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Critical Reading

Originally published November–December 2007

Take a master class from the best-selling fiction authors of all time . . . by learning how to read critically and analyze published works to learn the craft and techniques that master storytellers both in and out of your genre use to create compelling stories that stand the test of time.

Critical Reading

Critical Reading: An Introduction

    One of my critique partners asked if I could do a series on how to break apart a novel, or, in other words, read critically, so that we can apply what others are doing to our own writing. This is something I had to learn how to do in grad school. As an English major, it was a natural step for me to apply the critical analysis we learned to do in literature classes to popular fiction. But the next step was figuring out how to use it to improve my own writing.
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Critical Reading: Photographic Evidence

    Here’s what it looks like inside. I know, you’re wondering what the note says . . .
    The whole “knowing she’s hurt” thing doesn’t ring true to me. Yes, he’s a pastor, but he’s still a man and he’s shown no clairvoyance into anyone else’s character like that. Better he pull back because he’s a pastor, because he feels (felt) called to stay single, because she’s his boss, because he feels like he doesn’t have anything to offer her.
    (I was a little disillusioned with this book by this point.)
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Critical Reading: Goals & Back Covers

    When I picked books to do this with in grad school, I looked for stories that included elements I wanted to either strengthen or figure out in my own WIP. For example, I chose Happily Ever After and The Celebrity because a key conflict in both plots is that the hero has hidden his celebrity-status identity from the heroine (and everyone else around him), and I wanted to see how these two authors I greatly respect (Susan May Warren and Robert Elmer) handled it in a book published in the CBA. I chose Linda Windsor’s Along Came Jones when I was trying to instill more humor in my writing.
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Critical Reading: The First Date

    If reading the back cover and ruminating on everything you can learn about the book is like meeting someone new, reading the first chapter is like your first date. You’re not going to learn everything, but you’ll come away from it with a really good sense of whether or not you want to know more.
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Critical Reading: Take Three

    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.
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Critical Reading: “Question-Storming!” (guest columnist Dr. Michael Arnzen)

    Every drop of ink that you see on a page is a choice that a writer has made. That choice has a motive. A reason. A rationale. Thus, critical reading is — at its base — a search for that reason. It simply involves ASKING THE QUESTION WHY.
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Critical Reading: As You Read (in General)

    Now we’re going to get into some more nit-picky areas/questions to consider as you continue reading your book for critical review.
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Critical Reading: As You Read (Characters)

    Does any character ever become whiney or overly angst-ridden in such a way that they just come across as annoying? Do you ever find yourself wishing they would just shut up!!!?
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Critical Reading: “Why Learn to Analyze Fiction?” (guest columnist MaryAnn Diorio, Ph.D.)

    It’s one thing to read a novel; it’s quite another to dissect it. Whereas simple reading provides entertainment, dissecting a novel provides an understanding of how that novel was constructed. And knowing how a novel is constructed is crucial to writing one. I call this dissection process modeling.
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Critical Reading: The Literary Stuff

    It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a category romance, a sci-fi thriller, or a historical epic, every story contains literary elements—it’s up to you to know what the elements are so that you can recognize them. We’ve hit on one or two of them a little bit in earlier posts, but now we’ll get into specifics.
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Critical Reading: More on Figurative Language (guest columnist Chip MacGregor)

    I try to explain symbolic language isn’t something that can be dumped onto a manuscript later, like gravy ladled across potatoes. He harumphs and hangs up, unaware how metaphor works, and unwilling to learn. If he’d stayed, I would have explained. A metaphor isn’t a literary trick, made to fancy-up your bland writing. It’s the basic image that gives life to your idea.
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Critical Reading: Finding Fantasy in Fiction (guest columnist Melissa James Doll)

    In the case of genre literature, critical reading rests upon knowledge of key conventions; and in the romance genre, I believe the following conventions are foundational to successful writing: 1) a convincing fantasy, 2) coded language, 3) a core story, and 4) a satisfying ending.
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Critical Reading: Ending & Reflections

    Give yourself a big pat on the back. You’ve finished the novel.

    But wait . . . there’s more! Now it’s time to reflect on what you’ve read.
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