If you’re blessed, as I am, to have some of the best critique partners (or, as we fondly refer to each other, “critters”) going, you undoubtedly realize the benefit of having a watchful pair of eyes to run over your manuscripts, a merciless tongue to point out the weak points, and a gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) touch to encouragingly push you back onto your feet for another go. Although writing is largely a self-taught craft, even the most determined among us can only take ourselves so far without the input of others. We all have our blind spots and our weaknesses. We can’t always see when a character is extraneous or a plot point doesn’t make sense. We don’t always realize that we’re copping out on the endings or welching in the climaxes. But critters—God bless ‘em—tend to these things with 20/20 vision.
Even the best critters, however, aren’t mind readers. They can’t know what it is we’re trying to accomplish in a story. They won’t know what scenes we’re particularly worried about. And they aren’t likely to give us a blow-by-blow recount of their reactions as they read through our stories. Most of the time, they wade into our stories just as blindly as we wade into theirs—especially if you’re as secretive a writer as I am. So I’ve developed a game plan of my own to help guide my critters through my stories.
By the time I finish writing a story, I usually have quite a few pressing questions that I need to have answered by an outside source. I need to know for certain that specific plot elements worked and particular characters were sympathetic. Some of these questions are too overt to send to a critter before he’s read the story, since the last thing I want to do is influence his original reaction. So I divide my questions into two sets: before and after.
I send the before questions in an email with my manuscript. Usually, these questions are very general in nature and apply to things I want my critter to be aware as he is reading. For instance:
1. Is anything confusing?
2. Are any scenes boring or repetitious?
3. Do you spot any general tics (repeated words, etc.)?
4. Do you spot any confusing plot points (let me know when and where I lose you and what needs to be clarified)?
5. Does the opening grab you?
6. Is there an appropriate balance of action with the other subplots?
After that, it’s just a matter of spending the next month or so keeping my mouth shut and trying not fidget while my critter reads through the manuscript. I encourage critters to keep their own questions to themselves during this time, because it’s important for me to not only avoid influencing their reading experience but also to discover if my narrative is strong enough to answer its own questions come the end.
Finally, when my critter has reached the last chapter and is ready to present his concerns and overall opinions, it’s time for me to bring out the after questions. I try to be as specific as possible in my questioning, in hopes of leading the critter to dredge up as many of his reactions and complaints as possible. Most of my after questions are general enough that I can use them on every manuscript, but, of course, I insert as many specific queries as necessary.
1. Was the setting clear? Did you feel like you had a clear idea of what things looked like in the scenes?
2. Can you give me a brief opinion of the main characters? Did you understand who was who and what their problems/goals were? Any characters that felt extraneous? Any characters you felt you were supposed to like, but didn’t? Any characters you had a hard time keeping track of?
3. Did the plot keep you engaged? Did the overall arc make sense?
4. Any problems with the dialogue?
5. Ditto for the narrative? Were there any places where you were bored with it?
6. Did the beginning grab you?
7. Did the middle keep your attention?
8. Was the ending satisfying?
9. After reading the first scene, what expectations did you have for the story? Were those expectations fulfilled?
10. Did you spot any purple prose?
11. Did the action rise appropriately? Did it move too abruptly?
12. Was it repetitive or overlong? Can you think of anything it would be good to cut? Is there anyplace I need to trim some fat and include less information?
13. Did you understand the themes, and did they become more complex and interesting as you read? Did the character arcs express the themes well?
14. Was the climax both inevitable and yet unexpected?
15. Was the story easy to follow?
16. Does the overall tone welcome you? Or is it off-putting in any way?
17. Was there any point at which your interest faded?
By guiding my critters with my questions, I’m able to receive a much more thorough response, one that is specific to my story’s needs and my own concerns. By the time my critters finish answering all my questions, they’ve usually given me enough food for thought to keep me chewing for a very long time.