My older daughter had a few suggestions for a draft of one of my stories:
“We need to know this character’s last name.”
“We need to know what that character looks like.”
“This third character is too mean.”
I began to offer reasons why she was wrong. But they weren’t good reasons. My daughter’s criticism was thoughtful, insightful, and ultimately helpful. Thanks to her, my story improved.
At the time, my daughter was nine-years-old. Although she had been asking to read my stories since her first sweep through the Harry Potter series two years earlier, this was the first time I’d let her. In the copy I gave her, I’d edited out two expletives and a mild reference to sex. Otherwise, she read the story straight, at whatever grade-level it was on. There were subtleties in my story she missed—at least, I’ll flatter myself to think there were—but she understood the essence.
I was of course proud of my daughter, literary critic. But my pride was joined by a selfish delight: I had ensnared another family member to read my drafts!
Why bother to seek readers in workshops, on-line, or even around the block when you can find them in the next room?
My sister, whom I have bombarded with my drafts since we were both in college, is usually entirely complimentary about my work. Occasionally, however, she pinpoints exactly what I’ve done wrong. For example, on a long story I’d labored over for months, and which had continued to confound me, she offered: “I wonder if this is Maria’s story rather than Tom’s.”
“Well, no,” I began to argue, “it’s Tom’s story because…” But of course she was right. The source of my months-long agony was revealed: I had employed the wrong point of view.
It might hurt to have a family member criticize one’s work, especially if the family member isn’t a writer and is therefore un-credentialed. (My sister is a psychologist; my daughter is years from choosing a career.) But it’s a worse feeling when a family member won’t criticize one’s work and it’s at risk of stepping, un-groomed and smelly, into the world.
When I was twenty-three, I gave my mother the first novel I’d ever written to read. In retrospect, my nine-year-old daughter could have written something more coherent and mature. My mother’s assessment, written on the final page of my manuscript in bold, blue strokes: “Make way for the new Shakespeare!”
Presumably she was referring to Gilbert Shakespeare, William’s younger brother, a haberdasher.
(That particular novel has been erased everywhere but my memory.)
My mother’s critique was echoed, in a fashion, by my fiction workshop leader at Bowling Green State University, where I earned my MFA. After expounding on the faults of a story one of us presented in workshop, he would sometimes stop suddenly, gaze solemnly around the table, and say, “These may be mere quibbles,” then, in his booming voice, advise, “Send it to The New Yorker!”
We might have recognized his imperative as hyperbole if one of his students, a few years before, hadn’t had a story plucked off The New Yorker’s slush pile and published in its august pages. The story also appeared in that year’s edition of The Best American Short Stories, which made our professor’s send-it-to-The-New-Yorker advice all the more tempting to heed.
I contend that one doesn’t need to be a writer or have an MFA to offer helpful advice on a manuscript.
I drafted my wife, a marketer with an MBA, as a reader even before we were engaged. Although I couldn’t have been consciously auditioning her as a life’s partner based on the feedback she gave my fiction, it didn’t hurt our courtship for me to read: “This is fantastic. Wonderful. Maybe add a little more description in the opening scene. Also, slow down the ending. Let us linger. It’s lovely.”
My wife is still my first reader. As is befitting of where we are in our marriage—sixteen years, two children, 127 arguments, including, most recently, one over cupcakes—her critiques skip the pleasantries and hone in on the heart of the matter, often with a single word: “Redundant.” “Pretentious.” “No!”
Recently, she solidified her case as the bluntest of my critics when she said, midway through a gnarly section of what had pretensions of being a novel, “If this appeared in a book I’d bought, I would put it down now.” What she didn’t have to add was, “But because you’re my husband, I will grudgingly keep reading.”
One reason I love having those near and dear to me read my work is that even when they hate it, they feel obliged to keep going.
But my favorite of my wife’s criticisms is one of her one-word masterpieces: “Yuck!”
A writing friend of mine once told me she would never give her husband her drafts to read. “I need unconditional love,” she said.
For me, however, love is never having to say “Nice” when you mean “Yuck.”
Mark Brazaitis is the author of six books of fiction, including The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Incurables: Stories, winner of the 2012 Richard Sullivan Prize and the 2013 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award in Prose, and Julia & Rodrigo, winner of the 2012 Gival Press Novel Award. His latest book, Truth Poker: Stories, won the 2014 Autumn House Press Fiction Competition: http://www.autumnhouse.org/product/truth-poker-mark-brazaitis/.
His book of poems, The Other Language, won the 2008 ABZ Poetry Prize.