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Criticism, Fiction, My Novel, The Writer's Life

The Book Doctor is Out … or, How a Literary Writer Rationalizes Criticism

I have this novel that I started about six years ago and finally completed to my satisfaction earlier in March. Although I believe the book is done, a friend emailed to say there was a slot open for consultation with the book doctor who would be presenting to our alumni last weekend. I could have it gratis, if I sent an opening chapter of something ASAP.

Really? Sure. Um, here… this is done.

Book Doc seemed knowledgeable in the group session. I was a bit concerned that his chosen area of writing was young adult novels, but then he mentioned that he dealt with all styles of writing in his editing service, including literary, which is what mine is written in. In fact, he praised literary style as the highest form to which writers could aspire. And every aspect of a good first chapter that he discussed matched what I’d done in mine. The one-on-one session was going to be fun.

You can probably guess the next part.

I sat down for our meeting. BD pulled out a two-page, single-spaced crit of my nine-page chapter, plus extensive line notes. The abuse started with the first sentence and didn’t let up.

But there was something very unsettling about it all. Despite his claim to an appreciation for literary style, all his criticisms came from the land of commercial books. My sentences were sometimes too long. The character’s name should be in the first sentence or readers might become confused. Interior monologue should be in italics so readers can recognize it as such. It sounded like a YA primer. Had he even read literary works?

Later, another attendee shared her experience. Turns out he ripped her even worse than me—told her to trash the entire first chapter of her book and start again. For the record, the writer is one of the finest I’ve ever met. She’s been published in dozens of journals and is much honored. I know her writing, and I know BD was completely off base about her chapter.

So what to make of it? Do I want to change my style and my message to make it accessible to more readers, or should I remain true to my vision and challenge readers to figure the story out?

Two possibilities come to mind: one, that I’m actually on to something with this novel, a genre-busting, mind-bending literary excursion into dysfunctional worlds of science fiction, politics, love and corporate marketing that is simply too intense and intellectual for commercial-minded hacks like BD to understand; or two, that I’ve completely lost my mind and have no clue about how to write well. Either way I haven’t got a best seller on my hands and it’s going to be hell to get it published. My best bet will be to find an indie publisher that specializes in unusual stories. But then, I realized that a few months ago, after enough rejections from commercial agents to wallpaper my spare bathroom. And the next time I have an “opportunity” to present my novel in a commercial setting, I’ll have to think long and hard about it.

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About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


32 thoughts on “The Book Doctor is Out … or, How a Literary Writer Rationalizes Criticism

  1. Sorry for the all too predictable unsatisfactory experience with the Book Doc, Joe. Sounds like you would’ve been better off going to Jiffy Lube. At least there you would’ve gotten 5 or more quarts of good multi-vis and your fluids checked.

    Posted by socalsoxman | August 18, 2012, 1:55 PM
  2. I took an online writing class filled with other ‘literary’ writers. During my critique sessions, I also found that most were looking for a genre feel when reading and mash my novel into particular genres other than literary. I got the same comment about mentioning the character’s name in the first line. Some of the comments were helpful, though and made me realize that as a literary writer, I have to be discretionary about which critiques I choose to take and which I throw out. Although my aspiration to be a literary writer requires me to break the mold, my work still has to be readable and still needs to connect to the reader in some way. What I’ve done since then is taken control of my emotions when reading critiques. Instead of letting a critique run my course of action, I take it as advisement in an executive manner. In the end, I’m the only one who truly understands the goal of my work, they are only a bystander in the process. If I’m really going to break the mold, I can’t take any critique as the word of truth, because that truth may not apply to my ends. Good luck with your novel!

    Posted by originaltitle | August 18, 2012, 2:05 PM
    • You seem to have come to the same conclusion as me about criticism. I’m very careful to assess comments as to whether they are the “this may help you” kind, or the “that’s not the way I would have written it.” And I try to keep that in mind when I critique other writers’ work as well. Thanks for the comment.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2012, 6:37 PM
  3. Where to begin? The character’s name in the first sentence? Does he think readers are stupid? I wish I could have seen the look on your face during the trial. It sounds like this BD person was way off base. But to find a good editor to give a critique can be great if you find the right person. Someone who will say where you need more, where you need less, where you can do better, point out a weak verb, and not intrude on your voice. I hope you can find that person and publish your book because I’m curious to read it. I just hope I can understand the story without the character’s name in the first sentence. :-)

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | August 18, 2012, 2:23 PM
    • I suspect I wore a look somewhere between “this can’t be happening” and “can I kill this guy and get away with it?” I’ll admit the first sentence in my novel is a challenge, in fact, the character’s name doesn’t appear until the second paragraph! Shall I be banned from publishing this book? Personally I think (hope) there are enough readers who like to figure things out rather than be handed a story like a lecture.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2012, 6:44 PM
  4. Why do we need a book doctor? Why do we have so many beta readers?
    I guess we doubt ourselves too much. That, and the fact that we are so damned close to our own stuff. We just want someone to say, “You’re right, it’s good, trust yourself.” Remember what you said…it’s completed to YOUR satisfaction.
    Also remember the default mode of critics is to find things wrong with a piece.

    Posted by Jon Zech | August 18, 2012, 3:14 PM
    • Yes, what I really want is for someone to say, “damn that’s great!” And if it ever happens I’ll let you know. In the meantime I’ll settle for critics who understand what I’m trying to say and can offer advice on how to say it better. The best criticism I can get is the kind that makes me say, “Of course, I should have done that.”

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2012, 6:47 PM
  5. Though I’ve never served as a book doctor, I’ve led discussions at writers’ retreats and workshops, and I’ve hated every minute of it, especially sitting down with writers to discuss their work. My main problem was that I knew anything I had to say would either be completely subjective or straight out of the same playbook that your BD was using. I’d be desperate to say something useful, but everything that came out of my mouth sounded trite, at least to my ears. It’s one thing to discuss a manuscript with a like-minded author, but sitting down with a complete stranger to outline the five obvious steps that will make a manuscript look more like everything else on the market feels so counterproductive and degrading for everyone involved.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | August 18, 2012, 3:44 PM
    • I really appreciate this comment. I wonder if some of this was going through BD’s mind as he ripped my chapter to shreds. (He did look nervous as he spoke.) I suppose at that point it wouldn’t sound very professional for him to have said, “I don’t think I can help you with this manuscript,” so maybe he felt he had to keep going. Really the message here, I think, is to get a variety of critiques from people who know your writing and from others who do not so you can see if you are hitting your audience; or to get none at all.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2012, 6:53 PM
  6. I loved reading your post. Interesting to learn about such experiences as I work toward writing a book of my own! I was curious how you go about searching for specific types of publishers, is there a website that lists publishers or something else to use? It would seem to me that searching for the right publisher for specific types of writing can be vital to success, from what I’ve read so far.

    Posted by magnuswendler | August 18, 2012, 4:11 PM
  7. I’m glad you posted these thoughts, Joe. My own reaction to a rough book doctor critique made me wonder whether I was simply too attached to my work (“you want me to change *that*?! But here are my roughly 827 reasons why that’s important to my second act turning point!”). I don’t like to be a person who takes criticism of my writing poorly, and part of me wants to try out all of his suggestions to make my book better. But the larger part of me is beginning to say, “okay, maybe this isn’t the commercial novel I thought it was. Maybe that’s okay.”

    Posted by kelly davio | August 18, 2012, 5:32 PM
    • Despite everything I’ve written here, the critique session does have me thinking about taking another editing pass at that first chapter. But I can’t promise I’ll change anything. Like you, I’ve come to the point where the novel’s commercial success matters a little less than it used to. I have to be the writer I am, not the writer other people think I am. Hopefully I can continue to get better at it, while staying true to style and themes I believe in.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2012, 7:02 PM
  8. I’m not sure, but I believe that it was Michelangelo who said that what he carved from the stone was already in the stone, and that all he was doing was removing the extra bits and shavings so that it would stand revealed. I think it would be good for all critics to take this approach: i.e., assume that there already IS something there struggling to get out, and refrain from applying their own personalities to the process, since the chipping away is for the author to do. When I critique someone’s work, I try to look first and foremost for the individual spirit of the piece; secondly, I try to locate what in the writer’s style/grammar, etc., is working against the shining forth of the individual spirit of the piece. This is why I don’t like formulae for writing (for example, some instructors are still trotting out that dog-tired old–by now–formula (which was once new) telling writers to “show, don’t tell.” That’s ridiculous). We’re at a point in writing history when people can pretty much do what they want, when they can try it and see if it works for that particular piece. Also, following Hemingway–who died about fifty years ago now, people are still trying to limit adjectives and adverbs in their writing. I say, try it and see if it works. The main thing I suppose I would still adhere to of all the old bits of advice is: Let your work get cold,and look at it again, after having laid it aside for a while. Chances are, if you know anything at all about writing, not only will stylistic and grammar errors pop out at you, but so will errors concerned with the substance of your story: you may see another way you can write yourself out of a particular scene, and you may want to try the second way, for example. Nobody but you really knows the gist of what you’re doing. A good way for a critic or “book doctor” to run a class or group on writing is rather to engage not in a monologue about what’s wrong or right, but to engage the writer in a dialogue: what did you intend here? this is the impression I got here, is that what you were striving for, etc. And that’s all I’ve got to say, I guess (I guess I’ve carried on a monologue of my own on your page!). Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I think you are the best judge of your work in the sense that you know what you want to bring forth: the “book doctor” should only be the midwife, not one of the parents.

    Posted by shadowoperator | August 18, 2012, 6:57 PM
    • So many good points in your comment, but one that really stands out is “engage the writer in a dialogue: what did you intend here?” Members of my writing group and those in classes I’ve taught know that I’ve stressed that critical technique dozens of times, in meetings and in print. Helping a writer find what s/he is really trying to say solves a lot of the other problems with a story. And you’re definitely right about letting work it until it’s cold enough for a fresh read. I have so many stories that I submitted to journals before they were really ready. That’s a bad practice I am working to change.

      Posted by jpon | August 18, 2012, 7:10 PM
  9. Thing is, it’s ALL opinion. Even if it’s good opinion. Other thing is books do not have to be good or great to sell, literary or otherwise. How long have you been writing, Joe? Are you any good at it? If you are, you can tell if your work’s good or not. Working or not. Of course, everyone who looks at your work is going to have an opinion–nothing wrong with that. But it’s YOUR book, not their’s, and until you have an acquiring agent/editor look at it–heck, even then–you do not have to follow anyone’s opinion. Now, there are consequences to all our actions, but if you’ve been writing for a while, you can tell if a comment rings true. Even the most “elevated” of experts can have “incorrect” opinions. They’re not married to the work like the author is. They haven’t taken the time to be as immersed in the work. They might not even be “into” the type of work you do, therefore their “energy” is not as in tune with it as they should be. Personally, unless someone like “BD” has a proven track record with all kinds of genres, as “BD” claimed, I would have passed on even the freeness of it all. And sweating? Pretty good “tell,” there, too, if you ask me.

    Take his/her comments as they were given, if none ring true, fine, don’t have to do anything, but thank the person for their time. But like another said, I think there’s entirely too much book doctoring, beta readers, and critiquing going on. I’m not saying they have no value, but come one, anyone and everyone can critique anything–literary or not–to death. There comes a time we have to just let our babies go out into the world. And some opinions-of-merit will directly contradict other opinions-of-merit. There’s really only a couple opinions you need worry about: yours, your first reader (if you have one), you agent’s, and your editors. Otherwise…

    *Trust yourself*, Joe, You seem like you have a good head on your shoulders.

    Posted by fpdorchak | August 19, 2012, 12:13 AM
    • Thanks FPD. I do feel you’re correct about taking criticism, but part of me doesn’t want to be known as a writer who won’t listen to any criticism — especially without a novel published. One thing I do believe about my writing is that it has a deeper meaning than what is on the page, if the reader cares to look for it–the way my writers group members argue with each other over the meanings in my stories reinforces that belief. So when it comes to criticism, I can usually tell when someone has made the effort to dig a little before offering an opinion.

      Posted by jpon | August 19, 2012, 8:16 PM
      • Ha–and there’s the rub!–heaven for bid you disagree with ANYTHING someone critiques…out come the labels and accusations. But you can disagree to yourself, and just “take it” as it’s being delivered. I’ve found that the best and most gracious way out of public pillory-ing–even if you have well-meaning and important questions and comments. Take the beating, thank em, and leave. Do not disagree and point-counterpoint them. They usually have their minds set and you’ve given them the podium. And things can definitely degenerate quickly. Take the High Road. There’s lots of great advice and comment here! :-]

        Posted by fpdorchak | August 19, 2012, 8:30 PM
      • That’s usually what I do, unless there is a specific point I can clarify to explain to the critic my purpose in writing something the way I did (and I do have purposes in mind when I write–maybe that’s why I have so much trouble getting published). Otherwise I let people have their say and try to remember the points that count and are useful to revision.

        Posted by jpon | August 20, 2012, 4:48 PM
  10. Great post!

    Posted by W. J. Rodríguez | August 19, 2012, 3:16 AM
  11. Joe: I think most BDs are the same. Their M.O. is to tear something apart and tell you why it’s wrong, and why it has to be done their way. But what do we expect? If they don’t tell people they’re wrong, they get no business. It’s like going to get your car checked. Have you ever had them tell you it’s running perfectly? IMO, your best bet is to avoid the BDs and find some good readers, ordinary people who enjoy reading to tell you what they think of your project. I put my books through a long process of beta readers and it does more good than a half a dozen editors. As for the name in the first sentence? My entire first chapter doesn’t name my character. Haven’t had a confused citizen yet. Good luck with the book.

    Posted by ggiammatteo | August 19, 2012, 4:04 AM
    • You’re probably right about book docs. I edit a few books too (although not enough to call it a business) and it makes me think about how I communicate with authors. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone to trash an entire chapter, and I do believe I’ve always tried to first to determine the writer’s central theme before offering criticism. But it’s tough. Some works are really not worth the trouble to complete. Some people appear to not have the talent or the skill to be a novelist. Is that the kind of thing a book doctor should say to a potential client? After all it’s just one opinion. What I do when I am offered a book job for a manuscript I don’t think I can fix, is tell the person exactly that, but always try to offer the name and email of someone else who might be able to help. Maybe in this case BD would have been better off telling a couple of us, “No offense, but I can’t work with this one.” But then, he’d have to refund the money.

      Posted by jpon | August 19, 2012, 8:11 PM
  12. You asked for the commerical writer/editor’s advice and didn’t like it. That’s your perogative, but ask yourself if there was any value to his critique? Was there something you could use to improve the accessibility of your work without sacrificing your style and vision? Ultimately, it’ s your story to tell and you can’t write a story by conscensus, no matter how well intentioned. I try to keep in mind that a story is not finished till it’s read, and the readers insert their own sensibilities and understanding unto it. Your story is a million stories waiting to unfold in the minds of your readers. Keep the faith.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | August 19, 2012, 6:21 AM
    • As I wrote in another response, I may take another look at the chapter. But in terms of value of the critique, when it became obvious book doc was coming from the land of commercial YA, it invalidated almost everything he said. Not because I dislike YA, but because the style and complexity of the genre simply doesn’t apply to the type of writing I do.

      Posted by jpon | August 19, 2012, 8:00 PM
  13. We shouldn’t give in to this kind of commercial uniformisation, if we don’t want all future ‘Histories of World Literature’ to end around the year 2000.

    Posted by Andreo Peetermans | August 19, 2012, 10:22 AM
    • Sometimes I think that’s exactly what history will say about the novel. Most of the inventive writers I see are kept on the sidelines, out of the book stores, available only from a few independent publishers.

      Posted by jpon | August 19, 2012, 7:46 PM
  14. It wouldn’t really matter if you had the next best seller,the Book Doc would still thrash your work..
    The last thing you’re going to get is praise.Tell the guy to get lost.

    Posted by silvermines1959 | August 19, 2012, 1:04 PM
    • I do wonder about whether that might be the book doc’s way of generating business for his editing services. But I would think it would be a more effective strategy for him to say, “I see what you’re trying to accomplish, but…” I’d be much more willing to work with him then.

      Posted by jpon | August 19, 2012, 7:45 PM
  15. Hey Joe,

    It’s so hard–so damn hard!!! You write a novel and you share it with someone who calls himself a book doctor–a dumb name if ever there were one–and then you get long-winded comments that don’t apply to the kind of work you’ve tried to write. The best readers of an unpublished book, to me, are like true friends. They get you, and though they don’t always agree with where you’re going (and they let you know it) they don’t try to make you something you aren’t. I wish you luck with the Indie-presses. They might be the right path. They certainly are producing some of the better/more interesting fiction that is being published today.


    Posted by the circular runner | August 19, 2012, 9:23 PM
    • Thanks G. Not much money in indie publishing these days, and some of my published friends have related horror stories about how much it COST them to get something published with a legitimate company.

      You make a great point about who should read your ms. If a writer is looking to appeal to a specific audience, shouldn’t the critics and beta readers be part of that audience? No sense in sending a literary ms to a YA book doctor. Of course, it would have been helpful to know that up front…

      Posted by jpon | August 20, 2012, 4:52 PM

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