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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

If You Have a Thick Skin, You Might Want to Be a Writer

I used to tell my fiction writing students — especially the ones that needed a kick in the ass to hand in pages — that “The easiest thing to do in the world is NOT WRITE.”

Sometimes this did the trick. Of course, the writers in the class (usually just 3 of the 20 students) hadn’t a problem to make story and put it on the page. It was the middle-grounders, the kids who had potential and imagination, but needed a few years to figure out how to tap into their heads, those were the hardest nuts. Nevertheless, the in-class methodology wasn’t hampering them, which was as open a process as made possible for imagination to find a story thread. Perhaps they didn’t like what they had written, or were trying to write, or how it was coming onto the page from the images in their heads.

These are all great concerns of the writer. Fortunately, criticism wasn’t part of the games we played in class. Criticism was the last thing these young writers needed at this stage; peer criticism worse still, because Who would you want least to criticize your early writing efforts but some schmo sitting next to you who himself can’t compose a coherent sentence? Right. What young writers need is encouragement. (I’ll discuss the CCC Fiction Writing Dept’s methodology in a future post)

Encouragement is a fortunate part of a writer’s life, because it can be found everywhere: the written word is bountiful in our literate world; at least, you should have a bookshelf of the best writers whose prose and characters and story are there for you to learn from.

READ GOODS AUTHORS TO LEARN GOOD TECHNIQUES! … (Roth, Bellow, Atwood, Murdoch, Woolfe, Joyce, Rush (Norman, not Limbaugh), Updike, Naipaul, McEwan, Theroux, Doctorow, Franzen, Eugenides, Waugh, Beyer, J.F. Powers, Ford, Barnes, McNair, Harding, Banville, McCarthy, Nabokov … to name but a few) … That’s another thing I told my writing students, mostly because it had worked for me and every writer for whom I held admiration of style, character, content, theme, use of metaphor, story progression; and onward. No, I am not being redundant here.

Redundancy would be for me to point out that rejection and criticism and ignorance is what writers must battle daily. Agents don’t answer but 5% of your queries (90% of which are rejections); publishers send rejections written (scrawled!) across the top of your well-written query letter; the agents and/or pubbers who ask to see your work take 6mos to answer, with another rejection (“We don’t know where your book fits in our marketing profile.”); your writers’ group colleagues don’t understand why Character-X won’t want to continue fucking Character Y “just because”; and, your family keeps asking “When is that book going to be done … Steven King writes a book every year!”; you look at your work one day, and its Pulitzer-bound, while the next day that same page is S-H-I-T; you sign a book contract only to learn the editor-of-the-day doesn’t like your book; when your book is published, the reviewers pass over yours for another title from yet another vampire author; and then, no one buys your book because it’s a single drop in the ocean of titles published this year.

This is what writers live with. And if you have a thick skin, or the perfectly matted feathers of a duck, then you might want to continue as a  writer. Why? Because you need to let the water-beads of rejection slide off you over and over. Meanwhile, you must write one sentence at a time, one paragraph after the next, one chapter and then another, until THE END appears one day on the last page. And then you start another novel.

Forget about the fact that you can publish your long-worked novel (or – GASP! – the one finished yesterday) via Amazon or another POD provider. That’s the first step in the public life of your book. Twitter away; FB is your “friend”; write another blog post — these are just starters in today’s market. And, as far as social media goes, writers are often enough hooked up with other writers, not with the readers they want to engage with. While this isn’t rejection, it can feel like a circle jerk.

So where do you find YOUR readers? Where have all the publishers gone? Why won’t your family read your published book? When shall recognition come to you, and with it the trappings of fame and success?

All of these will happen after you finish the next book. I promise. Now get back to work.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.


  LynneinPborough wrote @ August 16th, 2012 at 6:51 am

I love this.  Thanks!  I have a full time job, 2 draft novels (neither long enough) and another 20+ storylines itching to get put on paper.  I’m determined to get the first 2 finished before starting the next or I’ll end up with 20+ drafts.. Do I have thick skin?  Not really, but I think I have a stubborn streak and intend to get all these books written.. Published too?  From the sounds of it I’ll need to develop a thicker skin for that.

  MarkBeyer wrote @ August 17th, 2012 at 11:36 am

I think a thick skin, Lynn, comes over time, naturally, but definitely after you understand your abilities as a writer have solidified, when you know that what you’re writing fits among the people you admire. Sometimes, though, that is a long journey.

Keep on writing!

  Christine McCaffrie wrote @ August 21st, 2012 at 8:10 am

Mark, I found myself nodding reading this post. It’s so easy to be put off by constant rejection. The annoying thing is that many of the people who are in the position of rejecting books, are not great writers themselves. So much is subjective.  You are absolutely right that such criticism must be water off a duck’s back.

I know what you mean too, about family not wanting to read your books. My husband, a non fiction writer/editor, did a final proof read of my first novel after much begging on my part, and his comment,”you know, it’s actually a good read”, persuaded me to go ahead with it. My eldest daughter read it six months after it was published, and was surprised that she enjoyed it. My other daughter and son have not read it, though daughter 2 read my second novel,  an e-book, and actually rang to say how much she liked it.  But it’s a bit like pulling teeth!

Good luck with your writing, and I hope you, like me have grown  a skin so thick when it comes to rejection and criticism that we could be recycled as faux croc skin handbags when we leave this mortal coil!

  MarkBeyer wrote @ August 23rd, 2012 at 8:32 pm

What you say about editors not being good writers is axiomatic when you become a part of the industry. Most editors are decent writers, but that doesn’t mean much, or anything, to a strong writer whose book is in that not-so-good editor/writer’s hands. The fact is, a writer nowadays must be his/her own best editor. If Hemingway was right in his suggestion that one must have a good “shit detector,” then now is the best time to cultivate such a thing — for your career’s sake.

  LKWatts wrote @ August 21st, 2012 at 9:51 am

I’ve just published my second book and I’m very excited the time I’ve been waiting for has finally come. Obviously all I want to do now is check my sales every five minutes but I must be disciplined and write my third book. That’s all you can do, right? Write more books. Sales will happen when they happen.

  Libby Belle wrote @ August 24th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

I must have thick skin because I put my book together with a Comb Bind C110 that I rescued form the dumpster and passed it out unedited to friends and family.  They read a few of my short stories (18 in all) and didn’t say much to me.  Next thing I know, it’s been handed to a woman all the way up in Wisconsin…word gets back to me that she likes it. Go figure.  I have a fan!  Well, actually two, my brother loves my work and he’s an awesome writer.  I think my skin just got thicker.

  Daniel Quentin Steele wrote @ September 26th, 2012 at 12:30 am

liked this. the same way i used to like, in my 20s, going to a gym and sweating in a sauna at 100 plus degrees and then jumping into an ice-cold pool and feeling my heart stop for an instant. Every time I climbed out i felt great – i had beaten death one more time. this gives me just the same kind of chill. but it’s a great blog.

  Guillermo Paxton wrote @ October 2nd, 2012 at 2:12 pm

“Why won’t my family read my published book?” – Classic.

  Guillermo Paxton wrote @ October 2nd, 2012 at 2:13 pm

“Why won’t my family read my published book?” – Classic.

  TK Thorne wrote @ October 21st, 2012 at 6:17 am

Deep in my closet I have kept all the rejection letters as a reminder of what it takes.  Thank you for this post.

  TK Thorne wrote @ October 21st, 2012 at 6:18 am

That was my post about rejections in the closet.  Didn’t realize I had to sign in first and then post!

  MarkBeyer wrote @ October 22nd, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Thanks for stopping by, TK. I have to agree that your ability to keep rejection letters is one proof of “thick-skin-ness” … and I suppose you’ll get a laugh out of them in 20 yrsl

  CFwinn wrote @ December 13th, 2012 at 1:40 am

I think I need a thick skin just to read your What you say is true, but there are some more contemporary writers we can also learn from…not every bestseller is trash. It’s the good writer that can unearth the gems and find the author’s strength and then try to emulate it. Good post. There is information here that anyone with aspirations should chew on a bit. Thanks and CHEERS!

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