Tuesday, May 4, 2010

To Succeed at Writing, Develop a Thick Skin

Fear is one of the ugliest emotions a writer has to cope with. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most common. Writers are afraid to send their work off to editors because the editors might not like it. Writers are scared to let their family and friends see their work because they might be laughed at or made fun of. Writers fear putting their material out there on the Internet so the general public can see it, because someone might say something nasty.

This fear can be so strong that sometimes writers can't even put pen to paper or their fingers to the keyboard. Fear causes writer's block. It stops up the mind, causes the shakes and possibly worse.

But it's part of being a writer. At least if you want someone else to see your work. Especially if you have hopes or dreams of making it as a professional writer.

What can be done? The truth is each writer has to cope with fear on their own terms. There are no easy answers.

I can offer some suggestions, things that have worked for me in my twenty years as a fiction writer and newspaper journalist.

First, and most important, you have to realize that you are often the problem, not the other people, not the people reading your work and not the people saying negative things about your work. You can't do anything about those other people. Everyone has their opinions and those opinions won't always match yours. But you can do something about your writing and how you deal with rejection and negative responses. If you can't get past all that, then you are definitely the problem. Prima donnas don't last long in the writing business, with very, very few exceptions (possibly science fiction author Harlan Ellison being one of them, since he has somewhat of a reputation, though he didn't receive that reputation until attaining a certain level of success). If you go around acting like your writing is perfect, that no editor should ever change one single word or move one single comma, then editors soon won't want to work with you. Which means you'll be writing for yourself and only yourself. And that's okay if that's all you want to do. But if you want to be published, you need to grow that thick skin.

Also, you need to realize that not everything you write is going to be golden. Sometimes the spark will be lit and you'll feel everything is going just right and every word you're putting down is perfect, perfect, perfect. Then you finish the piece and set it aside for a month or so. You look at it again and, lo and behold, it sucks. I mean it sucks big time. So what happened? You gained a little perspective, that's what happened. The space and time you allowed between yourself and what you wrote has given you that perspective. And sometimes you've changed as a person, or maybe you've become more experienced after writing other things. At that point, you go back to what you thought were golden words and you begin to edit and rewrite them.

I'll give one last piece of advice, probably the best I can give. Allow yourself to write badly. Let me repeat that. Allow yourself to write badly. Once you can do that, once you can sit down and force yourself to write no matter what mood you're in or what's going on in your personal world, then you will stand a better chance at succeeding in becoming a published writer. Because then you can focus on writing as a profession, not as a hobby. Then you can focus on the tools of writing, the words and punctuation marks and the grammar, and not just the emotional qualities of writing. Then you can get something done. And you can go back and edit and rewrite. Frankly, you need to get to a point where you have less emotional attachment to your writing. You have to realize every article isn't going to win you the Pulitzer Prize. Not every novel is going to be the next great bestseller. Not every poem is going to sound as if it spilled off the lips of Maya Angelou. This doesn't mean you don't care about your writing, just that you will be able to sit back and focus on it with more objectivity.

Good luck, and keep writing. With practice comes experience.

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