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February 13, 2012


 The preface and the first chapter laid the groundwork for why I felt it was important for me to explain my method of critiquing (critting) and why I chose to call myself a critter instead of a reviewer.

The next two chapters of this series revealed the process I use to get an overview of the selection I’ve chosen.  The process is largely intuitive and is developed from the “weight” and the “movement” of the piece.  It is best accomplished with the eyes slightly out-of-focus.  I call this process Macro-Critting.

The next three chapters began the nuts and bolts of the process I call Micro-Critting. First, we discussed “beginnings” and “endings,” and looking for the effectiveness of “hooks” in the openings of short works as well as in chapter endings of longer works.  Then, we looked at the importance of drama in fiction, and we introduced the obvious idea that nothing creates drama like dialogue.

We finished off the last two chapters with a half-dozen or so common dialogue abuses, any one of which could interrupt the precious bond between reader and writer.

 Now… join me, won’t you, as we take a longish intermission from the nuts and bolts. Take your cigarette or potty break. I’ll just hang around with you and lay down some of the ground-rules for my process of deep-level analysis. Ladies, don’t forget to lift the lid when you finish!


            First you select a short story to study. Choose any, I suppose, though I would start with a published story. Here, the unpublished, undiscovered writer leaps to his feet. “I object,” he shouts, his words arriving a mille-second before the fine spray of spittle. “Why published? Why, why, why? Are you saying my story isn’t as good as one that is published?”

“Not at all,” I say. And, I’m quick to tell him, because he frightens me in his boldness and his passion, that I don’t mean his story is not at all good; rather, I don’t at all mean that the published story is better. But, now that I’ve talked myself into a lonely corner of utter consternation, I realize I ended up telling him just about the opposite of what I had intended to say. What I really wanted to tell him, and would have if I had any courage at all, was this: “Look, buddy, I don’t know if your story is better than a published story. I don’t know because I haven’t read your story. But, if you think it is better then you owe it to yourself and thousands of readers to try to get it published. Because, like it or not, publication is the benchmark for a story’s success. Then, if it does get published it has already exceeded a certain industry standard. We have to assume it is better, or at least more salable than the vastly larger number that did not rise to that standard. At bottom, it’s a lesson in economics. Forget art! An editor does not choose a story for publication that won’t make money for his publisher. Economics one-oh-one.”

My hope, at this point, is that the propulsion from his newly acquired enthusiasm catapults our writer out the door on his way to buy manila envelopes and stamps. Either that or out of his angst he slumps back down behind his word processor, grumbling, perhaps, but no longer belligerent.

I’m counting on one or the other. I’m counting on it because this is not a chapter about how to get a story published. I know it started tilting in that direction, but that’s not the chapter’s intent. It’s much more modest. It’s how to get the most out of reading a story. It’s about how to align your deep-level analysis as closely as possible with the writer’s vision.

Again, first you need to choose a story—a published short story. And while we’re at it, why not choose a short story that represents the best of published short stories? Why not choose one from one of those “best of” anthologies? You can go on and on and get more and more rarified, selecting from the greatest American short stories (if, for example, you are American), and finally the world’s best … here, though, we might have overstepped our boundaries, from the perspective of this stage of our learning.

There’s something to say for a person selecting a story that is a part of the cultural tradition with which he is familiar, which would also mean something written in the same century—perhaps even the same decade—in which he lives. In other words, choose from the best of the best of the stories that are written with something of the same language pattern that you use (born out of a similar cultural and social environment). This is a starting point, for this chapter, anyway, It certainly is not a finishing point.

I’ve chosen a short story by Alice Munro that was written sometime before 1968, since that was the year it was copyrighted. Her biography tells me she is older than I, but not by much. Since one’s mind bathes in the same pond of shared humanity as one’s contemporaries, there is a kinship on the social and cultural level that we do not share with the likes of an Anton Chekhov, a Guy de Maupassant, or even a Samuel Clemens (though we come closer to the latter). Alice Munro and I have shared in the effects of at least three major wars, with all their ramifications; we’ve developed morbid imaginings out of the dread of atomic and hydrogen bombs—and the cold war they spawned. On the positive side, we’ve witnessed the birth, and struggled through the infancy and adolescence of television; and we proudly watched on those same televisions as men walked on the moon. These are our shared memories: the archetypal memory of the art of our century.

I am not in any way trying to say that you and I can’t plumb the deeper meanings from the translations of foreign writers, or of writers two or three centuries older than we, regardless of their language. That would be a slap in the face of my English teacher, Mildred Bain, may she rest in peace. But, the classics have been around a century or five; aren’t they likely to still be there a month or two from now? I am merely saying that in order to develop a close understanding of the craftsmanship of first one writer and then a second and a third, why stack the deck against ourselves?

Furthermore, since many of us want to earn our livelihood from our writing, why not study the fictional models that are representative of what is being published today? Really study them! Not blindly copying their styles. Study them! Learn what makes them tick. Learn also what makes them clatter and clunk. And, most importantly, by learning to recognize tick-tockery as well as the hyper-clatteral and the infra-clunkery, you might just learn what to embrace in your own writing, what to add to, subtract from or abandon entirely. You’ll learn to recognize what works and what doesn’t. You’ll develop an ear and even a nose for what’s right and what’s not.

Let’s not make the process more than it is: it is simply taking a story, chopping it into its parts, at first, possibly, with the studied caution of a medical intern, but later with the deftness of a surgeon.  You’ll be taking it apart, then putting it back together again, taking it apart once more, and putting it back, but this time switching parts.  You may elongate a section and compress another.  All the time you’ll be asking questions and looking for the answers, what-if-ing all over the place.  You’ll zero in on a part of it, brushing away some grit and seeing if it moves easier.  During the entire process, you’ll be searching out the life energy that runs through the piece.

Some may worry that such literary surgery is almost a sacrilege. But I maintain that the story, when it is complete and synchronized in all its parts is as perfectly balanced as a tightrope walker on his high wire. Such a story resists major modification. If you can make improvements to it without interrupting its integral life energy, that is, without altering the basic premise of the story, then you’ve helped bring it into a better balance. Can we believe a tightrope walker learns his craft on a wire strung between two buildings, four hundred feet from the ground? Wouldn’t he, instead, be flailing about at a height of more like three feet from the ground? I know I would.

Equally as important, if you cannot make any changes to it, if you cannot alter it without throwing it out of balance, then haven’t you learned something more about balance? Haven’t you, through deep-level analysis learned how the writer brought about this miracle of literary equilibrium?

With your short story opened on the table in front of you, your pen in hand, coffee cup at your elbow, you’re ready to begin. I hope you’ve chosen a magazine or book that can be written on, not a library book or one you borrowed from a friend. Choose a color of ink that stands in contrast to the print in the book. I use red ink with a fine point so the letters it forms are crisp, even when written small. Also, you might find a yellow hi-liter can be handy for blocking out sections.

I should say a few words about the approach I use to arrive at a deep-level understanding of a story: Very simply it is that it is the approach I useIt’s not the only approach. It may not be the best approach for you or anyone else. It is the best one for me—though even in that it is evolving, so that what is the best today may not be sufficient a year from now, or even tomorrow. Oh, yes—and at the risk of sounding tutorial in nature, I am not going to say throughout, “I do this,” or “I do that,” because it gets rather cumbersome. In all cases, know that it is implied, though.

So … as Howie Mandel would say [When there was]  on Deal Or No Deal, “let’s find out! …


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