Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Advice for Novelists: Forget About Thick Skin

by Jennifer Coburn

When I decided to write a novel, well-meaning friends and family advised me to grow a “thick skin.” What they meant, of course, was that writers need to prepare themselves for the inevitable onslaught of rejection that comes with any creative endeavor. The thicker the proverbial skin, the less the rejection stings.

Ten years, four novels, and four anthology contributions later, I firmly believe that growing a thick skin is the last thing a novelist should try to do.

I have experienced a great deal of rejection and failure as a writer. A lot, a lot. Thick skin wouldn’t have helped in the least.

My story

When I decided to write a book of essays about motherhood, I sent a few samples to an agent in New York, who called me immediately and said she liked my style. She said my lack of treacle sentimentality about motherhood was refreshing, but quickly added that no one was interested in my essays. After all, who’d ever heard of me? She suggested I write a novel instead.

The agent asked me to give her an exclusive first look at the finished manuscript. In other words, I could not show my work to another agent until she decided whether or not she wanted to represent me. A pretty shitty deal, which I, naturally, agreed to immediately.

Fast forward ten months. My novel, Tales From the Crib, was complete. After the agent took her sweet time to decide she did not want to represent me, another 16 agents told me the same. Two agents then called on the same day and told me they could sell my novel.

They were wrong. That book never sold. My agent eventually sold my second novel The Wife of Reilly. My editor asked me to rewrite Tales From the Crib as my third novel. (To be clear, by “rewrite” I mean that six pages and the title survived.)

When I speak to writing groups, I am introduced as “successful novelist,” and I often look behind me to see who they could possibly be talking about. Yes, I have four novels published, one of which is in development for film. But I also have two novels and three screenplays sitting in a file marked “Someday.”

My point is that one cannot enjoy any measure of success without also enduring rejection and failure as well. A few writers will tell you their path was easy, but they are either extremely lucky or extremely full of shit. Most of us struggle. Most of us have had more than a few dark nights of the soul, wondering why we ever thought writing a book was a good idea.

Tips for Novelists

If you are a writer working on your first – or fourth – novel, here’s my advice: Do not grow a thick skin. What makes us good storytellers is the ability to access our emotions easily. If you cry at cheesy cell phone commercials, or if you yell Italian curses at the New Jersey Housewives – good for you! It means you’re able to connect with a broad range of feelings. If you’ve got thick skin, you can’t feel much, and that is death to a novelist.

That said, we can’t wallow in the misery of every rejection so long that we wind up with our heads in the oven. So, how do we deal with rejection and failure, and still pick ourselves up and try again?

1) Give yourself a set time to really feel the pain of rejection. When my book rejections came in, I set a stopwatch for 15 minutes and told myself I had to fit in every bit of self-pity and self-flagellation in that tight time frame. I really got into it. I put a tennis ball into a tube sock and tossed my makeshift whip over my shoulder like it was Ashura. For effect, I cried, “Oh Lord, why me?! Why, why me?” (Hey, you gotta’ cram in the drama if you’re on a schedule.)

2) Play WWXD? What Would Character X Do? The characters in your novel may never experience rejection or failure, but in order to know them better, ask yourself what they would do in this situation? You may even want to play their character so you can really feel it. Would Character X tear up the rejection letter and crumble to the ground in tears? Or would she silently, stoically sit at the kitchen table and light a cigarette? Use it.

3) Have a feel-good plan. After my 15 minutes of mourning were up, I’d wipe away the tears, drive to the Hotel Del Coronado, order an overpriced cup of tea in an exquisite cup, and look at the ocean. It’s kind of tough to feel anything but fabulous while sitting in a velvet burgundy chair while a waiter in a tuxedo and white gloves asks if “Madam would like anything more.”

4) Keep hope alive. Have a stack of new queries ready to mail on days you receive a rejection letter. When you receive two rejections, pop two letters in the mail. This way, you always have 10 queries out,

Finally, know that if you are a good writer who keeps working and rewriting, you will succeed in getting published. The quality of writing matters, but the main difference between a writer who gets published and one who does not is perseverance. If you write well and refuse to give up, success is there for you.

And who’d want thick skin getting in the way of really feeling that victory?


Kathi Diamant said...

Just finished Tales From the Crib--and truly enjoyed it. A great read! And to think that it wasn't accepted at first--and that only six pages remain. Well, you should be proud of it now! Here's to Rita and Bernice!

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