Monday, May 26, 2008

HOW THICK IS YOUR SKIN? by Paty Jager

As writers we are a vulnerable lot in that we put our feelings down for others to see. Granted they are in the body of a character in our work, but they are still our feelings. And everyone who puts their feelings out there can be crushed.

We have to grow a tough skin for those contest judges who “don’t know” enough to be judging a category, or that critique that hurts, or that form rejection letter or even worse the lengthy rejection letter that came so close to maybe getting published.

There have been two incidents lately in my little realm of historical writing that made me think about this topic. One is a post on my historical loop from a writer who received her judge’s comments from a “historical” contest. She said more than one judge commented she needed to explain what a “union suit” was. Anyone who reads historical knows what a union suit is! It is the one-piece underwear with a flap in the back that is still worn in some parts of the US today and used as PJ’s by some women. This is where the tough skin comes in- this writer could have thrown a tissy fit and asked what kind of judges are we getting for these contests, instead, she went on the loop and asked for different ways she could describe the clothing. Which, I feel she was accurate in just saying what it was- any true reader of historical fiction will know what she is talking about. So while she was calm, it ticked me off that someone was judging a category they shouldn’t have been.

The second incident is a writer who submitted to a publishing house and received a rejection stating her historical information and characters didn’t ring true However, her writing-grammar, spelling, prose were commended. This was an instance when a tough skin was needed, but this person didn’t have one. She sent several scathing replies to the editor.

Which of these writers will grow from the experience? Which of these writers do you think will go the farthest with their writing career?

Do you have a thick skin? Can you go the distance to be published? Do you have a thick skin story?

6 comments:

Genene Valleau said...

Hey, Paty!

No thick skin story comes to mind about my books and manuscripts. However, I've written and edited newsletters "by committee" for many years. That means upward to a dozen people going over my work before it's made public.

I've come to appreciate "fresh eyes," knowing if one person questions something, others will also, even if it's plain to me or something they "should" know. I just haven't explained it well enough.

I've also realized that most people are overwhelmed these days and they pick at little things because they feel they can't control the bigger things that plague their lives. For instance, when I do graphics work, people may quibble that the shade of blue on one page isn't the same shade as on another. Is this a big deal? Naw, because I actually used the same shade of blue on both pages. But for some reason it just looks "different." However, this is something that's easily fixed by me nodding and saying I'll double-check the colors. They feel they have "control" over something in lives that often feel out of control.

I've also discovered this is not the same as putting my stories -- my "babies" -- out for public comment. However, I hope this has given me enough experience not to let the sting of rejection or unthinking comments hurt for too long. And my mantra for scathing comments is to never say anything you wouldn't want printed on the front page of the newspaper. Please let me always remember those wise words! :)

Alice Sharpe said...

Those are wise words, Genene. I'm going to strive to remember them, also.

As far as the union suit thing goes -- I know I don't read historical romance but I am relatively well read and this might have baffled me. All it would take is the writer using it in context -- "He buttoned up his union suit, pulled on his trousers and looked around for his favorite old flannel shirt," for instance. As a reader, I would have appreciated the hints and it sounds as though this writer was serious enough about her profession to learn and adapt and I say, good for her. Ask yourself this: you're an editor, who do you want to work for, someone so touchy you can't ask a question or someone who hears your concerns and addresses them? Even though I write RS if I were to enter a contest and be read by a historical romance aficionado or a science fiction fan, I would hope my work would still speak for itself.

The second writer just sounds bitchy to me. Hopefully, she can come down to earth and figure out why people didn't believe her historical references and learn from the experience. Firing off insults to an editor is not a good idea.

Do I have a thick skin? I don't know. If I'm confident about something, yes. If I am not confident, no. So, if a remark mirrors my own fears about my writing, it gets to me a lot harder than if someone makes a nasty comment about something I feel pretty good about.

Tell me this -- why enter a contest if not for feedback (or money or a free conference ticket or a basket of goodies?) Why enter a contest whose sole reward is feedback and a what-in-the-world-do-you-do-with-this statue if you aren't prepared for negative as well as positive comments?

That said, I was watching a challenge on Food TV yesterday. Build a Better Burger, I think. People brought their burgers to the judges who all had a big bite, asked questions, made comments and came up with a winner. Anyway, there was one judge who would get a smirk on his face if he found something wrong that he knew something about. For instance, someone put the wasabi mayonnaise on the top of a tuna burger and this guy said the Japanese all put wasabi on the bottom of the fish so it doesn't hit the top of the palette and destroy the delicate taste of the fish. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, he just loved having something he could gripe about and I thought, what a pain in the tukus. Reminded me of certain copyeditors.

Hope it's dry where you are, Paty. Thanks for leaving a blog and thanks to Genene for posting it.

Karen Duvall said...

The thin-skinned will likely have an equally thin future in any creative career. That's just how it is. It goes with the old saying: If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Hey, Genene, I'm right there with you on the graphics criticisms we often see. My favorite is the question that might go something like: "The title might look better in blue, but what do you think?" I have to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "If I'd have thought it would look better blue I'd have made it blue in the first place."

Point is, you go with the flow and don't let yourself get riled by the subjective opinions of others. Opions are like, well, you know. Those things on our hindquarters that everyone has. Snort.

Alice, I'm with you regarding smugness. I recently had a discussion on one of my loops about the different between critiques and reviews. Some of them believe critiques and reviews are the same thing. Would you want a critique from one of these people? Not me. It may be true that both are opinions, but the goal of critique is to help, and the (typical) goal of a review is to judge. Not the same. I decided to no longer belong to that loop.

Paty Jager said...

Hi Everyone! Lori than you for tryign to get my blog up and Genene, Thank you for figuring out a way!

My dh decided on Friday night that we were going ot Princeton on Saturday. Luckily I had the blog written but worried I could get it up. My internet service has been iffy lately. They are coming out on Thrusday to fix it. So if you send me an e-mail and don't hear back right away from me- it means my service is being iffy again.

Thank you all for your responses. I've grown a pretty thick skin over the years- I've had to if I wanted to believe I would some day be published.

Lori Barber said...

Genene, Thank you for posting Paty's blog. I'm sure it was a simple tap of a key stroke but I tapped and tapped and got no results.

I also love your mantra and I've stenciled it on a wall in my brain.

Paty, My skin continues to thicken. I learn from my mistakes, though sometimes it takes a few rounds before it's imprinted in my head.

Elisabeth Naughton said...

I think anyone who has sold a book has proven they have a thick skin. Anyone who's taken the risk and let someone else (anyone else) read their book has also proven they have thick skin. You have to in this industry, or you'll never improve and move forward.

That said, I think it's possible for a writer to have "too" thick skin sometimes. I've run into writers who were so blase about suggestions or criticism it worked the other way. They ignored it - not because it upset them or they though the critiquer was wrong, but because they believed they're already doing it "that" way. It's difficult to step back from your work and look at it objectively, but it's something we all need to do. Even when you think you're doing something perfect, often times there's room for improvement.