If you’re writing your own stuff, I think it changes how you read others’ work both consciously and subconsciously. In novels I would deliberately be looking for how an author uses transitions, her choice of words, how the characters are given distinctive voices, use of dialogue. I think it’s very helpful to look at how an author shows instead of just tells--like showing a character’s emotions versus just telling the reader “he felt sad,” or showing how a couple falls in love versus just telling the reader that they have and expecting it to be accepted. I am also interested in how an author gets the reader to root for the characters. One thing I did appreciate about the Twilight books is how believable it would be (at least for the first couple books) that readers would strongly cheer for Edward and also strongly cheer for Jacob. Interestingly, I found it sort of difficult to ever really root for Bella, the alleged protagonist. Oh! And a great thing for me to look at in novels--the very first sentence and the very first paragraph. So important to hook the reader (or editor to whom you submitted) right away. I attended a workshop Ophelia Julien did on writing supernatural themes, and she did a great job of addressing the first sentence/first paragraph.
Harry Potter--there are just so many things I liked about the series as a reader (talk about a character for whom to cheer--where is my ‘I heart Snape’ shirt?) but reflecting on it from a writing standpoint causes me to marvel all the more. People were SO invested in Harry! People will never forget him. Quite an accomplishment for Jo Rowlings, especially considering how much the series changed as it went on. The first book was so enchanting, painting such a detailed picture of Hogwarts and the world of magic. The books got darker and darker as Harry got older. I really liked the fifth book, but I did feel like I actually missed Hogwarts because much of the action took place at the ministry of magic or the headquarters of the order of the phoenix. A more specific aspect that I noticed is that Harry is present in almost every scene throughout the series. The story is through Harry’s eyes. Yet there are instances where Harry is not present, but the author still wanted the reader to be privy to the action. I am thinking of a scene (I think in the sixth book) in which Snape has an important conversation with Narcissa and Bellatrix. How did the author present this so that it didn’t jolt the reader out of the story?
I had a fairly strong reaction when reading a recent popular book about temporal displacement and a spousal relationship. As a reader I felt like I didn’t quite believe in the characters’ motivations, I was bored by all the tedious detail spent on surroundings that ultimately lent nothing to the story, and I found the death scene, while emotional, to be quite confusing as to what actually happened. From a writing standpoint, I thought “this is an interesting idea that could have been much better, where was the editor?”
I read The Notebook a long time ago, before I started taking writing classes. A sappy book but people loved it. Upon reflection, I think it would be useful to see how the author went back and forth between the present timeline and the story of the past (the story the elderly husband was telling his wife about how they fell in love in their youth). I think readers were invested in both timelines, wanting to see what happened and wanting to see if love does conquer all.
The way I read has changed the most regarding picture books. I have taken the suggestion passed on by Carmela Martino to type out the text of a picture book and study it that way, without the pictures. This has helped me see how a story can be told in well under the word count limit, how they effectively use sound effects words and repetition, where to let the illustrations elaborate on the words. But even in just reading to my son, I can’t help but notice many more details in picture books than I previously did. Sometimes I am excited to discover a book I hadn’t known before (The Dark, Dark Night or Jez Alborough and his crazy duck or a simple book about a little boy picking up all his trucks in his room). Other times I am just appalled and can’t believe something that seems so sloppy got published. When you read a picture book, you think it just came out of the author the way it is, it’s so simple, so few words, but the good ones take a LOT of work!
Obviously, as part of a critique group, the point is to critically evaluate someone else’s work. What a pleasure to actually enjoy reading all the works brought to be critiqued! And although they are all written for children--they have been so varied: picture books and poems, novels written for middle grades, YA novels, holiday themes, historical themes, adventure, educational, and pure fantasy. While I strive to be helpful in my comments, I know that seeing the choices the authors make and the elements with which they struggle is beneficial to my own writing as well.