One of the things that we writers are supposed to do, in order to deal with rejection, is to develop a “thick skin.”
It doesn’t work this way.
The only way I know of to develop a thick skin as a writer is simply by going through the process of dealing with criticism, over and over and over again, until each criticism is no longer a surprise. In other words, you finally arrive at a place where you are 100% aware of how you write, how you compare to other writers, and every little choice you make during the process of crafting a story.
I’m sure some relatively new writers are reading this and that you may find the news disheartening. But perhaps you’ll take solace in knowing that razor-sharp sting you feel each time someone criticizes your book or gives you a bad review is perfectly normal. There are no quick fixes here. What you need to do, after the sting wears off, is consider each and every criticism soberly and honestly, decide whether or not the criticism is valid, and whether or not you would change anything if you had the chance to write the story again.
Over the years, I’ve had thousands of rejections from agents and editors. Thousands! At the beginning, when I was still in an intense learning process, many of the criticisms were valid. My stories did start too slowly. My dialogue did have stilted spots. I did delve into too much detail.
But as I continued to develop my craft, the nature of the rejections began to change. Many of the criticisms, I began to realize, were about my style.
Probably the most difficult part of developing the “thick skin” is being able to separate the elements of your writing that are natural to your personal style, that you want to keep, and the elements that are truly part of the craft, that you want to change or improve. Not everyone will like your style. And if you develop a truly unique style—which is crucial for success—you will necessarily break some of the rules they teach you in fiction writing classes.
Sorting all this out is not an easy process. I went through more pain and frustration than I care to remember in dealing with these issues, arguing with agents and editors, screaming and yelling and cursing (in the privacy of my own home), coming to grips with it all. But I eventually got through it.
Does criticism still hurt? Of course it does. But the sting usually only lasts seconds—namely, as long as it takes me to run through the decision-tree in my head and remember why I did whatever they are criticizing and my logic behind doing it.
A good sign that you have arrived at this place is that you no longer feel the urge to defend yourself or argue with the criticizer. An impulse to argue is always a sign that you are unsure about the criticism yourself. If someone walks up to you and says, “The sky is yellow!” do you feel any impulse to argue about it? No, because you know the sky is blue. It's a non-issue. You think that the person is either crazy or sees things from such an oddball perspective that you don’t even bother.
When you’re confident about your craft and your personal style, you reach a similar place. I’m not saying that you ever feel as if you have mastered the art of writing. The notion is ridiculous—there is always more to learn, at times it seems endless. But you do reach a point where you are comfortable enough with your writing that you really do have the proverbial “thick skin.”
It’s a nice place to be.
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