Don’t Shoot the Messenger


Writing stories is a funny business. Editing and evaluating them is too.

It’s not simply a matter of dealing with what’s in front of you. You have to read people’s minds in many cases.

I spent ten years as a book and magazine editor, and I got pretty good at evaluating manuscripts. And I knew that what they wanted was for me to say, Yes, we want to publish your story/article/book/epic/autobiography. The reality is, however, that only a small minority of the manuscripts that are submitted to pretty much any publisher are publication quality. And so the editor has to get used to being the bearer of bad tidings.

I used to wait until I was in a grouchy mood before evaluating magazine manuscripts. Why? Because when I was in a good mood, they all looked good to me, and there was no way the magazine had the budget to purchase all of those stories. So I put myself in a frame of mind where I was coerced into buying a story. A recent blog of mine used the term compel to describe the process of getting a manuscript accepted.

And then there were the many writing workshops I attended that involved many people who felt like they had a story to share, but very few who had the skill to share it, and fewer still who actually took the time to put words on paper. Most of these people wanted affirmation–just as you will find in most community writers groups.

There’s a spectrum of expectation that goes from total affirmation on one end (“Wow, that’s the best story I have ever heard. Someday you should write it!”) to total critique on the other end (“Your construction is faulty, your characterization is juvenile, and you consistently used it’s instead of its.”) I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble if all they want to hear is that I enjoyed their story. I can enjoy a story without it being what I would consider publication quality. Trouble is, most people who come to me aren’t real clear as to what their expectations are. And to tell the truth, that’s something I should ask, but often don’t.

In my writing classes, I make it clear what we are there for–to learn and grow. There still remains a little affirmation that’s necessary; otherwise, many students would just give up. But the needle in my classes–depending on the course level–moves more toward the critique and less toward the affirmation.

And then there are the occasions when someone contacts me out of the blue with a book manuscript. I have learned that if I am too unrealistically affirmative, they will come back to me and ask for me to help them get it published. Forty years of writing and editing and I still haven’t mastered that one! So as a matter of fact, I am pretty blunt with them. I tell them if it isn’t ready for publication, and I tell them why. Suffice it to say, I don’t hear back from most of them, if any.

So today was the last day of Narrative Writing class. I’m done with raking students over the coals, telling them what’s wrong with their novels and how to fix them. The reality is, I have seen significant growth in all of them as writers, and I am very proud of them. And they have gotten used to having their egos bruised by editors and would-be editors. I wish them well, knowing I have done what I could to prepare them for the harsh realities of writing life.

On my desk, however, is another book manuscript. A friend of a friend heard of me, and asks me, What do you think of my masterpiece?

Well…since you asked….

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2 thoughts on “Don’t Shoot the Messenger

  1. Well said, er, written…. That being said, er, written, do you think I’m ready to be published?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    Having taught screenwriting over the years, it was always a battle to get students to actually follow through and get their scripts read by people in the industry, which 99.9% of the time requires an agent. No matter how many times I would tell them, “I’ve helped you all I can, you need to take the next step” rarely did they do so. After all, getting an agent to read a beginning writer’s script costs $$ (I know having shelled out the $$ to an agent myself), but the feedback you get from someone in the industry is much more exacting and beneficial. It’s also painful, because they don’t mess around and the truth often hurts. Every now and then I get out the first agency critique of one of my scripts and re-read it for a fresh dose of reality.

    Now that I’m writing a weekly column for Dogster Magazine, writing isn’t the thing I do in the background for fun, it’s part of my income and deadline based along with friendly reminders from my editor. (Guess what I’m doing on Sunday?)

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Glen.

  2. I want to say thank you for everything you have taught me about writing. I am so excited to keep on learning and never stop. I am glad you were “tough” on us. If all you did was tell me that it is a great story, that doesn’t help me improve it. Even the “quibbles” were helpful because when its your story, you don’t always see some of the little things.

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