constructive(?) criticism

Back in the 8th grade, I made the consequential decision to cut my cute bob-style hairdo into a bi-level (read: female mullet).  I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as Donald (my hair stylist at the time) cut that first side of hair over my ear.  But my grandma (“Nanny Tessie”) drove the point home when I returned to my house that afternoon.  She looked me dead in the eyes and said, “it’s not very flattering.”  

My Nanny Tessie did not sugarcoat when it came to vanity and as soon as the words came out of her mouth, I flew up the stairs into my room, slammed the door, climbed into bed and cried (and cried and cried…)  If your Jewish grandmother doesn’t say you are a ‘shaineh maidel’ (pretty girl), you know you’re in trouble.

I share this story to illustrate my point that sometimes criticism serves no purpose.  By the time Nanny Tessie saw my new and severely worsened coif, the damage was already done and there was no need to tell me it didn’t look good.  She didn’t need to lie, but she could have remained silent. 

When I started writing Just Friends With Benefits, I asked my sister Marjorie (my biggest fan and most honest critic) to read the first sixty or so pages.  While she was vacationing in Key West, I was chewing my fingernails waiting for her thoughts since she promised to read the book on the plane and by the pool.  Eventually, she sent a text saying she LOVED it so far, BUT thought things seemed too perfect in my main character’s life. I was pleased that she LOVED it so far and shrugged off the criticism since I knew I’d be throwing my main character some serious curve balls later into the story.  

I had registered for a novel writing class at a writer’s workshop around the same time I asked for my sister’s comments.  The gist of the workshop was reading each other’s works in progress and providing feedback, both good and bad.  I was terrified to hear what my fellow classmates thought about my writing.  I was afraid all of the other students were writing the “Great American Novel” and would laugh at my attempt at romantic comedy/chick-lit.  And I was afraid they would tell me, in not so many words, that I had zero talent.  

On the bright side, they did neither of those things.  The students in my class were incredibly diverse and among us, we were writing literary fiction, science fiction, young adult, dark comedy and general fiction and there was no judgment or snobbery.  And the students had many nice things to say about my writing.  They thought I had an easy-breezy writing style, a strong voice and they really liked my main character.  

But not all of the news was good. 

In my first critique session, the general consensus was that my novel read too much like a memoir; there was not enough action.  And, like my sister, they thought I wrapped things up too nicely at the end of the chapter and were concerned that my story lacked sufficient conflict to keep readers turning the pages.   

I know from organizing a book-club that, in general, opinions tend to differ as to whether a book is great, horrible or just “meh”.  For instance, we read Beginner’s Greek by James Collins a couple of months ago and some members found it so boring, they could not get past the first 100 pages while others devoured it in one or two sittings.  In that case, there was no “right” or “wrong”; it was simply a matter of opinion.  However, when twelve out of twelve people, plus my sister, tell me I need to add more conflict and roadblocks throughout my story to keep it engaging, I cannot dismiss it as merely subjective.  And thankfully I didn’t. 

I started revising my book the following day to increase the tension.  I also took paragraphs of narrative and turned them into dialogue in order to increase the action and make it less memoir-like.  When I turned in my second submission, my teacher and classmates were blown away by the improvements I had made.  But there were still some issues.  For instance, I wrote a scene between my main character (Stephanie) and her love interest (Craig) and a subsequent scene where Stephanie dishes to her best friend (Suzanne) about Craig.  In the original version, Stephanie gave Suzanne a full account of what went down with Craig.  But my teacher and classmates had already read the scene between Stephanie and Craig and didn’t need to read about it twice.  I knew they were right and revised the scene.  I sent the next set of pages to my sister and my class at the same time.  My sister sent me a text “These were my favorite pages yet.  I LOVE IT!”  And my teacher and classmates had NO constructive criticism to offer.  One went as far as to say I must have had divine intervention because the pages were perfect.  We were only talking ten or so pages but I could not remove the smile from my face for about 24 hours. 

I share the above to illustrate that sometimes criticism does serve a purpose.  I don’t take every negative comment as seriously as others because I trust my own instincts and, as mentioned earlier, much of what works/doesn’t work in a book is subjective.  But accepting and learning from constructive criticism helped me write a better first book, is helping me write a better second book and is making me a better writer in general.  I still twirl my hair, chew my fingernails and bite my lower lip while waiting for someone else’s thoughts but I know how important they are.  I also know that if someone is honest with me about what she doesn’t love, it is likely she is also being honest when she tells me what she does love.

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Comments

  1. Jeff Salter says:

    Meredith, you and I could chat all day about this topic.
    But since you have other fans, I’ll just toss in a couple of notes.
    In my first novel — which at the time I was sure would win the Writing Olympics — my wife ‘read’ it while watching TV and could barely respond at all … so naturally I concluded she hated it. Nothing I eventually extracted from her gave me any sense of ‘better’ feedback.
    I sent it eagerly to two other readers who ‘sat’ on it for months before one gave me feedback which was hardly relevant anymore (since I had moved on thru other drafts by then) and the other didn’t respond at all.
    But, like you, I sent it to an informed sibling (older brother). He told me I had a good 40k wd story hidden inside my 75k wd ms.
    ‘Cool,’ I thought. ‘So which 35k wds do I need to drop?’ Seriously. I actually asked him to identify the offending words. He wouldn’t or couldn’t. Know what I did? [I have to chuckle — now.] I painstakingly went back through and carved words from each and every scene … comparing the old word count with the new, reduced version.
    Got another reader for the new draft. She said my scenes didn’t have enough description to inform the reader where they were or what was going on or who that character was. I replied: “I used to have all that crap, but I cut it out because my brother said it was too wordy.”
    LOL.
    I learned a lot with that ms (which I later overhauled completely, BTW, and took the nucleus — however many words it was — and created basicaly a new novel). It’s better but still not terribly good.
    But I also learned I was far too ignorant about what I was doing to be trusted with an unsupervised keyboard. Maybe there should be a writers’ test which you have to take before you can operate a word processing program. HA.
    Despite all the time and effort I expended on that first story, the good news is: novel # 2 was much better, # 3 was even better than that. And with novels 4, 5, & 6 — I think have market viability.

    Back to your topic: my brother’s feedback was prob. well-intentioned, but he likely had no idea how much turmoil it caused me to try to isolate those 40k wds he said were the ‘good’ parts of the story.
    Critics: be careful what you say because you can’t tell how literally the misguided writer will take it!

  2. Oh, I really do not like “vague” criticism. My sister doesn’t line edit or specifically comment on my choice of words or sentence structure, but she has very good instincts regarding plot points and isn’t afraid to tell me what she thinks. And she was completely on point with my writing class. I have someone else who actaully edits for technicality but I usually wait until I’m into revisions for that. Honestly, the best critics are probably other writers who are 1) not related to us and 2) not romantically involved with us. Probably anyone who doesn’t know or care about us at all! That’s why my workshop was so helpful. People were kind but not too kind to actually provide thorough feedback. It’s only “constructive” if you can take something from it. I sent some chapters into a contest and was told I needed to add more description as well. I think that lead to revision #42 or something…

    Thanks for your comment, Jeff!

  3. Jeff Salter says:

    A more recent experience with someone who is neither family nor spouse … is someone Iknow from Facebook who volunteered to read my draft before I submitted it to a small publisher.
    Remember, she volunteered.
    So I sent it. She basically wrote back two lines:
    “Drop ‘thingy’ [ — a word my heroine uses — ] and writing it in first person was a big mistake.”
    “Well thanks a BUNCH, [ _____ ] … that’s a HUGE help. So glad I let you read it.”
    So I wrote back and asked if she had ANY useful feedback about my characters, dialog, plot, pacing, etc. — and did any of the humor come across?
    She wrote back that she doesn’t ‘like’ humor. Well, why the @#$% did she volunteer to read my romantic comedy?

  4. That’s priceless! I love romantic comedy and would be totally willing to read any of your drafts! And hopefully provide “useful” feedback.

  5. Jeff Salter says:

    Meredith, I might very well take you up on that offer one day!

    Post script about my brother. He’s faithfully read all six of my novels — usually one of the earliest drafts (and there should be a special place in Heaven for people who read early drafts) — and I guess he’s read 7 ms. because he also read the overhaul of novel # 1.
    My point: either he’s gotten better at feedback or I’ve gotten better at writing — or both. In subsequent interaction, his feedback has been extremely helpful and he gives me ‘eyes’ which see things I’ve missed completely.
    In this most recent example (ms. #6): he asked if I’d prefer ‘word-track’ or just for him to make comments in an email. I said WORD-TRACK! Definitely!
    The result was wonderful. It was not line-by-line (though a few sections had that kind of attention), but he was able to point out passages which did not work well, explain why they didn’t, and compare them to earlier passages with the same characters which DID work well. That was SUPER helpful.

  6. That’s really helpful! Well, I’m glad the story about your brother had a happy ending! I’m almost finished the first draft of novel #2. I’m hoping there will be fewer revisions than the first one. But I’ll do what I need to do!

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