When I was a senior in high school, I was named editor of the school’s literary magazine. There was one poem in the submission stack that blew me away. It was spectacular. It was also written by Mike Zigmond, who loved to slam me against my locker and call me names. As you can imagine, I hated him. But it never occurred to me that I should reject anyone’s work for any reason, so I printed it. The day the magazine came out, he proudly told everyone that he’d stolen that poem from a book of poetry, and boy, was I a dumb bitch for falling for his trick.
He sucked all the joy out of my life. I threw away my copy of the magazine and for years couldn’t bear to mention it, much less admit that I’d been the editor who’d published plagiarized work.
My reaction to him was wrong. I should have realized it reflected poorly on him, not me, and not the literary magazine. I wish I’d been able to shrug it off and see the good things that happened.
I wanted to be editor but I didn’t work on the school paper so it was a long shot. Somehow, I talked my way into the job. That was the first time I dared to go after something instead of hoping that it would magically drop into my lap. That was a big moment for me.
Even though it was a small school, I barely knew most of the students who submitted poems and stories because I hadn’t been there very long. The day the magazine came out, most of the contributors let me know how much it meant to them to be published. Until Mike ruined it for me, I was touched to be part of their happiness and that they shared it with me. That’s the part I should have focused on.
Unfortunately, there are always people like Mike who enjoy being little shits, and they don’t care how bad it makes them look as long as they can hurt someone else. Those critiques can blindside you. You aren’t expecting anything that vicious, and then WHAM! Suddenly you’re against the lockers and your face is throbbing with shame and pain.
A few years ago, I sat on a panel at a science fiction convention with a well-known editor. She said that some of her rejection letters included a comment along the lines of, “You aren’t talented enough to write. Give up.” Shocked, I said she must be joking, but she said no, she really did that. I don’t know what she felt that accomplished, but I’m sure that she would have gotten along fabulously with Mike.
I’m not saying that everyone who critiques your work is out to hurt you. Despite my experiences, I still believe that truly mean spirited people are rare. Assume best intentions when you read a critique. Learn to tell the difference between honest criticism and comments you can safely ignore. A valid critique can help you to improve your craft. An invalid one won’t. (Included in the invalid category are the critiques that stroke your ego but don’t address weaknesses in your writing. Sorry.)
The first story I submitted for publication was to The Best Women’s Erotica 04. The story was accepted, which put me over the moon until the editor sent back the edited version. The paper dripped with red ink. I thought, “But she liked it enough to accept it?” Then I decided that I had a choice – learn from the criticism or have a diva fit. I chose to learn from it. That critique taught me more about writing short stories than any class I’d taken. Sure, my ego was bruised, but my writing took a huge leap forward. It changed the way I thought about my stories and the way I told them. It made my work publishable.
Writing isn’t easy. Letting other people read your work takes guts. At first you need supportive comments, but as you hone your craft, you’re going to develop a hunger for honest critique. When you get it though, don’t be like I was in high school – so oversensitive that I couldn’t enjoy the good parts.