Proof A 30th Street Fiction Anthology: How to Read Like a Writer
If you’d like a concrete example of what critique groups can do for your writing, take a look at Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology. The collection is tied together by the theme “proof” and contains fantasy, science fiction, historical, and contemporary stories. Each piece was vastly improved by the suggestions of my peers to create a collection I am proud to be a part of.
Growth of “The Mortician’s Assistant”
Because I don’t know how my critique group partners feel about providing specific examples of their works-in-progress, I will focus on how they helped improve my story in Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology. As always, I will try not to spoil anything for potential readers.
The first thing my critique group agreed upon was I had started in the wrong place. When I wrote “The Mortician’s Assistant” I was stuck in media res. I believed in the middle of a scene was the best way to start a short story. It can be sometimes but isn’t always. When writers learn a new trick or tool, we tend to get stuck using it over and over again because we’re excited about that aspect or it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Resist the urge to do this. The original opening line of “The Mortician’s Assistant” was:
The young woman, gaunt with years of drug-use, lay on the metal table with her wild hair pulled into a nest at the top of her head.
What doesn’t work about starting in media res here is it takes too long to realize whose point of view the reader is in and what the characters’ motivations and stakes are. I thought starting with my two main characters decapitating a cadaver would make readers want to keep reading, but it didn’t have a strong enough connection to the characters. The published first sentence is:
I never would have messed with the graveyard if I’d known I’d become a crazy man’s assistant as punishment.
The new first line immediately introduces the two main characters, their relationship, and how the point of view character became a mortician’s assistant. It makes readers want to know what happens. I moved the original first line to the second page. In this case, beginning the story earlier – not in media res – was the better choice.
My critique group also helped me craft a punchier ending. Every writer has an area they tend to skimp on. Some people shy away from description; others don’t like conflict. I rush the very end. I write the climax in detail and tack on a quick resolution. This does not make a satisfactory ending. My critique group was invaluable in taking my original one paragraph idea of a resolution and refining it into five paragraphs of dialogue, description, and summary that show how the characters have changed and what they will choose to do in the future.
30th Street Fiction critique group helped organize “The Mortician’s Assistant,” so it leaves an impact on readers. They helped reposition and expand my beginning and ending, so readers are hooked and left with a satisfactory emotion. A good critique group can have a similar effect on the successful organization of your writing.
Even though “The Mortician’s Assistant” has always been a first person point of view story, the main character didn’t originally have much of a voice. His personality shone through in moments of snarky teenager internal dialogue, but that was it.
During critique, my peers pointed out opportunities to add more of Clay. They asked questions about what he felt and thought in certain places to inspire ideas and let me know he needed more voice. One way they helped me understand how to add more of Clay was in the setting. He is the point of view character, so how he describes the mortuary says a lot about him. His reaction to the tasks he has to perform as a mortician’s assistant deepen his character. When he has to sew the flesh of a dead body together to make her presentable for an open casket ceremony, he says:
I tried to convince myself I was sewing one of my little sister’s dolls. A very wet, cold doll.
These lines show how Clay is freaked out about sewing a dead body, yet determined to find a way to get his job done. They also explain why he’s not bad at sewing the first time the mortician asks him to: he’s repaired dolls.
Moments and lines like these make a huge difference in your reader’s ability to connect to your characters. Sometimes you know your characters, but forget to share that information with your readers. Critique groups help you find places to slip bits of characterization into your writing.
The beginning of “The Mortician’s Assistant” contains a mechanical contraption in a mortuary. Unfortunately, the hidden nature of the device made it difficult to describe. My critique group let me know they were confused by the size of the Plexiglas barriers and how the device operated. They then read multiple revisions to make sure this vital piece of the story was clear. Confusing descriptions slow the pace of your story and confuse readers – both of those can make readers stop reading.
The original version of “The Mortician’s Assistant” was also difficult to picture. While I focused on describing the mechanical device, characters, and body, I had neglected the mortuary itself. My critique group didn’t know how big the room was, what was in it, or if it was in a basement. Because of their comments, I added lines like:
Even though we were ground level, the cold air, lack of windows, and shelves of neatly stacked supplies made the mortuary feel like a well-organized killer’s basement.
Not only does this sentence describe features of the room like no windows and cold temperature, the line shows how the room feels to the main character. I was able to clarify setting, create mood, and deepen my character with one line because of my critique group’s comments.
In a way, critique groups are like beta readers. They read your piece without any prior knowledge or preconceived notions, so they are able to point out areas that need clarification and help you come up with ideas to fix any issues.
Why an Editor Recommends Writers Read Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology
Now that I’ve shown you how the 30th Street Fiction critique group improved my story “The Mortician’s Assistant,” I want to celebrate their writing skills and share what you can learn from their stories.
If you want to write a page-turning contemporary story, take a look at Maggie Brydon’s “Bring a She Goat.” Pay attention to when and how she releases information to build tension, suspense, and the stakes.
To learn how to weave relatable conflicts like addiction and who to trust into a science fiction story, read Kate Jonuska’s “Prince Charming.” Also look at her use of literary description techniques.
To discover how to mix religion and science in science fiction, read “The Father, the Son, and a Glass of Holy Spirits” by Richard M. Hamp. Notice how he expertly weaves humor into the point of view character’s personality and plot.
If you want to write a piece that takes place in the past and the present with a haunting family secret, read “Dead Air” by Ian K. Long. Pay attention to how he pulls off a child’s perspective.
If you’re working on a story with different dimensions or planes, read “Coyote Junction” by Jessica Lave for its clear transitions to and from another plane. Also notice how her main character’s desire changes.
To learn how to create conflict in dialogue between two characters without a screaming fight, read J.v.L. Bell’s “The Traitor” and see how she resolves that conflict. Pay attention to how a secret can change the way characters view each other.
If you’re writing a story with electronic communication or AIs, read “What’s in a Name?” by Lezly Harrison and look at how she formats the dialogue. Also notice how the motivation and desire of the main AI is not cliché and how that affects the reader experience.
Take a look at Proof: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology to see how critique groups can Ignite Your Ink.
How has critique improved your writing? Share the lessons you’ve learned in the comments below. For a Critique Group Guidelines Sample subscribe to Ignited Ink Writing.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.