Critical reading is active reading.
Analyzing how successful authors work their craft into something that catches the eye and imagination of their readers (and agents or editors) will help you to do the same.
One way to get started with learning how to read critically is to pretend you are the author's critique partner or that you are a contest judge and this book is one of the entrants.
Read through the book carefully and thoughtfully. Make note when something isn't working for you--and here's the important part: Think about WHY it isn't working for you. Because the answer to this is where you will learn.
Just as important: Take note when an author does something brilliantly--when you laugh, cry, can't put the book down for a second, are impressed, when you gasp out loud, or have any sort of visceral emotional response. Then think about how the author managed to make you feel that way. What did she do, how did she built the narrative, to a point where you were connected on a real level with the story?
If you can figure out some of the mechanics of connection, you can incorporate those pieces into your own writing.
Channel your inner-Simon Cowell from the original American Idol episodes.
He was the man we loved to hate, and he could sometimes appear to be overly harsh, yet he was an active listener. More than saying he didn't like someone, he could tell us WHY he didn't like their singing--most times because they were forgettable, trying too hard, or there was a disconnect between who they are and what they were trying to do. Viewers may not have always agreed with him, but he knew what would sell and could articulate why something didn't work for him. That kind of insight comes from years of practice and analysis.
Here are a few examples of questions I might ponder while I read:
--Why did the author choose to write the book in this style (multiple point of view, verse, lyrical prose, first person, etc.)?
--Why did the author start with this scene? What about their first sentence/chapter hooked me or didn't hook me? Was the inciting incident clear and compelling?
--What were the turning points in the book, or places the main character made decisions of no-return?
--What parts did I set the book down? When did I get bored? What made these scenes boring?
--Why did I connect with this character and at what point was the connection firm? Or why did I never connect with this character--and what could the author have done differently to help me understand his/her motivations?
--Why does this narrative structure work/not work for this story? What does it do to drive the pacing forward?
--What made this story memorable or forgettable?
I hold myself accountable by posting on my blog the things I've learned from the books I read the month before. I focus on the positive things I learned because I'm not interested in publicly trashing anyone's book, but we have just as much to learn from the parts we hated as well (so I do that mentally.)
My challenge for you: Try it out. Actively read the next novel on your list and apply the principles you learned while reading to the manuscript you're working on.
The more you do it, the more natural it will feel until you actively read every book you get your hands on. Your writing will be better for it.
Girl Reading Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Simon Cowell photo courtesy of SimonCowellOnline.com