Only Negative Feedback

16 Sep

Six years ago, I had begun to work with an editor of sorts, someone who decided to create an ebook website as a hobby. This editor accepted one novella and gave bizarre, verbally abusive feedback on a second manuscript, Woodland Castle. She wrote comments in all caps with exclamation points. She hadn’t done that on the first manuscript, although she had been very brusque and negative and made it sound like it was charity to publish my novella.

I was recently going through my hopelessly messy Yahoo inbox…and noticed an important email or two I hadn’t previously noticed. They came right after the devastating email from a friend who gave me feedback on the second draft of Woodland Castle. I thought she was my friend, one of the few people I really connected with in grad school, but her feedback on that novel, inspired by the Burning Times, was so devastating that I figured she had no respect for me and must assume I’m a terrible writer, based on that one manuscript.

She wrote the letter in a professional manner, so I didn’t think I could complain, but…I didn’t really think. My reaction toward the letter was shock and hurt and depression and shame and humiliation. Six years later, my not responding at all—not even after a week—seems insane, but at the time it apparently made sense to me. I climbed into my shell. I couldn’t think of any response, especially not any professional response; now I wish I’d given it about a week to come up with something.

Until then, I thought I was good at judging my own writing—normally it seemed like I could sense whether a story or novel is good and publishable, but since receiving her feedback, I’ve lost that certainty. All I can do is set manuscripts aside for a while and go back over them, revising them and making them much better. (Actually, I do have a great critique group, but we’re currently on hiatus.)

But clearly, I was a terrible judge of my rough novel, Woodland Castle. I felt like she punched me. Despite the professional style of her email, she had absolutely nothing good to say about the book and discouraged me from trying to get it published.

That wasn’t what I was expecting from her, especially after we discussed critique feedback. I don’t remember, but surely I described the kind of feedback I prefer: when I was an undergraduate, my favorite writing instructor was Joseph Schuster, who gave constructive feedback that inspired students to eagerly revise their stories; he acknowledge the good and the bad. I recall that she talked about how she regretted being so positive about someone’s ms that they were really encouraged and thought it was worth publishing when it actually wasn’t.

It was completely unexpected–I was accustomed to some positive feedback, not none…except with that ms, which had already received 100% negative (not to mention verbally abusive and unprofessional) feedback, from the Editor from Hell. That had happened recently; I must have still been shaken up by that, so that must have contributed to my not responding to her email.

More than anything, I didn’t reply because I had no words with which to reply. I was hurt, shocked, and depressed, and I crawled into my shell. I remember the email mentioned she wrote track changes (at least, she did on the first fifty pages). That was another thing: she gave up after only 50 pages, claiming it was too rough for feedback, and she even claimed it consisted of random scenes, even though the Editor from Hell was able to figure out that it was a heroic journey. (Granted, I added more scenes after the abusive feedback, so the novel was twice as long.)

Today I I noticed while cleaning up my inbox that she sent a couple more messages. The first one was probably the one with the track changes, unless that was attached to the original email. (I never looked over the track changes, the feedback that she put on the manuscript; I only read the completely negative email.) The second was probably asking me why I hadn’t responded. It wouldn’t make sense, but she may have even still expected me to be a reference for her, since originally she was going to critique the entire 200 pages, and I was going to write a recommendation for her. However, since her feedback was completely negative, I didn’t feel like writing any such recommendation, and since she wrote the ms off as so terrible that she stopped after 50 pages, I figured she no longer wanted the recommendation.

At the time, it made sense to me that I didn’t respond to her email because I was devastated and had no idea what to write (which no doubt anyone would say doesn’t make sense, because I’m a writer). Now in hindsight, six years later, my behavior seems crazy. So much for my communication skills. But I’m an INFJ, a feeling personality, and my reaction was entirely emotional, not thinking. Still, I wish I had replied–at least read the follow-up emails and responded to them–rather than not communicating at all. I never noticed the follow-up emails until now.

I just imagined writing her an email apologizing for not responding and for ignoring her other emails, but doing so would probably just open me up for attack. I fear that if I read those additional emails, I’ll only be opening old wounds.

By the way, since receiving her feedback, I’ve done absolutely no work on Woodland Castle. I haven’t even opened the manuscript and glanced at it. Negative feedback has probably ruined potential writing careers.

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