September 27, 2010

I Need Your Help

What I’m Reading Today: This weekend I watched (parts of) A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof back to back, and it left me so bereft and in need of comfort that I picked up the first book of The Lord of the Rings to reread.

I think I need a little help from you guys.

On Friday, I received a rejection. No big deal ~ as writers we receive a lot of rejections. It’s part of the process. But this one is the worst one I’ve received. Lots of detailed negative comments. I’ve gotten lots of encouraging comments from editors, but, ah, this one.

I would like to say that I really appreciate the fact that they did take the time to comment. I even wrote them an email saying thank you. They get a lot of entries ~ the fact that they took the time is gratifying. And I can safely say that this person is not my ideal reader.

What I hope ~ beg, beseech you ~ is to give your take on the notes by commenting on this post. I’ll give you what is my take, after loooooong thought, and if you’d give me yours, I’d be forever grateful. And if you think that they are possibly right on and it’s criticism I should take to heart, feel free to say that too.

The rejection is for my book of short stories that I sent to a contest. I’m not going to say who gave them. So I’ll give their comment and then clarify and give my reaction.

1. “Spotted as a Leopard” - too short & no resolution. The full title is “The Year I Went Spotted Like a Leopard.” This story was an attempt at a short short. It’s only 675 words. I tried to make it clear but poetic. I’ve had other feedback on this story from journals that said, “We felt there was too much exposition in this story, particularly in the ending. We wanted the story to happen, to unfold naturally rather than be explained.” So, it is too short. I don’t think I’m good at short shorts. I haven’t gotten the hang of them, and I’m more interested in longer work. So that criticism is justified, I think. However, I think there is no resolution but it’s because I didn’t want there to be any. I often attempt a sense of closure without a resolution. A lot of my stories don’t have tidy endings. Just small turns or gestures. So this criticism is a wash, I think.

2. “Mouse” - She could have put them back where she found them. Also cows don’t have milk unless they have a calf of their own. In this story, a girl finds some baby mice whose home is going to get washed out with the spring irrigation, so she brings them home to raise them, but her father makes her kill them. So this criticism is on the basis of what is real and possible. This story didn’t work for the reader because she or he was not convinced of what happened in the story. I would refute the criticism on a purely factual basis: No, she could not have put them back because the irrigation ruined their home, and if she touched them, it is possible that the mother mouse would reject them and eat them. Also, yes, a cow does have to have a calf to have milk, but one of the calves she's feeding is hers. I probably didn’t make that clear. I took it for granted that the reader would know that. But even then sometimes you have a milk cow that her calf is older and weaned but she still is giving milk so you feed the bum calves without her natural calf. So as facts I think the reader misses the point. However, I obviously haven’t convinced this person, which is my job as a writer. So this criticism, while wrong, may be justified.

3. “Oranges” - We get the idea: the children have been left alone. Ending is too easy. This is the story of a girl, age 5, and a boy, age 3, who are left alone for long periods by their mother, who is a drunk. (It was first published on Ramble Underground and is available to read here.) I tried to stay in the girl’s POV, so there’s not much interpretation for the reader. It’s a lot of this happened and this happened. I wanted the reader to have to pay attention. However, I have gotten a comment on this story that there was “too much blocking”: in other words, the rate of revelation was low and there was too much of “she did this and then this and then this.” However, I was hoping a reader would catch the small bread crumbs I was laying out. So this reader thought there was no change in the story. She or he felt I was beating her/him over the head with the same thing. She/he thought it was too long. Also, the ending wasn’t satisfying. I ended it with the mother coming home having just got a job, and she wants the girl to forgive her and everything to be nice, but the girl can’t, as shown by small gestures. By “too easy” I assume she/he meant predictable. Or I hadn’t earned it. Since there was no change over the course of the story, the ending was pat, maybe? This comment does go along with the first story’s comment - ending wasn’t satisfying. (Note - in the first one, there is not enough resolution, but in this one, it’s too easy, so too much resolution?) So, needless to say, I’m still figuring it out.

4. “Change Your Hair” - An idea story, predictable. The title of this story is “Change Your Hair, Change Your Life.” It’s about two sisters whose mother is a hairdresser. It’s in four parts, each an important turning point in these girls’ lives. It’s told sort of from both their points of view. The conceit of doing your hair runs throughout it. (It was first published on Prick of the Spindle and is available to read here.) An idea story - I suppose it is. I started with the idea of the title and tried to run it throughout the portions. So I guess the reader is saying is that it feels contrived and she or he wasn’t pulled into it. Predictable? Hmmmm. In the first part, the mother punished the older sister by chopping off all her hair; in the second, the older sister joins the army; in the third, the older sister kicks out the younger sister’s abusive husband; and in the fourth, the older sister comes home from overseas having been raped. Predictable? I think maybe this objection is about something else. Maybe it’s about craft - I didn’t sufficiently pull this person in.

5. “The Body Animal” - Another idea story, trying to explain anorexia. This is the story of a girl with body dysmorphia. (It’s been published in Talking River, but it isn’t available online.) But I didn’t approach it by thinking, Oh, I know, I’ll tell the story of a girl with body dysmorphia. I wanted to explore how women get disconnected from their bodies at a very early age. So it didn’t feel like just “an idea story” to me. I felt in her body, blow by blow. This comment made me feel like the reader was congratuling her- or himself on being smarter than me having labeled it. Then I thought that maybe that’s what the reader was doing throughout, making themselves feel smarter by dismissing what I was writing. Which made me a little angry.

The final comment was: “Remember that art is not life. Art explains why something happens.” So this reader must have a pretty specific idea of what art is, and what I’m writing is definitely not art, to this person. But, the thing is, for me the whole point is to try to explain the complexity and subtlety of lived existence. I am trying to explain life, and that is the art. I’m not trying to be art-ificial; I’m trying to use the clearest language I can to portray lived experience and make it a satisfying story. This reader needed more interpretation and more “art.”

So, bottom line, this person was not my ideal reader. She or he didn’t like my style nor how I ended things. I didn’t pull them in at all, and they didn’t have a good thing to say about any of it. (There were more stories in the collection they didn’t comment on.) In fact, I think they sort of resented having to read my stories and they dismissed me out of hand.

This all leaves me both slightly angry but also thinking deeply about my craft.

Questions of the Day: I don’t want to dismiss this person if they have valid criticisms, but I don’t want to take them to heart if what they say had no bearing on what I’m trying to do. What do you think?


lizpdx said...

Oh, Tamara . . . this is so complex. I mean, I agree with you that this editor was/is not your ideal reader. And because the feedback was across the board negative, it's hard to grab onto anything. I mean -- was there really not one thing s/he could have pointed to that you did well, that ticked his/her fancy?

I think you're on the right track, putting it context with other feedback you've received, looking for a pattern in your writing that's worth addressing. But maybe it's still too soon. I've found that no matter how much I try to deconstruct negative feedback, it doesn't really make sense to me until a month (or more) later. I think it's safe to say that in this publishing climate, if you waiting a month or so to send your collection out again, it's not exactly like you'll miss the train all together.

In the meantime, keep writing, right? That's what it's all about, day in and day out.

xo, Liz

Brad Green said...

I'd say forget it. If those stories have been previously published, then someone else does like them. Taking the time to tell you what's wrong, in their opinion, means they affected that reader nonetheless. I call that a win.

Hate is as much a win as love.

Hate doesn't apply to these comments, but anything other than dismissal is a win.

I received a story rejection a couple of days ago wherein the editor scolded me for a lack of editing. They suggested I take a look at tense shifts. I so wanted to type back a reply that yes, I know there is a tense shift because I put it in there ON PURPOSE!

But I didn't. I sent it off to another journal and got the acceptance this morning, with a personal thank you for sending it and no mention of the tense shift being inappropriate.

You work very hard at your craft and it shows. Send the book to another contest. Maybe it'll encounter the right reader!

Tamara said...

Thank you guys so so much!! You both have such good points.

Liz - Yes, it does feel like grasping at straws sometimes - I just want to make sure I'm taking criticism when I need to, you know? Good points all - time to digest, put in context. It's sometimes hard to get past the white-hot first reading, as I'm sure you know.

Brad - Yes, you're right, a lot of them have been published elsewhere. Congrats on the acceptantance!! Woo hoo! I do keep after it and try to work hard, and we can't please everyone, right? Also excellent point about hate and love.

Jenn S-K said...

First of all, I'm curious about the motivation for the feedback. Do judges provide feedback to all contestants?

If the answer is yes, this feedback shouldn't be taken seriously. Imagine the judge as having hundreds of manuscripts to respond to. Only so much attention is given to each and even less attention is available for the evaluation.

If the answer is no, that's a different story entirely and this feedback reads as someone who felt wounded, betrayed. I'd guess that this judge fell a little in love with your work, which raised expectations. Those expectations weren't met ultimately and the disappointment felt by the judge became a little personal. What these comments have in common with each other, both in what they say and how they interpret your work, is that they're reductive. The reader stopped reading carefully - hence missing practical details and nuance.

I tend to take strong responses more seriously than others because they reveal that a nerve has been touched, which is your ultimate goal, even if it's the wrong nerve. This judge, if we're talking about case 2, believed in your skill but somehow the story stopped demanding that s/he keep paying attention. That's what I'd look at - what's missing? Are these stories lacking in ambition? The answer might be no - that you've stumbled on a bad reader or a good reader who gave a bad reading. But I think it's worth considation.

Tamara said...


They don't promise to do any comments in the guidelines.

Very good point about the reader feeling betrayed. (I'm reminded of a reading Steve Almond gave at AWP where he got choked up talking about a reader coming to a text with her tender open heart.) Also a great point about stopping reading. I love the distinction between a bad reader and a good reader who gave a bad reading.

Wow! You all's responses are exactly what I was hoping for ~ giving me perspective into the psychology of this reader and helpful ways to interpret them.

*Hands to heart* I am hugely indebted.

Tamara said...

(In fact, I'm a little teary! Thank you.)

lizpdx said...

Jenn= super smart.