I’m resurrecting this story in honor of Tax Day. The truth, however, is that it’s a perfect example of a story that failed.
This was only my third online publication, and only my fifth publishing credit overall, my first two having taken place way back in the twentieth century. “Baby and Me,” my first story for Every Day Fiction (published in February 2013) had gone over quite well in spite of its cynical subject matter, receiving nothing but glowing reviews and an average rating of 3.9. In addition, at the beginning of April I received a series of acceptance letters that would have swelled the head of any aspiring writer – seven acceptances in seven days. I’ll probably never have a week like that again!
Anyway, so I guess I was feeling pretty good about myself and my skills as a writer – and then “April Holiday” came out. It’s the story of the aftermath of Tax Day at an accounting firm, written as if it takes place at the scene of a disaster. The language was heavy and overdone; I wanted it to read dramatically, even though it’s clearly kind of a silly piece. I thought I succeeded, and maybe I did. There was only one problem. People hated it.
Here was the first comment:
“After struggling through a jungle of adverbs and adjectives, I didn't really get the point.”
This from one of EDF’s top commenters and a respected writer in his own right; I knew when I read that that the rest of the day wasn’t going to go well.
At least I was right about that.
The story wasn’t rated well, and most of the rest of the comments were critical, particularly of my use of modifiers. Worse, I feared, people must think it was stupid; pointless, according to Mr. F. That hurt.
What was even more irritating was reading other comments later on, and finding remarks like this:
“As I read it I thought it was well-written but must admit to re-reading it after Mr. F's comment, and then agreeing with the overuse of adverbs and adjectives.”
Now I’m not saying that I didn’t jam this piece chock full of adverbs and adjectives. I definitely did. Across the board, people agreed that it was too much, and I’ve kept that painfully in mind throughout every bit of work I’ve written since. But I also couldn’t help but feel that the story would have fared much better if the first person who reviewed it hadn’t hated it. His remark demonstrably skewed the opinions of the other readers, and to me, this was the most important lesson I learned from this experience. People are influenced by what other people say and think. One bad review can garner more. And if you’re going to put your work out there for people to read and review, there’s simply no way around that.
Depressing, isn’t it? Even now, a year later, I haven’t forgotten how painful that particular publication experience was. I don’t even like to look at the story I thought was so amusing when I wrote it. I did learn something that made me feel better on one score, though. Mr. F, the unwitting spoiler of my April Holiday, isn’t American or even Canadian. In fact, he resides in a country which likely doesn’t even have a Tax Day, which may mean that my story may have been completely outside the realm of his experience. It’s easy to see how that might make one miss the “point” of a story like this, just as I would be unlikely to comprehend a story he wrote spoofing his own local government.
It’s hard not to take other people’s harsh words to heart. Sometimes we need the criticism, even if we don’t like the way it’s thrown at us. But we also shouldn’t try to make it worse or more insulting than it is. Reading and writing are subjective. And so, too, are our emotional responses to other people’s remarks. At the time it felt as if the fragile little writing world I’d built was about to crumble down around me. My foundation is much more solid now, and maybe my walls are sturdy enough to withstand most of the slings and arrows that will be flung my way. They still sting, though, particularly when they’re sharp and oh-so-accurately aimed. But a good fortress grows stronger every time it’s assaulted. And maybe the best way to defend what you’ve built is not to strike back, but to give people fewer reasons to attack you, by creating a strong body of work of which you – and your readers – will always be proud.