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Critical Reading: Take Three

Monday, November 19, 2007

When we submit a proposal to an editor or agent, we submit the first three chapters of our novel along with the synopsis and marketing summary. So, taking a break for reflection after reading the first three chapters* is called for. Many of these questions you will want to ask repeatedly as you read further too. And again, I’ll mention that you don’t have to ask/answer all of these questions to be an effective critical reader. I’m just trying to cover all the bases.

What is the main conflict of the plot? Most writing craft books tell us that we need to establish the main conflict early on. If you’ve read through three chapters, you should be able to identify what the driving conflict of the story is. If you cannot, how are you feeling about the book so far? Is it an enjoyable read? Is it compelling even without a clear-cut conflict? If you can identify the main conflict, is it realistic? Does it seem big enough to support an entire novel?

Are there any discernable subplots yet? You aren’t always going to see/recognize subplots by the end of the third chapter, but hopefully the author is laying the foundation for them already.

Is the story keeping your interest? That’s one of the things editors/agents look for in those all-important first three chapters—do they want to keep reading? Did you have a hard time stopping at the end of the third chapter, or was it too easy to put down?

How well has the author developed the setting? By the end of the third chapter, you should be firmly grounded in the physical setting of the story. Without looking, what’s the name of the city/town/territory/planet where the main action takes place? Do you get a good sense of the scale and size? Have you experienced it with all five senses? Does it come across as a three-dimensional space, or just like a dressed stage that the characters are moving around on occasionally?

Has the author established clear POV? Is it 3rd/limited/past-tense, 1st/limited/present-tense, or headhopping/omniscient? Does the author stick with it or tend to waver?

How many POV characters are used? By the end of the third chapter, for the most part, the main POV characters should have had at least one scene. There may be one or two introduced later, but your main main characters should already have had a scene. If there is more than one POV character, do they all tie into either the main conflict or an interesting subplot? Do they have unique, individual voices?

Without looking back at the book or your notes, what is (are) the main character(s) name(s)? Have you gotten to know the POV characters well enough through three chapters that their names come easily to mind? What do the main characters look like? Does the narrative give details of their physical appearance or just general hints at what they look like?

What is each main character’s goal, motivation, and conflict? What you identify now as their GMC may not be their actual GMC once you get further into the book and the conflicts and stakes rise more. But you should be able to identify some initial goals, motivations, and conflicts for each POV character by the end of the third chapter.

How many secondary characters are there? Secondary characters are those that are important to the story but who don’t get a POV. Are there just a few or is the book teeming with them? Is the number of secondary characters well-balanced or overwhelming? Do any secondary characters steal the spotlight from the main character?

Do you like the main character(s)? Is each character someone whose head you want to live in for the length of time you’ll be reading this book? What do you like/not like about the main character(s)? If you don’t like the characters, in what way do you hope the author will change them so that you could like them? Do the characters exhibit believable emotions and understandable motives?

Has the author established a clear voice and tone? Does this book read just like the last book you read, or can you tell it’s written by a different author (hopefully you chose a book by a different author than the last book you just finished)? Can you identify what it is this author has done that gives them a unique voice? What about the tone? Is it funny, serious, dark, suspenseful, rollicking . . . ? Do the voice and tone fit with the subject matter of the story?

Did any words/lines stand out to you that you really liked? If this is the first time you’ve read anything by this particular author, be looking for how they compose their sentences, what turns of phrase they use, how fresh their language is, and their choice of vocabulary. (Hope you were using your highlighter as you read!)

Did anything confuse you? Was there ever a time when you were reading that you didn’t understand what the author was trying to describe—something in the setting, something in the action, or just an unusual wording that made you stop reading and go back to re-read to try to comprehend it? How would you fix it?

Is there a good balance between dialogue and narrative? Is there enough narrative to support the action and keep the story moving without being so overwhelming that there’s nothing else going on but internal thoughts of the character? (Think about the movie Castaway . . . even though he was on an island alone, he still had dialogue.) Is the dialogue natural or stilted? Is the author able to relay important information through dialogue without it coming across as a lecture or one character saying something to another character they already know? Is the dialogue appropriate for the region/era in which the book is set? For the characters’ education and socio-economic status?

Does the writer use terminology you’re unfamiliar with? (Did you write down the words?) Were you able to figure out what the term means in the context in which it’s used? Does the author do this only once or repeatedly? If there are several terms you’ve written down that you don’t understand, how does that make you feel as a reader? Are they technical terms (such as Tom Clancy describing a specific piece of technology), historical/military/nautical terms (such as the description of a crew on a ship preparing to set sail), or just vocabulary words you’re unfamiliar with? Do the unfamiliar terms help set the scene/build the world of the story or do they seem to be there just because the author is showing off?

Do you want to keep reading this book? This is the most important thing to ask yourself at this juncture (remembering you’ve made a commitment to read it all the way through no matter what). Has the author written an intriguing enough story in three chapters that you want to find out what happens?

*I just finished reading a James Patterson novel where each chapter was, at most, three pages long. If you’ve chosen a book like this, read through about page 30-35 (to a chapter break) and do this then.

Believe it or not, there’s still a lot more to cover on this topic—and I hope to have some words from some special guests as well. I’ll be posting through Wednesday this week, then taking a break to visit with my family (and watch some LSU football!!!) over the holiday.

  1. Monday, November 19, 2007 11:15 am

    another excellent post! I’m currently working on perfecting GMC’s. I’ll be combing your archives for information. 🙂


  2. Monday, November 19, 2007 11:54 am

    Great information. I know I’m going to have to come back to this when I have more reading time this spring. I’m also going to have to read a James Patterson book–can’t believe I’ve never had one before. Three pages seems short for chapters, but it must work.



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