Wednesday, February 29, 2012

King Kong, Cowbirds and Teen Critiques

I'm dipping into my archives for this post tonight. I got caught up today with some traumatic doctors appointments (everything's fine), homework help, meals, general exhaustion and then a family bonding movie of King Kong - the original 1933 version. As my son said, "How long could girls scream back then?" (I will say, for the time period I'm pretty impressed by the special effects and sets.)

But this post, unfortunately, doesn't have much to do with King Kong.
It does have to do with my son's comments, though. You see, I have two bona fide teens living under my roof, and they have some pretty strong opinions about things. I always imagined that having a teen or two on tap would be a fabulous thing for a YA writer like me. There'd always be someone to try out my novels on and get their thoughts, right? Right?

Not so fast

My kids know I spend way too much time living in my head. But it doesn't necessarily mean they want to share the gray matter space with me. They know to repeat themselves several times for requests, or better yet, write it on a sticky note and paste it to my computer screen. They know my eyes may be focused on their faces but I'll really be rehashing some scene from my book. 

Cute Cowbird - Not  (
Sometimes I wonder if my writing is the cowbird of our family. You know, the egg that's laid in a cute little songbirds nest, only to hatch into a huge, ugly bird that kicks its step-siblings out and hogs all of the parent's time and resources? Maybe it is resentment that causes my kids to turn up their noses when I want to share a part of my 'fabulous' book, but more likely it's just the age.

Teens can be fickle creatures. Hard to please. But, those very things that can drive me bonkers most of the time are some of the best qualities in a YA critiquer. After all, don't we want the cold hard truth if our work will connect with its target audience?  I do. So here are a couple tricks I employ when I want to know what my teens think.

Catch them unawares

The easiest method I've found to turn a teen into an unwitting critiquer is to wait until they're relaxed, but not otherwise engaged in any electronics (I know, it's a rare occasion). Then I start reading out loud. As soon as they roll their eyes, fidget, or otherwise leave mentally or physically, I know I've lost them. More often than once it's happened during the first paragraph. But the few times they've listened for a whole chapter, I knew I was on to something.


Yes, I'm not above paying for my teen's critiquing prowess. But, if I'm giving (whether it's screen time, sugar or something else), they have to give a little extra back, too.

One way to get a more in depth critique and still make it easy for them is a simplified version of a critique list. It's in a format any kid would probably recognize. I usually create a bookmark and ask my teen to simply write the 'grade' next to a section they notice a problem with.
A – Awesome, amazing, aw yeah – This is good.
B – Bored – Really just not that into this. Too long. When does the action start?
C – Confused – What just happened there? Who did what, now?
D – Dumb – That would never happen. They would never do that. I don’t believe it.

And lastly, I ask them to draw a line where they would have put the story down if they didn’t have to keep reading to get their bribe, er, reward (this might be the most important step because it lets me know when the story really goes off the rails). That’s it.

A warning, though, use your teens sparingly. They won’t want to read the fifteenth reincarnation of the same scene. If you have enough teens around, use a different lot for the first draft and the one you hope is the final draft (don’t be afraid to mortify your kids, younger siblings or neighbors by asking who their friends are - and can you borrow them?). It’s always good to have a fresh set of eyes on your work. 

So there you have it. Having feedback is invaluable, and getting it fairly painlessly from your target audience, even better. I think these methods can work nearly as well on younger kids and spouses, too. What things have you done to get your work critiqued?

~ Susan


  1. My kids know I live in my head too, and they know how to take advantage of it. They know exactly when to ask me questions that I'll answer without really listening. It's crazy.

    I love your scoring system! I'm going to start using that. Thanks!

  2. My oldest is just learning to read, so she isn't my target audience, at least not yet. :)

    I think your scoring system would work great for any critiquer not just a teen, especially non-writer critiquers. I'll have to use that on my husband and sisters.

    Great post!

  3. I completely relate to the cowbird analogy. There are two things that get me really discouraged about writing: 1) when my project seems hopeless, and 2) when writing is going okay but balancing it with family seems hopeless. I worry I'm lost in thought way too much. The older one could totally use the post-it note, though. I may just tell him that.

    I'm not writing YA (so far), but I love your scoring system. I will use that, especially when I start looking to friends and family for critiques. Great tips.

  4. I'm with Sarah, that cowbird analagy felt a bit too familiar for comfort.

    Great post!

  5. At least your writing doesn't retaliate if you ignore it for a day or two.....



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