You Told Your FAMILY?!? What To Do When Their Reaction To Your Writing Is....Total F'in' Silence.
After five long years I finally finished my novel manuscript. I was so excited and relieved! My parents and my wife were very eager to read it, of course. But after they did, things got incredibly awkward between us— my mother avoids discussing it, my dad just says, “I’m glad you’re finally done,” and my wife keeps changing the subject when I try to bring it up. I’m scared that they hate the manuscript and think that I’m a total phony and am wasting my time. What do I do? ~ Stephen P.
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CONGRATULATIONS on finishing your novel! That is a huge accomplishment and one you should savor. Every morning when you wake up, every night when you go to sleep, remind yourself: you did it.
Now: you gave it to your family to read?!? Are you CRAZY? Sorry. I couldn't resist. And of course I'm being facetious. Kind of. I know well the urge we all have to want those nearest and dearest to be proud of us and our achievements. But most writers live in fear of giving their novels to their families. In fact, many writers I know live in terror that their families will discover they've written a novel and read it. That's because those novels are written ABOUT their families. But I digress. Or do I?
What I think is: your family may not know how to talk about your novel. When they read it, they were probably reading with a combination of curiosity and dread, combing every sentence for a description of....themselves. If they found it, they were probably a little dismayed. If they didn't find it, they were probably a little dismayed. Really, as the novelist, you can't win: write about people you know, and they will quibble with the portraiture. I know this as somebody who's been written about: my best friend Julie put me in her novel as "Lucy," a snarky blonde who makes Scrabble words like "quotidian" when everyone else is making words like "tree." Just because the portraiture was true didn't mean it didn't make me tilt my head and feel a bit hurt. THAT's what she chose to focus on? What about my winsome smile, my dazzling ability to sing show tunes? She pounced on my smart-assery? It's like the way we look at ourselves in the mirror: from one angle, our best angle. Then we see ourselves in photos and although they're no less true, those faces, because they're not the angle we're used to, look weird.
On the other hand, if you DON'T put your loved ones in your novel, they'll want to know: why not? My mother was highly indignant when I killed off the heroine's mother in both of my novels. "Why does she have to be DEAD?" she asked. "Why can't she just be on a lifelong around-the-world cruise with a handsome conductor?" Along the same lines, this afternoon I was listening to the audio version of Paula McLain's THE PARIS WIFE, a fictionalized account narrated by Hemingway's first spouse, Hadley. Right before I sat down to answer your question, Hadley had read Ernest's manuscript of THE SUN ALSO RISES and was sorely hurt that she was not featured in it....anywhere. Wasn't she important enough to be written about? she wondered.
So your family may be wondering why they're in your novel or not in your novel. There's that component. The other issue is, they simply may not know what to say. Just because people are good readers doesn't automatically make them articulate commenters. There's a craft, a fine balancing act to literary commentary, as I have learned over 15 years of teaching Grub fiction workshops--and enduring graduate school workshop hell beforehand. Here's what a bad critique sounds like: "I didn't like it. It was contrived." (A woman in my grad school workshop said this so unvaryingly about everybody's work that each time she opened her mouth, we'd all stick our index fingers in the air and make them say along with her, "I didn't like it. It was contrived.") Why is this bad commentary? It's not helpful. It doesn't explain to the author, tactfully and truthfully, what exactly was confusing to the reader and how that facet might be fixed. Conversely, "This is SO GREAT! It's ready to be published!," while something that would make us throw our arms up in jubilation, also doesn't help....because it doesn't tell us what skills to capitalize on.
Without workshop training, many people don't have the vocabulary to explain what they like or don't like. They want to be helpful, but they may feel puzzled, helpless, and as a result, mute.
Here's what I would suggest you do. I'd ask each family member to state what their favorite line is from the book. This is something I do at the end of every Grub workshop: Favorite Line Poll. No matter what your reaction is to a piece of writing, there is always, always one good line. I'd also ask them for their favorite thing about the novel. And stop there.
Then, for more critical feedback, I'd go to Grub. This isn't a commercial. It's bordering perilously close on being a commercial, but I swear at its heart, it's not. There are a lot of charlatans out there who will promise you a manuscript critique, take your money, and do a chop-shop job on it. I know. I've had feedback from a lot of shattered writers.
Grub consultants, on the other hand, are well-versed in the art of artful criticism. Because their workshops are based on it, they know how to provide it for your novel.
How do I know?
I used to be one.
Wishing you good luck and productive feedback--and, again, congratulations!
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us, The Stormchasers, and The Lost Family as well as the novella "The Lucky One" in anthology Grand Central. Jenna is also one of Oprah's Top 30 Women Writers. Jenna has taught for GrubStreet since 1997 ; she currently runs the master novel workshop and seminars focusing on craft and marketing.See other articles by Jenna Blum