I'm going to take a minor break here from all this stuff about heroes and grown-ups and stuff I've been writing -- though I have lots more to say. For one, I feel like I kind of went a little easy-way-out with my conclusion last time. I think the myth of required brutality and warfare overtones of what we're seeing in films about adult heroes is on the right track, but it needs to be cribbed in a more nuanced discussion of white masculinity and I totally just blew through that last time. I also really do want to decentralize white male stuff in my analysis. If I've spent so much energy on Batman V. Superman, what about Wonder Woman? If Marvel does a better job with its movies, what about Black Widow -- or Gamora or Nebula? Wherefore art thou, Katniss*? Is it because you're young? (In fact, Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson are younger than all of their male cinematic counterparts, Tom Holland excepted.)
But I'm not writing about that today. I'd like to, but my heart's not really in it. And, honestly, my heart isn't in very much today because I woke up to an e-mail saying, "Hey thanks for sending us your story! We don't want it." And, woof. This again. But I'm not going to write about rejection, either. Rejection happens. It's like the weather. Accepting it is not always easy or fun, and being prepared for it is sometimes a chore, but... whatever, man. I have this umbrella for a reason. Rather, I want to write about criticism. Because I didn't just get a rejection e-mail. I got a personalized rejection e-mail, with story comments.
Here's the weird thing: Getting rejection e-mails with commentary is a lot harder for than just getting the form message. I have friends who are, much more sensibly, not like me. A personalized rejection, in an objective sense, is orders of magnitudes better than a form letter. In general, a story that inspires an editor to actually interact with you personally is better than one that doesn't. It's not a perfect measure -- some few editors have the time or the drive to make it a point to respond to approximately every story with comments, and some don't have time to respond to any at all -- but you might as well be encouraged if you have the choice. My brain is wired funny, though, so I don't feel that way. I receive every personal comment like an... uh... a hailstone, I guess... to the emotional solar plexus.
It occurs to me now that perhaps the weather simile was not designed to stretch this far.
But what story comments really do is provide possible direction for revision. And once I get over myself, that's what's really important. Because while the 18-hour form-rejection turnaround time of a Clarkesworld is extremely considerate to a writer's time, and really honestly very appreciated, it also does not give you the chance to improve either the story or the craft in the same way that a response with comments can.
I've spent a lot of time in writing classes and with writing groups, and here's something I learned a while ago: Constructive criticism is really hard to give. And that's not because everyone else's writing is terrible and there's no point in pretending as though you like it (though when I was 18 and kind of a dickbag in general it felt that way sometimes). Constructive criticism has a bad reputation because it instinctively kind of feels like we're babying each other in the attempt. But I've seen enough early drafts of other people's work which I hated and had no desire to be kind about turn as if by magic into brilliant final drafts that put anything I've ever written to shame -- with no thanks whatsoever to me and my dickbag criticisms -- to know the power of revision, and I've written enough to know how little meaningful revision can be done without people trying in earnest to see what's already good about a story and how the rest can be better.
No, constructive criticism is hard to give because as readers we often mix up what's wrong with a story with what isn't working in a story, and we don't always have the tools to communicate that clearly in any case. The tool that's easiest by far to access is the "what would I do instead?" tool. Example: a comment I got in my e-mail this morning was along the lines of "This character wouldn't do this thing you had them do. Can they do this other thing instead?" This kind of criticism is poison to a writer who doesn't really understand how to disambiguate it because it goes straight to the thing that isn't working, treats it like it's the thing that's wrong, and provides a single solution without ever adequately illuminating the original problem. It's also a very good thing to get comments like this because, without them, you won't be getting very many ever, at all. It's not the editor's job to craft a masterpiece of criticism for every single story that won't fit their collection. Nobody has time for that. That they're providing any criticism at all is a blessing by itself.
This way of suggesting solutions is, in my experience, the most common code that exists in criticism. And it happens because it's often just exceptionally difficult to track a problem in a manuscript back to its source because as a reader you only really see the results of the problem (like seeing the toilet water overflow in a horrifying torrent, but having no idea who flushed what inappropriate thing down there in the first place), and you don't always know what the writer intended because until it's published, it's still just a draft and the writers are really good at obscuring their intentions in drafts because those intentions are naturally very obvious to us and aren't they just so obvious and everybody can totally intuit what we were trying to do because it's so obvious and god I can't believe you misinterpreted that you just must not have been reading vary carefully because I definitely wrote this sentence on page 2 that explains it. And as a reader, most of what you can do is tell that something doesn't work for you ("this water is not staying in the toilet, and that does not work for me"). Luckily, saying, "This isn't working is easy." Unfortunately, saying "This isn't working because..." is hard, because we don't always know why, especially if the writer's intentions are obscured in the first place ("this water is not staying in the toilet, because... somebody flushed... something... that should not have been flushed... probably). But, it is easy to know what might work better for you, so "This isn't working, but this other thing would" is easy to say ("this water is not staying in the toilet, and we should make it stay in the toilet, which would work a lot better for me").
In this way, solutions are easy to suggest -- thay are fun to suggest, even! They are not always super helpful to receive unless you do some work to unpack them. But don't hold solutions against your readers. Solutions (“keep water in toilet!”) are a kind of code that point to what's not working ("water! toilet! everywhere!"), and then it's your job as the writer to track that back to what is actually wrong ("paper towels are not the same as TP, and that was definitely my bad")**. Solutions are your readers telling you that they are trying to make the work better and maybe they don't know how but they still think it's worth the effort.
And as a writer, when I get a note like, "This character wouldn't do this thing you had them do. Can they do this other thing instead?" my first instinct is STILL TO THIS DAY to say, "No. The character would definitely do this, because of this reason which I wrote about in this sentence on page 2. Didn't you read every sentence on page 2? You're stupid and I hate you." And I have to take a few hours and get over it and then decode: "That solution would ruin the story because I'm trying to do these very specific things. But the reader wants the character to do [x] because it's not working when the character does [y]. It doesn't work because the reader sees it as being out of character, which was not my intention. It reads as being out of character because... oh, well, I did only write one sentence, on page 2, that even remotely sets it up as being in character. And now that I think about it, that sentence is kind of ambiguous."
And then I can revise.
* "Wherefore art thou?" actually means "Why are you?" if that helps these couple of sentences make a little more sense.
** The overflowing toilet analogy, it turns out, was happy to stretch as far as I needed it to.