In 1982 or thereabouts, Cross-Canada Writers’ Quarterly accepted my short story, Oblique Angles for publication, with a note that went something like this: …although there are many better written stories, yours is au courant… In other words, your work is good enough, albeit barely, to publish. If it weren’t for the fact your subject matter had some current weight, well, you’d be buried in the slushpile, baby.
Did I celebrate? No, not really. Was I grateful? Yes. Did it make me a better writer? I like to think so.
Around about the same time Dennis Lee said he’d accept some of my poems for Poetry Toronto, and in his acceptance letter he made some very generous comments – that I had treated my readers like “dummies”, and so would I mind if we did a bit of snipping? I didn’t mind. At all. I was over the moon. That first suggestion to not hit the reader over the head with explanation, no matter how pretty it might be, has been sitting on my shoulder as I write ever since.
A couple of years ago an agent who had read the first pages of my novel’s third incarnation (it’s in its eighth or so now) at a table of five people, said to me, “So has anyone actually read this and actually said they liked it?” (He actually did say actually twice!) He did go on to say that having a flashback within a flashback in the first twenty pages was confusing and annoying. Was I humiliated? Yes. Did I learn something? Yes.
In a peer critiquing group to which I belong, one writer in her feedback suggested that I have the antagonist die in childbirth Did I listen to her? Yes. Did I kill Beth? No.
Recently I received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council through their Writers’ Reserve Program. I applied to four publishers to recommend my work. Three rejected my proposal. I can only guess why. I would have loved to know what they said to each other as my application skimmed across the desk. Even if it hurt.
As writers we can’t afford to be sissies. We have to pull on our big girl panties and keep our fingers moving. We have to listen, but not too hard. As Dale Long said in Feedback on Feedback on the Reading as Writers’ Blog recently, “Take what you need and file the rest. And say thank-you anyway.”
Here’s a recent post about submitting one’s work, and I reckon these recommendations hold true for regular submissions to journals, editors and agents, as well as for scholarship and grant submissions…