1. I don't actually work for a publisher (so I'm not looking for books to sign).
2. I am actually telling people what's going on with their book, instead of sending them a generic "Thanks for mailing us your manuscript but we don't want it" letter.
Had these novelists and playwrights sent their stuff out to the real editors of the world, they would have gotten no information. And often no information feels better than my feedback (I am very willing to admit it), but in the end, the bland letter isn't going to help them get their book published.
I keep thinking back to a few years ago. I was seeking an agent for my first novel--a novel which I am letting fester right now, as I work through how I am going to transform it--and I met a nice guy who had found an agent recently. Excited, I asked if he could read my novel, and I'd read his (since his was not yet published, even though he had an agent).
We exchanged novels, and he got mine back to me in less than a week, saying he really enjoyed reading it. His wife read it too, and "liked it." I took a bit longer with his. You see, on the first page alone, I found 9 errors--NINE--and this was the manuscript his "agent" was sending off to publishers! I considered reading it swiftly, telling him it was "nice," and leaving it alone. I considered it for a few days, mulling around the house, unsure what I should do.
I chose the hard road. I spent the next month poring over that novel, filling it with Post-it notes remarking on errors, slips in narrative POV, places where I had legal questions, situations where more explanation or detail was needed. It took me a very long time, and by the end the folder was filled with five different colors of Post-it notes (I kept running out of pads). Even at the end, I contemplated pulling all those notes out and just telling the poor boy nothing about his work.
Shakily, I left it for his wife (she worked in my husband's office), and she winced when she saw it. "That bad?" she asked.
"Just let me know how he takes it," I answered.
That was Friday. On Monday, I called her. "He's okay, but he took it hard." I felt a dip in the pit of my stomach, but it was about to get worse. "He wants to talk to you," she added.
I was frightened, honestly, expecting him to yell at me, curse, or do something equally understandable. After all, I'd shredded the baby he'd been birthing for five years. He called me that afternoon, and he told me frankly that he'd been crushed when he got it back. And then, after a day of being crushed, he started back to work on it.
The end? He asked me to read it--again--for pay. And when he published it, not only was I in the acknowledgments, but he gave me a copy in thanks. Will everyone be so grateful? Nope. They don't have to be. But with every paper I grade, every play of someone else's I look over, I have to make that same choice. A few years ago, I tended to play nice, looking over most of the problems and centering my replies only on grammatical errors. But errors are not what sends manuscripts to the trash. If I am truly to help those whose work I am reading, I have to do a better job, even if it means they don't speak to me again.
It's the golden rule. When I want someone else to read my stuff, I want honesty--even brutality--so that I can fix what's wrong and make the whole thing work better. I can't say I always take the criticism well--coming from my husband, it usually irks me--but eventually it sinks in, and my writing is the better for it.
Can you think of a time when your writing was criticized? How did you take it? How do you approach criticism of the works of other writers?