I was ecstatic when I discovered that Richard Peck would be critiquing my manuscript at SCBWI Miami. Several people asked me if I was nervous. But no, I never was. I knew Richard Peck had been a teacher, and in my experience teachers are generous with students who genuinely seek to learn.
I walked into my critique carrying his latest novel, A SEASON OF GIFTS, so that I could get it signed. He had "rock star" status at the conference, and his line was always too long during breaks.
"Finally we meet," he says. Be still my heart! I love his voice. He hands me a two-page typed critique. He likes my work. He REALLY likes it.
It helps that I have written a novel set in the 1920's. His written critique says, "Moreover, your subject matter is my own favorite: rustic nostalgia (with an edge) to reveal a little history to a generation not learning any at school."
Since Mr. Peck had only read the first ten pages, he asked me to walk him through the rest of the plot. My novel had a midwife and a second older woman called Cousin Rachel. He told me those two characters sounded remarkably similar. He asked me if they could be combined. I stopped and thought about it for a moment. "Yes,!" I said. "Yes, that is absolutely brilliant!" I have since combined those characters, and it makes a huge difference in the novel.
He asked me to justify why my character had two sisters. Would one sister suffice? In this case, I needed two sisters for the plot, but he asked me to think through my cast of characters, to make sure each one was vital to the story I was telling.
I told him that my character would have a choice to make: whether to stay on her family farm or make her way into the world. My character is head-over-heels in love with her farm boy so I thought she would probably stay. Mr. Peck points his finger at me, "She must go!" he says in that wonderfully deep voice. And that's when I knew exactly how my book would end.
My critique with Richard Peck was a crash course in plotting a novel. I've been critiqued many, many times, but I've never before had a session as productive as that one. My fifteen minutes with him exceeded all of my expectations. He truly is a great teacher.