Beyond Categorization, The Writer's Life

Sticks and Stones and Words

Thick skin.

That’s what they say you have to have if you’re going to be a writer. Because someday someone will skewer your novel. Not may skewer it. But will.

It’s a given. A law. A little like Murphy’s law. A lot like the law of gravity.

Someone is going to hate your book. Really, truly despise it.

This will inevitably make you want to do one of the following:

a. Dig a hole. Climb into it. Stay there.

b. Push the writer of that review out of a helicopter without a parachute because anyone who can’t see the subtle brilliance of your prose needs to learn a lesson about great writing and what better way to prove your point than to reenact a scene from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.*

c. Hack into so you can replace the offending review with one your mother wrote in the family Christmas letter 27 years ago about the ashtray you made for her in kindergarten. “It was wonderful! Amazing! Made me want to take up smoking!”

But, as the theory goes, if you have a “thick skin,” the review won’t bother you at all. As you read how your protagonist “wouldn’t even be believable playing a stiff on a soap opera” and that your plot “drags more than J. Edgar Hoover” you’ll simply smile while the scent of lavender fills your nostrils and images of puppies and kittens frolicking in a field of poppies fill your mind.

There’s only one problem with this “thick skin” theory. It’s bullshit.

If someone calls you ugly, it hurts. Even though we both know you’re totally not ugly at all. In fact you’re quite good looking. Especially today. Did you get a haircut? It really suits you.

It’s no secret that we all want to be liked. Apparently, this is some absolute truth of the human condition. And what is your novel? It’s you. Pieces of you at the very least, and all of you if it’s your first novel. (Yes, we all know Ex Plus One Equals Love is actually a thinly disguised memoir chronicling that fifth year you spent in high school when you fell in love with your algebra teacher.)

So when someone says your novel sucks, it elicits the same response as if someone called you ugly. (No, you’re still not ugly. We already went over this. You’re cute and/or handsome and seriously sexy.) Thick skin is a myth writers made up because they desperately want it to be true. “All I have to do is wear the Thick Skin of Protection +4, and I will feel no pain.”

It doesn’t work that way. But…that’s okay.

Pain is good. Even the pain that comes from being lambasted by a clueless critic who wouldn’t know Wouk from a wok. It tells you you’re alive. And it also tells you something else, something critically important for a writer – it tells you that you care about your work. Yes! You. Care. About. Your. Work.

Forget trying to grow thick skin. Besides, you’d have to buy a whole new wardrobe. In a larger size. And don’t swing to the other side of the pendulum and complain about how thin your skin is. That just sounds like whining.

Write your book. Invest yourself in it. Do the best you can. And when someone says “your book is ugly,” go ahead and wince. Or scream. Or cry.

Then write another book. Not to prove that naysayer wrong. But because you wear the skin of a writer.

And that’s what writers do.

*I may not have remembered that right. I read Angels and Demons when I was suffering from both a deep depression and a nasty flu. Everything I read during that time was seen through a filter of Ache and Puke. I think that’s also the name of a book by Chuck Palahniuk. But I could be wrong about that, too.

14 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones and Words

  1. Just reading your post brought back “cringe-worthy” moments I’ve had when some (insensitive) people have commented on my work. It hurts every time, and my skin isn’t any thicker, but by learning from it (and getting to the point where good reviews outweigh the bad) I’ve begun to understand how to deal with it.

    Your advice puts it nicely: wince, scream and cry. Then move on.

    (but, er… if you happen to have a spare helicopter that’s ill-equipped with parachutes I’d love to borrow it sometime)

    1. I don’t have a helicopter to spare, but I do have a notable lack of parachutes. So you’re welcome to have my absence of parachutes should you find a suitable helicopter.

  2. One of my favorite stories that I heard at a writers conference once, was about a little boy, who wrote a story and asked his mom to send it to his favorite magazine. The editor realized it was from a small child and actually wrote a nice, encouraging, hand written rejection letter (Which in my way of thinking, is almost an acceptance) but theboy took the letter, dropped it in a bucket and burned it – then mixed the ashes in dogsgit and then burried the whole bucket.

    wish i could remember the person who was keynote that year to give credit for that story but I’ve gone to that conference for over a decade.

    Dixie AKA echo

    1. Can’t we have both? A sociopath who has moments of utter anguish? I’d like to believe such a person exists. I’d also like to believe in the Loch Ness monster. And Peter Pan (the naive kid who’s friends with Tinkerbell, not the peanut butter).

  3. You know, bad reviews suck. I read one recently on Amazon that just left me fuming. Mostly because it was pretty clear that the reviewer seemed to have decided before she opened the book she was going to hate it. Then I looked at her other reviews. Most of them were pretty scathing and downright bitchy. She gave plastic cutlery, cookbooks and neosporin 5 stars, but most of the novels she reviewed she poo-pooed. Which leads me to believe she’s an unpublished writer who couldn’t cut the mustard. Maybe not, but in my little world inside my head, that’s what she is. Yeah, I’m sticking with that. And she’s ugly, too.

    1. I read that same review. For some people, reviews are their only outlet for writing. They don’t have the skill or desire to write books or articles, so they use up their words slamming other people’s words.

      Sometimes I write reviews of reviews (usually just in my head). This is also when I realize my vocabulary includes words I thought only existed in Quentin Tarantino films.

  4. Your posts are always great. But… I don’t need to be convinced I care about my work. I suspect I would just cry without a silver lining till I was done crying, then move on.

    1. Editors shouldn’t scare you. They might rip your book apart, but they also help you put it back together. Critics of the finished product, however, just like ripping things.

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