Why Writers Need Thick Skin

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I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.
~Harper Lee, WD

As a career, writing can be one of the most satisfying professions, and yet is one of the most difficult to break into. First of all, everyone has a story to tell, so what is so special about your story? Second, even if you’re able to write your story better than others, who’s going to buy enough copies so that you can live off the income? Third, even if you make that breakthrough bestseller that gets you on the charts and earns you loads of money, you can’t just sit on your laurels. You need to keep on writing because once you’ve got a following, your readers will be looking for more. That’s not the half of it, though.

First you have to break into the market and get published. Sure, you can self-publish, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a huge following and sell thousands, let alone millions of books. Just getting a publisher is a major problem. Depending on your market or target audience, you’ll have to find the right publisher and convince that publisher that you’re the right fit for them. You need to submit your work and wait for them to decide whether or not they want to publish you. Sometimes, waiting can take anywhere from three months to a year. Meanwhile, you try to send your work to other publishers, assuming they don’t mind you’ve sent your work to other publishers.

Be prepared for rejection. Many times, if you don’t have even a small publishing history, some market visibility, some followers, maybe even some writing awards, publishers won’t even take a second look at your work. Every successful writer has been rejected more often than any of us would care to experience, but it seems to be part of becoming a writer. It definitely is not for the faint of heart, but if you know you have something really good and many other people who’ve read it have told you so, maybe all you need to do is keep on trying. You’re really in quite good company. J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was picked up. Jack London’s collected rejection letters on a spike grew to four feet high; Stephen King had a similar spike on his wall that has grown heavy with rejection letters; William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected 21 times; L.M. Montgomery was rejected so many times she put stored Anne of Green Gables for two years before trying to find a publisher again; Dr. Seuss received 27 rejections before his first story And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was accepted. Many major publishers nowadays will not entertain writers and will only deal with agents. Finding agents is no easier than finding a publisher. Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, was rejected by 60 literary agents before she found one and her book eventually was 100 weeks on the NYTimes bestseller list as well as turned into a movie. If you do decide to take the self-publishing route, it’s not impossible either. One of my favorite poets, e.e. cummings, had great difficulty getting his first book published he went on to self-publishing six volumes of poetry because he couldn’t publish them any other way. Beatrix Potter was so disappointed by numerous rejections she finally decided to self-publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which has sold 45 million copies to date. Nowadays, many writers choose to self-publish first, and if their books gain recognition, accept offers from publishing houses. On the other hand, if your book sells as well as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, who needs a traditional publisher?

Having a career as a writer doesn’t just mean having to get published. That’s just part of it, albeit a great part, because you can’t have that career until you’re published, and on a regular basis. That’s why it’s called a career. More than just being published is the fact that, as a writer, you’re opening yourself up to criticism from just about anyone who comes across your writing. That’s not to say it’s all going to be negative. It’s a huge misconception that criticism is always negative. Criticism can also be positive, but because of the general impression that it is negative, I think the world has decided to just call it feedback–which can be both negative or positive, and which really sounds more neutral. Let’s agree to call it feedback, hereon.

Feedback should be looked at by writers as something helpful or useful because they can get a good idea of how people understand and react to their writing. Without feedback, writers would have no idea what people think, unless people are buying their books like–well–hotcakes. Inevitably, some of that feedback will not be positive or even diplomatic. That’s where thick hides come in. Without those thick hides, writers could become extremely offended by whatever others say. Writers have no business being onion-skinned if they want their work to be read widely. Nobody ever gets 100 percent approval on anything, so be prepared for those naysayers. No matter how good your writing, there will be people who won’t like it. No matter what you write or how you write it, there will be those who won’t agree. If you let yourself be affected by every single thing people say about your writing, you could cripple yourself as a writer. You would be too afraid to put out your work because of what others might say.

On the other hand, if you ignore everything others say, you’ll never learn from your readers and if you need to improve something, you’ll never pick up on that either. It takes time and it takes getting used to. More sensitive people have a harder time putting their work out there, but no matter how sensitive you are, if you want to be a writer and be known as one, you will need to swallow your pride, pick your battles carefully, learn from everything you can, believe in yourself, and maybe, when you can afford it, hire someone to read the reviews for you.

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On Holidays, Canadian Writers, and Books

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Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! And right after that, Happy Islander Day, a.k.a. Family Day in the rest of Canada. In a way, I think it’s great that we call it Islander Day on PEI because that includes everyone and not just those with families. Not everyone has a family to be with on Family Day, so Islander Day is a great way to celebrate everyone. It’s funny that the holiday was created just so there would be a break in an otherwise holiday-less stretch between Christmas and Holy Week, because February happened to be the only month in the year without a public holiday. Not that it matters to me, because I’ve got my very own personal holiday in February! Yay! That said, we can always declare our own holidays, but we don’t always get paid for them. Of course, if you’re unemployed or a freelancer or own your business, then holidays become moot, because you can take any day you want off as a holiday. Believe me, that’s not the way it works because you end up working odd hours and just about any day of the year, because it’s always ‘no work, no pay’ for you. When you answer to an employer, you get paid for public holidays because the law requires it. Why am talking about holidays? Because I’m back working at full time job and will get paid for the holiday! Woohoo!

Holidays aside, a large group of island writers showed up at the PEI Writers’ Guild Winter Social to find out who won bragging rights for the first ever PEI Battle Tales week-long writing contest and to duke it out at a literary trivia contest for free beer and a handful of gift cards, but really, to duke it out. What I found so revealing is that we Canadians know so little of our literary history! My excuse is I didn’t grow up here and I didn’t attend school or university here. Still, the information we have about Canadian literature is so meager, it surprised me. Canada is the only country I am aware of, at present, that emphasizes reading and books so much, particularly through the CBC’s Canada Reads program. I have to admit I do not know how long it has been running–it will take a bit of research and I’m sure there are those of you who know when it started. My point is that even in the study of world literature (and I mastered in literature), Canadian literature never featured prominently. Probably because there never was as much Canadian literature contributed to the corpus of World Literature. In fact, I had been familiar with Stephen Leacock, who seems to be the earliest writer of note on record who has been anthologized worldwide, but he had never been touted as Canadian. Alice Munro was another name that gained international prominence; ater on, I discovered Margaret Atwood, and much later, Michael Ondaatje. Determined to learn more about writers in my chosen new country, I found Guy Gavriel Kay, re-discovered L.M. Montgomery, and Mordecai Richtler, as well as a few others I am still getting acquainted with. I can’t say I know my Canadian authors well enough and I have a great deal of reading to catch up on.

On another note, I just learned tonight that, according to UNESCO*, Canada published 19,900 books, but also discovered the information is from 1996; but more recent data published by Canada Business** puts the number at over 10,000 books annually, mainly because of an increase in the number of publishers or publishing houses in Canada. I would consider that information skewed and not reflective of the actual number of books written by Canadians, because many Canadian writers are actually published in the US and the UK. The rise of self-publishing in the new millenium probably adds much more to that number. That said, we rank 20th in the UNESCO list, which listed total books published in different countries over a broad range of years, from 1990 to 2014. It’s certainly a long way from Oman’s 7 books published in 1996, but nowhere close to China’s 440,000 in 2013, the US’s 304,912 also in 2013, or the UK’s 184,000 in 2011. Taken viz the population, in 1996, Canada published a book for every 1491 people; which is much better than China’s 1 book for every 3084 people; surprisingly close to the US’s 1 book for every 1038 people; but nowhere near the UK’s 1 book for every 344 people, which I pretty much expected. (By books, I mean book titles and not physical copies.) I think that’s a pretty decent ratio, all things considered.

*Book publishing numbers from UNESCO were sourced from Wikipedia

**Jason McBride, “It’s Alive! Canadian Book Publishing Stirs.” August 30, 2013. From http://www.canadianbusiness.com/companies-and-industries/its-alive-canadian-book-publishing-stirs/