CRITIQUING WHOLE NOVELS and SCENES
I. 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many writers are experienced in peer-critiquing shorter manuscript samples, it’s not so common to evaluate an entire unpublished novel.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 responses from this year’s faculty. Apply these points (and our emailed guidelines) when you critique peer novels for our seminar. Also, don’t miss our previous faculty’s tips. You’re sure to find these insights useful year after year!
Regina Griffin, Executive Editor
I do not make up a Style Sheet while reading (marking down what make of a car a character drives, how a nickname is used), but I do use an old-fashioned legal pad while I read, which I fill with questions, comments, anything that I want to consider later. Regarding an example: It all depends on the book, so every single one I ever do is different for every single author.
A flag is generally in response to a specific point. It could be “Will kids have the background knowledge—understand this context?” if an author employs a reference that adults would know, but young kids would not. Say, a metaphor using banking terms or a reference to King Canute and the sea. Pointing out repetition of words that is probably not intentional. (“Her lissome body”; two pages later, “her lissome body”.)
Also, I flag anything that I notice and want the writer to consider. For example, perhaps I notice that several characters in a novel sound exactly alike throughout; I shall flag that. Or every romance scene reads almost the same way. If there is no tension in part of a mystery, I shall flag that. Sometimes a female author will be writing a boy, and two-thirds of the way through, this boy starts commenting on clothes in a way that reminds me of the female author, but not this character—I flag that!
I use my legal pad for such things as: is this one tragedy too many (in response to a story in which the main character might lose her parents, and then her house burns down, and then she catches a disfiguring disease). Is this solution too convenient? Or, is this entire section (chapter, whatever) a detour—does this well-written scene detract from the narrative of the novel?
The legal pad becomes the basis for more general comments; the flags for more specific questions, such as repetition of language in a scene, unlikely dialogue in a section of the novel, or a scene that doesn’t deliver what the author wants it to.
Fiona Kenshole, Agent
I read for story. My first response is intuitive. I then use my intellect to analyze this gut response. I take notes only on a second reading. My first reading is done in the same way any reader reads—to see what happens. I don’t follow a formula. I comment on things that delight me, moments of exceptional writing, and anything that stops the flow and brings me out of the story.
Annemarie O’Brien, Faculty Author
I read a manuscript at least twice. The first time I read, I jot my impressions in the margin. The second time, I read for story arc, character development and emotional arc, the opening and how effective it is as a hook, the ending and whether it is earned and satisfying. Then I give a hard look at the middle scenes to ensure they aren’t sagging. I point out areas that should be shown versus told, as well as lovely language, voice, and evocative details.
Annemarie, MFA author of Lara’s Gift (Knopf/Random House), is a popular critiquer at our workshop.
* * *
From Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book: A Primer For the Fiction Writer (Penguin)
What is a scene? Scenes are those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are “in the moment” with characters in action. Or we can sat that a scene is a segment of a story told in detail, the opposite of summarizing.
Four basic scene elements:
There is a driving desire, need, or question that runs through a story… Each scene should contribute to the intensity of the driving need or question.
“It’s not good enough to open your story with your character becoming embroiled in a first-rate, complex, mind-boggling conflict. If you do not remind the reader of this complication at frequent intervals and ratchet up the intensity of those complications in multiple scenes, you will lose the momentum in the story.” — Nancy Lamb, The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children“In a scene, you set your character in motion.” — Josip Novakovich, Fiction Writer’s Workshop
Enroll now and see how our hands-on focus session can help you critique and craft scenes. Plus, draw on our anthology of tips.