Growing a Thicker Skin: Separating Self from Product

I follow several comics on Facebook and Twitter. One of those is Sarah’s Scribbles, which features the work of Sarah Andersen.

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You’ve likely seen her comics floating around, as she has a great sense of humor and is wildly popular. Recently, she shared a comic that I’m pretty sure was created just for me, despite the fact that she hasn’t actually “met me.”

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I think it’s a topic that speaks to most creatives, right down to the fire.

Around the time I found this comic, I completed an interview for a favorite blogger on the topic of wellness and writing (be on the lookout for that). Her first question was this: What has been the biggest emotional challenge of being a writer/artist?

In the interest of the interviewing blogger, I won’t spill my entire answer. But I will say the difficulty in separating who we are from what we create is a biggie for me.

It’s an emotional challenge in that connecting self to product carries with it super-high highs. It’s a sense of “They said my book/painting/song rocked, therefore, I as a creative person rock.”

However

Keeping them connected inevitably leads to equally crushing lows (hence the fire in Sarah’s comic). If someone saying my book rocks means I rock, then someone saying it’s garbage must mean…

Sad Tears GIF by SpongeBob SquarePants - Find & Share on GIPHY

But it might not be that they are saying anything bad. They might not say anything at all.

About a month ago, I decided to participate in a pitching contest on Twitter called #PitchWars. The idea is do dazzle mentor authors, who are agented and likely published, with your story. If they choose your manuscript, that means they work with you to prepare it for querying, giving it a better shot at landing a contract.

Not a bad deal, right?

The hopeful authors–all 3,500 of them–submitted their work to up to four mentors last week. There are 107 mentors. Some had as many as 300 submissions, and they get to pick one. So the chances of being selected are pretty lousy. One mentor author tweeted that she’s requesting partial or full manuscripts from about 25% of her subs, and she wasn’t one of the 300-sub mentors. The ones with more likely have lower request rates.

Now, I entered knowing the odds were bad. I entered anyway because some of the mentors give feedback on queries and/or pages, which will help me figure out why my middle-grade novel is struggling to get agents’ attention. I didn’t enter expecting to get selected.

But even so, there’s a contagious buzz that happens in the PitchWars community about requests. To get one means you’ve made it to the “next round,” so to speak. It means someone in the industry wants to pay more attention to your work. Not to get one means the thing you’ve spent months or years writing wasn’t good enough to make it. Forget getting an agent. You can’t even get another author to notice you. The anxiety becomes so palpable that the contest organizer had to get online and tell everyone to chill, basically. It takes time to read hundreds of entries.

That doesn’t stop the buzz, however. Even though I didn’t expect a request, in not getting one I still somehow received this message:

suck

That’s not really what’s going on, though.

The mentor authors pick a manuscript that speaks to them and that they think they’ll be able to help with the most. But aside from that, if there’s a 1/300 shot of getting picked, many great books won’t get picked.

That has nothing to do with the skills of the author.

The idea carries to the querying process. Agents themselves have said they sometimes reject a book not because it was bad, but rather because they were looking to fill a spot on a bookshelf, and the submitted book simply didn’t fit.

That has nothing to do with the skills of the author.

The phenomenon remains post-publication but in a different form. Once your book baby is out in the world, readers can review it, most of the time anonymously. That means they can rip it to shreds if they want with no repercussions.

It sucks when that happens, but unless most of the reviews are bad (indicating a different problem, read more about reviews here), negative reviews are more a reflection of reader preference than of the book itself. And…

That has nothing to do with the skills of the author.

Are you noticing a pattern?

The point is this: there are many variables beyond our control when we put our work out into the world. You wouldn’t beat yourself up for getting caught in a traffic jam or for having your barbecue rained out. They suck and maybe make you feel bummed, but those events are no reflection on you as a person. They’re just crummy things that happened.

Just like getting no requests, form rejections, and negative reviews are crummy things that happen.

Now, if I could dismiss those things as easily as a traffic jam, I’d be all set.

19 thoughts on “Growing a Thicker Skin: Separating Self from Product

  1. Pingback: Strength of Conviction (part two) | Dan Alatorre - AUTHOR

  2. It is always interesting reading these sorts of posts, Allison. I am not entirely sure that being discovered by a traditional publisher and signing a contract is necessarily the best thing for us either. I know a few bloggers who were traditionally published but have bought out their contracts. Their view seems to be that if you aren’t Stephen King, you don’t get much marketing or attention and you are usually restricted on what you can do yourself. Good luck with Pitchwars – I know other authors who have entered this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s very difficult when somebody looks at something you worked very hard on and says it’s no good, or if they don’t say anything at all.

    But I never understood why 10 compliments are outweighed by one criticism. And they are. Don’t kid yourself. That bad review sticks with you much longer than the good ones. Maybe because it strikes a nerve that we disappointed somebody enough for them to tell us; maybe because we fear it will start a trend. Usually I think it’s because we fear they’re right and the other 10 that said they liked us were actually wrong somehow.

    Let me explain something, and remember this.

    The best movie maker of all time may be Steven Spielberg – and a lot of his movies SUCK.

    (Continental Divide, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Money Pit, Batteries Not Included, Hook – oh my God, Hook was awful. AWFUL.)

    Some of his movies are my favorite movies of all time. (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Used Cars, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Back To The Future.) I can watch a lot of his movies again and again. (And I do. Now that I mentioned it, I may watch Jurassic Park again this afternoon.)

    Get this: not every Steven King book is awesome, either.

    He wrote a lot of good stuff but I spent this summer starting (as opposed to reading) quite a few books of his – and putting them down because THEY SUCK. And while The Shining might sell a zillion copies every year, the marketers will make you think Mr. Mercedes sells just as much – but it doesn’t, and in my opinion it was unreadable.

    Spielberg’s sales are posted in Variety. King’s aren’t. Hmm. We have proof of Spielberg’s duds. King doesn’t disclose his as readily. That’s okay. I know which are which.

    So what’s this all mean?

    Allow me one more diversion, if you will.

    Do you like wine? There are many kinds, but if you like wine, you might prefer white over red, or a deep tannic red over a light fruity red. You might, if you had a choice, drink sweet white wine all the time and stay away from dry, harsh reds. That’s okay. But because you are polite, if you love sweet white wines and detest deep reds, you wouldn’t say the reds suck; you’d say you prefer the sweet whites – because you know the reds are supposed to be better, according to the wine snobs. But for you, they aren’t; the sweet whites are.

    Do you play sports or watch them on TV? Lots of people like to watch football and lots like to watch golf, and lots like to watch basketball – NBA or WNBA, whichever. Let me say this: I have lots of European friends who watch soccer and can’t stand watching American football because the action stops constantly; they like the nonstop play of soccer. I find soccer BORING. To them, our football sucks. To me, most golf sucks. And basketball is insanely sucky. I hate basketball. I like football. Basketball, to me, sucks, and WNBA basketball is even more unwatchable. But I like tennis, and whether it’s men’s tennis or women’s tennis, if it’s good players, I find it intense and well worth watching – but I rarely watch it either way.

    Gang, that’s just taste and preference. You’re never gonna convince me scotch is tastier than ice cream.

    And I like football and some Stephen King books and a LOT of Steven Spielberg movies, but not ALL of them. Despite their “duds,” they are still amazingly talented!

    1. Approval should come from the audience from which the product was intended, and
    2. a bad review usually simply means the book got to someone it wasn’t intended for.

    I don’t read romance. I roll my eyes at book covers displaying shirtless cowboys with six pack abs. I don’t even want to open it, and if I did, I’d probably say it sucked. But it wasn’t meant for me, and they tried to tell me that with the six pack ab guy on the cover, didn’t they? But I was a critique partner for an erotic book by a New York Times bestselling author that blew me away because it had mystery and intrigue and twists – and sex, yes – but it was very well written plot! And I said, shame on me for being prejudiced against erotica. But I also know that particular writer is the exception, which is why she is a NYTBSA. Her books have great plots aside from the sex, and most erotica books don’t.

    So…

    I don’t get enough good reviews and I don’t get enough bad reviews. Overall, I don’t get enough reviews.

    But I have people tell me they have loved characters I’ve created, and maybe they will remember those characters for years after they put the book down. How does one person saying my book sucks compete with that?

    Pfft. It doesn’t.

    More importantly, what would it take to actually erase the impact of a negative review?

    When I get a negative review, I look very carefully at what the person said. I know they don’t craft their statement the way we craft our books; they’re shooting more from the hip, but I look at it and say, “Gee, you didn’t like the teenager antics in a book that doesn’t contain a single teenager, so how smart is this person?” Maybe there a genius but they didn’t write a genius review. Sometimes I look at what they said about other books, and they don’t like anything they read. This lets me know what they said about my product is just who they are; it says more about them than it says about me or my book, so I dismiss it.

    A very smart person once told me: you are not your book. Your Twitter account is not your book, it’s you or the personality you choose to portray.

    But again let’s look at how we would offset that bad stuff.

    If Stephen King knocked on your door and stood in front of you and said, “I loved your book. I loved it. It changed my life. I want you to write a dozen more just like it…”

    It’s safe to say you would tell anybody who didn’t like the book to go jump in the lake.

    Now, it’s also safe to say Stephen King’s probably not gonna do that – but does it have to be Stephen King to make that difference in your confidence? Could it be somebody a little lower than Tiger Woods on the PGA Tour liking your golf game? Some golfer lower than Tiger but above the instructor at your local golf course?

    What if three or four people who sell a lot of books and get a lot of good reviews and write really good stuff, what if those three or four people told you your stuff was really good?

    I think you’d forge ahead with the knowledge that you are the Wright brothers before the airplane took off. They got a lot of criticism, but they held her ground. You aren’t getting that kind of negativity, so you’re in better shape than they were. Now it’s just a matter of time. Your audience is going to discover you, or you’re going to discover them – and by that I mean, you’ll tweak your product until it’s enough “you” and enough “popular” to satisfy both aspects.

    Recently I was advised to take out some of the humor in my murder mystery novel, and a good friend said, “But that’s YOU.”

    Good point. That’s part of what I like to do. So maybe instead of writing hard-core murder mystery’s I should write cozy mysteries and just sit back and have more fun like Lucy does.

    Either way, I’m constantly looking for that happy medium of me enjoying writing it and the readers enjoying reading it. I do a good job, but I want greater acceptance. That means marketing, which means some books will get into the hands of people they weren’t intended for. They’ll write bad reviews. If my marketing is better, it’ll result in good reviews. It’s rarely going to be about the book; it’ll be about the marketing – because I know I make a good product. I liked it, the people I count on for advice liked it, and my betas liked it. That’s all I need to launch my product. After that, I need to market it properly and believe in myself. I’m a great writer. That doesn’t change. All that changes is how many people agree with each different book.

    But I also know this: if I took the humor out of my murder mystery and it sold 10 million copies, it would quickly become my favorite and I would write a dozen more just like it. Humor would no longer be a part of the equation in any murder mysteries I’d write!

    Don’t try to sell robust reds to the sweet white drinker, and make sure the sweet white wine isn’t marketed as a robust red. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Why’s it so hard? Because marketing is hard. We don’t know how to find the people who want the specific item we’ve created.

    So in the end who is the audience? First and foremost, it’s you. Then it’s that small circle of people you rely on forget advice. I’m not Coca-Cola, but once upon a time Coke wasn’t known all over the world – and yet, today they still have to advertise and market, don’t they? Well, if they do, you do.

    I am creating a product that I love, and I will learn how to market it to the people who also love it. There are several billion people on the planet, so there will be more than enough readers of my stuff once I figure out how to market properly to them, to take care of my needs and their needs, both emotionally, writerly, financially, etc. I’m finding more and more with each day and each year, and the future is sunny and bright because I know I’m going to keep doing better.

    I don’t need to jump through hoops but I’m not afraid to write a book specifically to try to “sell” to the traditional markets. Why not? It’s not an either-or proposition; I can do both, and I’ll learn stuff as I do.

    Marketing is a constantly changing thing, and I need to change with it, but if I like what I make and somebody else doesn’t, that doesn’t mean what I make is bad. It means I need to do better marketing, because I KNOW I put the quality in; I had the trusted allies make their suggestions, and I followed that advice (it’s rarely wholesale changes, so why not?) and the betas loved the result. I’m okay with the product. I just need to work on the marketing. That’s hard, but once upon a time so were a lot of other things I mastered. I’ll get there.

    In the meantime I’m gonna be over here having fun doing what I do.

    Liked by 2 people

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