I went to my very first writing group during the fall semester of 2002. I was a sophomore in college, my first novel had just placed in the university’s writing contest that previous semester, and I’d spent the summer writing short stories. There were three of them, and damn, was I proud of them. When my course advisor recommended this writing group to me, I was thrilled. Finally, a forum of strangers to whom I could unveil my genius. I ventured down to the campus library that evening with one of my little baby short stories cradled in my arms and stars in my eyes. For some reason or another, I thought this might lead to a break of some sort. Boy was I wrong.
I remember that meeting being very uncomfortable from the start. The group was open to the public, so there were adults on one side of the room and students on the other. A single TA acted as moderator. He thanked us for coming, commented on the new faces, and then went around the group, asking if anyone had anything to read. Being the eager little shit that I was, I raised my hand, so ready to impress that I could burst, and I proceeded to read my latest pinnacle of genius.
The story was a cliched Hitchcock-like scenario, about a man trapped in an elevator with a hired killer. In the right hands it might stand a chance, but seven years ago I was still trying to figure out my own voice and style, and I approached every idea with the same “Hey, look what I can do!” attitude. So I read that horrid piece of writing to the group, and when I finished I held my breath. None of the students said anything. They had the same sort of universal stage fright exhibited on the first day of class. The older folks, on the other hand, were a bit more vocal.
Two of them liked the story. They were encouraging, making suggestions on where to tighten the story, where to trim, and the like. They’d been around the block. They knew how this all worked. And then there was one guy. One snarky son of a bitch whose face I have never forgotten. He decided to make an example of me that day. If you’re a writer who’s been to a writing group or workshop before, you probably know the guy I’m talking about. He’s the guy who wants to puff himself up to make others look small, and he does so by criticizing only negative points, often times personally attacking the author instead of the writing. Like a typical amateur, I took what he said to heart, and I left that group meeting feeling like the worst writer to ever put pen to paper. I never went back, and I didn’t write another short story for almost a year.
That was my first brush with negative criticism, and a rite of passage every single writer will have to endure at some point. The earlier, the better, and I think I hit that mark around the right time. I took my first creative writing course the following semester, under the tutelage of a teacher named Tom Marksbury. Tom was (and is, I suppose, if he’s still teaching) one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, and one of the most down-to-earth writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Tom tried to get to the root of a story, examine what was working and what wasn’t, and help the student get the bad parts to gel with the good parts. More importantly, he tried to figure out how to turn those bad parts into good ones. He was laid back and always prefaced his critique with “This is my opinion.” I learned how to give constructive criticism from that man and, more importantly, how to take it. I’m indebted to him for that.
I learned there’s good-negative criticism, and bad-negative criticism. The good-negative criticism, otherwise known as constructive criticism, is the kind that’s harsh, but with the intent of stripping all the bad from the work so that it may be rewritten and improved. This kind of criticism gets down to every comma, every syllable, and sometimes calls into question the very style and voice of the entire piece. There is one important point a writer has to recognize about this kind of criticism: For as rough and harsh as it is, the point of it isn’t meant to debilitate or ruin, but to make the story better. Writing means a lot of rewriting., and sometimes those rewrites mean more rewrites. If you aren’t willing to rewrite, you probably shouldn’t be writing in the first place.
Bad-negative criticism is given with the intent to harm. It doesn’t give a damn about the story or about making it better. All bad-negative criticism does is shoot as many barbs as it can with the intent of poisoning you, the writer, and the piece in general. It’s usually unfocused, it doesn’t really back up its reasoning, and it stings like a son of a bitch. That day back in ’02 at the campus library, that guy whose face I won’t forget, that was an example of bad-negative criticism. Deconstructive criticism, in other words. I let it get to me then, and I stopped writing short stuff for a while until I got back on my feet thanks to Tom. I learned to take the knocks and know when someone’s trying to improve the work or just being an asshole.
Last Thursday I happened to notice ALT had received a one star review from a person named “Lady Paperback.” Here’s the full “review”:
I am not sure why, but this book was selected as a book for a book club I attend. It was predictable, unconvincing and the plot was out right stupid. On behalf of my fellow readers (in the book club) we think it was poorly written with plenty of holes and inconsistencies. No wonder the book was self published….
I’m not going to lie. That cut me to the bone for about five minutes. Then I started to think about it, and I realized something: This is the first negative comment ALT has received in its two years since obtaining distribution. One bad comment in two years out of a bunch of positive ones? I don’t think that’s bad at all. I know the book isn’t perfect (a second edition is planned in the future, once TLM is finished), and I know it’s not for everyone. I’m cool with people not liking the book, and this person is entitled to their opinion. If they’d actually gone out of their way to expound upon the holes and inconsistencies, I might have considered it good-negative criticism. Instead this person decided to leave a little bile on my Amazon page, and the ferocity of it only leaves me to guess Lady Paperback is a writer, too.
I took a stance on crap like this a few years back when I attended a class taught by Kim Edwards, who said things about my work not dissimilar from the above. I realized that I’d never please everyone (and, honestly, who really can?). Some people would like my work and some would not. Being a product of the internet generation, I know the naysayers always scream louder, and so they’re heard a lot more often. I decided that if I ever experienced negative feedback like this, I’d keep writing, if for no other reason to keep pissing off those select people who despise me.
So, congratulations, Lady Paperback. I don’t know who you are, if you’re really from San Diego, or if you’re even a woman, but I have to say “Thanks.”
Thank you for being my milestone. You’re a rite of passage I can now claim as a writer. I got my first public, negative “review,” and your name will forever be burned into my memory just like that guy at that writing group all those years ago. Now, when I sit down to write, I’m going to think about you. I’m going to put my fingers to the keys out of spite.
Thank you for being another notch on my belt. I certainly won’t forget you.