Saturday, July 28, 2007

Learning to Fly in Formation

Tom Cruise's 1986 movie Top Gun is credited with introducing a military aviation term into the popular vernacular: wingman.

Wikipedia describes wingman this way:

A wingman . . . is a pilot who supports another in a potentially dangerous flying environment.

"Wingman" was originally a term referring to the plane flying beside and slightly behind the lead plane in an aircraft formation.

The idea behind the wingman is to add the element of mutual support to aerial combat. A wingman makes the flight both offensively and defensively more capable by increasing fire power, situational awareness (hopefully), attacking an enemy threatening a comrade, and most importantly the ability to employ more dynamic tactics.

The term migrated into our social vocabulary and came to mean a friend who supports a man (or woman) in a bar or club. The wingman helps the pilot select a target and may back up the pilot by talking him (or her) up to potential targets.

I was reminded of the wingman jargon today when my good friend Carleen forwarded me a link to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article titled "My Left Tackle" was written by Rachel Toor, an assistant professor of creative writing at the MFA program of Eastern Washington University.

Toor's title refers to the left tackles who protect the quarterback in football: "Someone who allows you to do what you do best. Someone who protects you while you take risks. Someone who guards you from dangers you can't see."

Whether you call that protective force your left tackle or your wingman, every writer should have one . . . or two or three.

I'm talking about critique partners.

A good critique partner is someone you can trust, someone who has your best interests at heart, someone who watches your back and who will warn you when you're getting off course.

It's not easy to find good critique partners. In order for the relationship to work, there must be a high level of mutual trust. Each partner must be willing to make him/herself vulnerable to the other.

In a way, the relationship is akin to that of very close friends--with a crucial difference. Very close friends usually develop that closeness over many years of shared experiences. Critique partners develop their closeness during the shared (and often frightening) experience of exchanging chapters.

Can a stranger provide a good critique? Of course s/he can. I've had great one-time critiques from generous writers, and I've provided a critique or two to strangers myself. But to explain the difference, I'm going to compare the experience to another time we make ourselves very vulnerable--when we're having sex.

Can you have great sex without opening up to your partner? Of course you can. But when is the experience the most satisfying? When is your climax the most fulfilling? When each partner is as committed to giving pleasure as s/he is to receiving pleasure; when each partner cares for and is cared about by the other.

I've been thinking about this subject because I've interacted with my critique partners in a variety of different venues recently--outside of merely exchanging critiques. The social awkwardness of interacting with critique partners BEYOND exchanging critiques reminded me that the closeness we've developed is an artificial one, not the result of many years of intimate friendship.

Does that matter? Does it make a difference?

It takes work. It means making an effort to understand each other and to cut each other slack while you learn to close the gap between critique partner and close friend.

Is it worth it?

Anyone can correct misspellings and punctuation. But these are some of the things critique partners offer:

  • Talking through the plotline of a new, planned manuscript. This is one of those times when it's helpful to have a three-way, four-way or even a five-way conversation. Someone will have an idea, which sparks someone else to add to that idea, or to point out obvious plot holes. This is especially helpful when the writer has a hook, but no idea where to go with the story.
  • Developing the GMC (goal, motivation, conflict). If you aren't familiar with GMC, take a look at my blog for June 25, 2006 here. This is one of the ways my critique partners are invaluable to me. While I'm not a plotter, I am more plot-driven than character-driven. My CPs keep me on the straight and narrow. They force me to develop the GMC for my main characters--and they can't be put off by a facile explanation either.
  • Watching for your bad habits. Every writer has tics and quirks: a tendency to overuse one word or to repeat the same sentence construction again and again. CPs who know you also know your habits and can point out that you're DOING IT AGAIN.
  • Providing support when you're in a slump. Giving you space when you need it, but knowing when you've had enough time and pushing you to get back to work again.

Key to the this process is building a sense of trust. Every writer has experienced bad critique partners. Like the one who, after working on a manuscript, suddenly copies a scene practically verbatim into his/her own work-in-progress. Or the one who is not working to improve your manuscript, but to prove how brilliant s/he is to the rest of the group. Or Toor's example: "I've been in groups where people show up only when their own work is being discussed. That is called mooching."

Toor also says this:

I am perplexed by those who do not seek trusted readers. One friend, a professor who thinks of himself as a writer rather than an academic, seems proud that he never asks anyone to read unpublished work. How much better would his books be, I wonder, if he did? If someone asked him to move along more briskly, or suggested cutting self-indulgent passages?

My own version of the critique-partner-from-hell is the one who only wants praise, whose feathers are immediately ruffled by the slightest suggestion or who bullishly resists changing anything--even when the rest of the group unanimously agrees there's a problem.

Writing is a lonely profession. To succeed, you need a professional support network. Your critique partners will prepare you for the experience of dealing with agents and editors.

Do yourself and your manuscript a favor. Seek out new critique partners. And watch closely. Does the CP return your manuscript as promptly as you returned his/hers? Do you have the sense that s/he took as much effort with your manuscript as you did with his/hers? Is your manuscript better after the experience? Does your CP help you feel good about yourself and your writing? If so, develop the relationship and cherish the person. I promise; it's worth the effort.

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