chin up, kid (dealing with unhelpful negative feedback)

If you’re a writer (published author or otherwise), chances are high that someone, at some time, has said something about your writing that devastated you. Whether you consciously realized it or not, it caused you to second-guess what you wrote for a while, maybe even to this day. Maybe you took a step back, or tried to change something about it, or sank into a depression because all that work and effort had only lead to somebody saying something that injured you. I tend to write polarizing subjects but in a manner where, hopefully, most people will read them anyway, and so it surprises me that the worst thing anybody ever said about my writing was about Paper Crowns, my most inoffensive little fluff novel. It wasn’t meant to be anything special; I wrote it for kicks and giggles alongside my modern western/vampire/urban fantasy/southern gothic novel. It was popular with beta readers, I had fun writing it, and it’s the only novel of mine a publisher has picked up (even if that publisher is 0/10 and I don’t recommend them).

The book was universally enjoyed, right up until someone close to me claimed they were ‘disappointed’ by the book because it seemed like I had ‘lost the depth of my previous work’ and it seemed ‘immature.’ I don’t know about you, but those words absolutely crushed me. I pulled a stiff upper lip and tried to act like it didn’t bother me, but it bothered me greatly. It got under my skin. It hit where I lived. The one time I wrote something without grit, without darkness or difficult, controversial themes, the one time I wrote something without complex redemption or anti-redemption arcs, and it was deemed immature. Beyond that, I was deemed immature for having written it; by someone who should have known me better.

In spite of the brave face I tried to wear, I was hurt, and I was hurt deeply. I have a pretty thick skin—thicker than it was back then—but that skin, for some reason, didn’t help. I stepped away from fluff entirely even though I had enjoyed it enormously. It had given me a free, fresh feeling while I wrote it, and that feeling was kicked to the dirt by thoughts that now said, you’ve lost your depth. Your writing has backslid. You’ve regressed. This is terrible and childish. What were you thinking? Now you have to prove to this person that you haven’t lost your depth, that you aren’t childish, that you are mature. Everything you write from now on has to prove that. I’d like to say I didn’t listen to that voice. In my defense, I tried; I really did. And I lost. I grew uncomfortable at the thought of Paper Crowns. I lost my zest for the sequel, Paper Hearts. If someone told me how much they’d enjoyed Paper Crowns, I thanked them politely and found myself making excuses; ‘It’s not the kind of thing I usually write,’ ‘I wrote it on the side while I was writing something much better,’ ‘It’s not my normal kind of book, please don’t expect it too often.’ Or ever.

I had plenty of people asking me for the sequel, and they still do. And it’s there—it needs heavy rewriting, of course, but it’s there, in the attic of my mind, collecting cobwebs. Assuring me that when I’m ready for it, it will still be there.

If someone walked up to me now and said, ‘This book was fine but I feel like it was a regression and you’re childish,’ it would annoy me, but I would be able to shrug it off. My skin, as I said, is thicker. I’m confident, I don’t tend to care much if someone dislikes what I’ve done. You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t try to. More importantly, you shouldn’t let unhelpful negativity destroy how you feel about something into which you put a great deal of work. (I’m not saying ‘don’t listen to helpful critique,’ but there is a difference between ‘here’s what’s wrong and here’s how to improve’ and ‘this sucks, you suck.’) That experience did eventually help me. I was able to look at my reaction, to sympathize with my younger self, and to tell her, ‘I know that hurt you, but it’s all right. Eventually, you took it and turned it into more confidence. You learned from it, you grew from it.’ And, in a way, it did spur me toward writing things I love. I dove into writing deeper, darker things, and there I found my sweet spot. I found the place I feel most at home, the place where I make the most difference, the place where I’m meant to be.

Many people advise new writers (and people in general) to ‘block out the haters,’ ‘don’t listen to naysayers,’ etc. but none of us can do that, not completely. Of course we have to hear them; if they’re yelling in our face, we can’t simply pretend the words aren’t audible. What we can do, however, is listen to the way those words affect us. To see what places we need to grow, to take care of, and to strengthen. I needed more confidence. I needed to know that not every opinion matters. I needed to know that I could, quite honestly, write whatever I wanted; and if someone didn’t like it, then I’m sorry, you don’t have to read what I’ve written. It took me a couple years to learn that lesson, to take the hurt and let it heal; but heal it did, and I’m the better for it.

I won’t say ‘block out the haters.’ What I will say, however, is straighten your shoulders, look them in the eye, thank them for their time, and keep walking. Keep working, keep improving, and one day you’ll look over your shoulder and realize the person who tore you down has unwittingly helped you build something better. (If you put in the work.)

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