by John B. Rosenman
In the spirit of public service to writers everywhere, especially beginners, this is the first in a series of fearless exposes of GREAT WRITER MYTHS. Illusions may be nice and comforting, but they have a downside: they can blind you to reality and prevent you from coping with it. For a writer this can be particularly deadly and pernicious. Thinking that stuffed, DOA turkey you wrote is actually a living, champion thoroughbred about to win the Triple Crown will never enable you to develop as a writer and achieve your potential, which is possible only if you try something which you do have some talent for and were meant to do, like collect stamps, be a serial killer, or run for high public office.
This month’s myth came up a few months ago on one of the loops I frequent. Someone was saying that even negative criticism from an editor or publisher was good because it showed he had noticed you and that you had made an impression. In return I wrote, “This is often, perhaps usually true, but not always. I have received personalized rejections savaging my stories and ripping them apart.”
Folks, I thought I had made my case. However, the bloke at the other end wrote: “If you get personalized rejections, YOU HAVE ACHIEVED A CERTAIN LEVEL.” He added, “I was in a writers group . . . and whenever someone received a response, it was cause for celebration because we usually just got form rejections . . . If someone takes the time to send you a personal note, it’s because they think you have potential and believe you should keep writing.” In fact, you should consider personalized rejections as a encouragement from “the publishing world” that “You’ve come a long way, and are almost there.”
Okay, I remember that for years when I started writing, all I received were form rejection slips. I’m sure most on this site have had a similar experience. You might even get to the point where you’d be happy just to see a scrawled “Thanks” or “Up Yours” on one of those forms. Under the circumstances, we can understand why a writer, especially a desperate, beginning one, would look forward to and treasure even the most casual response or recognition of his existence from an editor, why he would embrace even the most tenuous sign that a real live human being existed out there who had actually taken a few minutes to read his words and respond. But folks, while a reply, even a negative one, OFTEN implies something positive, and suggests that you may have climbed out of the great unwashed multitude of writers and achieved some small degree of distinction, it does not necessarily mean that. To think otherwise is to embrace a delusion and an illusion about the submission process, and friends, my conscience would not rest if I did not put this mischievous myth in the crapper where it belongs. Call me a mean-spirited killjoy if you like, but thinking a slap in the face is actually a flirtatious come-on will only prove a liability. Ultimately, it will weaken rather than strengthen you.
I can already here someone say, “But why deny a writer what encouragement he sees? Why take away what hope he has?” To which I would respond, “Didn’t you read the previous paragraph?” Getting published and achieving success as a writer is difficult enough; when you form a habit of grossly misinterpreting editors’ words and signals, it becomes immeasurably harder. Reading the situation for something else than it really is will only handicap you because it separates you from reality and makes it impossible for you to learn from what editors actually mean and improve your writing on the basis of it.
To be honest, I don’t know how much a problem this Pollyanna attitude toward negative feedback is. Perhaps I’m making a big deal out of a small one, and clutching at editorial straws is a tendency that afflicts only the terminally desperate. Assuming it’s a genuine problem, though, here are five things that such writers should remember.
1. These days, more and more editors/publishers are commenting on writers’ work anyway. This is largely due to the fact that magazines and publishers are paperless and do their thing increasingly online. Everything’s cheaper: space, layout, and TIME. When all you have to do is type a few words and click Send, you’re far more likely to comment on that story you hated. The sanguine writer I mentioned earlier wrote that editors “are basically business people and have no time” to send comments they don’t mean. Well, when a response is just a key tap or a mouse click away, they often do.
2. If the editor’s review is relentlessly negative and/or vicious without any mitigating features, such as an invitation to send more of your work, then you can probably bet he’s not interested in a second date. In other words, don’t assume he’s aroused and wants to play bump and tickle just because he responded.
3. Some editors are mean, negative, overly critical. It’s their nature to see warts on everything and to praise almost nothing.
4. By the same token, some editors are kind-hearted and positive like Paula Abdul and praise too much. They don’t want to hurt your feelings but may unintentionally do something even worse: lead you astray by sending the wrong impression. I mean, what part of the word REJECTION don’t you understand?
5. Finally, lest I’ve created the wrong impression here, often editorial feedback is indeed a positive sign that you have registered on the editor’s radar. Especially if it’s a prozine with a good reputation or a respectable, advance-paying publishing house, the reader may be justified in feeling encouraged. And if the editor/publisher invites you to send more, then yes, the rejection might be a golden opportunity. On such occasions, NO might imply a possible future YES.
At any rate, I know that all readers’ comments on this essay, whether pro or con, will be an affirmation not only of my insight, genius, and writing abilities, but of my humanitarian concern for writers everywhere. Even if you appear to be negative and rip my opinion and words to shreds, I will know your true sentiments. And if you happen to edit a decent magazine – well, my story is already in the mail.
That’s it for this month, friends. Tune back in May, when I will expose and explore GREAT WRITER MYTHS # 2: Writing for Storytellers Unplugged is Not Only a Fast Track to Fame and Glory, but Will Ensure That You Always Have a Hot Date on Saturday Night.