Posts tagged with: critique partners

Sister Act: 2012 Golden Heart Finalists Eileen Emerson and Elisa Beatty

 As this site’s name attests, there’s lots of fabulous Sisterhood in the romance-writing world.

 But when 2012 Golden Heart finalists Eileen Emerson and Elisa Beatty say they’re sisters, they mean it literally: they shared a room as little kids, cut the hair off each other’s Barbie dolls, and (a few years further down the road) were Maids of Honor at each other’s weddings and loving aunts to each others’ kids. RWA’s Carol Ritter thinks they’re the only biological sisters ever to final together in the Golden Heart.

If that weren’t enough closeness, they’re also CPs—and each other’s #1 cheerleaders on the road to publication.

That’s not to say they’re either interchangeable or totally simpatico. Elisa has a thing for dark-haired heroes with hulking frames. Eileen is more drawn to Englishmen of the slim, pale variety. Elisa relishes writing love scenes, Eileen would rather stick needles in her eyes than write something racy that their father might someday read. (Elisa makes her drink a glass of wine and do it anyway.)

Even their approaches to writing are different: Eileen’s a spreadsheet-addicted plotter tending towards OCD, Elisa’s a pantser with ADD…and chances are good she’s off playing Plants Versus Zombies right now.

 But both sisters appreciate intelligent, deeply emotional writing that can make readers laugh, cry or get that tell-tale clenching feeling behind their breastbones when the protagonists’ world is falling apart.

 And somehow they’ve found a working relationship that makes them both stronger writers, and will hopefully land them on your bookshelves (or Kindles) soon. Today they’ll be talking a few aspects of what makes that relationship tick.


On the difference between our approaches to writing:


I tried writing by the seat of my pants and found that it scared me too much. I have to know at least the major beats of the story—the Call To Action, the Crisis, and the Climax, plus the large Turning Points that keep the conflict popping.

I use a simple line drawing from Martha Alderson, aka “The Plot Whisperer,” that shows these points graphically on a sheet of butcher paper (I’m a visual person.) I then use strips of Post-it page markers to lay out scenes that I’ll use to stitch the story together.

This gives me just enough structure that I don’t usually have to tear apart the book once I’m done the shitty first draft. And with that flexibility, the characters still surprise me with the odd little things they reveal as I’m writing in that mad, frantic get-it-on-paper stage.


I wish I weren’t a pantser, but when I even think the word “spreadsheets” I get a terrible throbbing pain all through my head. I’m messy. I’m terrible at planning. The night before I leave for Nationals, I’ll probably poke my head into my closet and say, “Hmm, what have I got in here to throw in my suitcase?” Don’t be surprised if I’m wearing sneakers to the Awards Ceremony. And in the hotel, Eileen will have all her things hung up within five minutes of entering the room, and I’ll have my stuff strewn all across the bathroom counter.  She’s Martha Stewart, I’m Oscar Madison. There will be a lot of quiet tut-tutting going on.

There’s a huge plus side for me to having a Highly Organized Sister: I’d never have finished my first book without Eileen setting a deadline for me. And she’s great for bouncing ideas off of (actually she MAKES me articulate my ideas, when I really, really just want to wallow around in the messiness of my own thoughts). Then she’ll say things like, “Do you realize you have four villains here? Could you maybe compress a couple of them together?” Or she’ll tell me, “Go back and figure out what the stakes are for the heroine in this chapter, because you’ve gone on for eighteen pages and I’m getting lost.” Or just (in a note on the third page of a chapter) “Your chapter starts here.”

On our biggest weaknesses as writers:


My biggest problem is that I write very “spare” prose. This means, when Elisa sees my WIP for the first time, she inevitably suggests adding in beats and bits of reaction to flesh out the emotional depth of scenes. I also tend towards very traditional POVs. One of the biggest things Elisa’s done for me is to suggest writing a scene from a different character’s POV than I used in the draft—and it’s always resulted in radically beefing up the conflict, while still tightening the action.


Aside from my plotting issues, my biggest problem (surprise, surprise) is that I write too many words. I strew them as freely as I strew my toiletries. When I edit Eileen, I add lines. When she edits me, she cuts. And cuts. And cuts. But it really makes the work SOOO much better. My current Golden Heart book had bloated up to about 102,000 words, and Eileen got out her very hard-nosed red pen and helped me get rid of 10,000 of them. Without deleting a single scene.

On the advantages of being sister CPs:


Unlike newly attached CPs, we don’t have to walk on egg shells with each other. If something brutal needs to be said, we can say it without fear of crushing the other’s spirit. But it also means we have a certain working shorthand. A simple “mwraaaarr” in the margins tells us that we’ve nailed a particularly yummy bit of description or masculine derring do.…


Damn, I was about to say the same thing. Which is a pretty common occurrence for us. (Sometimes our emails cross in the ether and turn out to be virtually word-for-word the same. It’s a little freaky sometimes.)

The biggest plus-side is that we really get each other’s books and characters, and while we can be absolutely, glaringly blunt (saying things like “You cannot have your hero do that—it makes him look like a fluffy bunny rabbit wussy mama’s boy” without worrying that the other will refuse to speak to us at Christmas dinner), we also write a joyous “WOOOOOT!!!” in the margins many, many, many times. Along with all the “mwraaaarr”s.  And we whoop and scream with delight when we read polished scenes to each other over the phone. (Plus—when we’re not working like demons on our WIPs—we can find inspiration in our ridiculously giggly conversations about our mutual crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. One word for you, Eileen: “Beamboy.”)


One word back for you, Elisa: “Mwraaaarr!”

And now for something completely terrifying (for us):

We’re going to show you pdfs of a couple pages of our manuscripts with each other’s comments.

We use Track Changes, and sometimes those little comment balloons along the side fill up the entire right-hand margin–though for some reason last week, when we were in the Outer Banks together working on this post and looking for good examples, neither of us had the files on our laptops that show Elisa really going to town. Really, she’s not usually this mellow.

(Note: The ones from Elisa say the comments are coming from Jeff Peterson…ignore that. Our Mac is just set that way.)

Anyhow, this will give you a basic sense of what our working relationship is actually like on the page.

Here’s Eileen critiquing Elisa:


Here’s Elisa critiquing Eileen:


Thanks so much for being with us today!

You can learn more about us at and

Here’s our question for you: If you have a CP, how does your writing relationship work? In what ways do you complement (and compliment) each other? How do you handle the blunt and brutal conversations?





The Great CP Search is On

It’s not too late to post your CP profile, which can be added until late Sunday night. 

If you’re a frequent visitor to the Ruby blog, you may recall my March 10th post on critique partners — AKA cattle prods.   If you didn’t have a chance to read it, you might want to now since this is a follow-up to that post.

During the RWA national conference we heard from many writers looking for a CP.  I won’t spout hearts and rainbows here and say finding a compatible CP is easy.  It’s not.  It’s a relationship that develops over time and requires a lot of questions at the beginning and some honest conversations later on.  If you happen to be searching for a CP, here’s your chance to network.

The first question CP wannabes always seem to ask is if writing in the same subgenre is important.  My answer is emphatically NO.  Good writing, characterization, and plotting don’t change from one area of fiction to the next.  Story structure and mechanics remain basically the same.  In fact, it can be a huge advantage if CPs target different markets for a variety of reasons:

Meet 2011 Golden Heart Finalist Kimberly Kincaid

Over the course of the summer, the Ruby-Slippered Sisters are giving the 2011 Golden Heart finalists an opportunity to introduce themselves and share a bit about their writing life. Today’s guest is Kimberly Kincaid, a finalist in the Contemporary Single Title category for THE MOMENT OF IMPOSSIBLE MOVEMENT. Please join us in congratulating her and welcoming her to the blog!

Writing Unattended

When I was a kid, the community pool was within walking distance of our house. The only problem was, it was on the other side of a fairly busy street. You know what my mom’s solution to this little problem was?

Take your sister, she said. There’s safety in numbers.

Fast-forward seventeen years to the day I spent in a fancy bridal salon, trying on every fluffy confection imaginable while on my quest for The Dress. Did I go alone? You bet not!

I took my bridesmaids. There’s safety in numbers.

More fast-forwarding (but I won’t say how much) to the day I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a published romance author. I outlined and researched, I toiled and I typed, I labored over a manuscript the way most people labor over a set of nine-pound twins. Was I crazy enough to do this alone?

Heck, no. I have critique partners. All together now— there’s safety in numbers.

Finding the right CP (or CPs) is a bit like choosing a best friend, a drill sergeant and a psychiatrist all rolled into one. You have to mesh on a bunch of different levels in order for the relationship to work. Let’s be honest, asking another writer what she thinks of your manuscript is akin to asking your significant other if your butt looks big in those pants. You might get an answer you don’t want. The trick with a good CP is that she knows how to sing the praises of the good news *and* break the bad news to you in a way that makes you want to be a better writer (and not pick up the Ben and Jerry’s).

So how to find that special someone who will encourage you to make your rough work better (and your better work the best)? For starters, it doesn’t hurt to ask. Chat up fellow writers at local chapter meetings, or do some online searches for local chapter critique groups (many RWA local chapters have these). Remember, you don’t necessarily have to write the same sub-genre for your partnership to be successful— of the three members in my group, one of us writes historicals, another humorous women’s fiction, and then there’s me (writing single-title contemporary). The key isn’t to find someone just like you, it’s to find someone with whom you click, someone who you can share ideas with and get honest, useful feedback.

Once you find a potential candidate, how do you know things will work? Well, the short answer is that, until you try, you really don’t. Starting slow to get used to each other’s styles is usually a good idea. It’s hard to effectively critique someone’s work when you’re still getting to know her writing, and it’s equally hard to really hear someone’s advice when you’re getting used to her as a CP. Trade a chapter at a time to start, and then move into whatever works best for you. I’d like to add here that working out your basic expectations from the start is a good idea. If you’re looking for intense, in-depth critiques, then your best partner probably isn’t going to be someone whose schedule won’t allow for that. Just like any other relationship, effective communication is the key to making a good critique partnership work.

I’ll confess that I lucked into my critique group mostly by incredible fortune (for those of you who glossed over the part where I wrote about chatting people up, take note! I randomly struck up a conversation with one of my CPs last year at Nationals, and I’m not kidding when I say that now— a mere 11 months later— I could not write without her or my other CP). Writing can be an extremely isolated endeavor, and sometimes we’re so close to our work that we can’t see the forest for the trees. There have been more times than I can count where something elusive has bothered me (read: driven me utterly batty) about a manuscript, and inevitably, one or both of my CPs will be able to nail the problem instantly. They’re not just my CPs, they’re my literary sisterhood, doing everything from helping me sort out train-wreckish outlines to squealing with glee at agent offers. So here’s to you, Tracy Brogan and Alyssa Alexander! Because of you ladies, I wouldn’t even consider writing unattended.

After all, there’s safety in numbers.

What about you? Who pushes you to write? How did you find that person? How has your relationship changed over time?

*     *     *

Kimberly Kincaid wears many hats, including those of yoga instructor, rabid foodie, total book junkie and happily frazzled wife and mom of three girls. She writes single-title contemporary romance novels that split the difference between sexy and sweet. Kimberly lives in northern Virginia, where she is currently working on a multi-book series of foodie romances set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Find her on the web at, Facebook at and Twitter @KimberlyKincaid

Get Thee a Nitpicky CP — aka Cattle Prod

Many of us are furiously polishing a manuscript we entered in the Golden Heart so it will be ready to submit to agents and editors on March 25th when we get a call from one of the RWA board members telling us our story is a finalist.  (Note:  I say WHEN and not IF.  Positive thinking is always a plus.)  If you want to be sure your manuscript is truly editor/agent ready, I suggest finding a CP aka cattle prod to help you.  (And be sure to become one in return.)

Anyone who’s ever heard my critique partner and me discussing our work would swear a violent homicide was imminent.  We argue LOUDLY, sometimes for hours, until one of three things happens:

  1. One of us has an AH-HA! moment and finally sees the other person’s point
  2. The one being critiqued comes up with a solution or compromise that addresses the critiquer’s concern or issue
  3. We reach an impasse and lovingly agree to disagree

Occasionally our discussions are about what some might consider a trivial and inane matter.  But is it really?  If our debate was truly insignificant, would the critiquer have been pulled out of the story?  In my opinion, anytime something in a manuscript stops a reader (aside from a passage so funny, touching, or insightful it begs to be reread) it’s a potential problem.

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.)

Me and My CP

Brenda WhitesideI’ve invited my critique partner, Brenda Whiteside, to join me today to discuss our critique relationship – and also to celebrate the release of her debut novel, “Sleeping With the Lights On,” available May 21 from The Wild Rose Press! Congratulations, Brenda! I’m so thrilled for you!

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