Writers have tons of tools in their little kits, but one of the most important is one I think is the most overlooked. The ability to take criticism.
Look, I’ll just say it plainly: if you can’t take criticism, you should find something else to do.
You’re going to be criticized. Your ideas, your word choices, your plots, your characters, your everything. Just accept that from the start.
That being said, it’s not easy. You take something you’ve slaved over, fretted over, stressed over, poured your heart and soul into for the last however many months, and you send it out into the world then duck beneath the covers and wait. It’s scary. Really scary. You’ve scattered pieces of yourself throughout your story; it’s hard not to take a critique of your work as a personal affront, but that’s exactly what you can’t do. You can’t take it personally.
On the Absolute Write forum, when you first join a sentence appears under your screen name: “new fish learning about thick skin.” I think that’s a perfect way to describe the process.
There was a point in my life when I’d decided to play to guitar. My dad bought me this beat up old thing from a pawn shop (I loved it by the way) and a few tab books and I set off full of grand dreams of all the amazing places my band, Siamese Cousins, would go (our first album was to be called “Joined at the Spine”). Then I tried to actually play. The strings cut into my fingers, especially the thin ones! It was like running wire under my nails. Especially doing any sort of slide. When I finished the song (“Brown Eyed Girl”) painful red lines striped the tops of my fingers.
For those of you who have never played guitar, you have to play constantly and build up callouses across your fingertips. The more you play, the thicker your skin becomes until one day you pick up a guitar and it doesn’t hurt anymore. If you don’t play much your skin will stay thin and supple and you won’t escape the pain. (I never progressed and quit trying after a while, but my husband is really good and plays a lot–so I know this from him).
Writing isn’t much different. As a baby writer, your skin is soft and pink. It hurts when people criticize your work. You can’t stop and dwell on the pain, though. If you stop, the callouses never grow and it will always hurt. The same holds true if you ignore the criticism. You won’t grow. So you keep at it. You keep writing and keep putting yourself out there and, gradually, you realize one day the pain isn’t so sharp, your skin is thicker and you can take more pressure.
Like I said, it’s not easy. And even after you think your skin has thickened, it’s possible for criticism to cut you pretty deep. The key is to pick yourself back up, and keep moving on.
I write this because I think I’ve got pretty thick skin. I know the feedback and criticism makes me a better writer and I embrace it. “Bring it on!” I say. “Hit me with all you’ve got! Tear my manuscript/query apart so I can whip it into shape!” I can usually take the heat, but sometimes…sometimes I get knocked down and find it hard to get back up.
I’m in the middle of editing a manuscript I just finished. The ending needs to be pretty much re-written, and I’ve got a good idea where I want it to go. There’s just one problem: I read the first couple chapters at my critique group last week. They loved the writing, but they didn’t get the plot. Maybe I didn’t explain it correctly, because some key elements were misinterpreted, but, while I usually leave the group feeling energized and ready to write, this time I left dejected. Worried. Nervous.
Were there really holes in my plot? I didn’t think so. I thought I’d explained away any gaps and problems throughout the story. My husband and CP both thought the same thing, but that little nugget of doubt had been planted. Every time I sit down to finish editing, that doubt creeps back to the surface. “Are there really problems?” I think. “Is it worth it to finish? Will anyone want it?”
The answer, of course, is yes, it’s definitely worth it to finish. I still believe in the story. I still love the story and I have faith it’s something people want to read. The only answer is to uproot that dadgum seedling of doubt and throw it away. Develop even thicker skin to keep it from wriggling back in there.
So, it’s a process. You don’t just start writing and are magically able to take criticism like a champ. Heck, there are some published authors who I’m sure still have trouble with criticism. But you pick up the guitar every day and play. You grow. You take the criticism with a grain of salt; mine what you think is helpful, discard the rest, and move forward. You’re a new fish, learning about thick skin. Learning. It’s not going to happen overnight, but with time, and practice, it will happen.