What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1)

Let’s forget about the craft of writing for a moment.

It should go without saying that a serious writer must have some measure of creativity and a solid grasp of language to avoid the proverbial pitfalls of syntax and semantics (such as these).

Anyway, there are countless resources dedicated to helping dabblers step up their game and plenty of places where professional writers can learn to improve in such areas as concept development, composition, publishing, and so forth.

Elephants have thick skins. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

Elephants have thick skin. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

We live in a DIY era, where a million (or more) websites will happily walk you down the path of getting an idea out of your head, into a computer, and, ultimately, in front of the eyes of other people.  And while I know I’m not the first to tackle this topic, there seems to be a dearth of articles pertaining to some of the more intangible qualities that, in my experience, benefit someone who wants to succeed—or simply survive—the sometimes schizophrenic lifestyle of an artist.

So without further ado, here is the first character trait of a well-adjusted writer:

Thick skin

Blame it on the prevailing mentality that we are all beautiful and unique snowflakes worthy our own reality TV series.  Social media gives us the ability to broadcast every inane detail of our lives.  We must be important, right?  I mean, these days even the losing team gets trophies just for trying.

Our collective self-worth has never been higher.  Or more precarious.

I suspect writers have always carried a certain measure of sensitivity when it comes to their work.  While we often hear the analogy of a book being an author’s “baby,” the relationship between the creator and the created becomes even more intimate than that when we see our work not as an extension of ourselves, but as the prevailing piece of our identity.

Not good.

I can’t help but marvel when I hear writers whine about negative reviews or, worse, when they go on the warpath to defend their precious child/ego.  Oh, I’m not immune to the impulse.  But having weathered college workshops populated by (fellow) know-it-alls, attended countless critique sessions with the brilliant Allied Authors of Wisconsin, and dissected many a manuscript alongside my biggest fan and harshest critic (my wife), I’ve learned how to keep my mouth shut—and my ears open.

Let’s get one thing straight: The reader owes you nothing beyond the price of your book—not their time and certainly not a positive review on Goodreads.  Your ideas and delivery thereof might earn you those things, but they are not to be taken for granted.  It’s a huge mistake to assume that the reader will share your emotional bond with a story, especially before they even crack the cover.

No, it’s your job to make them feel a fraction of what you feel about your characters, setting, and plot.  If they stop reading after a page or even the first paragraph, it could be for a variety of reasons, but it all boils down to a lack of connection between story and reader.  Hence, your book is always partially to blame.

Let’s get another thing straight: Even if your novel is better than anything written by Shakespeare or Suzanne Collins, you won’t please everyone.  The playwright has never been universally adored, and despite record-breaking sales, some folks simply can’t stomach The Hunger Games.

If you can’t please everyone, the logical conclusion is that some people will have some not-so-nice things to say about your work.

That’s OK.

Even if you end up writing something terrible, that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.  It might mean you need more practice with the nuts and bolts of the craft.  Or it could be you didn’t do a very good job translating what’s in your head to the page.  Or maybe you just haven’t reached the right audience.

Every writer needs an audience.  And because technology is a two-edged sword—giving a writer not only multiple channels through which to distribute his or her work, but also instant access to readers’ reactions—we writers have to get better at separating ourselves from our work and letting the story speak for itself.

How writers engage their readers is a topic (or an entire series) for another day.  Meanwhile, here is my recommendation for contending with criticism:

  • Step 1 — Solicit feedback from those whose opinions you trust, particularly those who are well-read in your genre.  Wherever the criticism comes from, keep it in context.  It’s just one opinion among billions.
  • Step 2 — Tell yourself, “Even if they don’t like the story, it doesn’t mean they don’t like me.”  (And if necessary, add, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”)
  • Step 3 — Listen carefully and take notes.
  • Step 4 — Defy the urge to defend.
  • Step 5 — Seriously, keep your mouth shut!
  • Step 6 — Once the critique is over, you can speak, but only to seek clarification.
  • Step 7 — Show appreciation for the feedback, even if your ego has withered to the size of a prune.
  • Step 8 — Give yourself the distance of a day or two, and then go back to your notes and decide which points have merit.
  • Step 9 — Edit the manuscript, keeping what works and fixing what doesn’t.
  • Step 10 — When your baby goes out into the world, wish it well and resist the urge to hover and embarrass it by coming to its defense every time someone says something unkind.

Bottom line: Constructive criticism is a gift, not a curse.  But before a writer can benefit from it, he or she might need to grow a few more layers of skin.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1)

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  5. Great advice! I usually don’t consider myself to have thick skin, but some people, apparently, think I do. One thing’s for sure: I know I don’t have thin skin!

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