Since You Didn’t Ask…

No one wants advice–only corroboration. –John Steinbeck

One of the biggest problems with the business of writing and submitting short fiction for publication is the fact that there are few editors who are able to provide useful feedback on a rejected manuscript. They don’t have time. Who would, given the dozens of manuscripts writers tend to submit? Additionally, those editors don’t want to be bothered with writers who take constructive criticism as a personal attack, or as permission to submit a rewrite. Therefore, most editors simply say "this is not for me" and let it go while writers proceed through many a trial and error and beta audience before they ultimately give up or figure out on their own the answer to the burning question: "What’s wrong with my story?"

Recently, I spent a week furiously writing and polishing a horror story that I thought was pretty good, perhaps even the best I’ve written in a long time. Without giving myself a couple of days to let the finished work cool in my mind, I rushed it off in an e-mail to a bestselling author who is compiling stories of such types for a new anthology. Turns out that was a mistake. Well, sort of.

It was a mistake for me to not review the story with my own critical eye before submitting it. However, it was not a mistake to submit it, because the feedback I received on it was perhaps the most valuable I’ve ever received from an editor.

The verdict was that the story was ok but way over-written, meaning that in the process of developing the piece I’d pretty much thrown in the kitchen sink, showing and telling and describing to the reader every little piece of information that popped into my head. The result was a 9,100-word work of short fiction about a murder in a fast food restaurant’s men’s room that could have easily been told in a fraction of that space.

Did I feel the sting of rejection when I received that editor’s e-mail reply? You bet. I think any writer who receives genuine constructive feedback upon rejection would and should feel that sting. It’s the prick of the needle of truth. You only feel it when you know the reader is without a doubt correct in his or her assessment. Besides, if every manuscript you’ve ever cranked out receives nothing but positive feedback, you’re really only reading it to yourself in the mirror.

That sting is important. It doesn’t need to be nasty or unfriendly. It just needs to be honest. As for me, I spent a day licking my wounds and reconsidering my life. Then I went back to the manuscript and started cutting. Upon reviewing my first couple of paragraphs, I knew immediately that the editor had been right. A scene in the beginning of that story was originally four pages long. It is now approximately one page. 

In her Authors@Google talk last week, bestselling author Anne Rice discussed how she gets through writer’s block. She does it in the exact same way I wrote the restroom murder story. She sits and she writes and she writes until something appears. The big difference between what she does and what I do is that she knows how to throw away the unnecessary stuff. Until now, I was apparently just leaving it in.