Image via WikipediaI received a rejection notice this morning for a short story I've been shopping around. It's the sixth rejection for this piece, and I have been fortunate to receive personal feedback with all of them. Unfortunately, the feedback has not been unanimous.
Why do I say unfortunately? It all comes down to the problem of deciding which feedback to consider, and which feedback to ignore. This topic came up a couple of time in the creative nonfiction workshop I was involved with last fall, as many of the younger students were facing this dilemma for the first time. Primarily used to receiving critical analysis from one or two authority figures (teachers, professors) and general encouragement from less critical audiences (friends, family members), they now found themselves on the receiving end of often contradictory opinions and advice from a room full of people not only intimately familiar with the written word, but the creative process as well. It's one thing to have your friends read your work and either "like" it or "not get" it, but something completely different to be receiving in-depth critiques from a dozen or so fellow writers.
So the question would come up now and then, especially after a certain piece was rejected by some, but well received or praised by others in the same session. Which input do you listen to? In the case of my short story, exactly half of them have complained about the story's structure or format, while the other half have expressed interest and instead rejected it do to thematic differences with their publication's content (horror covers such a broad scope of fiction). So who is right, and who is wrong? The temptation, of course, is to side with my defenders. They must be right; I am a genius after all. They obviously don't "get" it. Then again, maybe the critical responses were right, and the editors that responded positively were just being nice to avoid hurting my feelings?
Both answers are actually false, but only because there is no simple answer. Maybe the editors that didn't like the story did indeed fail to "get" it. But then, one of the primary jobs of the writer is to make the reader "get" what you are trying to do, so their ignorance of the scope of your genius is no excuse. As for the editors lying just to make you feel good? Don't count on it. Editors don't have to be nice, and seldom are. That's not a knock against editors, mind you, that's just the way things are. If an editor thinks your work is a waste of paper, they aren't going to take the time to send you a personal response just to avoid telling you that you suck. That's what form letters are for.
A decade or so ago (God, I'm getting old), I spent a couple of years doing nothing but reading and reviewing screenplays written by other aspiring screenwriters on Zoetrope, and submitting my own work for others to do the same. It took awhile, but by the time I stopped, I had developed a feel for knowing which reviews to take to heart, and which once to ignore. It got to the point where I could tell if the criticism being offered was constructive, destructive, or merely misinformed. It doesn't always fall on the same sides as positive and negative, either. I've received glowing praise that I eventually realized was completely undeserved, and I've been sent intentionally hurtful, mean spirited, destructive criticism that actually exposed some true weaknesses in my work. They aren't always so Black and White, either. Valid feedback can often contain bad suggestions as well, waiting in ambush under the camouflage of good advice. Offering critical feedback also helps hone the writer's criticism survival skills. Give enough feedback on other people's work, and not only will you see others making the same mistakes you are making in your own work, but you'll also see how other people are handling aspects of writing that you are struggling with. But more importantly, you'll learn a lot by how the feedback you give is received by others.
I still remember one screenplay in particular, and thriller about a serial killer. It was bad. I mean... Bad. Not wanting to come off as mean, I took the time to write a seven-page response to the author, explaining not just what didn't work, but citing examples of other ways to do what he was trying to do, and even suggested other films (remember, we're talking screenplays here) that would show him what wasn't working. I put a lot of extra effort into my response, knowing that if I was going to be critical about this person's work, i should really make sure I knew what I was talking about.
The response was apocalyptic. An angry two-page response tore me apart - not my critique, but me personally. I was a bad critic. I was mean and hateful. I was stupid. He did everything short of insult my mother and threaten to beat me up. Other writers had read his novel (I shudder at the thought) which the screenplay was based on, where did I get off being so negative and destructive? I still own a copy of the screenplay, as well as my critique of it and his reply. I revisit them every now, a not-so-gentle reminder of the complexities behind giving and receiving critical feedback.
So which reviews do you listen to: the positive ones, or the negative ones? Listen to all of them. But listen cautiously, because positive praise can still lead you down the wrong path, while negative critiques might actually save your work.
Then again, it never hurts to send that short story out one more time for a tie-breaker.