Growing a Thicker Skin

It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know that I’ll get ragged on for telling people the truth, as I see it. Writers are sensitive beings. I say some pretty harsh things. Like that you’ve got to write a million bad words before you can start writing seriously. Or that getting published is easy, if you’re good. Some of these things are not fun or easy to hear. I’m sorry for that, but I’m not sorry I say them. Why? Because they’re true.

Writing is a difficult, solitary, extremely personal thing. People spend years of their lives pouring their souls and creativity into a project. I’m acutely aware of that fact every time I sit down to read slush. Not only am I rejecting a particular manuscript, I could be rejecting years of a person’s life. It’s a tremendous responsibility and an amazing act of trust. I don’t take it lightly, even if I do make jokes about bad queries or the slush sometimes to keep things lively on the blog. Many of my friends are writers. I make a living by working with writers. I write myself. I have the highest respect and reverence for both writer and the written word. And that’s exactly why I dish out the truth, even if it sometimes sounds harsh or callous.

The biggest thing that stands between a writer and their own success is their ego. So many critique groups flourish on the idea of positive reinforcement. Unpublished writers sit around complimenting each other for hours and tiptoe around the problems. Everyone feels good but nobody learns, nobody grows, nobody goes through that horrible revision that makes them want to eat a gallon of ice cream every five minutes. And nobody gets published.

It’s very difficult to divorce yourself from your writing, since writing is so deeply personal. However, writing is personal, yes, but the business of publishing isn’t. Divorcing the two in your mind is the only way to grow and learn anything. Feel free to have that “I’m a genius and nobody else understands me!” moment. But don’t get stuck there. The fact of the matter is, there are many aspiring writers out there who are constantly honing their craft. Don’t get behind just because you’re afraid of a little criticism. (Don’t follow all criticism and change everything about your work for other people, of course, but that’s for another post…)

Here are the facts, as I see them: Not everyone who wants to will get published. A lot of people’s writing is mediocre and will most likely stay that way because nobody has ever told them it’s mediocre. Some critique groups are more harmful than helpful because everyone is afraid to actually, you know, critique. Not every book deserves to be published… in fact, many writers practice with two, three, five, ten manuscripts before they ever start to see a positive response from agents or editors.

It’s tough going. Really tough. It’s in your best interest to develop a thick skin, learn how to take criticism and rejection, separate yourself from what you’ve put on a page, learn everything you can about the industry, get realistic, and keep writing every day. The one-in-a-million publication stories are the ones you hear because they’re glamorous. Most people get published through the tears, snot, spilled coffee, midnight breakdowns and rare moments of joy that comprise a long time spent chasing a dream. It’s not terribly sexy, nor is it quick. But that’s how people make it and that’s the truth.

You come to this blog to learn things from the perspective of someone who sees thousands of queries, reads thousands of manuscripts and meets thousands of writers. Unlike well-meaning critique partners or clueless friends, it’s not in my best interest to sugarcoat. But I will tell you that books sell every day and that dreams do come true. When they do, though, it’s no accident or luck on the part of the writer, agent or editor, it’s hard work and determination and the hard-earned reward at the end of a long road. Unless you’re Stephenie Meyer, as this funny op-ed from agent Stephen Barbara recently pointed out. But that origin story is taken, so it’s time to find your own.

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  1. Anola Pickett’s avatar

    I feel fortunate to belong to a weekly critique group that is not afraid to truly critique members’ work, but does so in a supportive, helpful manner. Flaws and shortcomings are pointed out and accompanied by suggestions about how to overcome them. We all learn and grow from each manuscript we read. From points of grammar and usage to voice and setting, we cover it all. I’m not sure if we leave each week with a thicker skin but I do know we carry away a deeper sense of what it takes to be a good writer. Members’ news about acceptance and/or rejection and good/bad news about marketing trends also bring the reality of the writing life home to us as we sit around the table. Now that I think about it, I suppose that reality does, in fact, thicken our skins!

  2. Karen Schulz’s avatar

    I recently joined a writer’s critique group. Sometimes it is tough to listen to their comments. They are trying to help me become a better writer. Their comments have helped me see areas in my writing where I can make improvements.

  3. Melissa’s avatar

    I have semi-thick skin, but it’s so hard to find blunt critiquers.

  4. Archana Bharathan’s avatar

    When I return from my critique group feeling elated I indulge in the evening off. Well, I should say…I indulged in the evening off once. ONCE! Generally, I come back, fling the comments on my bed, lock my room and sulk in the kitchen in the company of two slices of Kraft’s single’s cheese. Then, I call my mom. After which I open the door to my bedroom door. Ignore my bed and do the laundry instead. The sun’s generally set by the time I can face the comments. And I go through the entire spectrum from denial (maybe they just don’t get it), anger (Im in a sucky critique group), bargaining (hmm, maybe that one comment there is correct but the rest is just crap), depression (how lousy a writer am I…maybe I’m just fooling myself and should give up), which I stay in for about 36 hours and acceptance (ok, fine I”ve got to cut 2k words and rewrite a whole chapter but I can do this.) I go through this journey of emotions once a month and if I don’t experience them after my group meeting I know…just know that I haven’t paid attention that day. That I haven’t pushed myself to the edge where you improve, learn, become a better writer. I don’t have a thick skin, don’t think I’m going to ever get one, my writing is personal -no two ways about it- but I make up for it by pretending I’m a freshman in college whose just got a C. The difference is….my professor is telling me I can retake the test. How cool is that! So I listen, sulk, cry, analyze and do my prep to retake the test because that’s the way I will become a better writer.

  5. Jordan Mierek’s avatar

    I like to think that I have thick skin. When someone tells me that something is awful, I don’t get mad or sad. I look at it. i figure out where they are coming from and try to make it better.

  6. Mary Miller’s avatar

    I think there is something deeply rooted in human beings to sugar coast things. I am in agreement with your article. I don’t want my critiques sugar-coated. I am in a critique group and they are very helpful. I know when all of them are pointing out the same issues with a MS it means something in my story isn’t working. I love honesty. I don’t beat around the bush and I respect those who don’t do that with me.

  7. Angela’s avatar

    My feeling is that if I hear a criticism from an editor or an agent that I did NOT hear from my crit group first, they aren’t doing their job. It’s not enough either to simply say that they don’t like it, there must always be a “because” or it’s useless. Maybe I’m a bit harsh, but I guard my writing time jealously and if I have to pull myself out of my own world long enough to read, digest, analyze, and report on someone else’s writing, I’d better be getting something useful for me out of the deal. I feel fortunate to be a member of an established group of like-minded writers. We complement where appropriate and all criticism is always accompanied by reasons and sometimes helpful ideas.

  8. Jessica Capelle’s avatar

    I count myself very lucky to have both writer friends and reader friends that will bluntly critique my work and tell me that they don’t like my main character and find she has no redeeming qualities (ow, that one hurt) or that a scene is so boring they wanted to go to sleep. But every comment like that is worth it to me when the next time they read pages, they are speechless. More than anything else, I think a good critique partner and/or group is the best investment of time a writer can make, other than actually sitting down and writing a bunch of words. Thanks for the great post!

  9. M. G. Dolandis’s avatar

    I’m a huge fan of critique groups. I am a member of an on line group that was formed by chance at an SCBWI convention. We are five women strong and we support and nurture each other with truth and constructive criticism, as well as praise and encouragement. We also share information about agents, editors, contests, and anything else having to do with writing for kids. Over the years we have become friends who cheer and comfort each other through the roller coaster of life. I am also lucky to be part of an on going live group that meets once a week, run by a brilliant YA writer/poet. Although I have not attended the live group for many months due to some ‘life gets in the way’ stuff, when I do attend, I find the feedback invaluable, not just to have my work critiqued but to have a support system. Writing is not the easiest profession in the world, as Mary can attest to, and it sure helps to have others with whom to commiserate!

  10. C.T. Richmond’s avatar

    Thank you for this post!

    When it comes to writing, I was born with incredibly thin skin but I’ve been trying to thicken it up by joining two critique groups (one in-person and one online). Fortunately, I’ve been lucky to find a group of women who offer both helpful criticism and encouragement. Sure, sometimes their comment can sting, but it also makes sense and makes my work stronger.

    Still…I wish I had naturally thick skin!

  11. Erica Olson’s avatar

    My worry with regular critique groups is that they could get as close to your work as you are. Well, not quite as close, but the danger is there that they lose perspective the more they read it, just like we all do during the writing/editing process.

  12. Mary Danielson’s avatar

    You are completely right – developing thick skin is one of the most important things for a writer, published or not. I’m definitely one of those who is naturally sensitive about my writing, but I can’t imagine sending anything out without having it critiqued to shreds first. If something seems harsh or hits a nerve, I take a step back and remember not to take it personally. Our emotions can get so wrapped up in creative endeavors like writing, that it can be really difficult to separate our writing from ourselves! But – hey – it’s just preparation for publication, right? Reviewers and Amazon readers will no doubt be way more brutal than helpful CPs ever could be!

  13. Michelle’s avatar

    I hate constructive criticism, it’s like someone telling you how to be a parent. But as much as I hate it, I know its useful and can be extremely helpful. It’s a writer’s best tool. I also know a lot of people that say they love constructive criticism, which I know is a complete lie because anytime anyone says something bad about a person’s work, that doesn’t sting?

  14. Robert Kent’s avatar

    I think I’ve reread this same post about 5 times now. I like everything about it. It’s the just the right amount of realistic while still being encouraging. As someone who has a few failed drafts behind him, your post makes me feel like I’m getting closer to my goal rather than just making mistakes. I am definitely sending my best queries your way and I will keep reading this blog even if they do not meet your needs at this time.

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