogan says:

    Gwynlyn, it sounds like you and Laurie are a match made in…the kitchen! Keep those cleavers sharpened but sheathed!

    While you have a Laurie, I have a Brenda. 😉 We don’t shout – Minnesota Nice, you know, and we DO meet in public! – but she doesn’t let me get away with anything, either.

    A simpatico critique partner is a blessing.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      When we lived closer, Laur and I used to do critiques and whatnot during our daily walks in the park or, in inclement weather, at the gym. We did practice a bit more restraint while at the gym, but I can only imagine what someone who overheard our conversation thought. I know we received strange looks now and again. With our talk of murder, mayhem, and the properties of various poisons–and the fact the park where we walked was right next door to the local police station–its a real wonder we weren’t dragged in for questioning a time or two! 😉

  3. Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

    Don’t really have a critique partner, and don’t like shouting. Scares me. Half the time I don’t even read my contest feedback, that’s how fragile my ego is.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      My mom always says, “It takes all kinds to make a world.”

      The fact that I do get so riled is a sign I really care about what riles me–wouldn’t expend the energy otherwise. I’d lay odds that when something riles you, Kelly, the best place to be is somewhere else. When quiet people blow up, it’s usually a memorable event!

  4. Elise Hayes says:

    I’ve got two great CPs. They each bring very different strengths to the kitchen table: one focuses on plot, the other on characters/emotions.

    For those of you looking for CPs, my advice is to start slowly and to build in an exit strategy that allows either or both of you to leave the kitchen table gracefully. I tried several CPs before finding the ones that I have–the chemistry has to be right, you each have to bring something to the partnership (i.e., you can’t have a massive imbalance in the relationship), and your commenting styles have to work for one another.

    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      That’s good advice Elise. It’s almost like dating. There has to be chemistry.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      Excellent advice, Elise. I still remember Laurie sitting in my kitchen when we first met(yes, it seems to be a constant theme for us!)and saying, “We’ll give it a try and see how it goes.” Fit is important. Laur and I do have many things in common beyond our writing, but our differences are, IMO, the catalyst; different perspectives seeing the same thing from a different angle gives a depth one person can’t manage–which is why the third base umpire doesn’t call balls and strikes!

      • Elise Hayes says:

        Yup, differences are important. That’s why I love having one CP with a strong sense of emotion/character, and one with strong plotting genes. They tend to comment on very different things in my manuscripts–although when they both hone in on one aspect, I know I *really* need to pay attention to it.

  5. Tina Joyce says:

    I have more than one critique partner (for me, having multiple opinions is helpful, because then I can look for trends). Sometimes the suggestions that resonate the most, interestingly enough, come from people who write in a different subgenre than I do.

    The only times we ever meet in person is at the RWA national convention (we all live in different parts of the world), so there’s no actual shouting going on, lol. But even though all our critiquing/brainstorming happens via the internet, the relationships seem to work, and we’ve become good friends in the process.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      Without the internet and/or the phone, many partnerships wouldn’t exist, and it has certainly deepened the pool for those who haven’t met their writing “soul mate” in a local setting.
      I met a pair of collaborators that live halfway across the continent from each other once. They, too, meet only at nationals, but the partnership works for them.

  6. liz talley says:

    Ah, I wish I’d been there with y’all. It would have been much louder.

    This is pretty much how I work with my critique partner…or really I should call her my plotting partner. We sometimes sound as if we’re mad at each other, but really we’re just pushing to get the best out of each other, trying to pull out the greatness so that everyone see it.

    I also have a crit partner that just reads. She points out what she doesnt’ understand, more than helps me hammer out what should be. Both of them are invaluable.

    Now I’ll be singing that song all day 🙂

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      I did warn you. That darned earworm is persistant!

      I have to admit, having two Rubies take a look at my ancient manuscript proved eye opening. Until I pulled that out of mothballs, I’d rarely let anyone but Laurie look at my stuff. Both Sisters homed in on things that nagged me but that I was hesitant to address for a variety of reasons. Add Laurie’s input, and I’ll be busy for a wee while, but the story will be better for it.

  7. Elisa Beatty says:

    You and Laurie are so incredibly lucky to have the working relationship you have! I love the two of you yelling at each other at the table.

    A good critique partner is more precious than…I was going to finish the Biblical line which ends with “rubies,” but in this context, I guess I should say “AS precious as Rubies.”

    Finding someone who “gets” your work enough to encourage it, but who can also be ruthlessly critical is amazing. As Kelly says, it’s a chemistry thing, and as tricky as dating.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      As tricky as dating. I like that, Elisa. It works on so many levels.

      And I agree, finding someone who “gets it” is (to continue your Biblical/gem theme) “a pearl beyond price.”

      I told my mom my two “Jesery Girls,” and Laurie is one of them, worked to help us get ready for the baby shower that I am truly blessed in my friends. Friends are the true measure of wealth.

  8. Like Vivi (and Kelly, too, I think), I don’t have a CP, but rather a couple of beta readers (and an editorially minded agent, which is enormously helpful). Each is very different from the other. I’d actually love to read their work in return, but as of yet, none have written a novel. One writes lovely poetry, though, and I’m still holding hope that she’ll one day write a book.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      As much as we share a common passion, we must each pursue it in our own way.

      Your “editorially minded agent” seems to fulfill the function of a CP for you, and, if you’ll forgive the cliche, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Once you’ve discovered what works for you, stop looking. What works now may not work later, but that will be soon enough to think about changing.

  9. Darynda Jones says:

    I love that you two were able to get together like that. What fun! I see my CP once a month at our chapter meetings and I pretty much worship the ground she walks on. She is so encouraging, is picky when my writing needs it, and is one of the best friends I have. She also belongs to another critique group which meets once a week so I have to share her, with another Ruby Sister, no less! But that’s okay, I’ll take her when I can get her.

    Love this post, Pat!!! Fun to read. 🙂

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      Thanks, Darynda. From the success of “First Grave,” I’m thinking seeing your CP once a month is enough That she works with others means she looks at your work with “new eyes” every time. How cool is that?

    • Shea Berkley says:

      We can do a monkey knife fight for Tammy. (grin)

      • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

        Am I to understand Tammy (not our Sister, Tammy) is the CP in question, and the person Darynda shares her with is you?

        If so, no monkey knife fighting. You’re sisters. Sisters share. (Blood sisters try to kill each other, too, but we won’t go there.) 😉

      • Darynda Jones says:

        That would be our CP, Pat, Tammy Baumann. And I would sure take you on if I needed to, Sherri, but you are wonderful at sharing! I’m forever grateful for both of your input.

  10. Laurie Kellogg says:

    I SWEAR, I never once thought of grabbing a meat cleaver. A wooden spoon, maybe. Pat and I had a ball finding all the holes in each other’s stories and coming up with ways to plug them. The abbreviation ‘CP’ to most authors refers to a critique partner. For us it’s always been ‘Cattle Prod’. We inspire each other and cheer each other on. Every once in a while a good zap in the rear is helpful.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      Hubble cracked me up when he told me we worried him. Silly man.

      We did have fun–and now I have a LOT of work to do, oh, Cattle Prod! LOL

    • Anne Barton says:

      You guys crack me up! Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your creative process, Gwynlyn.

      How long have you been CPs? It seems like you know each other really well by this point. 🙂

      • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

        Laurie and I met in the late spring, early summer of 2006. Lots of serendipity involved. We hit it off pretty well from the get-go. Then she told me she didn’t believe in one-way streets; if I wanted to continue working with her, I had to show her some of my stuff. So I took Forfeit’s Lady off the shelf, where it had been for nine years, and dusted it off. She ripped me a new one! Next I know, I’ve won a third place in the IGO, and entered the 2007 GH. The woman is more than a cattle prod, she’s a the cow-catcher on a train hell bent on making the station! Me? I’m the cow. Moo. LOL

  11. Shea Berkley says:

    I meet with my critique group (there are four of us) at Borders. We are loud (I personally pound on tables when I make a point), and get in each others faces. It must be a sight to see. For a while we had to change the day we meet (we meet every week). When we went back to our normal day, several people came by our table and expressed how happy they were to see us back and how much they missed the “show” we put on.

    A great critique partner isn’t scared of hurting your feelings. You have to realize she’s telling you something you really don’t want to hear because she cares about you and your story. That take courage on both ends of the equation. I’ve lucked out finding three amazing CP who get a perverse joy out of telling me how sucky I can be. I love them for that, cause they’re right. I can suck BAD right along with the best of them.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      Sounds like you and your ladies would be welcome in my kitchen anytime! Nothing quite like a good row to get it all on the table.

      I don’t know that I’d be brave enough to let rip in Borders, but I’d love to be a fly on the wall! Sounds like fun. And you’re right; people don’t yell or insist when they don’t care. Even when they’re out in left field somewhere, yelling about a pitch they couldn’t even see, you can forgive them because it’s all about caring.

    • Louise B says:

      If you just remember Louise is always right, things would go much smoother. 🙂

  12. Shoshana Brown says:

    I’ve always worked with CPs online, so not much shouting goes on…at least, not that I can hear. 🙂

    But my mom has also read everything I’ve ever written, and she certainly doesn’t hesitate to call me up and explain to me exactly why Character X wouldn’t do Y. We both have very strong feelings about what my characters would or wouldn’t do, so sometimes it gets a little…loud…but our debates always leave me with a stronger story.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      Lucky you, Shoshana. Mom deserves lots of extra hugs. My mom hasn’t a clue what I’m doing. She lost her taste for romance when things started getting “too graphic” (her words, but just a snippet. I’ll spare you the rest. LOL)

      Once, when I had no one else, I read Mom a short, but emotionally demanding scene. When I finished reading, there was dead silence. Then I realized Mom was crying. The scene affected her deeply, and when she could talk, she said so. Then we cried together.

  13. You two are so lucky to have each other.

    I’ve had Beta readers too, until recently when I met someone on line. We hit it off immediately and exchanged work. We’ve since graduated to phone calls. Anytime we want an opinion the door is open.

    • Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

      I think the CP anthem should be “I get by with a little help from my friends.” I’m glad you found someone you clicked with, AJ. It is so liberating and energizing.

  14. Cate Rowan says:

    “Writers call these brave souls critique partners.”

    Hear, hear!

    My CPs live on the opposite coast, but I love them madly and I’m so grateful for their presence in my life (and their thoughts on my books).

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