As writers, we lock ourselves in rooms, behave like the neurotic recluses many of us are, but there comes a time we need input of what we've written. Writing in a vacuum rarely works. The first test of a scene is to bring it to your critique group. In most critique groups, the writer reads the scene and the other members of the group offer critique almost immediately after hearing it. There are literally hundreds of things to look for in a scene and we rarely have time to consider them all.
For years I've been studying under James N. Frey (probably best known for his craft books, How To Write a Damn Good Novel, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, How to Write a Damn Good Thriller, the Key). In my opinion his craft books are some of the best and most accessible available today. Over the years, he's become my mentor and my story coach.
Whenever possible, I attend his intensive workshops. They are limited to 8-10 participants. We read a scene out loud and each person around the table offers his critique. It's not easy to listen to 10-12 pages, retain them, and almost instantly be able to offer something of value to the writer. But Jim Frey sees the problems immediately and sums them up in a concise and clear manner. For as long as I've known him, more than 20 years, I've been awed by his ability to size up a story and know exactly what it wrong or what it needs. I, like most of us, do a better job at critique if I can read the manuscript ahead of time, reread it, think about it, and then offer my criticism. Unfortunately, most critique groups don't work that way and we are required to offer instant criticism. At a recent workshop with Jim, after much begging on my part, he shared some of his secrets.
1. Respond emotionally to the reading. Are you bored? Wowed? Gripped? Does it feel as if the scene is too long? Ask yourself why. If you are bored or feel the scene is too long, it is most likely because the piece lacks conflict. Conflict (opposition of characters' wills) holds a reader's interest and as each character works hard to get what they want (trying different methods) the layers strip away and their true self is revealed.
2. Look for a story question in the opening lines of each scene.
3. At all times in a story, there should be a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal. Ask yourself who or what is the obstacle. If the goal is clear and believable and the obstacles are real, the scene will hold the interest of your reader--even if it isn't perfectly written. Every character in every scene should have an agenda (a goal) they are pushing.
4. Are the characters changing as a result of the events/conflicts in the scene? Rising conflict is the best way to strip away the levels of self defense and reveal character. Whenever possible show characters' feelings through their actions and dialogue, not by telling the reader.
5. Is the dialogue fresh, indirect, clever and in conflict?
6. Characters should be changed as a result of the actions in a scene. The end of the scene should propel the reader into the next scene. And the emotional state of the characters should be different from what they were at the beginning of the scene.
I hope this blog helps those of you who are writers wanting to do a better job of flash critiquing both yourselves and others. I hope it will amuse and enlighten those of you who are readers curious about the writing process. Writing a novel is arduous and different from life. Readers want to read about people who are heroes and are off the bell curve--extreme characters who will say and do things "normal" people won't.
It is our job, as writers to provide our readers with heroes who will reach beyond the pages of the book, tug at the heart and inspire them to be more than they believe they can be.
Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona's Creative Writing Program. Susan has been writing most of her life. Her novels have been finalists for The Hemingway Award, the Heeken Foundation Fellowship, the Writers Foundation and the Publishing On-line Contest. Susan won the National Writers' Association Novel Award twice for unpublished novels and her poetry was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Susan's novels are currently represented by Elizabeth Kracht of the Kimberly Cameron Agency.
She has 3 published novels and a collection of poems. In addition, her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies including Animals as Teachers and Healers, published by Ballantine Books, Our Mothers/Ourselves, by the Greenwood Publishing Group, The Hawaii Pacific Review-Best of a Decade, and New Millennium Writings. Prior to moving to Oregon and writing full time, Susan worked as the Director of Corporate Relations for University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona.
Susan shares a life in Grants Pass, Oregon with her husband, Andreas, a blue-eyed feline named Topaz, her fictional characters, and more books than one person could count.