Feedback. I can hear you groan from here. Feedback is that terrible entity writers both crave and loathe. It makes us better writers but it also makes us uncomfortably aware of our shortcomings. It’s a familiar scenario; you send off your story/poem/extract full of hope and good humour. You wait for weeks, months even, convinced that the recipient will be so blown away by your submission they will drop everything in deference to its brilliance and phone you immediately offering untold fame and fortune. Time passes and you forget, a little, but then one day, comes the ping on your inbox or the thud on your doormat and somehow you instinctively know what it is. It is the beginning of that terrible exchange that tells every writer at some point in their career that they are not as good as they think they are.
I’m always amazed how I know without looking that I’ve received a rejection. I suppose most good news is delivered by telephone but even so more often than not I’ll know a rejection before I open it. I wonder if this is because deep down there’s a bit of doubt there already, maybe I know what I submitted wasn’t as good as it could have been.
So, you open your email/letter and discover the bad news – you didn’t win that publishing deal/writer’s retreat/£15,000, you didn’t even get published in that online journal with a readership of around 50 people! And here’s the rub, your whole being screams that you want to know why and, at the same time, your whole being just wants to crawl under a duvet and wallow in self-pity. Knowing why is the last thing you want. In fact, whoever has judged you doesn’t know what they are talking about. They are in the wrong, not you, short-sighted imbeciles, wouldn’t know good writing if it bit them on the arse. That’s right isn’t it? Thinking like this means you can stay comfortable in your little cocoon of ignorance. You like your little cocoon of ignorance don’t you? I know I used to.
Over the years this has changed for me. When someone rejects my work I am no longer content with just NO. No won’t do. These days I want to know WHY? And if people haven’t told me why I invariably get back to them and ask. Am I mad? Maybe, but let me tell you about my last two rejections (possibly too strong a word) and the feedback I got.
The first came just before Christmas. It was only a flash piece, so it hadn’t taken long to do, but it was a great idea and it had been edited and refined over several drafts. I got a standard rejection about a week later, just ‘no thanks try again later’. That morning I had a workshop with two people I trust implicitly and as luck would have it I had sent them my story in advance of the meeting. They were so positive about it (and believe me, if they didn’t like it they would say so) that it made me wonder what the reason for the rejection was. So, rather than feeling sorry for myself I got back to my rejector and asked for feedback. This is what I was sent:
I’m happy to give some feedback.
In all honesty, it was a close call! The piece is beautifully written and has some startling images. We particularly liked this: “Planes fell from the skies, their impacted carcasses landing softly on downy runways, like so many bulging toothpaste tubes,” and the thought of the earth as a snowball was striking.
However we thought the first paragraph was problematic. In the second, everything gets going – but the first seems too long. Would you consider cutting it?
There were also a few details that niggled – if everyone is dead, who is reporting on sky news (or is the idea that Sky News is the devil’s work)?
Whilst the idea that this is being narrated by one of the devil’s minions is a good one, it took a couple of readings to register the full implications of the last paragraph. I wonder if there is a way to make the information here more immediate – or to plant the idea of the battle between heaven and hell earlier?
If you felt like reworking the story we’d be keen to take another look. As I said, it was a close run thing.
And do you know what? – they’re right! The first paragraph is too long and there should be a hint as to the narrator earlier. I’d actually taken out the bit about toothpaste tubes because in my opinion it doesn’t fit, but I don’t agree with them about Sky News – everyone knows who their boss is! But isn’t this better than no thanks try again later? See how much more productive a little bit of feedback is?Even if the feedback isn’t as positive as this is wouldn’t you rather know the truth than fear the worst, or even labour under the misconception that it’s good when it isn’t?
I had more feedback on another submission last week, I didn’t ask for it and was surprised to get it, but it was very welcome and, again, totally on the button. What I thought was a wonderfully clever allusion was actually ineffective corniness and needed to go, but I would never have known this had it not been pointed out to me. There was also the usual pep talk about not giving up, about it being a very close thing and please re-submit. Far from being negative it was enlightening and confidence boosting.
As a member of Rattle Tales I give a lot of feedback. Our selection process is very stringent, we all read everything and make notes on each piece then we discuss each one in detail before we make our selections. We don’t give feedback as standard but we offer it in our notification emails. If writers want to take us up on the offer the notes on the discussion are there ready to use. We probably get a 50/50 request rate. I hope what we say helps. The thing is to give good feedback you have to have read the submission in detail and you have to know what good writing is if you don’t you shouldn’t be giving feedback in the first place. Also bear in mind that work is often rejected out of personal preference. At Rattle Tales we reject work which we don’t think will work in a live performance, the piece could be beautifully written, ground-breaking even, but if it doesn’t read aloud well we can’t take it. If you don’t ask for feedback you’ll not know why, you’ll assume it’s either rubbish or that we are philistines.
Some writers take it personally. We once had an email from someone, whose work we had rejected because it wasn’t a story, saying that if we ever felt brave enough to try something different we should get in touch with them. You could almost taste the bile on those words but, hopefully, if they really thought about what we’d said they would realise that we were right. If you receive feedback that really riles you put it aside for a couple of days then go back to it, read your writing with it in your mind and see if it’s right. If you still don’t agree fine, forget it and try somewhere else, it’s their loss.
These days I always ask for feedback, at the very least it ensures that the person rejecting my work has read it well enough to tell me why they didn’t want it.
The next Rattle Tales show is on Feb 20th at The Brunswick Hove tickets available here.