Jan 13, 2014, 06:39AM

What to Do When You Discuss a Friend's Story

Useful techniques and precepts for the amateur critic.

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The following is based on several hours spent listening to critiques of my stories and others'. More research may be needed, but there won't be any.

  • Ask rhetorical questions. “Do I want to read a story where a twin doesn't meet her other twin?”
  • Use italics. So that should be, “Do I want to read a story where a twin doesn't meet her other twin?”
  • Ask about the writer's needs. “Do you need the prologue?” “Do you need to write about a twin who doesn't meet her other twin?”
  • Anything other than agreement must be the sign of a childish eruption on its way. Draw yourself up and turn in the other direction. You know better than to deal with such folk.
  • When making a criticism, use a tone of plaintive, sorrowful protest. “But I don't think crocodiles move quickly,” you say, voice woeful. The writer starts to say something. You draw yourself up and turn in the other direction.
  • Do not make small pencil or pen notations of spelling errors and tense disagreements and then hand the manuscript to the author with the words, “I found some copy-editing stuff if you want to look at that too.” Any change you favor is by definition an important change.
  • Let's say you don't like semi-colons. Circle every semi-colon in the text and point them out one by one. Say: “And that's a semi-colon there. And that's a semi-colon. And there, that's a semi-colon. And that's a semi-colon there.”
  • Key point: you're not here to be useful; you're here to be important. Make a speech, especially if the writer is not the only audience. But just the writer is enough. You have a lot to say; somebody has to hear it.
  • Explain the author to him- or herself. This is easy to do. After your favorite criticism, add, “You would have seen this if you hadn't been so busy with [whatever aspect of the story seems like a strong point].”
  • The more of a fuss you make about your delivery, the more of a fuss you make about the point that's being delivered. Since your point is that there's something wrong with the writer's story, making a big deal about how you deliver the point will set the writer at ease and encourage a fair hearing.
  • Make faces, especially that one where your mouth gets smaller. Widening your eyes is good too. But the little mouth is really good; use it.
  • If you're a liberal arts grad, don't forget your training. “What I fail to detect is the sort of ambivalence of narrative that can be found in, say, 'Bartleby the Scrivener,' where Melville reminds us [college bullshit].”
  • Remember, only would-be authors are vain. Would-be critics are not. The pretend writer is terribly invested in his or her little effort. He or she needs a dose of reality; you are the reality dispenser that providence has stationed on hand.
  • Say you like the way the story is typed. Say this after a period of due consideration. Then don't say anything.
  • They asked. The writer asked. Be sure to tell them.

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