I may surprise many people by saying I’m not listing talent as the most important writing skill. The topmost item on my list is an Emotional Arsenal.
There’s an advert doing the rounds in the UK at the moment staring Claudia Winkleman promoting her use of Head and Shoulders Shampoo. In this advertisement, Claudia reads out some tweets including one that refers to her as an annoying personality vacuum. She jokes this off as if it means nothing. Maybe the tweet hurt, maybe it didn’t. I don’t care what shampoo she uses and I refuse to address any issues people may or may not have with her personality. I would like to think the tweet meant as little to her as it appears to in the ad because that’s the foremost skill anyone who does a job that draws public attention needs to learn. James Scott Bell refers to it as Rhino Skin.
Seriously, every writer must grow a thick skin. If rejection and harsh words are upsetting the publishing world may not be worth the grind. If the potential writer is a person who can only moderately handle criticism, then the thick skin required may develop, but the sooner the better is the only true advice. The writer will always face criticism at every stage—from editors, from readers, from critics and reviewers. One thing I admire J.K.Rowling for the most was saying she wasn’t taking dictation. Critique (as opposed to criticism) can be invaluable, but it’s best to learn to temper feedback with one’s own judgement. The writer should not allow every negative comment to influence the work. Train one’s reaction to meet negativity with determination.
Having said all that, I will contradict myself a little. You don’t ‘have’ to read reviews for your book. You’re allowed to take a break from the outside world and its influences. A negative review can be a good learning experience but if you find one particular place online has a habit of being a cesspit of negativity not only on your book but on others, it may not be the best place to hang out. If you receive nine glowing reviews but a tenth accuses you of being talentless and your book as best used as toilet paper, keep in the mind the internet is peppered by trolls—people who thrive on giving other people a day as black as their souls. Common sense is key here. Don’t take everything to heart and learn to recognise what is truth and what is not. That which is personal bias. Bigotry. And that which is plain meanness.
That’s another requirement on my list. The writer needs determination. Also, patience. These three things may be the most important for the writer’s Emotional Arsenal. Make that four. I will add discipline. The writer must make time for writing, and in an already busy life that can seem impossible. Writers face deadlines.
However, the writer who constructs an unbreakable emotional barrier may risk cutting themselves off from facing their work with honesty. Although I said grow a thick skin, in a way only practice and experience can teach the writer to deal with negativity and change it into something positive. It’s taken me time to learn how to flip a switch in my head from a writer to an editor, and it’s an ongoing process of learning, but I face my draft as a writer, my manuscript and all that comes after as an editor.
Be willing to learn—from courses, from writing know-how books, from reading material, from editors, and yes, also readers…. all to a point. Don’t get so wrapped up in these things they become more important than writing itself, but don’t dismiss them. In a flooded market there are as many ‘how-to’ books as wannabe writers, but there are good volumes out there. Be willing to study and to learn, always.