Two years ago, I had the chance to get eviscerated by one of the best short story editors in the nation.
At the very beginning of the session, before we had even finished individual introductions, the editor used my piece as an example of terrible writing. He said that I was untrustworthy and did not respect my readers enough to care about the details.
That was a nightmare.
It could only have been worse if I had suddenly realized I was naked… but then it really would have been a nightmare and I could have flown quickly away or used my powers of invisibility to sneak out.
So it really only could have been worse if I had cried or audibly farted.
Thankfully, I did neither.
I was dumbfounded by his words. I sat in total silence. I didn’t feel anger or sadness or anything. I was experiencing ‘tonic immobility’. It was sort of peaceful. I lost a few seconds of time, I think. When I came back, he was still talking. About how much it sucked.
I had turned in a story that had been through seven drafts. I considered it to be representative of my best work. I had prepared myself for the possibility that he might not like it and not have much to offer in way of advice but I had not planned on total annihilation before the session had even started.
I thought, boy, this is going to be a looooong day. Like seriously mother-fucking long.
The inspiring part was when the other writers immediately pointed out that his specific examples of my ‘disrespect’ were in fact explained in the story.
Basically, I turned in an experimental piece that was written to be read out loud, in character, like a monologue. It was written in the first person (he said he doesn’t like that) and in the present tense (not his favorite either). The narrator’s attitude is intentionally sanctimonious and condescending.
He was immediately turned off by this and could barely push his way through the story. He used a mistaken assumption that I had carelessly inserted an anachronism into the story (a Zippo in the 18th Century) as the reasoning for no longer being able to trust me as a writer and no longer believing in the story. He did a marvelous line edit though, which he obviously phoned in but at his caliber it was still impressive.
So, anyhow, the other writers pointed out that the Zippo was not the only anachronism. There was also the Gulf War vet, the cars on the street below, and the flashing neon sign outside of the window. So, perhaps, the story was not set in the 18th Century.
He said, “but the narrator specifically states that we are watching something that happened at least 200 years ago.”
And the other writers pointed out that the story was about time travel and that the narrator was living…. wait for it… 200 years in the future.
He said, Oh. Well. I didn’t get that from the story. She should work that in there.
Everyone else seemed to think I already had.
By the time we actually got to the time slot for my story to be critiqued (after a delicious crepe lunch that I only pushed around on my plate and brought home in a doggie bag to enjoy for dinner and left on a chair while I went to the bathroom so MY DOG ACTUALLY ATE IT DAMMIT) he had some wonderful and helpful suggestions. Everyone did! I couldn’t write down their notes fast enough. Every single one of them made me think. Every single one of them will make this story better. And most of the people actually liked it and weren’t just saying that because I cried.
I didn’t cry.
My ego is big enough to take the blow (like, seriously big). I know I’m a decent writer. I know that piece had an annoying narrator and s/he might turn some folks off right away but I was, and still am, seriously peeved that he didn’t bother to really read it, especially since he signed on to DO JUST THAT… but the rest of the day was marvelous.
I’m going to make him sign the copy of my manuscript that he wrote all over with red ink (my punctuation was terrible and I spelled Hemingway wrong… seriously, my bad… and yet another anachronism) and then I’m going to have the last page, where he wrote down all of that stuff he shared with the class at the beginning of the day, fucking framed. It will look good next to my Hugo.
It could happen. Just sayin’.