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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Critique Partners: The American Cheese Incident

NOTE: Okay, so originally this post was supposed to cover the good, the bad and the "what the hell" of critique partners, but the "what the hell" stole the show and I’ll have to tell you the rest tomorrow. I promise there’s a “they all lived happily ever after” at the end. And on to the blog….

Earlier this summer, I set out into the great, wide, virtual yonder to find a critique partner to help me as I write and polish my first novel. I’d heard how incredibly valuable they could be as readers and as sounding walls, and I wanted one.

I didn’t have a completed manuscript. I hadn’t been part of a writing group in about 10 years. I had no idea if I was good a critiquing others’ work or if what I said would be the least bit helpful to them.
But did I think about that? NO. I wanted a critique partner.

I spent days obsessively Googling “critique partner,” “critique partner fiction,” “critiquing fiction,” “fiction writers group,” and every other term I could think of. I think I even tried some things I’m embarrassed to type, like “finding a writing partner.” On second thought, I don’t know why I was embarrassed to type that. I was one step away from posting a personal ad.

SUFW (Single Urban Fantasy Writer) desperately seeking a SSFFW (Single Sci-Fi Fantasy Writer) or DSFFW (the divorced version of the former.) Must love all things strange and fantastical, neurosis and poring through pages of deathless prose. Knowledge of the English language preferred but not required.

The ad never made it to the internet, at least in that form. What I ended up resorting to was far more shameful. I began hunting for forums. The kind of overly optimistic, upbeat, “We’re all winners,” fluffy bunny forums that I normally wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, even a virtual one. I ended up on the bastard child of forums – Yahoo Groups.

I joined a fantasy writers group and posted a message entitled “In search of a good critique partner.” It was the Reader’s Digest version of what I was working on and looking for in a critter. Within 48 hours I had a handful of responses.

That's when things started to go horribly wrong.

A few were the equivalent of “Dude! I’ll be your critique partner!” They were easily dismissed. One guy wished me luck, but told me that he was too busy to critique anything of mine. I wondered why he e-mailed me at all.

But one did stand out. She said she had been writing for years, was working on her first YA science fiction novel, and looking for feedback. We got in touch on IM, chatted for several hours and found we liked the same genres, same books, same authors and it seemed like chubby little cherubs had brought us together on that fateful Monday night, until we exchanged writing samples.

Her’s was good. It was a little Deep Space 9 meets Oliver Twist for my taste, but it was well written. I could have cared less about the sample subject matter. It was a random scene, out of context. Really, all I wanted was to see if she could write a complete sentence. I was satisfied that we might work, that this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Oh how wrong I would be.

At the same time, she was reading a sample passage from my WIP. I thought it was fairly straightforward. Below is part of the passage I sent. (The names are omitted because I’m a hoarder. MINE!)

J--- opted for a rib eye sandwich and fries and B--- ordered something that looked like the kitchen had exploded on his plate. There were hot peppers, onions, American or maybe cheddar cheese oozed from one side, a piece of tomato peaked out from the chili that had been ladled over it all and somewhere underneath the whole mess there was a hamburger. J--- had seen B--- eat before. This sort of sewage wasn’t unusual.

Now, here’s how the conversation went.

Girl: Wow. I like your writing style a lot. I can’t wait o read more.
Me: Thanks! I’m not very far into things, but I have high hopes for this story.
Girl: I do have one question.
Me: Shoot.
Girl: Is it set on earth in the future?
Me: *thinking about the elements of the passage – diner, teenagers, food – nothing that said future* Umm, no. What made you think that?
Girl: Oh. Well, you specifically mentioned American cheese.

That’s right. You read that correctly. She thought American cheese was futuristic. I thought absolutely nothing of it while I was writing it. American cheese, cheddar, Gouda, provolone… Just types of cheese. To her it said “Beam me up, Scotty.” Then again, I suppose if any cheese was to survive it would be Velveeta, but that’s not the point.

I was reeling like someone has smacked me. Flabbergasted. Dumbfounded. I had no words, so I had no control over the fact that I became monosyllabic. We spoke one more time on chat, but there was a palpable lack of interest and we haven’t spoken since.

American cheese ended what I think we both thought would be a beautiful relationship.


  1. Was said person not from the states? That might have had something to do with it.

    I remember when I was in France, the most hilarious thing I ate while there was a dish called "The American." It was fries, two pieces of bread with a skirt stake between them. That's it. That's the American. LOL.

    I was like WTF mate?! I've lived in the U.S. my whole life, and I've never eaten crap like this before. Maybe they have a low opinion of us or something. Pft. :)

  2. Oh no. She was from the US of A.

    I just can't tell you how confused I was when she said it. I probably stared at the screen for 10 minutes before responding.

    And that sandwich sounds disgusting.

  3. LOL. American cheese = teh fuuuucher!

    I knew a writer (former engineer by day) who was busy trying to build a teleport device similar to the ones the U.S.S. Enterprise uses.

    No joke. Some of those old timers, man. LSD much?

    Oh and ... DUDE! I will totally crit your story for you!