One of the drawbacks of life is that wherever you go, and whatever you do, there is always someone who will be critical of you. It would appear that this is an immutable law of human existence. It applies from when we are very young, and are subject to unkind words or bullying in the school playground, to when we are adults and people are ready to take issue with our appearance, our personal choices, or our work. It is the measure of a man how well he is able to deal with these negative voices and to continue on his course anyway.
I recently attended a UK fiction writer’s convention. There were a lot of industry professionals there—literary agents, publishing editors, and so on. The delegates were aspiring authors from all over the UK. As you might imagine, this self-selecting group included many who could politely be described as eccentric—a few cute girls, yes, but also a legion of post-wall human bomb-sites trying to peddle memoirs about their boring lives; and blank-eyed, clinically-insane men who bellowed inanities at no-one in particular through their spittle-flecked beards.
But I digress.
A dispiriting aspect of any kind of writing (and fiction writing in particular), is that it is a very subjective business. Every week, I get comments on my Return of Kings articles that are highly complementary, and comments that are critical of my point of view or choice of subject matter or whatever. Opinions, it has been said, are like assholes—everybody has one.
Most of the attendees at the convention had written novels and were looking for critical feedback with a view to getting a publishing deal. And let me tell you, there is nothing more depressing than sitting down with someone to discuss your 80,000 word manuscript for them to say that, in their opinion, you should have made someone else the main character, and therefore the whole thing will need to be re-written. “I think you should have done it like this,” and “You’ve still got a lot of work to do” are phrases guaranteed to strike grey gloom into the breast of anyone who’s spent two years or more working on a book.
But these are merely opinions. Publishers and the public alike are just human beings. Many of the delegates I spoke to at the conference were looking for a magic bullet, for a secret, for someone to tell them how to make their book perfect and sellable. But no such advice exists, because once you’ve acquired minimum entry-level talent, there is no definitive consensus among readers about what is good or bad. I have received wildly different feedback on the same manuscript from different readers. And there are published books that obviously went through an editing process that I think are terrible, while others think they are great. Who’s right? Maybe we both are.
What we should do, I found myself saying to people that weekend, is to consider any constructive criticism carefully, make our books as good as we possibly can to our own standards, and then send them out to one hundred agents and publishers each. Given that individual taste is unpredictable, by approaching a large number of people we would give ourselves the best possible chance of finding someone with whom our work resonated. After all, it’s been said that you only need one yes to make a career, and a few yeses to make a whole life.
I hope the wider relevance of this is becoming clear. There will always be someone who will be critical of you. I have been insulted by girls, sneered at, laughed at, given the cold shoulder—but I have also slept with a good many who were hotter. I have been criticized by malevolent employers, only to be praised to the heavens by others. I have been disliked and disparaged by some, and I’ve been thought good company and charismatic by others.
Criticism, when it is constructive, can be very valuable. But all too often it is a weapon used by those who are jealous of us or insecure in themselves to limit our potential by making us doubt ourselves. This is compounded by the fact that human beings seem programmed to most desire those options least open to us. So if a girl rejects a guy he wants her more. If a company won’t employ him, he beats himself up for losing out on his dream job. This is no good for anyone.
It’s a truism, but you can’t please everyone all the time. As you go through life you will receive negative feedback. You will encounter people who don’t like you or your work. This is normal. But rather than trying to court those people, why not make yourself and what you have to offer as good as you possibly can, then spread your net wider and seek out those who are more readily receptive? These are the people that will support you and make your life fulfilling and prosperous. Never be afraid they are not out there—remember, the world is a very big place indeed.
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