Last weekend was the annual ROSA conference, a gathering of some 40 romance writers from around South Africa to educate, network, and generally chat about our favourite kinds of books. Since I'm the primary organiser, this conference is one of the highlights of my year, even if it does tend to wipe out half my month.
There were so many fabulous discussions over the weekend, and I'm always astounded how much there still is to learn about publishing, and how generous my fellow writers are with their enthusiasm, knowledge, emotional support and their time. I could write about a dozen posts on what I learned during this year's conference, but this week I wanted to talk about something author Joss Wood raised during the final, closing panel discussion of the weekend.
She spoke about the importance of being able to take criticism.
In my experience as a writing coach, and through mentoring aspiring writers for several years now, I've learned how to tell which writers are going to make it as published authors, and which most likely aren't, and the dividing factor is that ability to take criticism.
All of my clients start out saying "tell me what's wrong with my writing, I want to learn." But some, when they receive feedback on what's wrong with their writing, take offence. Some go silent on me, never replying to any further emails, as if I've mortally wounded them by daring to suggest that their 'baby' is less than perfect.
Maybe I have. But the hard truth is that my feedback is generally quite gentle. It's accompanied by suggestions and advice. That's more than an editor would do for a beginner writer. That's more than a reviewer would do for a published author. If you think I'm harsh, then maybe you aren't cut out for this writing gig, where Goodreads reviewers will shred your books just for kicks, and agents and editors won't think twice about giving you form rejection after form rejection without ever explaining what you might be doing wrong or helping you make it right.
Being a professional writer is a strange balance between being thin-skinned enough to empathise with characters and readers in order to deliver an emotional read, and being thick-skinned enough to handle the rejections and criticisms. And there will always be criticisms. Go to Amazon and read the reviews on some of your favourite books, and you'll see how even the most revered, award-winning authors get tons of horrid 1-star reviews. It's part of being a published author.
If you can't take editorial feedback at the start of your career, then the likelihood that you can take that kind of very public feedback later is slim.
As I type this, I can hear Joss' voice saying "suck it up, cupcake."
I still cry sometimes when I read my editor's feedback on my books. My first thought is "I poured my heart and soul into this, and she hates it". And it's not helped by the fact that editors often don't tell you HOW to fix what's wrong with the book. They point out what's not working and expect you, the author, to come up with the solution. But every time I get over myself, pick myself up, and figure out how to fix it, and every single time the editor's feedback results in a book that is at least ten times better than what I originally wrote. And that is worth "sucking it up"!
The good news is that it does get easier. Professional, multi-published authors don't refer to their books as their babies. They understand that writing books is a job, and that at some point you need to be able to disengage yourself emotionally from your work. When you have ten or twenty books published (or, in Joss' case some 34 completed books) then viewing each and every one as your perfect little baby is indulgent.
When you are a professional author, you're not the devoted single parent to your books, you're the teacher. Devoted, sure, but you can see the flaws and the strengths in each child that passes through your classroom, and you do the best to help and grow each and every one - but at some point you have to let them go. Each year, you have to move on to a new class, and get re-attached and then de-attached over and over again.
If there's one thing I'd like my clients to learn it's that accepting criticism, and using it positively, is the mark of a professional author. Positive criticism, which offers solutions and guidance, is not a bad thing. It will, without a shadow of doubt, make your writing better. But first, you have to "suck it up, cupcake."