Tales From a Critique Ninja

For the month of February, I was a "Critique Ninja" at 12x12. Each day I would stalk the "full manuscript forum" and select one to critique. It's still not clear if the selected manuscript (and writer) was lucky or cursed. In total, I gave my opinion to 24 or 25 pieces. (I did take a few days off.) Here are my takeaways from this experience.

What I Avoided

I don't feel qualified to critique rhyme. So I avoid those manuscripts for the most part. I also stayed away from anything over 700 words. IMHO, these are just too long. This year I didn't review any non-fiction, but that was more just by chance.

What I Found

Quite a bit of talent! Every manuscript I critiqued had potential. Some days, I got lucky and the first post I clicked caught my attention. Other days, I'd read 3 or 4 before selecting a manuscript. So even if I was harsh in my critique, there was something that drew me to that manuscript's potential.

I'm Brutal

Think of me as your mother-in-law. I complain about everything. I'm never happy. Even with my own work. When I read my published books aloud at schools and bookstores, I still edit. (I drop a few words every time I read Excellent Ed.) We can all be a kind kidlit community, but when it comes to critiques, I prefer the brutally honest folks.

My Most Common Criticism/Suggestion

I found myself asking this over and over. Is this a short story or a picture book? I think most new PB writers have a tendency to write short stories. They leave no work for the illustrator.  We should aim for a 50-50 split in the breakdown of the story telling. The words alone should not tell the story. The pictures alone should not tell the story. It's a happy marriage. Do you need to write Matthew was a crocodile? Won't the reader know this just by looking at the cover? (That's a very simple example, but maybe it illustrates my point.)

My Second Most Common Criticism/Suggestion

Tie the ending to the beginning. Something in those first lines should be reflected in those last lines. I love it when it's very direct. Maybe even the same exact words. Or a change of 1 or 2 words. Once you have a satisfying ending, I encourage you to go back and see if you can tweak the beginning to reflect or hint at the last pages. Or look at the opening and see how you can put those feelings, words, or intentions in the last few lines.


After completing my critique-ninja tour of duty in 2016, I'd mentioned that I wanted to draft a list of trends, or a list of what I saw over and over again. I never did this. (I'm easily distracted and constantly under deadline--that's my excuse.) I remember a lot of bath books and dog books last year. I started avoiding bath and dog books by the end. Maybe agents and editors feel a similar fatigue. I'm not sure. Here's a list of what I saw frequently in 2017. (12x12 members can do this unofficial research on their own. This is solely my experience. And I'm doing it from memory. No notes. Not going back through my files.)

  • Ninjas. There were more than critique ninjas floating through the forums. They were popular characters.
  • Characters named after their species. A duck named Duck. A bear named Bear.
  • Friendship. Stories about making friends or making-up with friends.
  • Engineers and Scientists. And most of these STEM characters were girls.
  • Characters' Names in the Titles. Bill's Day at the Beach. Fred and John. (Not actual examples.)
  • Too Much Info in Opening Paragraph. There seems to be a tendency for the author to explain his/her objective or worries in a paragraph above the manuscript. (I tried not to read these or only read them after.)

Parting Wisdom

Keep writing. And keep critiquing each other. Writing--it's easy to fall into the trap of revising the same manuscript again and again. And yes, a manuscript will require 6, 7, or 20 rewrites. But that can't be all you're doing. Take a break between revisions and start something new. I promise your brain is still working on manuscript-A while you are writing manuscript-B. Critiquing--I was reading manuscripts nearly every day this month. And I'm a better writer for it. I see "problems" in other writers' works that are also in my own. I notice the strengths too. Make a commitment to read a manuscript every other day (or every third day) and make at least 1 constructive comment (not just I-like-it comments) and I promise you will learn and your own writing will improve. Good luck!

PS: For the most part, I do not go back and read any follow-up comments to my critiques.  


When Your Daughter Looks in the Mirror

When a five-year-old girl looks in the mirror, what does she see? Hopefully, she spots a friend. Someone she's going to make silly faces at and try to out maneuver. What does this girl see when she's eight? Or thirteen? Or sixteen?

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? I see someone who needs to stand up straight and suck in her belly--a belly that has carried three children, the smallest of whom was eight pounds, thirteen ounces. A belly that also prefers Krispy Kreme to sit ups. A belly that I hate.

And my daughters have picked up on this. Eventually, the mirror will stop being a friend and become a harsh critic. Ninety-seven percent of women will have an I-Hate-My-Body thought today.

We can blame TV, the internet, and glossy fashion magazines for an unrealistic expectation of beauty. We can blame air-brusing and Photoshop. But girls first learn about beauty standards from mom and other important women in their lives. My girls first learned it from me. Looking in the mirror, are you complaining about your gray hairs, crooked nose, or your weight? Are you setting the unrealistic expectations?

While working on my book BEAUTIFUL, I needed to redefine my essential definition of beauty.

I read dozens of posts and quotes on beauty. Watched numerous Dove commercials. And looked at the research on the subject--everything from the golden ratio, which mathematically examines feature placements on a face, to the studies on why men place a higher value on looks in their mate than women do.

And of course, I checked out Merriam-Webster's definition of beautythe quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit

I finally settled on this.

Beauty is a confidence driven by what you do and how you feel.

I'm never going to have a flat stomach. My hair will forever require chemicals. The laugh lines are here to stay. But what I can ultimately control is what I say to the girl in the mirror. "You're a good mom! And you rock those jeans."

                                    art by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

                                    art by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

Be kind to yourself. It matters! Your daughters are listening.

Goodreads Giveaway

Goodreads Book Giveaway

101 Reasons Why I'm Not Taking a Bath by Stacy McAnulty

101 Reasons Why I'm Not Taking a Bath

by Stacy McAnulty

Giveaway ends August 22, 2016.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

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