Sexy Writing Partnerships: Mastering the Fine Arts of Reading, Responding, and Roasting Brussels Sprouts


At first blush, it sounds so simple. You’ve nurtured your story into a polished piece and, to be honest, you’re quite proud of the result. But before you send it out to editors, why not have a beta reader or two give it a once-over, maybe catch a few typos, and certainly provide reassurance that Shakespeare and Hemingway had better make room for a timeless new talent?

Of course, if you’ve been a regular diner at this year’s Cooking Up a Storey feast, you’ve probably figured out that, alas, nothing comes that easy in the writing process. In my last column on self-editing, (Be a “Real” Writer: Slowing Down, Seeing Anew, and a Fresh Take on America’s Favorite Entrée) I’d initially meant to include a paragraph about writing groups and partnerships, because thoughtful feedback can be immensely helpful in the revision process. However, as I mulled over my own experiences with writing classes, in-person writing groups and online workshops over the years, I found myself reliving painful memories of thoughtless, off-target, and even intentionally nasty critiques. (I actually have had people insult me with “Well, you’re no Hemingway!”—which, for the record, has never been a personal goal). Add in my writer friends’ horror stories, and I realized this topic was no longer a matter of a few paragraphs. Tales from the Critique could easily unfold into a voluminous series with more peril and mayhem than Harry Potter.

I quickly had to remind myself that my writing has benefited immeasurably from generous feedback from early readers. Some were professionals, some amateurs with more experience than I had. Some were not writers themselves, but gave me honest, careful responses about parts of the manuscript that worked and parts that didn’t. Carefully critiquing other people’s stories has also given me a great education in the craft of storytelling. Writers work in solitude, but the ultimate goal is to connect with an audience. I don’t believe any writer can do her best work without honest feedback from a few trusted readers.

So, I got to thinking, is there any way to make this important step less painful for a sensitive new writer? What advice would I give to my fledgling self about writing teachers, groups and partnerships? It occurred to me that a relationship with a writing partner is not dissimilar to a sexual relationship. Because we make ourselves so vulnerable in our work, the most satisfying critiques involve partners who respect each other, invest themselves equally and respond with sensitivity to each other’s specific and often changing needs. In fact, I’d say it’s as challenging to find a satisfying writing partnership as it is to find a good sex partner! And while I consider myself fortunate that my husband is one of my two most trusted readers now, it’s taken us years and lots of communication to get to a place where the critiquing process is satisfying for all parties.

Of course in sex or critiques, no one starts off with perfect intimacy. Armed with courtesy, dedication, and good intentions, however, any writer can build his skills at both giving and receiving critiques.

I’ll begin with an outline of the main avenues writers can use to get feedback. The most formal would be to sign up for a writing class or workshop, either locally or at a conference. This could be an excellent choice for a beginner, because an experienced teacher can model good critiquing techniques. I also suspect that deep down most of us respect feedback we pay for more than free advice. However, as mentioned above, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories of famous writers who were lousy mentors, so keep in mind that just because someone is well-published doesn’t mean he’ll be the right teacher for you. Another downside is that classes and conferences can be expensive, and some might not be tolerant of erotic content.

Cooperative writing groups are another way to get feedback from a variety of readers. Unlike classes (I’m thinking of those in my creative writing program in college), these groups tend to be more respectful than competitive. Equality is built in because each member both receives and accepts critiques, and best of all, the only investment is your time and maybe the price of refreshments when you host the group. I’ve been involved in a few wonderful writing groups, but even a good group can break up if people move away or no longer have time to meet regularly. It can also be difficult to gather a supportive group together who are writing at the same level, and be forewarned, it will surely take a breaking-in period for all members to get accustomed to each other’s critiquing styles. Some strategies to start a group include continuing in an informal group with students from a class you’ve taken, asking friends if they know any writers who’d like to make a group, advertising for writing partners through a local writer’s discussion list, and trying to recruit writing partners with clever pick-up lines in bars. Actually, that last suggestion was a joke—but be open to possibilities. One friend had an enjoyable critiquing relationship with her mailman!

Online writing workshops are both easy to find and free, except again for the time commitment involved in critiquing others’ stories. A big plus is that you can participate from your home at your own convenience. I was an active member of the Zoetrope Writer’s Studio for a few years. There you can workshop erotic stories if you include a content warning, and by carefully choosing authors with similar tastes, I was able to develop some supportive relationships. However, the anonymity of the site allowed for irresponsible and sometimes abusive critiques, and I feel I’ve moved beyond it at this point in my life. Literotica is a huge erotica site with a wide variety of writing styles, but it can require a lot of investment to find committed and compatible critiquing partners. For erotica writers, I’d recommend the informal writing workshop here at ERWA, Storytime, because the more intimate nature of the site requires accountability, plus your story could be chosen for publication in the galleries!

Last but not least is the generous spouse or friend who offers to read your work. While my two favorite beta-readers fall into this category, I’ve also had some regrettable experiences. However well-meaning these people might be, if they aren’t experienced critics, they can easily bring old grudges and power play into the mix and make it personal. Thoughtless criticism from a stranger can hurt, but at least the trauma is self-contained. With family and friends, you still have to maintain a relationship. For example, I will never show my unpublished writing to my sister again for the sake of family harmony—that’s at least one whole volume in my imperiled writer horror series! While a surprising number of amateurs take the opportunity to become imperious New York Times Book Review critics for a day, the other common danger is that your friend might feel she has to be nothing but supportive and tell you the story is perfect as it is, just like you. There’s nothing wrong with having a reader or two who cheers you on, but if you are genuinely looking to improve your skills, you’ll need people who are willing to challenge you when necessary.

Most people underestimate the skill involved in critiquing. It’s not just about reading the work and pronouncing it good or bad, Shakespeare or trash. If you truly want to help a writer improve, you must be keenly aware of your own response to the rhythm of the story, the choice of words and images, the believability of the characters and their motives, the arc of the storyline. A good critic gets better with practice and learns more about what works and what to avoid in his own writing from others’ examples. I do believe there are some basic rules of engagement that can help any writer improve at both giving and receiving critiques. What follows are some guidelines I would definitely give my novice self.

Tips for Giving Feedback:

1. Critique others as you would have others critique you
Yes, remember the Golden Rule and you’re most of the way there. Try your best to be respectful of the author’s vision, sensibility and limitations. Accept the story on its own terms, and don’t hold it to some universal or personal standard. You wouldn’t want your beta-reader to be comparing you unfavorably to Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Anais Nin or Danielle Steele, right? Nor do you want her to rewrite your story according to her personal preferences as a way to “improve” it. If the story is in first-person and you don’t happen to like that, be professional and overcome your prejudice for the moment. On the other hand, if it’s your first encounter with this writer’s work, and you realize you simply don’t connect with his style and interests, do your best under the circumstances, then excuse yourself from further critiques if you can. Both writer and reader benefit from a fundamentally compatible match.

2. Be honest, but compassionate
All feedback is inherently a subjective response, because there is no single “right” way to create a story. However, it is a gift to a writer to be honest about your experience—what parts of the story pique your interest or feel slow, what feels clichéd or fresh. If you’re worried that your suggestions have to be “right,” it will definitely inhibit you. Yet the way you present your feedback is extremely important. One approach is to play Important New York Editor and take the tough approach: “The first two pages are boring and pointless, so definitely cut them, because god knows, you’re no Hemingway.” I guarantee you, however, that you’ll communicate better with the sympathetic-peer style as in: “The story really took off for me on page 3. I think you could probably cut the first two pages without losing anything, and your opening would have more punch.” In the latter example, your critique also makes you more aware of the qualities of a good story and a better self-editor. In other words, giving the writer a “what” and a “why” benefits you both. And always be sure mention what worked as well as what didn’t!

3. Be specific
This is somewhat related to the previous point, but vague criticism is a common mistake, especially for novice critics. “This is boring” or “The character is too passive” or “I want to know more about the protagonist’s childhood” don’t give the writer any real direction for revision. Try your best to give him some “how’s” in precisely the places in the story where revision will strengthen the piece. This is another way to hone your own writing skills through criticism. Again the way you offer suggestions for change is key. What I’ve found useful as both critic and writer is to offer several possible options. For example, if one character’s motivation needs sharpening, brainstorm several possibilities either on the page or in conversation with the writer. This also gives the author a sense of where you are coming from and empowers her to make the final choice. We all react better to guidance when we have a fuller context.

4. Don’t be invested in the result
This has traditionally been one of my weak areas. On one occasion I spent quite a while doing a written critique of a story for a writing group, then a few months later was handed the same manuscript to critique without a single change I’d suggested, including typos and grammatical mistakes. Talk about a waste of precious time! Invariably a certain number of writers will approach you for feedback with an agenda of their own—basically rubber-stamp enthusiasm–and your honest critique will disappoint them. You do want to be particular about your partners going forward, but if you find yourself in that situation, remember that thoughtful critiquing of any kind for anyone improves your own writing skills. Offer your suggestions in the spirit of collegial generosity and self-improvement, and see any effect you have on the final product as icing on the cake.

Tips for Accepting Feedback:

1. Respect the critic’s time and effort
While critics shouldn’t do it for ego strokes or free sex, they certainly deserve thanks. We all live busy lives, and any reader who gives you the gift of her time, much less detailed feedback, deserve gratitude, even if you don’t find the suggestions helpful at first glance. The cult of the great writer is still a potent myth in our society, but gradually I’ve been converted to the cult of the grateful writer. Especially if you’ve approached someone for feedback gratis, remember this person is doing you a favor.

2. Let the feedback ferment
It’s not easy to take criticism, and even veterans can have a defensive reaction. I’ve found over many years of experience, however, that often the feedback that surprised and annoyed me at first could prove quite useful in the end. Read or listen carefully the first time, and take any advice that immediately clicks. Let the rest sit for a while, a week or maybe longer, then revisit the reaction. You’ll be able to pick out the useful bits much more easily the second time, probably because your memory of the critique will be much harsher than the reality!

3. Ask for what you want
Once again I’m reminded of the comparison to sex here. Somehow we get the message that sex should come naturally, and truly compatible partners have no need for verbal communication. That’s not true in bed, and it’s not true for writing partnerships either. As I mentioned above, the process of discussing the reader’s response can help both of you come up with the best way to improve the story. You can even put your questions up front when you hand over the manuscript. In one of my writing partnerships, we include a list of questions or particular doubts—”Is the opening too slow?” “Is the father believable?” We can thus pay attention to specific areas when we read. However, this doesn’t work with everyone. Some readers will immediately hone in on that area out of reflex, and treat it as a problem when they might otherwise not even notice. Each partnership has a special dynamic with unique strengths and pitfalls. That’s why writing partnerships take time to develop to their full potential. (For some more excellent advice on this, check out the ERWA Storytime guidelines.)

4. Trust yourself
Last but not least, keep in mind that you have the final say over your story, no matter how prestigious or experienced your reader may be. I approached one well-published essay writer, a “friend” at the Zoetrope workshop, for advice on an essay about my mother’s death. To my surprise, this person vehemently urged me to trash the entire essay as it felt too raw and personal at that particular point in time, not to mention the piece was boring and slightly hysterical. It wasn’t fun getting that feedback, but I took a step back, reconsidered, and finally decided this person was dead wrong. I sent the essay out to magazines, and it was picked up by the prestigious creative nonfiction journal, Fourth Genre. I trusted my story over the “expert” and it paid off.

The writing workshop environment can also be especially challenging because you might feel the need to incorporate all of the members’ advice into your revision. Writing by committee rarely leads to the most impressive and coherent story. The reason I say “trust yourself,” is because I’ve found over the years that I can feel in my gut when a criticism works for me. I sit with my feeling for a while to see if that little voice inside says “yes, this works” or “no, if I did that, I’d just be trying to please someone else.” That’s the voice of your story shining through—which is the entire purpose of this exercise after all. Next time, some tips on sending your stories out to the most influential readers of all—editors!

Well, this column was indeed almost as long as a Harry Potter book! It’s enough to make anyone hungry and for this month’s recipe, I’m offering up oven-roasted Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, especially fitting because these fascinating little cabbage-like vegetables start off hard and bitter, but can be rendered tender and sweet with the proper treatment, rather like a skillful critique.

Fresh, tasty Brussels sprouts have become much easier to find in markets in the past few years. It’s especially fun to carry home of those imposing stalks and cut off the individual sprouts. The following recipe appears on our table throughout the fall, but is a must at Thanksgiving and Christmas—and far lower in fat than many holiday side dishes. Bon Appetit and Happy Fall Festivals!

Low-Fat Oven-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts

(About 8 servings)

4 cups trimmed and quartered Brussels sprouts (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 1/2 cups halved bottled chestnuts or a bit more to use up the container
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon of water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place Brussels sprouts in a large bowl. Combine oil, water, salt and pepper in a small bowl and toss with the Brussels sprouts. Spread in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake for about 15 minutes, then stir the sprouts. Bake another 5 minutes and add the chestnuts. Bake for another 5 minutes or so, watching carefully, until the chestnuts are hot and the sprouts are tender and browned but not burned.

Donna George Storey
October 2011

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2011 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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