There is nothing as valuable as a good writing partner. I've had a few stand outs and a lot of mediocre mistakes. Being a great critiquer is, of course, a valuable asset in any writing partner.
However, I find what is more valuable, as I talked about a couple of blogs ago, is the idea of being able to feed off each others' ideas. The writing partners who have truly inspired me, gotten me through the rough spots and the discouraged points, have been those who had the kind of imagination that allowed them to enter my world as I entered their world.
It is a particular skill. It doesn't mean that we have to be each other's audience. It may be that we would never read each other's books if we weren't working together. But a partner that can see what you are trying to do with a book, rather than what they would do with your book, is invaluable.
Michael, my current writing partner, and I have seen little to nothing of each other's work. What we do do is talk about our books together. I will start in on what is going on in my book or what I am stuck on in my book, and Michael will go off the top of his head on his impressions. Once instance, working on this current book, Will-o-the-wisps Warp, I was stuck on a scene between Laurel and Jamie--my vampire work partners who own the organization Death Watch.
In Death Watch, they have made a pact that if they must damage humans, they will do it where it does the most good. They started out freeing slaves in Africa, sinking slave ships, and killing off slavers. In this current scene, they are going after the New Orleans mob, which was one of the oldest mobs in the country. It was eventually hounded out of existence, supposedly, but rumors persist it has gone underground. I use that in my book to show the mob as still functioning, mostly off drug sales.
This is all slightly beside the point. What matters in the scene is that Jamie is angry with Laurel. Originally, I had them arguing as they pulled the job. They are so used to their positions in their partnership and their work that they do talk through jobs. However, in this case it just wasn't working. The job and the conversation clashed and clunked together in an ungainly mess. All Michael suggested was that Jamie be a little more of a guy and refuse to talk about his anger until he explodes after the job. I was dubious as Jamie has lived a long time and pretty much gotten over himself, but I rewrote the scene the way Michael suggested, and it ran smoothly.
With both my old writing partner RoseAnna and with Michael, one of the most valuable assets was to keep inspiration fired up. I can describe a scene I am currently working on and how it fits into the series, and Michael will question me and go off on his own thoughts on things that don't happen for books ahead of what I am doing now, and the course of my series will take on a slight shift.
For instance he has helped me work a lot with the character Other that comes into the fourth book. Other is a vampire wolf. When his mother was in heat a male vampire taking the form of a wolf got a little distracted. Usually this would come to nothing as vampires are sterile. But the trickster pookah Charlie, who runs through all of the books, changes the game a little so that Other is conceived. His name comes from the fact that wolves know that he is not of them, but do not know what he is, so they simply call him Other.
Charlie twists Other's fate even more as he describes my band of good guys to Other, and suggests it is his mission in life to join them.
Originally, I hadn't thought much beyond the fact Other would be a more cognizant character than the wolves generally were. He would be able to communicate thoughts and ideas to the vampires. But Michael became fascinated with the idea and dug. His digging made my mind go a thousand different places as to where I could take Other, and what kind of arc Other himself would have. Without Michael's interest, Other would have gone on being a severely underdeveloped character for a much longer time.
RoseAnna and my book styles didn't always mesh, but our imaginations did. We could spend hours on one or another of our books. One comment on how I might write Alex, the protagonist in Sheep that Stray, as the popular girl who was nice, which was her original character, would lead to hours of spewed imagination as we took every avenue on how to build Alex into a deeper character. This is what RoseAnna and I spent our junior high and high school years doing together, and many years since.
Essentially, the good writing partner asks the essential question of speculative fiction: "What if?" What makes speculative fiction speculative fiction is that speculation of "what if?" Fantasy, horror, science fiction--the genres all bleed into each other in a way that makes these sub classes almost meaningless, but they all ask the essential question. "What if all the myths of the world were real, and they formed a society underground to our own, now exploding in a rebellion to no longer hide, and teach the humans where they really stood in the pyramid of species success?", for instance, is the question of my current series.
What a good writing partner does, is ask you over and over again the question, "what if", while you develop and write the book. This is what has made the stand out partners to me. The fellow writers who looked at my writing, looked at what I was working on and what I was going to make the book into farther along the line, and ask me "what if?" What if I changed Alex's character to start off not quite so nice? What does the difference in Other mean to Laurel in their relationship? What if I took a character in another direction? If I have created the Recess in Sheep that Stray, a place where teens congregate in an old school that Robin, the secondary protagonist in the book, created when he was younger, how does that change the course of his life up until that point? How does it change the way the other characters view him from there on out? What if?
Of course, the other part of being a good writing partner is knowing when to praise. We all need a little ego stroking, and the ability to get excited about how a character is developing with you helps you stay invested in that character's development. Michael's excitement about Other helped me get excited enough to spend that extra energy on him. RoseAnna's fascination with the Recess shaped Robin's character and that section of the book for drafts to come. Comments like this let me know I am going in the right direction.
These two qualities, knowing when to praise what someone has created in their lives so far, and knowing how to ask "what if?" in any given situation are not segregated to the writing world. These qualities create a supportive and challenging relationship in area of life.