“Grow thick skin” is the advice often given to aspiring writers struggling to cope with the pain of rejection and criticism. Whenever I hear it, I cringe. The analogy is unhelpful and kind of grotesque. No one can grow new layers of real skin at will, any more than they can turn off hurt feelings at will. Besides, even the thickest skin feels pain sometimes.
I came up with a metaphor I like better than thick skin: a lens. Actually, I might as well go even further: What about super-specs that allow writers to instantly spot and disregard empty or destructive criticism, so we do not waste priceless energy worrying about what others think when we could be happily writing?
For a criticism to be worth considering, it must illuminate the way forward. There should be an “aha” moment. For example, if my writing has a plot hole, grammatical error, contradiction, or implausible character, I need to know about them. These are issues that hamper my goal of creating believable fiction. Since the problems are specific, I can imagine specific ways to solve them. But to spot the valuable criticism, I need to filter out emotional splatter that only distracts, upsets, and confuses me.
Below I have listed types of criticisms that are just useless, soul-draining noise. When I identify and label them as such I can discard them, saving myself a lot of pointless worry, and instead write something that makes me happy.
On Facebook, a reader of one of my free books compared my book unfavorably to a famous writer he loved, saying that the quality of my story was not anywhere near as good. Seeing the comment was an emotional gut punch.
As a result, I fell into an insidious emotional trap, mentally reviewing my story to “check” for anything that might not have been “good quality.” The game was a torturous waste of energy. My critic had given no specifics, and there was no way to guess what he had meant.
Besides, I hadn’t written my story for him, but for myself. In the end I had to take comfort in the fact that I had written the story I wanted to write – besides, some other readers had raved over it.
In Amazon reviews I often see the statement “the writing was terrible,” but most people never say why. I am always surprised when I hear people say The Hunger Games was badly written; they never explain. I thought the writing in The Hunger Games was good because it transported me to another place, enticed me with vivid imagery, and made me feel for the characters. In other words, it accomplished its goal. If someone says your writing is bad, but gives no specifics, ignore, ignore, ignore.
Attacks from The Political Correctness Brigade
The political correctness brigade has made it their job to “clean up” anything in writing that offends them. They must work hard because they are chronically and zealously offended about everything.
In fiction they want all minorities painted as a saint or hero. They want all women characters to be portrayed as “strong.” They want to see rape, violence and animal abuse expunged from all fiction because if they are bad in real life, they should be gotten rid of everywhere, including the printed page.
Stephen King said that in one of his novels, a villain kicks a dog. For this, Stephen King received an irate letter accusing him of being cruel, as if writing about the abuse of an imaginary dog was the same as hurting a real one. Stephen King asked, did his reader not know the dog was not real? Besides, Stephen King was not exalting people who abuse animals; in fact, if he had a villain doing it, that suggests he thinks animal abuse is bad.
People who seek to further their agendas by controlling what writers put into their fiction vary in their “ideals.” Some see it as their mission to clean up profanity or heresy or anything they personally dislike. But writing is not about being nice and pleasing anyone. It is about being honest. If readers object to that, they are not my audience anyway.
Heated Attacks Against Nonexistent Content
Recently a reader of one of my stories objected strongly to something I never wrote. In my story, a selfish mother moves a baby into the same room as her toddler son in order to get more sleep. On one night, the baby becomes violently ill and the toddler son, afraid of his irascible mother, fails to alert her that the baby is sick. The next morning the mother discovers that the baby is dangerously ill. Beside herself with fear and worry, she scolds her other son for not alerting her.
My reader wrote a passionate rebuttal arguing that it was not physically possible for a toddler to lift a baby. I had never said anywhere that the toddler son had lifted the baby or even tried, but for a few moments I felt just as chastised as if I had actually written what the reader found offensively implausible. The reader also argued that there was no way any sober parent would ever put a toddler son “in charge” of taking over the care of a baby; I had never written anywhere that my fictional mother had.
It seems obvious that this kind of criticism should be ignored, yet it can be incredibly unsettling. Writers want to be understood, and it is hard not to argue back, even when you know that defending yourself against a nonexistent literary crime drains away time and energy you could be using to write a new story.
Arbitrary Censorship of the Color Red
A website designer once told me about some of the horrors of his profession involving hard-to-please clients. On one occasion, he presented to a client a web design he had labored over and that others had praised highly. His female client took one look at his design, frowned, and said, “I hate the color red. Take all the red out and start over.”
Like web design, writing is notoriously subjective. Readers may react against your work simply because they hate a word you used, or because a scene reminds them of an unpleasant experience, or because they hate the first person perspective, or because a character wears red and the reader thinks red is an evil color that should be banished from the color spectrum. Readers don’t need good reasons for hating a work of art. That’s important to realize when deciding whether to take criticism seriously.
I’m not responsible for purely subjective responses to my stories that come from personal biases, personalities, unpleasant childhood experiences, or strange color preferences. Even if I could change what the critic hates, I wouldn’t want to. I wrote what I wrote for a reason. It’s impossible to please everyone; the most reliable touchstone I’ve found for determining whether I’ve achieved my artistic goals is myself.
Narcissists Accusing Others of Narcissism
I recently went to Amazon to check the reviews of a book whose author gave writing advice I strongly disagreed with and that I thought was harmful. I wanted to see if any other readers shared my complaints. Few did, but what I did see was “She talks too much about herself.”
I thought, “No, no, no, talking about herself is fine, first person perspective is fine. it was her advice that was horrible.” I had actually found her personal anecdotes somewhat amusing.
Everywhere I see critics who seem to find narcissism or self-indulgence in every written piece. Go to Amazon and you will see the complaint over and over, “The author talked about herself the whole time. So self-indulgent!”
There are extreme cases where the self-indulgent charge may be worth considering. Someone told me about a male writer who penned a book just to brag about his numerous sexual exploits in order to make himself look like a super-stud; perhaps the word “self-indulgent” has some meaning in this case.
But online all it takes to be accused of narcissism or self-indulgence is to use the word “I” more than once or twice. I love the first person point of view. It means the writer is brave enough to stand behind her words. I like hearing others talk about themselves as long as what they have to say is interesting and has a point.
I actually wonder about people for whom writers “talking about themselves” is their biggest complaint. I wonder, why would the reader not be interested in another person? In situations like these, I wonder who the real “narcissist” is.
However, I am using the word “narcissist” very loosely. Clinical narcissism is a personality disorder that leads people to selfishly exploit others. The label does not belong on a writer who merely uses the word “I” to describe her experiences. Except in extreme cases, the charges of “self-indulgence” and “narcissism” can be dismissed as invalid. Good thing I have super-specs that free me to ignore them and go write a poem about my cat.
Some critics accuse novels of being “bad” just because they evoke unpleasant emotions. Critics, agents, editors or readers may accuse a novel of being too bleak, too disgusting, too scary, or too sad. Here, the word “too” is an indication that some heavy subjectivity is at work.
In fiction, unless your goal is to write humor, any emotion goes. In fact, making readers feel is the job of fiction, and art thrives on contrasts between light and shadow; suffering and joy; despair and hope.
If the writer is trying to communicate the horror of war, the trauma of adolescence, or the death of a loved one, the injunction to avoid any unpleasant emotion undermines the art by draining it of all purpose, power, and substance. Intensity of emotion, whether positive or negative, is far more desirable than blandness.
Particularly in those cases, if someone accuses your work of being “too bleak” or “too sad,” you can go celebrate by eating something chocolate; you have accomplished your goal. Congratulations!
Valid Criticisms Dispensed in a Derisive Way
It has happened before, and it will happen again. Someday I will make a writing mistake. It might be a big typo that will send my lofty edifice of words sprawling into an undignified heap. Or there will be a glaring plot hole or inconsistency I somehow missed, despite my best efforts. Someone, an editor, reader, or a troll may bring it to my attention in a way that is not kind. For example, a trollish proofreader once attacked my awkward phrasing by writing “What?!?!”
Knowing that I made a mistake is bad enough, especially if I did my best. Having someone alert me to it in a derisive way makes me feel far worse. It can be hard to separate the acknowledgment “I made a mistake” from the feeling that “I am a terrible writer who deserves to be whipped, pilloried, and evicted from the human race.”
All I can do is learn from my mistake and strive not to repeat it, but I will have to forgive myself quickly so I can move on to exploring exciting new story ideas. Every writer makes mistakes. They are usually forgiven by the passage of time; a year later, the error will be forgotten because other projects, concerns, and victories will have formed a mountain of moments that will bury the error.
Beating myself up is destructive to the practice of writing. Self-forgiveness is essential because if I predicate my worth as a writer on my ability to be perfect, I will not be writing for long. I might even be tempted to escape into serial television watching or some other passive activity in which it is impossible to fail.
Success is built on a mountain of tiny failures called “experience.” These failures, whether big, small, or imaginary, will never be fun, and I cannot protect myself from all pain.
But that’s okay. I don’t want to become a human callous. What I do want is to survive creatively, which means continuing, despite any obstacles, to do what I love most: writing stories.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my new novel “The Ghosts of Chimera” will soon be published by the folks over at Rooster and Pig Publishing.