It was back in 2007. I was only two years into writing, finally gaining enough confidence to begin submitting to professional paying magazines. What followed were dozens of form style rejections thanking me for submitting, saying the pieces weren’t suitable, and wishing me luck on placing them elsewhere. Not only were these letters disappointing, they were not helpful. I mean, how would I grow as a writer unless I knew what professionals thought about my stuff? Besides that it wasn’t worthy for their mag.
Then I received this email from a pro-grade speculative fiction magazine regarding my short story “Subterranea.”
Thank you for your interest in xxxxxxx and your recent submission, “Subterranea .”
There are lovely beginnings, here, but too many. It seems to restart at least 3 times, the last at about the mid-way point. Also, the digging metaphors, which felt, at first, fresh and poignant, became tiresome about here: “I immediately set a spike and began my descent;” they begin to sound awkward, especially when married to allusions to building bridges.
The story, overall, felt like Lovecraft as told by Dashiell Hammett, which is very clever, but about here: “It wasn’t long before he saw the hardhats again,” I realized that the true protagonist of the story was Mr. Gordon Sartwell, and the voice should perhaps be his, instead of the mesmerist, who added a bit of opening drama but no substance to the meat of the plot.
Therefore, I unfortunately am unable to accept your story for publication at xxxxxxxx.
Writers are often told we need thick skin to weather rejection. There’s a lot of truth to that. Sometimes we need to discard critique, ignore rejection, and simply press on. But I wonder if the opposite isn’t also true: We need thin skin to learn from critique.
After months of form rejections, the above letter was a revelation for me. A professional editor, someone who probably saw hundreds of stories a month, took the time out of her schedule to write someone she didn’t know, someone she wasn’t even going to publish, and articulate the pros and cons of their piece. Sure, it was still a rejection letter. I could have snarled, deleted it, and ignored her advice.
But my skin wasn’t thick enough.
Charles Spurgeon, the famous British preacher, once told the story about an anonymous critic who, after each of the minister’s sermons, would send a weekly list of his mispronunciations, slips of speech, redundancies, and misquotes. Spurgeon concluded,
“Possibly some young men might have been discouraged, if not irritated, by such severe criticisms, but they would have been very foolish, for in resenting such corrections they would have been throwing away a valuable aid to progress. No money can purchase outspoken honest judgment, and when we get it for nothing let us utilize it to the fullest extent.” (The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear, Lectures to My Students)
Not only was Spurgeon unoffended, he grew to relish the critique and came to see them as “a valuable aid to progress.” Spurgeon wrote of his anonymous critic, “He never signed his name, and that was my only cause of complaint against him, for he left me in a debt I could not acknowledge.”
Question: Are your critics “a valuable aid to progress” or a pain in the ass?
I blogger recently reviewed The Resurrection and gave it a thumbs-up… with some caveats. I emailed him the following letter.
Just wanted to say thanks for reading The Resurrection and posting a review. I am really interested in working through some of the weaker elements of my writing style, and felt from your review that I could trust you to be honest with me about some of them. From reading The Resurrection, what advice would you give me for my next novel. Things I need to avoid or work on. And please — nothing offends me! I’m genuinely interested in growing. Thanks again for your review.
Some would probably say I am setting a dangerous precedent for myself. No doubt, the quickest way to paralysis would be to listen to everyone’s opinion about your writing. Nevertheless, this does not mean we shouldn’t listen to some.
Point is: It’s possible for us writers to work so hard on developing thick skin that we become hardened to the things that will help us grow. We develop blind spots that cripple our career or stunt our spiritual growth, all under the guise of “thick skin.” We become so beholden to gushing five star reviews that anything less is a personal affront. The writer who is worst off is not the one who is naive, lazy, or amateurish — because every writer is this sometimes. Rather, it’s the writer who refuses to receive critique.
So let me ask you, Is your skin thin enough for the writing business?