Home Study 2014
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many writers are experienced in peer-critiquing shorter manuscript samples, it’s not so common to evaluate an entire unpublished novel.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, mark the entrance of new characters, and so on?
Below are sample responses from current and past faculty. Apply these points (and emailed guidelines) when you critique peer novels for our seminar. We’ll also discuss faculty tips for whole-novel revision, to use in your own self-editing.
Q: Our enrollees critique peers’ full novels. However, many writers are experienced in critiquing only shorter excerpts. Your tips?
I. CURRENT FACULTY
MELANIE CECKA, Editor
I always think about the big picture first—what works or doesn’t work about the story in the broadest sense. I keep a notebook, and jot down things that stand out to me—good and bad—and list the page number(s) as well so I can go back and reference that section if necessary. I tend to put a star next to any issues that come up more than once, since that may point to a more systemic problem within the story.
When I go back through my comments, it’s usually clear what things stood out or distracted me. Do I have a lot of stars next to comments about the dialogue not ringing true? Or it may be that I’ve written down a lot of things about the secondary characters seeming flat. Or perhaps I’ve noted a series of 10 pages here, and 20 pages there, where nothing seems to be happening.
When I eventually sit down to prepare an editorial letter (or critique), I’ll tackle the overarching issues first, and try to reference specific pages so that the author can go straight to that section to see what I’m talking about. I am also very fond of making smiley faces and noting lines that are really, really good, since critiquing should be about calling out everything that’s wonderful about a read, as well as the things that need strengthening.
SCOTT TREIMEL, Agent
I keep a notebook and jot down a word or sound byte that will recall the issue when I speak to the author. I do not comment on everything on a first read because one or two concerns often overwhelm the rest, and those big problems deserve the attention. I note the precise location in the story of problems I want to discuss.
Advice to writers: Accept that you must make fragmented notes for a while. You will better understand the story, see problems and strengths, as you read. Your thoughts will order themselves to become larger, encompassing ideas. Frequently review your fragments, enlarging relevant fragments to more substantive comments, while deleting fragments that have become extraneous as your critique takes focus.