Okay, I’ll admit it…sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own percolating manuscript that I forget my purpose in a critique group is twofold. Yes, one goal is to improve my own story, but another goal is also to help with the stories circulating in the group.
After one meeting, I asked myself, “Did I actually help anybody? Was my presence in the group necessary, essential…critical?” When I answered “no,” I decided that my most important job as a group member is to provide useful feedback.
So how do you get beyond “This is good…I liked it…and who doesn’t love dogs?”
Sallie Wolf, Oak Park Representative and author of The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound: A Birder’s Journal (February 2010), outlines the keys to a successful critique: “It’s not about ‘liking’ someone’s work. It’s about reading closely and then telling the writer what you see.” Sallie recommends not focusing a critique on how to change or “fix” a manuscript, because those decisions are up to the writer. “What is helpful,” she says, “is to ask questions where things are unclear, and to reflect back who the characters seem to be—how you perceive them—and sometimes, to relate your own childhood feelings and experiences to the characters.”
Following are two lists of questions designed to help you become a “critical critiquer.” One list is for novels and chapter books (provided by the Oak Park network), and the other is for picture books (inspired by a presentation given by Jim Averbeck, author of In A Blue Room, at SCBWI-LA). While some questions cross over from one genre to the next, it is helpful to home in on the specific needs of both types of story.
Novels and Chapter Books
- How does the book begin? How does the first sentence or paragraph grab the reader?
- What age is the book geared to? How do you know? (language choices, age of characters, theme or subject matter, etc.)
- Who is the main character and how do we learn about him/her? What do we learn?
- How are other characters introduced?
- What is the first action?
- What is the problem/conflict? When is it first introduced?
- What does the main character want?
- How is the problem/conflict resolved?
- What recurring themes, motifs, and images are there? What purpose do they serve?
- What is the structure of the book: chronological, flashback, circular, building one line on another, etc.? Can you diagram it or visualize it?
- Is there a strong sense of time and place?
- Are there a variety of settings within the story?
- Is there a chance to use or change perspective?
- Is there enough action and movement?
- Is the pace varied?
- Is there increasing complication?
- Do the main characters have unique attitudes or strong personalities?
- Do the characters have unique physical attributes?
- Is there physical interaction between the characters?
- Is there emotional interaction between the characters?
- Is there a strong sense of mood?
- Is there a strong and appropriate use of color?
- Is there sensory detail?
Becoming a critical critiquer doesn’t need to be stressful. Before attending your next critique session, choose two questions and then find their answers in the stories that you read. By shedding light on these areas, you will help a member of your group see their story through a different lens. In doing so, you play an elemental role in getting their idea out of their head…onto the paper…into the mailbox…off of the slush pile…and into the hands of someone who cares about good books.
Anyone who does this is most definitely a necessary, essential, critical…friend.
The Prairie Wind. www.scbwi-illinois.org (January 2010)