Thursday, 22 September 2011

Thick Skin - my story

The following blog post was inspired by Ruth Schiffmann's "Thick Skin" blog post. Thanks Ruth!

Recently I read a blog post in which a fellow writer asked the question: Do you have a thin skin/thick skin story to share? I'm going to expand on the answer I gave her here. I've gone through life being told my writing's great, albeit mostly by biased friends and family members. I've had some criticism from strangers that I'd call 'flaming'. They helped me develop what I thought was a pretty thick skin. But then I got serious about my writing, and joined Absolute Write.

For those unfamiliar with it, AW is a great place to go for honest feedback on your writing. I submitted a chapter for critique - a prologue. Feedback started rolling in, and for the most part it was pleasant but honest. Pleasant. Honest. Helpful. Encouraging, and constructive. Then it happened - I got some more critique, and it was harsh. Seriously HARSH. Like a huge bitter angry rant, intimating the reader's utter boredom with my writing. My writing was so boring she couldn't get to the end of the chapter. I was wasting her time, and that made her angry.

Fighting back tears, I turned off the laptop and went to bed. Couldn't sleep. I lay there stewing, feeling by turns devastated and angry and...confused. Didn't this girl have anything nice to say about my writing? Everyone else had! Not this one, though. And for all the 'niceness' of the other feedback, this brutal stuff was what stuck with me, whirled around in my head, plagued me. I couldn't stop thinking about it. And slowly it dawned on me that while the mean girl was seriously mean, she actually...had a point.

A really good one.

I got up again (it was a "school night", already way past bedtime), turned my laptop back on. I started rewriting. Mad scramble to fix what the mean girl had (rightfully) bitched about. It started slowly, but I wound up cutting about 7k of unnecessary words. Like, the whole prologue plus other chapters. Seven thousand words from a seriously bloated manuscript that needed trimming. Trimming is a funny word to use. Doesn't quite do the task justice. Point is, this horrible mean feedback that had so upset me resulted in huge improvements to my manuscript. It also taught me that I can take harsh critique. I can take it or leave it, but if my gut tells me to take it, I can do so and it won't kill me. It'll help me.

I'll say it hurt. Oh yeah, it hurt a LOT. But it taught me a valuable lesson. So I thank that mean girl, because she gave me a wake-up call and helped me develop this thick skin of mine.


  1. I stepped into critique slowly. VERY slowly.

    The first SERIOUS critique I got I won from a - post your favorite line contest.

    At 3/4 through my first chapter she wrote - YOUR STORY STARTS HERE.

    And you know what? She was right.

    I think that's the biggest lesson we learn in writing, is where our story starts and how to cut ANYTHING NON-ESSENTIAL TO THE STORY.

    Great story, BTW, and thanks for sharing, because we've ALL been there.

    On the other hand. Sometimes people are just mean and don't like your book. So, yeah. every critique we get, we really need to weigh. . .

  2. Thanks, Trisha, for sharing your story here. It's those brutally honest critiques that are the ones that really stick with us and almost become some sort of milestone. Firstly, because we endure them and survive. And secondly because once we got past the hurt, we were able to weigh them honestly and let them make our writing better. So YAY! for mean girls (Sort of)or maybe, YAY for honest critiques (and thick skin.)

  3. While I think honest critique is invaluable, a rant can be an extension of something else. In the case of the woman who vomitted her critique to you, my guess is that she's insecure and frustrated with her own writing. That said, whenever you open your writing up to strangers, you never know what you're going to get. Yeah, the skin does get thicker over time but remember that your writing can't please everybody either. Even when you think it's pretty close to perfect and you love your story, there will always be someone who tells you it sucks. Find reliable critique partners and stick with them.

  4. Great post, thanks for sharing it. You handled this a lot better than me. I've been struggling with this all week. Unfortunately, the only constructive part of the critique that's driving me mad was "study comma usage". That's great, and I'll do that. The rest was wrong--need more back story? I've never heard that one, and all my betas helped me cut a lot of the back story because I tend to use too much of it.

    The anger for me was the fact that her rating (on YouWriteOn) dropped me from the top ten and killed my chances of getting a publisher to read it at the end of the month. After 14 other good ratings--all which also pointed out things I could work on--she robbed me.

    Eventually, I'll get over it. :)

  5. An early writing class was my first tough critique. I remember thinking that I could either give up in tears, or let this make me a lot tougher. I went with the latter and I know it made my writing stronger. But it didn't make the experience any easier!

  6. Thanks for sharing. I am glad that you rolled with the punches and you were able to learn even though the harshness of the critique sounded like it might have bordered on abuse.

    I say to mean girl:"Karma baby. It comes back."

  7. @Ruth - yep, I mean if the girl hadn't had any point at all, I would have ignored her in the end. But she said what others were saying, just in a much meaner way. Her comments definitely had the most impact though. I'll never be a mean critiquer, but I did learn a lot of things from this girl.

    @Liz - oh, don't get me wrong, if I hadn't agreed with her I wouldn't have taken her "advice". But she really did have a good point. Even if she was totally mean about it!! :)

    @Charity - well, that sucks. And I totally agree that when the critiquer really has nothing constructive (or right, even) to say, it's frustrating - particularly in a case like yours where it affects your ranking. I'm sorry that happened to you.

    @Beth - I think going through the critique process is what separates the weak from the strong. The weak will fall away and they're not the ones who are meant to be writers. Writers need to be tough and willing to risk their egos in the realm of critique. That's my thought anyway.

    @Judie - No worries! And yeah, I thought she was pretty harsh (and she obviously didn't like me, because she made comments to me elsewhere on the forums that were...well, bitchy, to put it mildly), but on the upside, I'm not her so I don't have to live in her bitter, twisted head. I still thank her, though, for the feedback that did help me in the long run.

  8. Ack! Sometimes the hardest critiques are the ones that point out things that you're already aware of, but don't know how to change. The irrelevant ones are easy to blow off.

    I remember this. I thought the prologue was really sweet. When I read your work, I really enjoyed the tender stuff, but I think I was hoping for some of the same zaniness that you put into your short stories. But I agree that eventually you have to go with your gut and the back story did need some kind of 'device.'

    Look who's talking. Who's back story doesn't need some kind of 'device?'

  9. Ooh, just reading about it makes me sting! Yep I've been there and yes, just like you, when the hurt finally faded, I buckled down and did the work and my story was SO much better for it. Now, I wouldn't recommend being as harsh as that critiquer was for ME, but honest feedback is the only useful kind of feedback.

  10. I have definitely worked on developing a thick skin over the years - a hard task for me since by nature I'm an extremely sensitive person. You are right, can be painful but can also teach you good lessons, and more about yourself.

  11. There is no doubt that getting negative feedback is critical to becoming a better writer. Having people just tell you how wonderful you are keeps you doing the same thing while the negative (even when it's wrong) makes you go over it and THINK about it. Mo is my harshest critic. Not because he's mean but he will be honest. And when he doesn't get what I am getting at, I know I haven't written what I am trying to say well enough. Time for a rewrite.

    Good for you that you got up and started rewriting instead of thinking about how mean she was and blowing it off!

  12. @Jenn - I did get positive feedback from others who said, "It's backstory and you don't need it.... It's beautiful, but you don't need it." Personally I think that would have been sufficient to get me thinking and rewriting/cutting words. But it wouldn't have happened THAT VERY NIGHT, the way it did because of this mean girl. :P

    @Ali - I'm not a harsh critiquer like that either - but I do like to give constructive feedback. I don't even consider myself a good critiquer, not yet, because I don't see the bigger picture like a good critiquer does. Still, I try to help when I can!

    @Liz - I am sensitive too, but I've realised and seen it said in many places that, in this writing game, letting yourself hide away and pretend the bad words aren't being said is not the way to go. One has to face the music so to speak.

    @Danette - Yes, I agree! Positive reinforcement is all good if there really is nothing that can be improved. But if there are glaringly obvious faults and your readers don't tell you, what's the point?!!?

  13. Thanks for sharing your story - criticism is hard to take - so I am glad that the harsh criticism you received was put to good use.

  14. It's nice to hear that it worked out in the end. But still. I think even the toughest crits could still be delivered politely. I mean, there's always *one* nice thing to say, at least...

  15. @JoAnna - it can be hard to take, but if you handle it the right way, an experience like this only makes you stronger and way more open to criticism in future! Then again, I always WAS open to it... :P

    @Deniz - I totally agree with you. People don't have to be flat-out mean when telling you your chapter is unnecessary to the overall novel. hehe

  16. Tough crits are the slaps in the face we writers need every now and again! Sometimes we just need to be pushed. It's hard, but we can take it!

  17. So true. Sometimes a bit of harshness is exactly what I need if I'm going to whip my story into shape. Because sometimes, nice friendly comments don't really bring the point across. Generally, though, I prefer my comments straight to a point and with no wrapping.

    I don't want to have to go hunting through the crit for meaning, whether it is nice or bitchy.

  18. Your story kind of reminds me of this saying... "What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." Though to be more accurate in terms of critiquing, when harsh critiquing doesn't discourage you, only makes you stronger/tough skinned. :) Thanks for your post! It's encouraging, to hear that even though people may kind of give you a punch in the face with something brutally honest, in the end it just makes you a better writer if you can take that as good advice. :) I haven't had anything brutally honest like that quite yet (though I have had honest critiques, just not harsh like that. ;) but I look forward to it.

  19. Sometimes that hard advice is what we need to hear. As long as we listen to our hearts and are honest with ourselves.

    My skin is way tougher than it used to be, but it still tears on occasion when those harsh critiques come along. But I'd rather know the truth so I can improve.

  20. @Samantha - I totally agree! And I know I can take it, which makes me feel strong and inspired!

    @Misha - I totally agree that there doesn't need to be wrapping. Not sure I agree that there need to be stuff that leads to suppurating lacerations, though. LOL.

    @Griffinclaw - Exactly! And you're welcome - I think it helps to share these stories!

    @Lynda - Agreed. And I too can still feel the sting of harsh words, but at least I know that I can take the good advice & make something of it.

  21. mean bitches can be helpful mean bitches, at least from time to time, eh?

    I tell myself I'd rather have someone inform me where my stuff is awful rather than someone tell me where my stuff is decent/good, but when I run into the typical "this is terrible right here because____" my knee-jerk reaction is pretty much the same. lol. Close the laptop. Stalk around. Have some coffee. Stalk some more. Pout. Bleh. lol

    It is harder too, I think, to deal with the negatives from internet crits. If you're sitting across a table somewhere and a critter says, "dude, that scene with Jane sucks, it's too passive," and they make a big angry red line across the page, chances are it's easier to swallow, because you know them/ their writing, and you trust them/their writing. With internet critters its easier to get upset, since there's that itsy bitsy voice in the back of the mind whispering "yeah, but they're probably just some crazy hack or something, aboslutely trying to drag you through the gutter just to waste time." In real life you're forced to know better and "man up," lol. Maybe that's just me though.

    Fab post; also luurve the pic. Grotesquely applicable, ha ha.


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