Writers are an insecure lot.
It's easy to understand why. You screw up at work and your boss jumps on your case, quick to tell you exactly what you need to do if you want to keep your job stuffing dough into that pizza press. You screw up your writing … well, ten weeks later you receive a polite, generic rejection letter in the mail that basically says: Thanks, but no thanks. There is no boss to tell you how you screwed up or how to make it better. You're on your own, Mr. Wannabee A. Writer. Go lock yourself in your bathroom/office until you figure it out.
Unfortunately, this lack of feedback goes against our very nature as homo sapiens. If there's no stop sign at the intersection, we have to give serious consideration to whether we're willing to stop or not. That can be a real chore for those of us who are busy trying to dig a dime out between the seat cushions for that double-mocha cappuccino on the way to work. Put in a stop sign and it's a no-brainer. You stop. Then you start digging for the dime.
But for a writer, feedback comes in only one form … if you sell the story, you did something right. If you didn't sell it, you did something wrong. There are those who will try to tell you this isn't true. That you can get good feedback from your spouse or your girlfriend or your buddies. But these are the same people who said you were feeding dough into the pizza press just fine. You can't trust the opinions, good intentions or not, of people who are only casual observers. So … did your story sell or didn't it?
Well … no. But why can't the editor take an extra minute and just tell me what was wrong? you wonder.
Yours is not the only manuscript the editor has to read. There are stacks of manuscripts all over the office, some higher than the desktop, with more arriving in the mail everyday. Editors don't have an extra minute. Not if they plan to scarf down a sandwich between noon and twelve-fifteen and still have time for a bathroom break. Your story has a page, two at the most, to capture the editor's interest. After that, well, there's always another story on the stack.
Another reason why the editor doesn't tell you what's wrong: your story's a nightmare. It would take more time to explain the problems than it took you to write the thing.
And the biggest reason of all: hell hath no fury like a writer scorned. Offer some helpful advice and the editor has undoubtedly learned that too often what he gets in return is an indignant letter full of obscenities.
Finally, writers need to understand that editors don't have all the answers. Yes, it's true, editors are people, too. They have their likes and their dislikes, their stern beliefs, their misconceptions. While one editor may abhor your story, another may find it brilliant. I mention all this in case you weren't already insecure enough.
And I mention it because there's another dead end request editors get thrown at them quite frequently. It goes like this:
Dear Mr. Editor: Enclosed please find my short story, titled “A Story By Any Other Name. " I hope you like it. I think it's the best thing I've written. If you decide not to buy it, could you please tell me why. And could you also tell me if I should keep writing. I'd like to know if I have a future doing this.
If you have to ask, the answer is no, you don't have a future and you shouldn't keep writing.
Writing is not a pursuit for those who are weak of heart. Nor those who are thin-skinned. It is a pursuit for those who love doing it.
William F. Nolan used to say that if you want to be a writer then you sit your behind in the chair and write. Charles Grant said that he writes because he has to; he can't imagine not writing.
You want to be a writer? Don't ask editors or anyone else if you have what it takes. They don't know. They can't tell you if you'll make it or not. They might be able to tell you if you need to develop your skills more, but you already knew that. Writing is a profession you never stop perfecting. There's always more to learn.
You want to be a writer?
Go write … and persevere.
The Successful Writer