The Myth of the Thick-Skinned Novelist

Photo © 2009 Nathan Rupert CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some years ago, when I was a fledgling storyteller still puzzling through the basics of what makes a story work (or not), I frequented a certain writer’s forum, now defunct. One of the writers there made it very clear that when we critiqued his work, we should be positively nasty about it. He didn’t want to hear anything soft and fluffy about how well he wrote, because otherwise how could he grow as a writer? Rather, he wanted to hear about all the stuff he did wrong. That’s what we call “having a thick skin.”

This is a common enough view in critique groups, although I don’t share it. I think that positive criticism can be even more useful than negative, as long as it’s constructive. That is, if you tell the writer what she did that particularly worked (rather than what didn’t work), you’ll be supporting her in her strengths. That’s even more important than helping her overcome her weaknesses, because we all have areas in which we’re weak. But a writer makes her name on her strengths, not her weaknesses, because her fans read her work in order to experience those strengths.

That’s a writer’s critique group. But you really don’t know how criticism feels until you get your first unfair review— that reviewer who doesn’t just dislike your story, but dislikes you personally. He doesn’t just disagree with what you’ve written, but rather thinks you yourself are a charlatan. And he may not have even read your book. Every author has gotten such a review at least once, and as soon as you do, you can say you’ve arrived. That’s when a thick skin really comes in handy.

Despite the thick skin, it gets easier to be criticized as much as it gets easier to be turned down for a date. In other words, it doesn’t get easier. You just get used to it— maybe.

Or more likely, you don’t.

Reviews and Critiques

There’s a fundamental difference between reviews and critiques. Reviews are not written to be constructive. They aren’t designed to point out how you can improve or to help you become a better writer. Remember, a reviewer is a writer himself, and he writes to please his own audience, to pander to their tastes and prejudices. If he can do so without even having read your book, he will. A review says more about the reviewer than it does about your work.

Maybe that’s why many authors refuse to read reviews of their own books.

So much for thick skin.

When you’re first learning how to tell a story, critiques can be invaluable, because they allow you to see your own work from another’s perspective. This allows you to grow as a writer, because it gets past the blindness we all encounter when reading our own work, especially as beginning writers.

As you begin to develop your writing skills and style, you discover that critiques are just as subjective as reviews are, because the analysts who provide them can only speak from their own personal reactions to your work. And analysts—whether they are professional editors or agents or just plain old critique partners—also have their own audiences, just as reviewers do, and they operate within the prejudices of their audiences.

So you learn to filter everything the analysts say through your own judgement, to ask whether their advice will actually help you write the story you want to write, rather than the story they would have you write, because you know that they might be wrong about your story. This strategy works for a while, because in critique you’re still picking up tips that help you develop your craft.

But eventually, you discover that half the criticisms you’re receiving tell you nothing you didn’t already know—that is, the positive criticisms that point out what you did “right.” And the other half of the criticisms you disagree with. And you don’t just disagree with them; you know exactly why you disagree with them and what’s wrong with the analysis. Shortly thereafter, you give up on critiques altogether.

So much for thick skin.


Rejection stings less if you say “I want to be a better writer” a little louder than “I want to be published.”Stephen Parolini

Maybe that’s why so many of us say it.

In reality, it’s an amazingly short journey to competence. You acquaint yourself with basic story elements, basic story structures, basic concepts, basic stupid clichés (so you can avoid them). And you read, read, read. And beyond that, “better” is simply what you make it to be, what you yourself want it to be. Accepting criticism doesn’t actually make you a better writer; it only makes you more like the critic. True growth as a writer comes from within, not without.

There are a number of reasons an editor or agent may reject your manuscript. But rejection (like a review) says more about the person doing it than the person it’s done to. At best, it says the editor doesn’t think your work may be right for his audience. But it doesn’t indicate that there’s anything “wrong” with the work itself.

At the May 2 #writechat, on Twitter (earlier this month), we discussed rejection, and how to maintain a good attitude when you’ve been rejected. Here are some of the comments writers made:

ML Hart: Resiliency comes from believing in your work which comes from knowing who you are. Takes time – worth it.

Marie Dees: Different editors have different wants, so rejection happens even with good work.

(… which she wrote in response to my tweet, “I believe that rejections are both undesirable and unnecessary. How should I stay positive when someone criticizes my work?”)

Aidan Fritz: For me, having multiple projects also helps with rejection, and I also see my new stuff is better than my old.

Peter H. Fogtdal: Enjoying what you do without thinking trendy or un-trendy is the key to anything in life, not just writing.

(… which he wrote in response to my tweet, “I think that if a writer writes material that I enjoy, then I trust her more than a writer who hasn’t. No rejection needed.”)

Kathleen Duey: I always have one in progress, one being sold, and 4-5-6 in “development.”

Tiffanie Minnis: I don’t worry about those that AREN’T supportive of my work, because there are too many that ARE supportive of my work.

John Wiswell: Rejection builds character? I’ll write about a guy who gets rejected 4,000 times. Instant classic!

Ana Vicente Ferreira: After my first book was out, I actually was both praised and smacked around for the exact same detail.

Alex Carrick: When it comes to reviews of your work, keep in mind that what the reviewer says reveals as much about them as about you.

Chris Hamilton: Do you write for the critics? The money? Or to tell good stories? That helps drive how you respond.

Liza Larregui: I know that my writing will appeal to someone despite rejections I receive. I am a writer. I write. It’s a need.

Claire Cook: After rejection, I allow myself one day to really wallow in it. Then I move on.

Despite the variety of approaches, what interests me most for this article is that writers feel a distinct need to deal with the depression that rejection otherwise produces. To focus on the good comments you get, to redefine your purpose as a writer so that rejection isn’t relevant to it, to look to the future, to throw energy into your next project, to allow yourself only a certain amount of time to feel depressed, all of these are techniques psychologists recommend for dealing with depression, because they help combat painful or worrying feelings and keep them from taking over your life. Even the idea that rejection will somehow make you a “better” writer, that’s designed to make you feel good about being rejected.

So much for thick skin.



2 responses to “The Myth of the Thick-Skinned Novelist”

  1. Ruth Ann Nordin Avatar

    Having been there and done that with critique groups and reviews, all I could think was, “I have to share this!” I posted it up at the website I gave above. I posted it in full with your name and the link back to here. If I missed anything, please let me know. 🙂

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