Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What's the worst thing you can say to a writer? (01/15/09)



Featured writer: David S. Johnson



Contributors this month:
Bree LeMaire
Charlene Bunas
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Glanda Widger
Kathryn Daugherty
Marilyn Petty


It’s not what you mean, but how mean you say it

by David S. Johnson

The worst thing you can say to a writer is any expression of a rejection. Below is a list of rejections that might capture the desperate ferocity of an exasperated editor and might just be mean enough to injure even the most thick-skinned writers.

11) A thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters would eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare. Buy more bananas.

10) Although you included proper postage, I am not returning your manuscript. I consider it payment for making me read the damn thing.

9) No matter how masterfully you blend dactylic hexameters and trochaic octameters, words such as ‘syphillitic skank' and ‘tallywhacker' are not appropriate for our craft.

8) If you followed the adage, "write what you know," then a blank page would have sufficed.

7) We have decided to use your manuscript. You will be pleased to know that we are using the back of your manuscript pages to print off acceptance letters to other authors. We appreciate your contribution to our going "green."

6) There was a vagrant, six-toed hooker cat from the neighborhood that used to sleep in the floorboard of my wrecked 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier that sat in the driveway. He drank water out of old tires and brought me dead squirrels on occasion. He impregnated my bitchy neighbor's cat, a 20 lb Savannah with perfect spotting. The cat cost her $2000 and the look on her face when those six-toed kittens were born was priceless. That rascal. I wonder what ever happened to that cat.

5) Your manuscript was awkward to read. Not awkward like grabbing your mother-in-law's ass thinking it was your wife's, but awkward like your father-in-law grabbing your ass knowing that it was you.

4) My fourth-grade son plagiarized your work. But don't worry, that "F" taught him a good lesson.

3) I wish I had the same level of desire for writing that you have for failing.

2) We have decided not to use your piece. Although yours was the only submission, competition was fierce.

1) I regret to inform you that I've read your manuscript.

David Samuel Johnson regrets to inform you that you have read his work. David's Website


Worst Advice to Give a Writer

  by Bree LeMaire

"There were so many run on sentences, I couldn't read it."

This was the coup de grâce feedback I received from my work-shopped piece. I felt skewered, strung up, drawn and quartered in what was supposed to be a fantastic presentation, to the new writing group. I expected they would be in awe. They weren't.

At the time, I smiled most sweetly, didn't argue any points, was the personification of an author receiving gifts from the gods. "Thank you, so much" I gushed.

It wasn't until some time passed that I realized I was no longer writing. The light inside had gone out. My delight in the tranquility of putting words together, entertaining my husband and sending in bits of essays had stopped. Depression stole in with all its ugly self messages. Why did I want to write? This is the age of computers, who would want to write? No one would read it anyways.

"What's going on with your writing?" my therapist asked.

"Well, I was in this high tech group and they had stringent criteria," I answered.

After a bit of probing the fact that I was an outsider, not a tech writer came up. I realized how established the group really was and remembered that the woman whose place I had taken had recently passed away. I'd been a terrible fit.

The letter of resignation helped immensely as I wrote of blindsided feelings. It was the start of my return to the writerly life and to hell with run on sentences.

Bree LeMaire continues with her mystery story, with seven more chapters to rewrite. The main character recently had a sexual encounter with the detective. She now has a second incentive to solve this murder as The Plot Thickens. E-Mail Bree

One of THOSE Questions

  by Charlene Bunas

..."where have I read your work?"


Over the past twenty years, Charlene Bunas has been published many, many times in periodicals most readers have never heard of.


It’s not what you mean, but how mean you say it

  by David S. Johnson

The worst thing you can say to a writer is any expression of a rejection. Below is a list of rejections that might capture the desperate ferocity of an exasperated editor and might just be mean enough to injure even the most thick-skinned writers.

11) A thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters would eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare. Buy more bananas.

10) Although you included proper postage, I am not returning your manuscript. I consider it payment for making me read the damn thing.

9) No matter how masterfully you blend dactylic hexameters and trochaic octameters, words such as ‘syphillitic skank' and ‘tallywhacker' are not appropriate for our craft.

8) If you followed the adage, "write what you know," then a blank page would have sufficed.

7) We have decided to use your manuscript. You will be pleased to know that we are using the back of your manuscript pages to print off acceptance letters to other authors. We appreciate your contribution to our going "green."

6) There was a vagrant, six-toed hooker cat from the neighborhood that used to sleep in the floorboard of my wrecked 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier that sat in the driveway. He drank water out of old tires and brought me dead squirrels on occasion. He impregnated my bitchy neighbor's cat, a 20 lb Savannah with perfect spotting. The cat cost her $2000 and the look on her face when those six-toed kittens were born was priceless. That rascal. I wonder what ever happened to that cat.

5) Your manuscript was awkward to read. Not awkward like grabbing your mother-in-law's ass thinking it was your wife's, but awkward like your father-in-law grabbing your ass knowing that it was you.

4) My fourth-grade son plagiarized your work. But don't worry, that "F" taught him a good lesson.

3) I wish I had the same level of desire for writing that you have for failing.

2) We have decided not to use your piece. Although yours was the only submission, competition was fierce.

1) I regret to inform you that I've read your manuscript.

David Samuel Johnson regrets to inform you that you have read his work. David's Website


Say What?

  by Don Edgers

The worst thing said to me was by my 5th grade teacher, after I orally presented a safety poem, "Phillip Fall," that wowed my peers. The written version was returned with a note: "Poor handwriting."

Michelle Gagnon, author of Tunnels, tells of receiving one of her many rejections from an agent that had a checklist of why her manuscript was rejected - one of the checked items said something like, "We think you are a talentless waste of space."

The worst thing said to writers Salmon Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, and Brad Thor, The Last Patriot, was made by radical Muslims. Because these authors wrote about Islam they were told, "You will die!"

I came across blogs accusing writers Bryony Gordon (the Daily Telegraph [U.K.]), and Jerry Shriver USA Today of being the worst writers on the staffs of their publications.

A reader of Ms. Gordon's columns wrote in a blog titled ‘The Worst Writer at the Daily Telegraph' (is) Bryony Gordon. - "I feel embarrassed for you and the slating you attract week after week for your ridiculous copy. It baffles me that you never seem to improve your writing — Bryony Gordon is certainly not a writing talent."

In a direct marketing blog, Bob Bly posts the topic, ‘The World's Worst Wine Writer?'. Concerning a review of a Pinot Noir wine in USA Today by Jerry Shriver, Bly writes, "Is it just me, or is this an example of terrible writing?" Some of the responses to this question: "No idea what (Shriver) is talking about" - "Utter garbage" - "Average writer trying to sound impressive" - "Insane" - "Marginal wine writer."

I guess my 5th grade teacher's criticism pales in contrast to the acrid comments made to the professionals mentioned above.

In a slightly different vein, Brad Thor says the worst thing you can say to a writer is, "Write what you know." He cites the examples of Ray Bradbury or J.K. Rowling and what they might not have written had they been given this advice.

Don Edgers ignores Thor’s observation and writes what he knows in Port Orchard, WA.
Don's Website


What’s The Worst Thing You Can say to a Writer?

  by Glanda Widger

1-Can you tell me how it ends?
2-Can I read your manuscript?
3-Will you read my manuscript?
4-Yes, but what do you do for a real job?

Glanda is an over the hill female from North Carolina. She writes what she thinks. Her thinking is not altogether cohesive but, it makes her laugh. Luckily, at her age, poking fun is a forgivable
lapse in manners.E-Mail Glanda


Don't Be Cute

  by Kathryn Daugherty

As I sit in nervous anticipation of my husband's comments on my latest short story contest entry, I watch his face, looking for some idea of what he's thinking. Has he got to the twist in the story? Has he related to the teenage boy's angst? What is he thinking?

I've spent a great number of hours writing and rewriting this story, checking and double-checking the spelling and grammar. Working on the development of the plot, theme, conflict, and resolution took several drafts. I revised the ending, making sure it wasn't to abrupt or complicated. Provided a strong satisfying finish, all loose ends coming together in a "happily-ever-after ending." I'm anxious for him to give me an honest opinion. Is it good? Does it grab his attention? Could it be a possible winner in this month's contest? His eyes shift and he lays the pages on the table. He looks at me and says, "That's cute."

"That's cute," I moan. "What do you mean it's cute? The story tells about a teenage boy finding out that, by day, his mom is a nude art model. What is cute about that?"

"I don't know. It's just cute."

I can take criticism, I understand objectivity, I even understand discouragement, but I do not understand "That's cute."

No opinion, no discussion, no critique, and no thought --- that is what it means when you're told the story is cute.

I want honest feedback. I want a fair assessment of its value. Let me know where it's flawed. What are its virtues? Tell me what needs to be fixed and what is good. Tell me it had a twist you didn't expect, or that you liked the main character, or that the dialogue needs work. Explain how the ending didn't fit, or that I misspelled a word in paragraph three, and the transition from one scene to the other is botched. Tell me the premise is thin, the secondary character needs to be more believable. Ask me questions. What is the theme? How long did you work on this piece? Where did you come up with this idea? Where is your story arc? Did you think this through? Where is the conflict?

Tell me my story sucks, but please do not tell me my story is CUTE.

Kathryn Daugherty reads and writes from her office gazebo in Pella, Iowa. Her “cute” story “Secret Alliance” won first place in the 2007 “Writers’ Journal” Short Story Contest.


The worst thing you can say to a writer

  by Marilyn Petty

On one of her visits my mother said, in a rather reproachful tone, that she had not read anything I wrote. Mother didn't believe in her children taking on airs, making like they could do something exceptional, so I had never suggested that she might enjoy reading some of my efforts.

This time, however, since she, sort of, asked, I gave her a couple of one-page essays I wrote for a newsletter. She took them off to bed, but, as she apologized the next morning, she was just too tired to read them. They stayed on the bedside table when she left for home. She never asked again.

My husband did ask and each month diligently plowed through the newsletter as well as the essay. If he made any comment at all, which was seldom, it was a bland, "Pretty good." High praise, indeed. What else need he say? Families, at least mine, bless them, are like that.

My mother and husband are gone now. No need to play the Marilyn-thinks-she's-a-writer game with them. Perhaps they feared too much praise of such brilliant literary endeavors would stifle my creativity. I don't know what the worst thing is to say to a writer. It depends on the writers, the thinness of their skins and who is dishing out the vitriol, but silence can speak volumes, and I can always pretend I heard kudos instead of the worst thing they didn't say.

Marilyn Petty often hears voices in her head while sitting at the computer hoping to write unsurpassed prose in Santa Rosa.


Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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