Friday, March 02, 2012

A Thick Skin

Writers hear it again and again: "Develop a thick skin." Rejection is part of the process. Our work is critiqued (and sometimes criticized--there's a difference) repeatedly. We get rejected by agents, by editors and publishers, and if we eventually get our work published, by readers.

In my very first writing group, author Gayle Roper told us that when our submission was discussed by our peers we'd have to remain silent. Why? Because you can't stand over the shoulder of your readers and explain yourself. You can't justify or embellish. Your work has to stand alone.

That's easy to understand in principle, but it's awfully difficult in practice. I just received an email from a reader who, as a health-care professional, took umbrage at one small part of one of my novels. I won't go into detail. Let's just say that it brought up some inequities in the system that she chafed under day after day, and she felt I was painting the medical profession/hospital as the "bad guy." I had no intention to do so, but that's the way she took it. I thought about it for a good while before sending a return email indicating that wasn't my intention and apologizing if she found the way I'd handled the situation distasteful. I don't know if I'll ever hear from her again, but I took her complaint to heart. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try and how skillfully we edit, sometimes our writing is going to hit a reader the wrong way.

Every one of my books, my website, and my blog all carry my email address. I encourage my readers to communicate. Many of the emails I get are from readers that like my books. Fortunately, emails like this recent one are more rare. But you know what? I pay as much--maybe more--attention to the complaints as I do to the compliments. I'll never satisfy everyone, and if I tried, I probably would never get more than a page written. Nevertheless, it helps to periodically be introduced to the reality that you can't please all the people all the time.

Have you ever communicated to an author your displeasure at something he/she wrote? Why, or why not? I'd be interested in hearing.


Mark Young said...

I love your rhino photo, Richard. As an author, I try to look at all comments for take-away value. Is there something that this reader shared that I can learn from as a writer?

Interesting, I don't think I've ever shared my displeasure about someone else's work with that author, unless they've solicited my opinion. I guess I follow that old adage, "If you can't something nice..." Great post!

Richard Mabry said...

Mark, I quickly learned that I should at least carefully consider negative comments, but it took me a while before I began contacting the person who left them to thank them for their thoughtful input.
When we put our name, work, and email address out there, we leave ourselves vulnerable. But that goes with the territory.
Thanks for your comment.

Jan Cline said...

No I haven't and I don't think I ever would say anything about something I didn't like in a book. I figure it's all about point of view and I want to be able to say what I want so I should let others express themselves freely. But...if I really, really don't like it I usually toss it without finishing. I don't usually get too shook up about rejection...maybe I keep my expectations low enough to protect myself against gross disappointment. Have a great weekend.

Richard Mabry said...

Jan, the comments you and Mark left made me realize I didn't distinguish between negative emails (to which I try to reply) and negative reviews. The latter just have to stand, sitting out there for everyone to see, and there's nothing to be done about them.
When I'm on the other end of the situation and read (or start) a book that I can't really say anything good about, I tend to do just that--stay silent.
It's a tough situation for both reader and author.
Thanks for your comment.

Carol J. Garvin said...

I've rarely had feedback over my magazine articles because they aren't usually controversial in nature. And since I don't have novel published yet, I haven't faced your kind of situation, but I don't think I would ever write an author to dispute an opinion.

I did, however, once contact an author to ask about a discrepancy in one of her novels -- a song was used that hadn't been written at the time the story took place. I just asked if she'd taken literary liberties or had her editor perhaps missed it. She kindly replied that it was indeed an error that would be corrected in later printings and we ended up having a number of very pleasant exchanges. I've come to greatly respect her knowledge and writing.

I like your comment to Jan about distinguishing between negative e-mails and negative reviews.

Richard Mabry said...

Carol, Thanks for your comment. As always, I enjoyed it.
I suspect it won't be long until you have a novel of your own published, and then you can sit back and wait to get an email telling you that such-and-such was true in the setting where that particular reader worked, and maybe you should have done your research better. Sounds like you've already perfected the art of the soft answer to turn away wrath.
Appreciate your chiming in.