Friday, September 5, 2008

Developing a Thick Skin

Houskeeping: I know I did a little shuffling this week, with post days and topics. Open discussion posts will continue next Saturday as usual. Also, I’m looking for someone to do a guest-post about self-publishing for the current series. If anyone is interested, and has had both good and bad experiences with self-publishing, please e-mail me at –

headdeskforwriters @ gmail .com

– with “self-publishing” in the subject-line.


One of the first things they tell you, as an aspiring writer, is to develop a thick-skinned attitude. Forget about your dreams, they say. Forget the 3½ years you labored over a single 80k novel. So what if it’s your masterpiece, your magnum opus, your tour de force – forget all of that. Send it out anyway. Smile like a benevolent Barbie as it’s run through the shredder, and weep with gratitude for being so honored. This is a business now. Get used to it.

Yeah, right.

Rejection is hard. It’s hard for everyone – Famous Authors, aspiring writers, the published and unpublished – everyone. Rejection makes you doubt your writing and yourself. Too much rejection, too soon, can stunt your growth and leave you scarred.

In Lawrence Block’s book Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, he recounts a story of a young man and a musician. The young man wanted to play professionally, and the musician told him that he lacked the fire. The young man gave up. Later, the musician confessed that he always told people they lacked the fire. He reasoned that if they lacked it, they would give up anyway. If they had it, they would play on, no matter what he said.

I’ve got news for you: it’s not this simple. It really isn’t. The fire may always burn, but it won’t always burn bright. We are vulnerable. It can’t be helped. How, then, are you supposed to develop this coveted thick skin? Besides simply “getting over it,” how do you deal with criticism in positive way?

Start by critiquing others.

This has helped me massively. A few times, with different forums and groups, I’ve offered to beta-read or critique other’s works. It taught me how to develop a professional attitude about things, and gave me perspective for the next time someone critiqued my work.

If you can’t find a critique group around where you live, try joining a forum or a Yahoo! Group. Absolute Write has a whole bunch of forums set aside for people receiving/giving critique. Try to stay open-minded, and always tack a few encouraging words onto your comments. 

Submit in steps.

When you want to publish something, don’t write it up, edit once or twice, and then send it out as is. The piece probably isn’t ready. Your inevitable rejection will be that much harsher. Instead, edit until your eyeballs ooze, then send it to a few beta-readers until their eyeballs ooze, and then send it to your critique group. Only now should you submit it for publication.

Submitting in steps like this has a few benefits. It teaches you to stay impartial over long periods of time, and it conditions you to criticism. You learn what’s useful and what to ignore. You’ll see how criticism makes your piece better. You’ll gain a confidence in your writing that won’t change, no matter how many times it’s rejected. You’ve run it through the gauntlet and it survived. That means something. That makes it worthy.

Submit small items often, to increase your tolerance.

Submitting often is crucial to gaining experience. Because small works take less time to create, less of your devotion and love, the sting of rejection doesn’t hurt as much. It also allows you to build your tolerance in manageable doses. Think of this like trying to get a tan: too much sun, too soon, and you’ll get burnt.

Balance criticism with praise.

Even with plenty of conditioning and experience, rejection can get to a person. There’s a rule that family members make bad critics. I disagree with this. I think every writer should have a few critics who are honest, but also a few who will give encouragement and reassurance. The encouragement is just as important as the criticism.

Whenever you start to loose confidence, find a parent or good friend and ask them what they think of a piece. These people believe in you. You should believe in them as well.  

Fight setbacks with progress.

I’ve heard people say that when they get rejected, they send out five more submissions. This is a nifty way to turn a setback (rejection) into progress (submissions.) It skips right around the whole self-pity stage and keeps them on track. Try to find something like this for yourself – counteract the negative with the positive.

Develop the right attitude.

While I saved this one for last, I think it is the most important step of all. It’s not something you can practice twice and be done with, either. Be honest with yourself. What kind of attitude have you adopted about criticism and rejection? Are you hard and embittered, blithe and casual, uppity and offensive?

None of these are going to keep you safe for long. The right attitude is professional, optimistic, and respectful. It acknowledges the reality of how things are, without being crushed by that reality. There’s a little saying that sums it all up: prepare for the worst, and expect the best. The core principle here is that it’s okay to dream – in fact, it’s essential to dream – but always have a fallback plan. You know. Just in case.

Similar posts: 

Editing: Secret Sin #2

Marketing Expectations


- Creative A




Anonymous said...

Great, thoughtful post. I completely agree with you about critiquing in order to gain insight and build a thicker skin. Much easier to see how you can be well-intentioned and NOT hate a work and yet still criticize it, etc. Gives lots of perspective.

Creative A said...

Ah, thanks Chandler. There was a few times when I was critiquing someone's work online, and gave a particular comment, and then realized it was the same kind of comment I'd been getting for my own stuff - it really did help me understand where other people were coming from. Rejection isn't so hard once you understand.

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