It must be a standard question to writing conference panelists everywhere, as though there is a deliberate plant in every audience: “What is the best thing I can cultivate as a writer?”
Although I not a panelist (yet), I have been answering the question for years. For me, the response is not “the grammar toolbox” or “finely honed craft” or “a sense of wonder” or “discipline,” all of which I have heard in discussion with other writers.
The best thing to cultivate as a writer, I have been saying for many years, is a thicker skin.
No matter who you are, where you are in your development, what stage in your career, if you show your writing to other people (which is, in fact, the end goal for most of us), there is no world in which everyone will like it.
If you cry at the slightest criticism or rise to anger and defend your work to the bitter end, everyone in your immediate circle of readers may say they like it, which feels very good in the moment.
It can’t last once you leave the shelter of your immediate circle.
Agents and publishers will reject you (probably a lot). If you self-publish, Your book may languish unnoticed at #1,467,298 on the Amazon bestseller list for months, selling only four copies, all to your mother. If you are picked up by Random House, once published, critics will eviscerate you and readers will ignore you. Your publishing house will probably give you a miniscule marketing budget, if any at all. You will hold book signings that won’t require a pen.
For me, these are the collectively embodied fears that keep me writing a blog post instead of working on my novel. (I swear, I will finish Chapter Four today! As soon as I am finished with… anything else I can find to do. [See Procrastination Station at No-Compunction Junction])
The fear I have learned to overcome, however, is the opinions of my beta readers. I belong to two critique groups, both with members who are not afraid to go on the attack against bad [clichéd, emotionless, setting-less, dialogue-heavy, plot-light, grammatically incorrect] writing. The best thing I can do as a writer is hold my ground and cultivate scar tissue.
Over time, however, and primarily in the context of my educational endeavor, I have found a second item on the list of “things I need most as a writer”: One hell of a backbone.
I am happy (happier than a normal human) to take criticism, even if it isn’t constructive, but as the author, it is also my job to sort through the commentary and decide what is important to my story.
For all intents and purposes, I am God to my characters. God—if there is one—doesn’t just act on someone else’s opinion that there should be a flood. God doesn’t agree without question that there should be more commandments. God doesn’t take “the word of us” to be written in stone. (At least I hope not.)
I am not going to take a beta reader’s word that a character should be eliminated or a setting is wrong or my word choice is off kilter.
By way of example, I received the comment at one point in discussion of the second draft of Blind Tribute that the language seemed “stilted.” When questioned further, the reader elaborated that it seemed “old-fashioned.”
The book is set during the Civil War. My specific point with the language throughout was to evoke a feeling of the time through dialogue, setting, and the narrative voice. Not one word of “old-fashioned” language will ever be changed unless an editor at a publishing house requires it under threat of withholding a check. When the same critique came up again, my response remained the same. And again. And again. Eventually, the reader started saying, “I know I’ve said this before, but…” Finally, he stopped making similar comments entirely, which left our discussion open for more important issues.
I could have caved at the first mention, changed every word he called out. I have seen writers (mostly inexperienced) who would have done so and never looked back. And it would have meant a fundamental shift in my goals for the story, the characters, and the book. In that case, God would have done an awful disservice to her subjects, who would have felt out of place, suddenly dropped into a modern context. (I expect, in this case, her subjects might have mutinied, but fortunately, it never came to that.)
In precisely the opposite scenario, I am currently writing a Regency romance, and during that era, several standard contractions were not yet in use. I found, in applying this convention, the language sounded more stilted than I could stand. Therefore, my characters often use “wasn’t,” “wouldn’t,” or “shouldn’t,” when their non-fictional counterparts would not. When the expanded form disrupts the flow of a sentence, I simply don’t use it. God, in this instance, has chosen modern clarity over old-fashioned reality. I won’t change this language just because a traditionalist tells me it is inaccurate.
Thicker skin, stronger backbone. Thicker skin, stronger backbone. Thicker skin, stronger backbone. Thicker skin, stronger backbone. The mantra of this writer’s life.
When I sit on my first panel, I may deliberately plant the question, just so I can repeat it in public—so I can warn young writers away from the idea that somehow, some other tool might mean the difference between good writing and bad, that there is some way, some chance, that they won’t have to face criticism head on.