I don’t think anyone can critique all styles and all genres equally. While it stretches ones repertoire to read and critique out of genre, we do not bring the same rapport as we would to our own. Some topics would clearly be out of ones comfort zone, and it may be best to decline the read. I did do a complete one month novel critique of a gay crime thriller once. Most of the action and plot was identical to other crime thrillers, but usually I feel some congruence with the characters. Such a connection has an effect on reader response to the story, so this critique was different in that I did not relate to the two principals at all. I think my comments on the novel, while very impersonal, were not what they might have been if I actually cared about the cast.
I generally do not read romance, but I have read and critiqued romances well enough. I even have romance in my novels, but usually it’s a side plot. I prefer not to critique vampire, werewolf, and zombie stories, but from my experience there are striking examples out there that I would have liked a go at. I don’t have any time for sports and so sports novels are out—except that I did critique two cycling novels about the Tour de France and not only enjoyed them, but the author used some of my comments for his back cover blurbs. As I’ll get to in the last part, there are some aspects of fiction that one should look for in all stories, no matter what the topic.
The other aspect of critiquing and receiving critques is that crit partners have different strengths. Some are good judges of characters, for example, while others are sticklers for grammar. My fiction is strongest in plots, and so I look for plot strengths and weaknesses in everything I critique. On characters, I have a strong identification with my own and know what to expect of them in most any situation, but it takes me awhile to have the same rapport with characters in the fiction of others. I will say that, once I ‘get’ them, I’m usually a good judge if they’re acting as real people or if the author is over-driving them to reach a point.
Another thing to be aware of in critiquing longer fiction is that some characters grow—as they should—and critiques you made of them at one point in the plot may be completely overturned when the author has brought them into bloom. In my local group one author had a really unpleasant character who could be counted on to be a boor at any venue...but then part way through the novella we caught a glimpse of what had made her such a harridan. By the time we reached the end she was the character we looked for to hang on her story. It was not only an excellent piece of writing, it was a warning to the critiquer not to be too dogmatic at any point in the read—maybe you are being set-up, so the reader too can enjoy the surprise.
I have bad habits in writing that I appreciate crit partners pointing out. I have a terrible habit of lapsing into passive voice—a failing that comes from reading too many technical manuals and lab reports in my past. “The substance was heated over a bunsen burner until it was converted to...” To what? Who cares—it doesn’t get the pulse racing, not unless I’m adding water to concentrated sulphuric acid in a test tube. So a good tip would be—look for crit partners who strengthen your weak points—they’re worth their weight in gold. Even at $1500 an ounce.
Part four is next—focussing on what to critique