The very first story I wrote with the intent of doing more than showing friends was also my first entry into Writers of the Future. I had just been given the gift of a Macbook pro and wrote out a story that I thought was great. I sent it off and waited, working on other writing in the meantime. Finally a letter arrived, including a simple rejection letter. I was depressed, but realized that anything that wasn’t hard science fiction had an uphill battle in the contest. I resolved to run it through a gauntlet of critiques to clean it up a bit.
So I sent it off to Critters and when it came up in the queue, the critiques began to trickle in. Problems were pointed out, but each person seemed to love the idea. I suppose I must have been feeling smug, or at the very least that I had a great story. The final critique to come in was one of the harshest I have ever received before or since. They pointed out all sorts of problems with the names, the prose, the dialogue and even went so far as to note that it wasn’t even a complete story. It was a scene without a plot to move anywhere. I felt like I had just had the wind knocked out of me.
The person recommended two books to help understand what they were talking about and even though I was feeling defensive, I decided to go look up these two books. Both focused on the nature of the most common plot structures and how to apply them. Know the rules before you can decide to break them. I poured over the books until I thought I had a good grasp on what was there and then went back to my story.
It was short, making it an easy read. Twenty minutes were spent at most. I was angry and frustrated by the time I was done. The critique was right. This wasn’t even a story. It was a scene from what might have been a story. The names I had chosen for the characters did indeed have historical meanings that seemed not to play well into the story. The dialog did sound too arcane for most readers to easily enjoy. The prose felt more like an advertizement for a viewpoint rather than a debate of two ideas. The story had no structure, no direction and no real sense of conclusion. It had a moral question that seemed to favor the one who posed the question and no real resolution of any sort. It was a plotless mess.
My gut instinct was to dismiss this person as being aloof. I wanted to say to myself that they were just being hateful and overly harsh. I wanted to think the rejection was about some technical detail or other such problem. When I forced myself to accept the criticism, I had to admit to myself it was a weak story even if it had been a good idea. At the time, I had no idea how to turn it into something workable, though I have since come up with a rough idea that I will eventually do a full revision of the ‘story’ in question.
As painful as it is to get rejections and as harsh as a tough criticism can be, they are an important part of this job. Rejections can be flaws in the story working against you, or they may be just a sign that you pitched it to someone who couldn’t use it. A scathing critique can point out flaws in our work that we are too close to see. This is especially true when multiple people make the same observation about the story.
When you get that hurtful response to your baby, I give you full permission to rail against the world. Go stomping through your house, throw some paper and spit some words that could clean the rust off a battery. When you get it all out and are calm again, set the story aside. Wait a few days to a week, then look at the critique or critiques along side the story again. You’ll be surprised how often there was a problem right in front of you that you never noticed. Editors especially are good at finding these for you. It’s what they get paid for.
The editor, agent or critique giver isn’t there to hurt you. They are trying to point out things you can’t see yourself with a second set of eyes. Learn to embrace criticism without taking it to heart. Learn to objectively step back and decide with clear eyes if your story indeed is suffering from something they have pointed out. They may not always be right, but they won’t always be wrong either. Take everything with a grain of salt, but also remember that that salt is a seasoning that is going to help you choke down the bitter pill of truth from time to time. Keep writing and don’t let it break you down. You’re going to be stronger for it in the end.