The Writing Life: Developing a Thicker Skin

The Writing Life Developing a Thicker Skin via @JanalynVoigt | Wordserve Water CoolerAfter I sold my first short story, every time I tried to write, I’d wind up staring at the blank screen until I gave up, often bursting into tears. This went on for a year, by which time I must have figured out no one was going to chain me to my desk and expect me to write on demand. I breathed easier and managed to write again, or at least I did until it occurred to me that my book project could fail. Sad but true, I had to get over both fear of success and fear of failure.

Both problems stemmed from the same stubborn root, caring too much what other people thought of my writing (and of me, by extension).

Being so shy didn’t help at all. I tried to hide the fact that I was a writer. Even close friends didn’t know until my husband started carrying magazines that contained my articles around so he could brag about his wife at a moment’s notice. He took my pleas that he stop for false modesty when they were in fact an attempt to protect myself from The Look. If you’ve been writing any length of time, you will know the one I mean. Eyebrows go up, eyes widen, and you begin to feel like a specimen in a laboratory.

I get The Look less often now that the e-book revolution has writers popping out of the proverbial woodwork, and when it happens my response has improved. My face doesn’t heat to blazing anymore, and I don’t yearn for escape.

What changed for me? I learned that having a thin skin isn’t something a writer can afford. Drawing your self esteem from the opinions of others at best makes you vulnerable and at worst misinforms you. Submit your writing to a critique group, and you’ll learn pretty quickly that while many opinions have value, not all are golden.

If you think taking a critique is hard, just wait until you go through edits. If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s when an editor or editors at your publisher house requests changes be made to your manuscript by you. It’s usually when you will question how you ever thought you could write. If you haven’t developed a thicker skin by this point in your writing career, trust me, you will. Having a sense of humor is an asset at such a time. I can’t say that edits for DawnSinger, my debut novel and book one in my Tales of Faeraven epic fantasy trilogy, were informed by mine. However, by the time edits arrived for Wayfarer, book two in the series, humor was in full force. You just can’t take yourself too seriously.

That’s a good thing, because the very next thing you face after publication is book reviews. Some writers refrain from reading reviews of their books. I admire such will power but I don’t possess it. I’ve read every review of my books that comes to my attention. I like to learn from them, even negative ones. Happily, I’ve learned to place my self-worth in the hands of the Author of my faith.

How do you handle critique/criticism of your writing?

The Bloody Page

I received my first critique of my first book (from someone other than my mom or husband) in the spring of 2008.

After much fear and trembling, I’d joined a small critique group through ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers.) Pushing send on that first submission made me feel like I was walking the plank on a gigantic pirate ship, destined to plunge into the shark-filled waters, causing my poor words to be slashed and slaughtered.

What if they hated it? What if they came back and said it was the worst thing they’d ever read? Worse, yet, what if they said it was fabulous but silently snickered behind their cyber-mail back and plotted ways to kick my sorry rear-end out of the group?

But then a thought came to me. What if they really DID love it? What if my work was utter brilliance, and they begged me to critique their work because of what they felt they would glean from my writing prowess? (Think jumping off the plank only to be rescued by friendly dolphins who let me ride on their backs while those on the ship hoot, holler, and applaud!)

I’m sorry to report, the reality was somewhere in between, leaning toward option A.

The critiques I received back were a bloody mess. And I’m not swearing in a British accent there. Comments overwhelmed the pages, words were sliced everywhere, whole paragraphs were victims of the brutal attack.

At first, I was left numb. But as I read through the notes, the wheels in my head started to unthaw and turn. Their notes to a very novice writer started to make sense. Show, don’t tell. Don’t explain here. Explain this more. Adverbs in every sentence is not a fab idea. Adjectives after every noun doesn’t help the cause. Beats, not tags. The list of my faux pas goes on and on.

After a day of mourning, I got to work.

I’d love to tell you that I rewrote that chapter and it was perfect. No such luck. I’ve edited that chapter about 100 times since then, even getting more dripping red critiques.Much of my problem was that I was trying to put Barbie Band-aids on very large holes that really needed antiseptic ointment, gauze and an ace bandage, if not amputation all together.

Fast forward three years. My original manuscript is sitting, bandages still intact, in ICU.

A new baby was born a few years ago and survived the plank a little better. In September, I was tickled pink to sign my FIRST publishing contract. Sandwich, With a Side of Romance is set to release September 2012.

But very, very soon, my poor sandwich book will be dripping in blood again, but from a new source. A publishing house editor!

I’m getting ready to walk the plank again. On one hand, the safety of the boat sounds really nice. To live in my-book-is-wonderful land is tempting! But I’ve survived many massacres now, from critique groups, to rejections, to contest results. And I’ve learned that what doesn’t kill my book will make it better.

Discussion: For you unpubbed out there… who do YOU have to “bleed” your writing? Have you survived, or did the coroner have to get involved? For you pubbed among us… *gulp* does it hurt too badly???

Flubs are not Fatal

Approximately 650 Christian writers have just returned from the ACFW conference in St. Louis. Some are celebrating agent/editor requests for manuscripts and are on an emotional high at the apex of the roller coaster we call the writing life.

Others may be feeling like they just slid over the edge and are plummeting down the steep hill into an abysmal, dark cavern. This feeling may be perpetuated by some flub on your part and you’re wondering if you and your career will recover.

Whatever fatal flaw you may be experiencing emotional distress over; it will likely not end your writing career. Unless you actually murdered someone… well, that might cause the ultimate demise of your writing dream through traditional publishing at least.

I’m here to share two “golden lessons”. Flubs are not fatal and the world of publishing is comprised of a small group of editors and agents.

My goal at one of my first writer’s conferences was to do several paid critiques. This was at a smaller, local gathering and I was just dipping my toes into the pool like a first time swimmer. I asked the conference director what I should submit. I still think he said “your best three chapters.”

I should have submitted my first three chapters.

Now, by the time I met with this particular agent over that critique, I had realized my mistake and apologized profusely. Surely, there was no saving my reputation.

It gets better.

Three years later I had an appointment with that same editor. I had polished the manuscript in those many months and felt confident that I had something worthy for her to consider. Just before our appointment, I attended her talk on writing edgy fiction and she made a point to say, “I really dislike when writers use rape as a plot device. Can’t you come up with something better?” My stomach twisted into a glorious mariner’s knot.

That’s right, my manuscript was about a serial rapist and our appointment was minutes after that talk.

I still went.

How do you handle these situations? Here are some of my suggestions.

  • Confess your mistake. Editors and agents are human just as we are and have probably made a few flubs themselves. Be open and honest about the mistake and move on.
  • Learn from your mistake. Don’t do the same thing twice. It’s not the fact that you made a mistake but your ability to fix and learn from it that is the mark of a professional.
  • Stay positive. If you think the agent/editor flubbed and it affected you negatively, don’t disparage them on social media. That same editor I met with twice is still working as an editor and was at the conference sitting one table away from me at the banquet. That would likely be a career ender.
  • Laugh about it. The writing life is hard enough. Self deprecating humor goes a long way in helping keep you sane.

Despite these gross errors in my writing journey, I still managed to acquire an agent and a publishing contract. And yes, it was that same novel.

What “fatal” flub have you had and how did you handle it?

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The Tough Critique

My best friend of more than 30 years was one of the first people to read a draft of my manuscript. I packaged all 299 pages in an envelope, mailed them 1,500 miles to her home and then chewed my nails ragged while I waited for her response.

I stalled for what I considered the proper amount of time. And then finally I couldn’t bear it any longer. I picked up the phone and dialed her number.

“Soooo…what did you think?” I blurted when she answered. I tried not to sound desperate and sweaty. “Do you like the book? Have you finished it? What do you think so far? Seriously, you can tell me the truth. I mean it!”

I waited.

Silence lay heavy, like a suffocating blanket suddenly strewn over the vast plains between us .

“Well…” She hesitated. A dull ache began to gnaw in the pit of my stomach.

“Well…to be honest, I, um, I put it down, and I’m having trouble picking it back up again,” she offered quietly.

“What? What?! Are you kidding me? You’re having trouble picking it back up again? What does that mean? Are you saying my book is boring or something?! What, like Reader’s Digest boring? Like Henry James boring? Like iphone manual boring?!”

I didn’t actually say those things aloud, of course. My actual response went more like this:

“Okay.”

 Deep, shaky exhale.

“Okay, so tell me more. What exactly is the problem? Can you be more specific? Which part is bogging you down? Does it go awry at any particular point, or is the whole thing giving you trouble?”

During that difficult conversation I learned that Andrea had enjoyed a lot of the manuscript, especially the anecdotes, which comprised the meat of the memoir. But when she got to the sections that delved into Biblical instruction, she lost interest.

I give her credit for her honesty and courage. Although Andrea knew exactly how important this writing endeavor was to me and exactly how insecure and fearful I was, she told the hard truth because she knew in the long run that it was important that I hear it. (Granted, she could have phrased it a bit more delicately. Then again, I did hound her like a salivating Saint Bernard). 

But I admit, it was a hard truth to swallow. And even though we had a fruitful and constructive conversation, and she didn’t deem the whole book an abysmal failure, when I got off the phone that afternoon I felt a weight on my chest like a stack of crumbling bricks. What’s more, I didn’t take her advice – I made none of the changes she suggested.

The funny thing was, in the end, she was right.

A year later, when I paid a professional editor to review my manuscript, guess what he advised? That’s right: he suggested I cut all the instructional sections woven into the book because they “interrupted the flow of the story.” And later, when Rachelle Gardner accepted me as  client, she admitted that the book wouldn’t have appealed to her, had it included all the Biblical analysis and instruction.

Andrea had been spot-on in her observations, and she had been honest, courageous and diplomatic in her critique. The real problem was that I simply hadn’t been ready to listen.

Let’s chat:  How do you decide who critiques early drafts of your writing? Have you ever received a negative critique from a friend? How do you balance a critiquer’s opinion with your own ideas? How do you know when you are ready to have your writing critiqued?