It’s Not You: Right Words, Wrong Audience

I see semi-regular comments on Twitter about writers who argue with editors. The overwhelming majority of opinion on this subject from writers who actually get published is this: DON’T.

I agree. A magazine’s editor certainly knows better than any of its writers (or potential contributors) what is best for its particular market. That said, I do want to point something out.

Not every rejection is about the quality of your work. On occasion, it may happen simply because that editor is not your audience.

Let me back up a bit.

Years ago, I submitted a poem entitled “Breakthrough” to one of my creative writing classes. The version I submitted at the time was:

Feel the power igniting
Feel it burning in your veins
Touch the flowing fire “Desire”
Drench your body in the flames.

Follow where the flickers lead you
Though they’ll rake you through the night
Brand your soul with conquered madness
Then plunge headlong into Light.

Rock your Self atop the embers
Cool your face within the heat
Quench your thirsting body’s emptiness
With warmth and peace complete!

What do you think the poem is about? Give it a little thought. We’ll come back to it in a minute.

Earlier this week I submitted a short fiction piece called “Muzi’s Boon” to an online spec fic publication. The story takes place in an unspecified fantasy world where nature spirits interact with the people of the land on a limited, but personal level. Muzi, the main character, tells the story in first person POV. During the tale, she comes face-to-face with a choice between what’s best for herself or what’s best for someone else. Both options carry a heavy price. I intended the story to provoke dialogue about balance between want and need, between the individual and the world around them. Beta readers and critique partners in my fiction class saw this and understood its point.

The editor at the zine, however, rejected Muzi in part because it was too similar to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

I read “Omelas” several years ago. (Excellent story. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so.) So, on the one hand, this is a complement. Yay! An editor thought my story was similar to a Le Guin classic! But even though I do see parallels and reminiscent elements between “Omelas” and “Muzi,” the stories are not the same. Their messages are not the same. Their endings (which is where the editor mostly said it was similar) are not the same. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In addition, my critique partners and beta readers commented on the “beautiful prose” in Muzi’s story. One even said it brought tears to her eyes. The editor, on the other hand, rated my prose functional, but average.

So was this editor wrong?

No. The zine is their responsibility. Their baby. They have a very specific idea about what they are looking for and Muzi wasn’t it. I absolutely respect their decision. My point is that different people can read the exact same thing and see very different things.

Back to my poem. Think you know what it’s about?

My classmates—every last one—thought it was about sex. Surprise! It was not. When I wrote “Breakthrough,” I was trying to describe a spiritual awakening, that feeling of communion with God/The Divine/The All/The Universe/Insert Name Here. For weeks after that class, I struggled to imagine how I could revise the poem to make my readers see my actual intent. I finally gave up because each attempt diminished the message. In trying to make the poem one-size-fits-all, the meaning was reduced to unrecognizable pablum. Its significance to me, personally, got lost in the process.

It was a number of years, during which I kept making the same effort to please every reader, before I really learned that lesson. Now, I accept (more or less) that if ten people read one of my stories/poems/what-have-you and nine like it, that’s a pretty good success rate. Even better, if even seven of the ten really grok the message I intended, I’m happy. Every reader interprets my words based on their own life experience, their own beliefs. I can’t control that. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. That diversity is a big part of what makes our world so beautiful. So colorful. So vastly interesting.

I admit I’ve gotten some rejections because I sent a piece out before it was ready. But there have been times, like Muzi, when I’m convinced the story is good. I know it’s well-written. I just haven’t found the right audience. It’s still hard, sometimes, to just nod and say “Thanks for the opportunity,” and move on. I angst sometimes for days over rejections like this one. If you’re a writer, especially one who’s struggling to make a name for yourself in The Industry, you probably know full well how that feels.

In the meantime, I keep trying to find The Right Audience for each and every one of my stories. Muzi is still looking for a home, and that’s okay with me.

“Stop” photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

“Surprised Face” photo by Robin Higgins on pixabay