|“Your job isn’t necessarily to like everything you read, but to help authors bring out
the very best of their own writing and style.” — Taylor Martindale, faculty agent
Home Study 2011-Present
CRITIQUING WHOLE NOVELS
While many writers are experienced in peer-critiquing shorter manuscript samples, it’s not so common to evaluate an entire unpublished novel.
How does one avoid blurred memory after reading, when attempting to give useful feedback to an author? How do the pros approach whole-novel critiques—do they make notes on each chapter and/or other unit; do they mark the entrance of new characters?
Here are sample responses from our past faculty. Apply these points (and our emailed guidelines) when you critique peer novels for our seminar:
I. LAURA BACKES
A former NY children’s book editor and agent, now publisher of Children’s Book Insider, Laura has critiqued more than 700 MG/YA novel manuscripts, among other genres.
For novels, I take notes on two levels:
1) WRITING STYLE OR TECHNIQUE: For larger issues, instead of scribbling on the manuscript, I jot notes specific to each chapter or scene. These notes may refer to big blocks of dialogue that don’t include narrative or movement by the speakers, long passages of description that derail the plot, and so on.
2) OVERALL STORY (plot and character development): I write notes while reading to remind myself of certain plot points and if/how they work, or of places where a character might have suddenly acted completely inconsistent with the way she was developed earlier in the story. Once I’ve read the entire manuscript, I get a full handle on this aspect.
II. TAYLOR MARTINDALE
Taylor is a dynamic agent with Full Circle Literary in California.
When I critique a full manuscript, I don’t approach notetaking with a set formula or checklist. I read to see how the story, characters, and voice work together as a cohesive unit. As I read, I take continuous notes with thoughts or questions I might have, as well as praise for the strong elements. By taking notes this way, I have a picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript as a whole. I’m then able to highlight issues that were never resolved in the course of the book, elements that were stronger in some sections than in others, and the overarching concerns that need to be addressed.
My goal in taking these kinds of notes is to ask questions that allow the author to get past the surface problem. I always try to be as clear as possible regarding what isn’t working and why, so that an author can translate my questions to useful revision material as effectively as possible.
Here are some questions I continually ask when I read:
- Does the voice of the manuscript strongly reflect the main character (no matter the POV)? Is the voice a strong YA voice with which teens will connect? Is it consistent, convincing, and engaging?
- How does the plot work? Does the action transition well, and is it believable? (Note: When I say “believable,” I am looking to see if the plot makes sense for the world you as an author have created. If it’s a fantasy novel, is the plot effective in the parameters of the world you have set up ? If set in a realistic world, is everything behaving within realistic time frames, feasible action, etc.?
- Are the characters personalities that make an impression on me? I want them to stay in my mind when I’m not in front of these pages. Does the book succeed in making me care about them?
- What are the holes—in plot and in characters themselves? What elements aren’t making sense? What needs to be developed? (For example, do we get the right amount of setting, characters’ emotions, action, and so on.)
- Which areas of the novel are too thin and underdeveloped? What areas are heavy-handed, or maybe too emphasized? Is there repetitive language used?
- Is this story satisfying? As a reader, do I feel as though I have gotten enough from these characters and this story?
- How does the pacing work? Are there areas that drag, or spots that cram too much in all at once?
- Many times, an author glosses over important aspects of the novel (world building, emotion, etc.) because the story has been in the author’s head for so long that it makes perfect sense. Does this occur at all in the book you’re critiquing? Are there moments that seem to be considered obvious, but really need some setup for the reader?
- Overall, what needs to be strengthened? How can I, as a reader, help this author make his/her book shine?
The purpose of a critique is to provide the author with useful feedback. It’s important to be positive and honest. If there is something you don’t like or don’t agree with, it’s important to share the reasons why those elements aren’t working for you as a reader. However, also remember that your job isn’t necessarily to like everything you read, but to help authors bring out the very best of their own writing and style.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy it! Editing and revising is a collaborative process in a way that most novel writing is not. Enjoy interacting with your peers’ work and helping them bring out the best in their projects. Happy critiquing!
|“These whole-novel critiques are a whole new level of workshop.”
— Carol Foote, five-year alum
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