Carol Berg 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 didnâ€™t take Simon, Paula, or Randy roles. Honestly, we werenâ€™t even meanâ€¦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 â€œleg upâ€ was a pleasure. One writer showed us a superb â€œvoiceâ€ â€“ the bitter edgy angst of a young bipolar male – but the author didnâ€™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 didnâ€™t make it into the winnerâ€™s circle showed some grasp of the craft â€“ pleasing narrative, original ideas, sensual imagery. The deficiencies that kept them out of the roses were clustered in a couple of areas. Weâ€™ve talked about most of them here on Deep Genre, but I thought it might be useful to review notes â€œfrom the fieldâ€ as it were.
First and foremost: getting into the story.
Most readings were openings – which 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, â€œOne character on stage thinking is not a scene,â€ thus rarely provides a dynamic opening for commercial fiction.
Another opening problem: meaningless activity parading as an â€œactiveâ€ 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 wonâ€™t tell. I hope he gets it published.)
The writers were supposed to give a log line, a one line â€œelevator pitchâ€ 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!