Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fiction II: Critiquing without bloodshed

"He was a bank robber, wasn't he?" Felix set the pastries on the table and pushed one toward each of his fellow writers.

"He was an addict." Barb shoved pens and notebooks out of the way.

One thing they all agreed on, Pearl realized, was that when there was a choice between eating or stimulating their creativity, brain function took second place.

Pearl quickly slid a plate toward herself. "You didn't have to do this."

"I like to," Felix said. "It's part of my hospitable nature."

Mike rolled his eyes.

"Are you a chronic pleaser?" Barb’s question was a little muffled by her mouthful of éclair.

Felix seemed not to hear her. Instead he went back to her earlier statement. "Stephen Reid was a junkie?"

"Not when I met him," Pearl said. "At least, not that I noticed."

"You didn't notice that guy passed out in front of the door when we got here." Mike forked up a chunk of walnut loaf.

The manager looked over nervously as Mike's booming voice carried to every customer in the place.

"I still say he was just tired,"
Pearl protested.

Mike's shoulders twitched.

"Anyway, that's not the point," Pearl continued before Mike got more wound up.

"What is the point?" Barb wanted to know.

"He had a good critiquing system," Pearl said.

"Stephen Reid the convicted felon?" Barb did not give up.

"Stephen Reid the writer," Pearl said. "He filled in for his wife in this creative writing course I took years ago, and when the time came to share our efforts, he suggested we use this critiquing thing."

"Was it brutal?" Felix looked worried.

Pearl assured him it was very balanced. "Sometimes it's not even criticism.”

Barb rolled the hand not holding the remains of her éclair. "Tell us already."

So Pearl explained the most useful thing she’d learned in Susan Musgrave's creative writing class – from Stephen Reid.

“First he told us to choose a particularly good sentence or phrase or maybe a bit of dialogue and quote
it back to the writer. Like, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.' You could repeat that to Jane Austen as a nice bit of satire that made you laugh out loud.

“Then find something you can honestly compliment. 'EB,' you might say, 'your character work on Charlotte and Wilbur is brilliant.'

“Next, ask a question. This one makes the reader think. You can ask, 'What's Bridget Jones's motivation for sleeping with Daniel Cleaver?' or 'What's the symbolism behind John Coffey's name in The Green Mile?' You can ask about anything that puzzles you or about something that you believe the writer needs to think about some more.

“And finally you make a recommendation. 'Flush it' is not acceptable. 'Play with the similes and see if you can make them fit with your hockey theme,' would be better.”

Pearl looked around the table to gauge the reactions. Mike looked doubtful, Felix’s forehead had smoothed, and Barb’s lips were slightly pursed and her eyes narrowed. Pearl hoped she was considering the idea and not lining up a sharp comment.

"Let's give it a try," Pearl suggested. "Who wants to read first?" 

"No!" Mike bellowed.

The manager looked nervous again.

Pearl turned to Felix, but he was at the counter ordering more treats. Pearl raised her eyebrows at Barb, who said, "All right."

"Lab dog," Mike said.

Barb glared at him.

"Compliment.” He quickly raised his hands. “I admire your guts, letting us experiment on you."

Pearl interrupted Barb's response to shove dirty dishes out of the way because Felix was on his way back with four cinnamon twists. With one hand Barb delicately brushed éclair crumbs off the front of her blouse as she took a plate from Felix with the other.

"Go ahead," Pearl told her. 

Barb read her short story about a woman who tries to paint but her two young kids think her paints are 1) tubes of icing, which they squirt onto bread before she can stop them, 2) face paint, which she has to scrape off their skin with a trowel, and 3) a sign that Mom is bored so they decide to entertain her. It was very funny and touching.

"That's not fiction," Mike said.

Quote, compliment, question, recommendation, Pearl reminded him.

"Okay," he said. "That's not fiction, is it?"


  1. Brilliant, Rachel. Once the writer is engaged as the wise author who wrote (shining sentence here) the questions are a request for information, not a criticism of the writer. So do we get cinnamon twists at our next session?

  2. Of course, there will be cinnamon twists from now on. I think it's only right, don't you?