Monday, May 31, 2010

How To Be A Bad Example

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.


  1. Kathleen,

    A wonderful post. A bit scary in spots, but some of those spots happen all too often. I've had my share of cruel 'critiques' and they didn't help one tiny bit. My first was one of those and I very nearly quit all together. I'm really glad I didn't.

    The patting and stroking ones are nice, but don't do a lot good except feed the old ego, which does need feeding from time to time.

    I've done many critiques over the years and try to be honest, while tempering the harshness with at least one or two kind comments. There is always something good about a story, even if it's how the paragraphs are a nice size.

    Thanks for sharing your first experience with us. A real eye opener.


  2. Great post. I do a lot of crits and there is a difference between being mean and honest. I try to help the author move toward publication by pointing out areas that need work. But I know how that criticism feels when I get crits back on things I'm writing. With time, the sting fades but it is always stressful.

    The editor in me will often suggest nuts and bolts changes, but I will only do that for authors I know are receptive to someone meddling with their prose (my usual crit partners).

    I also do criticism and review as a freelancer. It is rare an author contacts me, with either a thank you or a complaint, correction, or other comment. But that job is to help prosepective readers decide if the work is worth their time--and if they like the kind of writing, the voice, the subject matter, not my review.

  3. Excellent post, Kathleen,

    I'm sure that Mike Zigmond has suffered from all that bad karma he was creating back in high school...

    Snarky or cruel critiques say more about the critiquer than the target author. Some people need to "prove" that they are smarter or more clever than everyone else. It's an indication of their own insecurities. When I receive a critique (or a review) like that, I try to feel sorry for the critic rather than pissed off.

    By the way, having known you (and your writing) for about a decade at this point, I can testify to the fact that your writing just keeps getting better. That's the truth, not an ego stroke.


  4. I'm with Lisabet. I've only read one of your stories so far, "Chill", but I was struck by the originality of it.


  5. Gianna - Exactly! It takes so much tact to crtique, but unfortunately, you can't control how your message is received. But for those of us who crave honest feedback, thank you!

  6. Lizabet and Garce -

    I was going to spare Mike Zigmond from being named, bu I think that gives him power over me years later. So I'm outing him as a jerk. (people around him probably figured that out on their own).

    But thank you to both of you for the kind words about my writing. It's always nice to hear!

  7. Kathleen,

    Mike sounds like a charmer. I'm truly glad he didn't sway you from your path of becoming a writer.



  8. Ash - he has been relegated to the Pfffft pile of my history.

  9. As a writing contest coordinator, I've seen some critiques/judging/scores come through my email that make me cringe (and I have no social skills or any desire to develop them). There are some petty, mean, spiteful (PMS) people out there and there are those who don't realize how insulting the way they phrase things comes across. I'm glad Mike didn't skewer your dreams and I think your success has had the last laugh without plagiarism.

  10. Hi Kathleen, great post. I want to congratulate you on outing Mike Zigmond. First, I thought, 'I bet that's his real name.' Then I thought perhaps you shouldn't have done that, but then I figured the guy was a world class jerk and so I truly hope someone who knows him reads your post (and then it goes viral)!

    But I was most appalled by the "well-known editor" bit. I seriously can't imagine doing that to someone. I've come across some bad prose in my day, but I'd never tell someone something as life-destroying as that. I have a hard time telling anyone anything negative about their work. I only do it if I have something constructive to say.

    Some people seem to crit or edit for the sake of critting or editing. They get too wrapped up in their own brilliance. I far prefer, when editing, to do nothing to a story, if 'nothing' is what's warranted. But I, too, have covered a few stories in red. I wouldn't have accepted them if I didn't see something worth saving. I always worry that the writer will freak when they see what I've done. So far, that doesn't seem to have happened, which is heartening, especially since they usually end up knowing where I live...


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