Rhinoceros Hide

09Aug10

On one of the writers websites where I lurk, a fellow showed up one day asking why agents couldn’t take the time to give an aspiring writer a one or two word explanation for the rejection of his query. He’d been trying for ten years to find an agent to represent his “epic fantasy,” a 278,000 word first novel (and the first of a trilogy!). Almost immediately, and predictably, a dozen or so folks told him his word count was a show stopper. Absolutely not, he said. That manuscript had been trimmed and polished to a fine sheen. There was no way it could be shortened, and God forbid it could be divided into two.

Then we coaxed him to post his query.

If the word count wouldn’t have stopped an agent, the query was sure to. Fifteen names were mentioned, all of them seemingly made up by a blind typist. And it was thick enough to stand up a lead spoon at half mast.

Criticisms were offered, ranging from the dainty to the damning, and eventually, the Sensitive Artist when huffing off, hurling sanctimonious epithets. “Deviant ayatollahs,” we were (among other things).

This got me thinking about my relatively short experience as an aspiring writer. I’ve come to this rather late in life, via a short career in state legislative politics, lobbying, a stint running a large institutional legal department, years of standing in front of angry mobs of NIMBIES, and raising two teenagers. What all of those experiences gave me (to the extent I wasn’t born with it) was thick skin.

It occurs to me that thick skin is as essential to the aspiring writer as craft, imagination or storytelling. Yes. As essential.

Why? Because no matter how good our craft, imagination or storytelling might be (as developing writers), it can always improve.

Always.

And it improves, significantly, through the receipt of honest criticism from well-meaning and talented writers whom we are lucky enough to know.

My first serious crit was from a brilliant Brit who’d found me on Youwriteon.org and dragged me to a private writers website for special “attention.” I have save his redlines in a special file and look back on them whenever I think I’m getting “good.”

Then I followed him and some of the others on the site over to Authonomy, where I posted the first 10,000 words of Small Fish and begged for other writers to “rip me a new one.” I had no desire for fawning praise. I didn’t deserve it, and it wasn’t what I asked for. A healthy dozen or so obliged. Many revisions ensued.

Did I read searing, sarcastic ridicule about the treatment of a sex scene? (“Come on, you weren’t serious, were you? That was laughable.”) A death scene? (“Syrupy self-indulgence. Bile raising in its self-consciousness.”) Wordiness? (Jaysus, Pete, you do go on!”) Yup. Did it bother me? Well, for a microsecond, yeah. It did.

But then, I asked for it, and I got what I asked for. And I had no right to be anything but appreciative.

Thick skin allows you to evaluate criticism as objectively as you, the writer, are able. We can’t possibly be so confident in our skills that no word of our creation is imperfect! There is always a different, better way to say something! A shorter, simpler way. A more poetic, sympathetic, brutal, honest or guileful way. That’s why we ask.

So now, as I wait for my scarily industrious agent to finally get back to me with her own edits, I say that I wouldn’t have that agent – in fact I may not ever have finished the book at all – if I hadn’t been fortunate to have several dozen unsympathetic ogres open up with guns blazing and help me make it something worth reading.

And I can still write two more novels to get to the 278k word count!

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19 Responses to “Rhinoceros Hide”

  1. 1 M M Bennetts

    My favourite criticism leveled only once at me was, “Get rid of it, it’s boring as f***.”

    And you know what, Red Pen was right. Red Pen is always right.

  2. 2 pete

    Heh – I can guess who the source was, eh? Some of the best stuff, though, came from Oliver C., the first Autho member to read the entire ms and return 15 pages of condensed notes. WOW!

  3. 3 Sue Marnitz

    Here, here, Pete!

    I read that thread with interest and didn’t understand what the fellow was getting so worked up about. Unless he just didn’t want to have to rewrite his ms, which is where it looked like things were heading… 😉

  4. It’s impossible to be a writer without developing that rhino hide. I’m still working on mine 🙂

    You’re so right about the critiques – we don’t need pats on the head – we need to know where we need to improve. And those crits are the ones that stay with us.

  5. 5 jscolley

    But, along with the Rhino skin, we also have to develop a sense of confidence in our own work — to know what criticism to accept and what to reject. There is the predicament.

  6. Amen, Peter! I don’t disagree with a single idea here (though you have a typo in there….;-)

    In this age of easy self-publishing, anyone can claim to be a writer and show naysayers the “finished” work to anyone who asks. I couldn’t imagine putting my name on something that would bore the dead, much less claim that it was pristine. If you can’t keep a reader’s attention, you’re just adding noise to the cacophony.

  7. Pete, this post is a riot! Sometimes people just don’t want to hear it. Sadly, there’s a website every key tap or a thousand writing books on the shelves at B&N to help us understand the VERY BASICS of writing.

    I could write my entire juvenile lit career and never get to 278k words. LOL!

    I’m with you on the honesty front. The last thing I want is for someone to pat my back and let me believe I’ve actually got a shot with my drivel. Only through honest ogreness can I improve.

  8. Hey Pete – enjoyed this post and am spreading the word – you on twitter?

    • Knock yourself out, JK – I am, but I’m damned if I know how to use it to the best efficacy.

  9. And that thread with the 278K word incomprehensible writing has now gone tits up.

  10. 11 patti

    Great post, Peter. I always say if your feelings are more important than your work, you’ll never be a writer.

  11. LOL Robb, I missed your comment until just now. Yes, in a manner of speaking, it has!

    And patti, I am glad you saw this, and forever grateful that you admitted me to The Shed.

    • 13 patti

      Apparently this was posted at YWO, and it is now posted in the Shed as well. Your Brit friends are chuffed to hear you have an agent. That’s what comes of learning to take criticism.

  12. 15 Phillipa

    Posted on the very same subject today, only from a slightly different angle – linked it back here to your blog

    http://www.phillipafioretti.com.au/

  13. This is a great post, Pete. It took me a while to acquire that rhinoceros hide, but as it grew, so did my writing skills AND my willingness to keep striving for the next goal. I like your description of our agent as “scarily industrious” — with her, and this thick rhino hide, how can we not win? 🙂

  14. Brilliant, Pete. Thick skin is probably as valuable a tool for a writer as a keyboard it. Without criticism we would never grow in our craft.


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