Professionally Thick Skin
Learn not just to take criticism but to embrace it and act on it.
This goes all the way from the sentence level to the level of the career. It can come sweetly (my current agent, Elise Capron, is probably the nicest human being on earth – rescues dogs on death row as a passionate pastime, phrases all her critiques with the utmost diplomacy) or it can come through with chilling coldness and lack of empathy – such as when, even if they send nice notes – a novel, like one I recently completed, comes back from 15 or 20 publishers rejected. In a project like that, spanning a year or more of effort, and likely with a lot of “self” invested, thick skin is tough to maintain. It’s not easy to move on, change direction a bit, and hope to fail better. It’s tougher yet – because it messes with your mind – to try to make incremental fixes and then to hear, perhaps, that the one chance for that particular work to catch on has been blown, or has passed fleetingly in the night, and that a wholesale restart needs to be considered.
Yet, at whatever level, from kill thy darlings within your sentences and scenes to the overall direction of the genre upon which you plot your career, acceptance of criticism and a quick return to writing, to just writing, only increases the chance you will find that right thing, that thing you didn’t even think would work, so that you can then explode with all your pent up passion into a writing juggernaut.
One caveat to this, and it again points the way toward professionalizing: as writer and creator there does come a time to hold your ground. In my first novel, One Hundred and One Nights – my editor and I debated whether to make the ending of the book less ambiguous. I very much intended ambiguity. I wanted – in fact, I believed that the whole premise of the novel required – a situation where the reader would be forced to choose among two (or perhaps even three) distinct interpretations for what had happened. I wanted the reader to leave the last scene troubled, thinking, involved, and even – if I may use the word – haunted by a similar ghost as that little girl, Layla, who had haunted me. Was she a ghost? I don’t know. And I didn’t want to provide an answer. I stuck to my guns. I convinced my editor. She convinced the publisher. And, to this day, the most frequent comment I get from readers is either that they hate or love the ambiguity of the novel’s climax.
I think that’s a victory – but one predicated on being a willing, and even an expectant participant in the myriad other changes my agent, editor, and publisher wanted to see. Without having accepted those changes, without having willingly and quickly iterated through them, the book would not only have been far too ambiguous for any reader to make heads or tails of, but it also likely would never have gotten published in the first place.