• Melissa Olson

Growing a thick skin


I started writing my novel, The Life Dividing Days, on a train I was taking to my sister’s house in St. Louis. By the time I arrived, the first version of the first chapter was finished. I gave it to my sister, Laura, who was encouraging. I always looked up to my sister, who has a master’s degree in English and worked her tail off to become Dean of Libraries for Webster University. She agreed to be my first reader. I’d send her each chapter as soon as it was finished and would wait for her response. I seriously couldn’t move forward without hearing back from her. Fortunately, she continued to be supportive, coaching me to keep writing.

The very first criticism I received of the book was from my brother (always the pragmatist – lol) who asked why the book had to be about something so depressing. It was such an innocuous comment, really, but I felt completely crushed by it. It’s not as if I’d never had my work revised, either. I was a journalist for 4 years and a communications specialist for two. My writing was constantly being edited and it never bothered me before. Writing a novel, though, is like pouring your heart and soul onto a page. For that reason, having it criticized cut to the core.

In the last 15 years, I’ve had countless paid critiques by authors and agents. I’ve been to conferences and joined writing workshops. For five years, I met monthly with a writing group, taking excerpts of novels, short stories, creative essays, poems and even picture book manuscripts and laying myself bare. Our group consisted of two English/creative writing professors and three other talented writers/poets. I valued their opinions and learned an incredible amount from them about craft. They changed my work in innumberable ways, and they changed how I think of critiques. Somewhere along the line, a switch flipped. I started looking forward to feedback and became grateful for every bit of constructive criticism they offered. I learned how valuable it can be and saw how much these insights improved my writing – and that’s really the end goal.

I’m getting ready to start querying literary agents. I won’t lie and say it isn’t nerve-wracking. I know that my chances of getting published, statistically, are slim; only about 3% of unsolicited novels are picked up by literary agents and that’s just the start of the publishing process. I also won’t deny that rejection hurts, but these days the blows don’t connect quite as hard as they once did and the healing comes much quicker.

In that way, I feel like I’ve grown since my brother’s comment. I’ve even come to realize that what he said wasn’t a comment about my writing, but more a comment of how my brother saw me, as a generally upbeat, positive person. I find it sweet, now, that he was concerned about my writing revealing my darker, more complex side. I guess that’s all part of growing a thick skin, which is vital if you plan on being a writer.

#creating #novels #craft #writing

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