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.