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 Writing: Dealing with Adverbs

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The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

~Stephen King

Quite recently in the world of writing, adverbs have been shunned, probably because of what Stephen King wrote in his iconic book On Writing, which provides writers with a great deal of advice on how to improve writing with his unique writing style and perspective. This really isn’t anything new. Ever since the very fist edition of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style was published in 1959, writing teachers have tried to impress on students of writing the concept of “less is more.” That King specifically cites adverbs has everyone jumping the bandwagon and cutting out any word ending in –ly from their works. I’d say that’s really a rash reaction, because adverbs are beautiful words that help the reader create an image in their mind. What writers need to remember is that there are different kinds of adverbs, and some are worse than others, insofar as leading a writer down the road to hell. The use of adverbs is closely linked with the need for writers to “show, not tell,” a skill that is more difficult to master than many writers think. Because adverbs, especially adverbs of manner, tell us how verbs act. For example, we say “He ran quickly” using the adverb “quickly” to describe how he ran. In this example, I’d say the use of the adverb ‘quickly’ is lazy, just because there are so many ways to describe running. The preferred and more effective option is to use the exact word, and in this case, ‘ran’ is not exact enough. To show how a person runs quickly, we can more effectively use the words raced, rushed, dashed, hurried—you get the idea. Choosing the more exact word is using more picturesque language with less words. Alternately, you can say “His legs pumped up and down as he pounded the ground with his feet, his face drenched with sweat pouring from his brow with the effort, touching all he passed with a rush of warm air.”

On the other hand, there are adverbs that have no better way of being said, such as adverbs of time and place. There’s no better way to say “today” than with the word ‘today’; there’s no easier way to say ‘up’ or ‘down’ than by using the adverbs exactly as they are. When using linking adverbs, you need to make sure they are necessary. Linking adverbs help describe sequence (then), cause and effect (consequently), and contrast (however) and give us better transition between ideas, phrases, and sentences. Be careful not to overuse linking adverbs, though. I advise against the use of evaluative adverbs in writing fiction because it introduces too much of the author’s opinion into the text; use evaluative adverbs only when they reflect a specific character’s thoughts. Authors need to be very careful not to be actively present in their stories, and leave the stories to the characters and their narrator. Even if you use the omniscient narrator, who sees and knows everything, you must be careful to maintain your narrator’s persona. If you want to write your personal opinions, then write creative nonfiction. Unless you want to sound like today’s younger speakers, be careful how you use degree adverbs—adverbs that show to what extent or degree something happens. Modern language has seen the introduction of some words to replace the word ‘much’ so instead of saying ‘much more’ or ‘much less’ we hear people saying ‘way more’ or ‘way less’ and so on. Unless your character has a terribly limited vocabulary, I’d limit the use of this colloquialism. Focusing adverbs can also be dispensed with most of the time because they tell the reader what to think, rather than show them things, and are generally a matter of opinion (in the same way I used the word ‘generally’ in this sentence).

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t use adverbs at all. Adverbs can be very effective when used judiciously. Sometimes, there isn’t enough time to ‘show’ the reader everything in full picturesque detail because sometimes the details are not that important. In that case, you can either use the adverb or eliminate the details, because they probably aren’t significant enough to include.