Live (Critiquing) on Saturday Night…

August 28th, 2007

Last Saturday I served as a judge in a regional multi-genre writing event. Slightly – really only slightly – reminiscent of a certain TV show, the volunteer contestants stood before the three-judge panel and read from their current work-in-progress for two minutes. Then the three judges gave three minutes of critique. No, we didn’t take Simon, Paula, or Randy roles. Honestly, we weren’t even mean…unless you define mean as including some hard truths along with writerly encouragement and positive feedback.

First off – writers who put themselves through such a ordeal must be commended. To open your work – yourself – to critique in front of an audience is courageous. Indeed, in this case, the potential rewards were significant – reviews by a couple of excellent agents and freelance editors.

The results? For the enthusiastic audience and the writers themselves some valuable writing tips, (so they told us!) For the three judges brain fatigue certainly. Listening so carefully to eighteen readers without benefit of printed pages, while coming up with comments both diplomatic and meaningful was intense. But the effort was rewarding as well. Several writers demonstrated a truly excellent grasp of concept, characterization, plot movement, description, tension – all the elements of story. To be able to award them even so small a “leg up” was a pleasure. One writer showed us a superb “voice” – the bitter edgy angst of a young bipolar male – but the author didn’t quite know how to get this character into a story. How fun to match this person up with a writing coach!

Even those who didn’t make it into the winner’s circle showed some grasp of the craft – pleasing narrative, original ideas, sensual imagery. The deficiencies that kept them out of the roses were clustered in a couple of areas. We’ve talked about most of them here on Deep Genre, but I thought it might be useful to review notes “from the field” as it were.

First and foremost: getting into the story.

Most readings were openingswhich for a two-minute reading was generally (though not always) the most useful selection. Many openings consisted of extensive rumination over past conflicts, several were lengthy character exposition that had nothing to do with the conflict of the story, and one was an extended metaphor that introduced the first character only in the last line. As a writer friend of mine puts it, “One character on stage thinking is not a scene,” thus rarely provides a dynamic opening for commercial fiction.

Another opening problem: meaningless activity parading as an “active” opening. Dialogue does not necessarily equate with action, especially banter accompanied by internal monologue that has no relationship to the matter of the story. Nor does mere frenetic activity serve the purpose, unless it somehow introduces us to character or essential conflict. Even palpable danger does not ensure a successful opening if the reader has no context for the conflict and no reason to care about those involved.

And one more problem: the persistent use of dreams or car accidents as opening scenes. We saw at least four examples. Careful, careful, careful, fellow writers! Only touch these overused opening tropes if you have a truly fresh approach. (We heard one that certainly did. But I won’t tell. I hope he gets it published.)

The writers were supposed to give a log line, a one line “elevator pitch” to describe the thrust of their story before beginning to read. Out of eighteen candidates, less than a third gave anything near a concise, coherent description of a story. A few of those who did give a good description, read nothing in those first two minutes that evoked any particle of the log line. Give it some thought. I certainly am. One of the benefits of critiquing is how it causes us to re-examine our own work!


7 Responses to “Live (Critiquing) on Saturday Night…”

  1. Charleson 28 Aug 2007 at 1:49 pm

    That sounds like an exciting and unnerving experience. If I had been a participant I would certainly have brought an opening scene.

    I think I am finally close to the opening I will end up with. I did have one opening for a long time, which I discarded last year. I still think I will change what I have — at least in terms of presentation, not substance. The purpose of the opening, as in what I want the reader and the initial protagonist to discover, will remain no matter what form I chose to present it. At least I’ve managed that much with the opening.

    Knowing what I want it to accomplish really helps. I can leave the beginning behind until it is time for draft 2 or revision (whichever word sounds better for the rewrite).

    I must say I applaud those writers who stood up in front of the panel and read an excerpt of their work. If any of them make it, they’ve already practice for store readings.

  2. Lois Tiltonon 28 Aug 2007 at 7:35 pm

    I would never participate in such a thing, not without the work in printed form.

    Most stuff read aloud is just a booming, buzzing confusion to me.

  3. Carol Bergon 29 Aug 2007 at 12:40 am

    The first time I ever did an event like this, I had pages, and that does make it somewhat easier. But the readers were careful to articulate – that was part of their presentation. It worked much better than I imagined, though requiring much concentration. The three of us agreed that we couldn’t have done more than the 18 we heard.

    And you’re right, Charles, it really helps any scene if you know what you want to accomplish. Seems pretty basic, but lots of people don’t think about it. Good luck with your opening.


  4. M.T.on 29 Aug 2007 at 3:27 pm

    I applaud them as well. It’s something I would have never been able to do.

  5. Kate Elliotton 29 Aug 2007 at 7:01 pm

    I think is a really clever idea. Like Lois, I’m not good at absorbing read aloud stuff, but I think many people are, and this is a great way to get at some basic problems. Also – it sounds fun (as long as there is no snarky judge to take egregious potshots).

    And I figure anything to make writing and reading seem more fun is good.

  6. Wenamunon 29 Aug 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Ditto Kate & Lois about the need for printed pages, but this does sound like it would be fun. And a challenge, having to think on one’s feet (as a “judge”).

  7. Carol Bergon 30 Aug 2007 at 1:41 am

    The sponsoring organization is an active, serious group with lots of experience and depth. It was definitely a fun and different kind of event. Not quite so intimidating for the readers as doing editor/agent readings at a writers conference (and certainly less expensive than attending said conference!) The audience really enjoyed it, and the readers seemed to appreciate the feedback.

    As for the “listening”: It helped a lot that the reading was so short – not much more than a page and a half. Enough to get an idea, but not so much to keep in mind. It was very interesting to see what struck each of us. Sometimes it was as small as single words that jumped out. Sometimes it was characters that did (or did not) click.

    I would never attempt this as a solo judge. Having three of us – two authors and one small press editor – meant that we could offer more. We often had very different things to say – though when it came to overall rating we were in near perfect agreement. I think it was educational that we were not in lockstep. And if you just missed a big point (like I did on one – “oh, she was dying!” – you could recover gracefully!



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