Two of the most valuable skills one must cultivate as a writer are being hypersensitive to write passionate, powerful, emotion-filled prose, and having a thick skin to handle criticism. Ironically, these two skills are often diametrically opposed. How can you be thick skinned and sensitive at the same time? In truth, I don’t know anyone who can.
Criticism hurts, no matter who’s giving it or what it says. No one who puts themselves out there, especially artistically–pouring their emotions, thoughts, ideas, and heart into their work–enjoys it when people criticize that work. It’s just hard to hear. Some may claim to be immune, but being used to it and being immune are not the same thing. One can certainly learn to accept that criticism is often a daily, or at least weekly, part of the life of an artist, especially when work is newly released. But I don’t honestly know how one can ever totally get to the point where it doesn’t sting. After all, any serious artist, of whatever medium, works hard to do their best at what they do. From studying craft, learning tools, and experimenting to long hours conceptualizing and planning, serious art takes work.
Having my first novel out there for seven weeks, it’s been hard to hear that I didn’t do it perfectly. The human side of me, which knows all of us are imperfect and that I still have lots of room to grow as a writer (always will), knows that people will find fault with my work. But the artist side of me cringes and feels a jab in the heart region every time they do. Mostly I have learned to bite my tongue and just keep it to myself. Occasionally my publisher and I discuss it. It’s hard sometimes to keep your mouth shut when you feel the criticisms are unfair (which is not every time). I’ve made a mistake a time or two but, in every case, I made sure to learn anything I could to apply in future novels so I won’t have to hear the same criticisms again. My goal is to make them work hard to find faults. It may be difficult to reach that point, but that’s what I’m shooting for.
I think it was especially hard with the first novel because it was, for me, my legitimization as a serious professional writer. Not self-published, not a free zine, this was someone paying me an advance against earnings for something I wrote, spending money on editing, printing, cover art, etc. Serious professional writers were writing blurbs and reading it to do so. For me, this book sent a message: Bryan Thomas Schmidt is for real about being a professional writer. He’s a peer.
It’s hard to explain that feeling to someone who hasn’t gone through it or isn’t preparing to, but, in part, it’s a sense of not wanting to let anyone down. People have supported and helped and encouraged me, and I wanted those efforts to have been worthy of the work I put out in the world. Of course, even name writers like Stephen King and Orson Scott Card and Mike Resnick get bad reviews. We all get criticized but if my book is sharing the shelf space, I just want to feel like I belong there. Do you know what I mean? Shelf space in bookstores and on bookseller tables is in high demand and all the more so as stores like Borders go bankrupt. It’s a competition just to get your book on the shelves, so if I ask someone to carry my book, I want them to get some income to make it worth their while. If not, why should they ever support me again?
Also, publishing a book feels so permanent. This is something which may one day make it into collections or library shelves. People may hold on to it and pass it down to kids, grandkids, pass it to friends, etc. My name and my picture will forever be associated with it. So I want that association to be a good thing, not one I or anyone else regrets. No frowns. Smiles. That’s what I want when people think of Bryan Thomas Schmidt and fiction. And when they criticize it for faults, I feel like I failed in that.
It’s best, of course, to remember that opinions are subjective. What’s the old saying? “Opinions are like buttholes. Everyone has one.” That’s crass, yes, but it’s true. And the reality is not everyone is going to like your work. Taste is a huge factor. Some people just don’t get science fiction or fantasy. Some people won’t like anything without serious, hard researched science involved. Some people won’t like your book because the characters aren’t like them. Some won’t like it because you had a male antagonist and not a female. The list of reasons can go on eternally. But in the end, those are just opinions. Your target audience will rarely be “everyone.” There are always specifics. So if you aim to please those people and yourself, I think you can find satisfaction.
For example, I knew when it went out that my book wasn’t perfect. I knew that from the first agent query rejection and publisher rejection. Not everyone liked my book or thought it was perfect. Okay. But I knew that would never be the case. I could never please everyone. It’s that way with everything in life. Instead, I focused my attention on how to make the book the best it could possibly be right up until the final deadline. If I wrote The Worker Prince today, I’d do things differently. In many cases, I’d do things better. Writing book 2, The Returning, was so much easier for a reason: I learned craft in the past two years I didn’t have when I wrote book 1. Every book has lessons learned which you automatically apply to future works, so every book should be easier and better, in theory. So my goal was to release the best book I could at that point in my writer’s journey and to know I had to be satisfied that I did my best. It’s all I can ask of myself.
How do you be sensitive enough to write characters who come alive with emotion and touch readers and still have a thick skin for criticism? I don’t have the answer. The best advice I have is to focus on what you can change and let the rest go. If you can find tips to improve your writing in the criticisms, use it. If you can’t, let it go. If you can do that, you can’t ask much more of yourself. Sorry if you were looking for easy answers. I don’t have them. But as long as you remember that writing is a journey and a process that never ends and stay on the road of discovery, I think you can recognize you’re growing and so will your works and that makes it easier to accept the bad with the good in critics. At least, that’s my approach.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.