The Black Belt Writer

Writing can be terribly subjective. One reader loves your every word; another reader wants to use your book as kindling. Sometimes I wish writing came with an objective measurement to see how you’re advancing—like Karate.

My daughter took up Karate this summer, and I’ve found myself having conversations with her that I have with other writers. Most recently, we had the “don’t compare yourself to others, just to your own progress” talk. She was worried that she would always be a white belt, because others were better and farther advanced than she.

We writers go through similar feelings. Heck, it’s hard not to compare yourself with other writers, especially when these are other writers that you know personally. It’s easy to think that you’re not succeeding, that you’re never going to get “there” (wherever “there” is for you). That you will be a white belt forever. So the only way not to drive yourself crazy is to stop comparing yourself to other people, and mark your progress against your own past. Is this writing better than what I wrote last week? Last month? Last year?

But how do you mark your career progress in this subjective field? In Karate, moving up to the next belt has two components: physical and mental. It’s not enough to learn the techniques of the moves—you also have to display the right attitude, with discipline, focus, and respect being high on the list.

The same is true of writing. We learn the techniques (save the cat, hero’s journey, kill your darlings, etc.) and work to improve them. We practice and practice until each clumsy new technique becomes a subconscious movement in our work. But that’s not enough to climb the belt ladder. We need to have the right attitude, too. We won’t get far without discipline and focus to get work done and respect for the people we work with—most of all, for our future readers.

So we all start out as white belt writers, and we work and work and finally we feel like we’ve got the craft under control and the attitude is right where it should be. So we’re black belts, right?

Not so much. I’m thinking maybe purple belts—about half way to black.

Because now all the publishing stuff enters into the equation. Now we have a whole new set of techniques to learn (many of them at odds with our temperaments) and a whole new attitude to adjust.

So we dive into marketing and publicity and meeting the public and social media and, oh, yeah, we’re still supposed to be writing somehow, and didn’t I leave my family laying around here somewhere? But slowly we learn the ropes of our new existence, and we adjust our attitude to the professionalism needed to work with agents, publishers, movie/TV producers, other authors, booksellers, and, of course, our readers.

Okay, we’ve done that. So now we’re black belt? Maybe. I’ll leave that up to you. I might consider a true black belt writer to be one who not only lives on their writing but is able to write what they truly want to write. You might choose to award a black belt at publication, or a certain number of books sold, or even when you have written a book that finally matches the vision in your head whether it gets published or not. The definition of success, like so much in the writing world, is personal.

And that is as it should be.

Do you ever wish there was a visible way to tell where you were in your writing career? How do you measure your success?

A Writer’s Thick Skin: Do We Need One?

There’s been a lot of talk on the Internet lately about the need to have “a thick skin” if you are going to be a writer. After all, being a writer comes with a ton of rejection and a necessary amount of critique. Nothing you write will ever be perfect, and nothing you write will be loved by everyone who reads it. These facts are part of the job description.

Kristen Lamb tells us we need a thick skin, while Rachelle Gardner makes the case that we don’t. Jody Hedlund ignores the thickness of skin altogether and talks about the unnecessary shame involved in getting feedback.

They all have good points, but I think the key to developing a so-called thick skin isn’t in strengthening your epidermis, but in changing the way we approach criticism and rejection. A thick skin simply means we can take a beating and keep on going—but have we learned anything worthwhile from the beating?

I didn’t always take criticism well. I mean, I never screamed at anyone or anything like that, but it hurt a lot when my work wasn’t up to snuff. The first time my Master’s degree advisor ripped apart my work, I was nearly in tears. I suspect that part of this reaction is that I was a very good student in school. I was used to getting all A’s. To be told that my work was not an A was rather unprecedented, and I had no coping mechanism in place.

So I learned to cope. I turned around the way I looked at the red marks splashed on the page. Instead of seeing them as glaring testaments to my worthlessness, I looked at them as a challenge: every red mark was a place I could improve my story. Once I changed my outlook from a negative (“I suck”) to a positive (“look at how much better my story can be”), the ouch factor of criticism lessened considerably.

This doesn’t mean that when I get a bleeding critique back I do a dance of joy. I get down in the dumps like everyone else. The task can seem monumental. Overwhelming. But in the end it becomes exciting, because each change is an opportunity to learn something new about our craft, and the results of the changes are instantaneous: you can actually feel the story growing stronger.

I admit that revision fits my personality. I love to learn—and honing our writing offers endless opportunities to try something new, to push ourselves higher, or to master a nuance of the craft. I am also by nature a troubleshooter: I love to fix things. When I was a video editor, I was the go-to gal when a system wasn’t working. Tracking down and fixing the problem thrilled me. The same goes for my writing. Figuring out what the problem is, and then finding the solution is an adrenaline rush.

So, back to the thick skin. Do you need one? I don’t think so. Becoming impervious brings with it the risk of becoming immune to the helpful criticism as well as the bad (and there is bad criticism out there that should simply be ignored). I think Jody hit it on the head that our task is not to grow rhino skin, but to change the way we approach criticism altogether.

What do you think? Do we need a thick skin to survive as writers or not?

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