Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Damning You With Praise

When you're a kid, if your parents were any good, they'd ooh and aah over the construction paper artwork you brought home, and put it on the refrigerator.

As you get older, the praise tapers off. Not only from your parents, but from the world in general. Grades take the place of gold stars on your homework, and the few things that you get praised for require harder and harder work.

Finally, as an adult, praise comes in the form of money. A better job, a raise, a promotion. "Atta boys" are reduced to softball games. Criticism is the primary motivator for self-improvement. Which is fine, because you can't get better unless you know what you're doing wrong.

Writers, and most artists, tend to have gotten stuck in the childhood phase of needing approval.

Art, by definition, requires an audience. So writers are forced to seek approval. Friends and family. A writing group. Agents. Editors. Reviewers. Critics. Fans. Peers.

And if the artist gets lucky, approval arrives in the form of praise, money, or both.

So does criticism. The publishing world isn't a big refrigerator, and many people aren't interested in giving you gold stars. There will be fan letters and awards nominations, but there will also be bad reviews and people who dislike your work.

It doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out that a career that requires the continuous approval of others isn't the best way to mental health. Which is why many creative types tend to be a little on the wacko side.

If you're a writer, can you ever feel good about yourself and your work? Can you take pride in a book that never got published? Can you see the worth of a novel that got critically panned?

Or do the fans, the awards, and the money make you somehow better than the rest of the world? Does the fact that you have half a million books in print and a six figure contract function the same way as your picture on the fridge?

Both are slippery slopes, and neither leads anywhere worthwhile. The more people you allow to have power over your feelings, the less in control of your feelings you are.

Here are some rules I follow to stay even-keeled.

  • Celebrate success. Whether it is signing a book deal or finishing a short story, you're allowed to feel good about yourself and your accomplishments.

    Beware-Feelings of entitlement.

  • Let Praise Wash Over You. It's great to have fans, but don't believe your own hype. Having lots of strangers love you doesn't make you a better person.

    Beware-Getting a big head.

  • Listen to Criticism. But don't take it personally. Ever. Good critcism is meant to help you improve, not hurt you.

    Beware-Those who have agendas. They're easy to spot. They are either insulting you, or praising you while asking for money. Remember that money flows toward the writer.

  • Have Smart Goals. Smart goals are ones you can control. Everything else isn't a goal---it's a wish. Wishes don't lead to happiness.

    Beware-Setting unattainable goals.

  • Use Your Support Group. We all need an "atta boy" once and a while. Get this from people you're close to, people you care about. No one else matters.

    Beware-Relying on anyone too much.

  • Allow yourself to be disappointed. Then get over it. Allowing failure to consume you will ruin your career. Take a day or two to feel crummy, then move on.

    Beware-Licking wounds instead of working.

  • Leave Your Name Alone. Checking Amazon ranking, Googling yourself, checkign newsgroups and blogs for mention of you, searching for reviews---this is all external validation by stangers and meaningless.


  • Don't Compare Yourself to Others. Everyone has a different journey, and there is no competition. Coveting the advances, awards, print runs, and movie deals of your peers isn't going to do you or them any good.

    Beware-The green-eyed monster.

  • Remember Who You Are. Once you become a public figure, many people will say many things about you. None of them will know you as well as you know yourself. Praise and criticism are external, but true pride comes from within.

Strive to be the kind of person that you admire.

Thanks to Jude, Chidder, Jeri, and J. Carson Black for their suggestions in adding to this blog entry.


Allison Brennan said...

Excellent advice.

Unknown said...

Joe, mo cara,

You're a man of great wisdom! Now, don't let that praise go to your head..

Slan, Pat.

Anonymous said...

Good post, as usual, Joe. I'd only add one more rule:

Allow yourself to be disappointed -- then get over it. Whether it be rejection from an editor or an agent or a publisher, allow yourself to be disappointed. But don't let it consume you. Absorb it, then move on. Otherwise, if you just keep shrugging it off and saying that it doesn't matter (of course it matters; you put your heart and soul into it), one day you'll crash big-time. Better to take care of disappointment on the installment plan.

Jaye Patrick said...

Excellent advice. Although I have to say I write for me. If anyone enjoys my work, that's the bonus.

I've also learned to deal with rejection slips and there are good and bad rejections. The first one I ever received was great. The story wasn't what they wanted. "It wasn't a good fit."

To me, that was a positive. Nothing about the writing itself, simply that wasn't a good fit.

So I agree with Chidder with one caveat: take heart from good rejections, you'll find your niche.

Bernita said...

Thank you.

Jude Hardin said...

Great post, Joe.

Can you elaborate on "Beware--those who have agendas. They're easy to spot."

Are you talking about people who give you praise because they ultimately want something in return? A blurb, a critique, or a referral to your agent, for example?

I can see how that would get on your nerves after awhile, especially if the praise wasn't sincere.

James Goodman said...

Great post, Joe. to bVery inspirational.

Strive to be the kind of person that you admire/.

Having said that, I want to be just like you when I grow up. :D

Mark Terry said...

Excellent post, Joe. I suppose beware of those with agendas also suggests that once you achieve some sort of success there are a lot of people out there who want to be your buddy--or alternatively, attack you just because of your success.

I think it's also great advice not to believe your own press releases.

Mark Terry

Anonymous said...

What a great post, Joe. Nice to see a person put more effort into being balanced and positive than chasing success and power.

Jude Hardin said...

I just thought of another example of how someone with an agenda offering praise can hurt a writer--especially a naive one. Unscrupulous publishers, editors and agents will tell you how great your work is and how they can get you where you want to go--for a big fat fee, of course.

If you're going to pay someone to help you with your writing, be sure to know what you're getting into. Make this your mantra: Money flows TO the writer.

Then there are the POD guys who'll publish just about anything. They'll tell you how great your work is, knowing that you and friends and family will buy several copies at an inflated price. If they have a thousand writers who sell a hundred copies each, they get rich.

I'm not strictly against POD but, again, just know what you're getting into.

Jeri said...

Great post, Joe. I just made a list of similar rules for myself last night, designed to protect my ego from getting too big or too small when my next book comes out.

1. Don't read reviews
2. Don't check Amazon ranking
3. Don't Google myself

After the release of my first book, I did all these things obsessively, until I became addicted to external validation. It was an existentialist's worst sin--looking for oneself in the eyes of the Other.

I have a writer friend whose latest release was one of those love-it-or-hate-it books--she rode a nauseating roller coaster of praise and criticism until her confidence and sense of self was totally shot.

JA Konrath said...

I like that, Chidder. Do you mind if I add it to the blog entry?

Ditto Mark, Jude, and Jeri.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget the golden rule:

ave you fanboys/grils checked for STDs before encouraging them.


Jude Hardin said...

You can use whatever you want from my comments, Joe.

Erica Orloff said...

I like what you said about agendas. With "snark" being the buzz in blogs, and people getting off on being as cutting as they can, it's real easy to let yourself be hurt without stopping to remember that the agenda for those types is to . . . elevate themselves by putting down others, or do it through very biting comments or humor. It has its place, but I'm more the type of person who would rather encourage and strive to be a person I can face in the mirror each morning. Even with a hangover.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Great advice. I'm at the point where I feel luckier to get good criticism than simple praise. Praise is nice, feels good, but criticism helps me improve my writing.

Anonymous said...

One other thing that's always at the top of my list:

Don't compare. Don't compare yourself to others, or what kind of deals/awards/praise others receive, whether you're doing better than them or worse than them.

Every writer is different. Every publisher is different. Every editor is different. Even every time of day is different.

Compare this book with the last maybe, with the goal of always upping the ante.

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Joe, who wrote this advice, Polonius? :)

JA Konrath said...

I always thought that Hamlet would be a great name for a mcDonald's breakfast sandwich.

"Gimme a Hamlet, with some hash browns. And a large Macbeth. And wash that blood off your hands first."

Beth Ciotta said...

Excellent post, Joe. Something I needed to hear (read) today. Thank you!

Lauren Baratz-Logsted said...

Hey, Joe, if this writing thing doesn't work out for us, maybe we can go in on The Shakespeare Deli together.

Jude Hardin said...

I'll take the pound-of-flesh Hamlet on rye, with Caesar dressing, and an ice cold Falstaff please.

Mindy Tarquini said...

Okay, Joe, help me out here, I'm having a helluva time keeping score. Are you the Anti-Christ or not? Because if you are, I have a real issue with that guy in the cab.

I think he stole my soul.

Anonymous said...

Joe, your are absolutely welcome to incorporate any or all of my comments to your original blog entry. I'd be honored.

LA Burton said...

These are thing to remember for sure. Great advice.

Jeri said...

Why, of course you may use anything from my comments. I'd be honored.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

"Have Smart Goals!" great advice Joe!

Rob Gregory Browne said...

If it hasn't been said:

Please yourself. Don't worry about pleasing anyone else. It's too much of a crapshoot.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Wow, look at all the people who damned Joe.

Joe, you suck! Work harder! Do better!

See, can't accuse me of damning you with praise.

Anonymous said...

Very helpful info, Joe.

I joined a writers' group recently-Spoiled Ink- and at first it was all about validation, but as I used the good criticism to improve my work, I've come to care less about people saying: This is awesome, will be published easy, or: This needs a lot of work.

All that matters is the quality of your work and that it continues to make you happy while avoiding all of those things you've mentioned. When it's good it tugs on people's heart strings the same way that it does your own.

Everyone on here seems like a good group with a lot of wisdom. I look forward to reading more every week. Thanks.

Best wishes,

Lee Thompson

Jude Hardin said...


This is just my opinion, and I know I'll probably get a lot of flak, but I think critique groups are a waste of time. I don't know anything about Spoiled Ink, except that they want your money. Critiques from unpublished writers who don't know any more than you do (maybe they know less) are worthless. There are plenty of sites that offer free advice (this being one of them), and if you feel you need to bounce some things off a fellow writer, there are plenty of unpubbed who will be happy to trade critiques. Remember, money flows TO the writer. If you're paying for critiques--especially ones by other amateurs--then you're wasting time and money. We can't afford to waste money, and we definitely can't afford to waste time.

JA Konrath said...

I think you're being harsh, Jude.

SpoiledInk.com looks like a decent place, and less than $3.00 a month isn't a biggie.

It is possible to learn fromt he unpublished, as everyone has opinions. You just have to learn to seperate wheat and chaff, and know what questions to ask. One of my best critters is my wife, who has zero writing experience, but she's good at telling me what i'm doing wrong. And this has been proved time and again, because she'll mentions something, then writing friends will mention the same thing.

www.bksp.org also costs some pocket change, and it is one of the best places on the net for writers. I post there all the time.

Anonymous said...


Maybe I am being harsh. It just seems to me that anyone charging money for worthless critiques is a scam artist. Okay, three bucks a month. Multiply that by 10K wannabees and what do you get? That's right, 30K a month. 360K a year. Maybe you and I should start a critque site and forget about this publishing nonsense. I know a little bit about business, a little bit about editing. I can critique fiction better than any of those blokes on Spoiler Ink. Should I start my own critique site? Should I open a bookdoctor business? I refuse to do that, because I refuse to take money for other peoples' dreams. Critiques from amatuers are worthless. I do believe in writing for an Ideal Reader. Maybe your wife is your IR, Joe, and I think that's great. Everybody needs one. Everybody needs a first reader they can bounce things off of. But don't confuse your IR with an industry pro. Maybe your wife said your latest manuscript was the best thing you've ever written, but when it got to Hyperion you found out it needed more work. Yeah. Pay attention to your IR. Pay attention to your critique group if you have one. But realize that the only opinion that really matters is the one who's cutting your paycheck.

Critique groups are a wast of time. Opinions are like assholes: Everybody has one.

If you're going to value opinions from other writers, at least seek out the ones who offer their opinions for free. Not three dollars a month. Not one penny a month. Free.

I'm really surprised that the first round of flak came from you, Joe.

Jude Hardin said...

For some reason my last post came up anonymous. It was from me, and I stand by every word. Of course, it could be that I've had too much to drink tonight...


Can't live with 'em, can't clobber 'em with a pipe wrench.

Definitely can't ball-gag 'em...

JA Konrath said...


There's a large portion of my website dedicated to turning average readers into decent critiquers.

I think that anyone, with know-how, can critique. And a website filled with aspiring writers is bound to have some decent critters in there.

Jude Hardin said...

Yeah, Joe, but why do they charge a fee? That's my big hangup. All your advice is free, and that's one of the reasons I respect you so much. You're not trying to make a buck from unpublished writers, so why should sites like Spoiled Ink? I'm sorry, but any time I see a site like that it gets my feathers ruffled.

Erica Orloff said...

The most brilliant writer I ever knew was an unpubbed Vietnam vet who, for various reasons, had a breakdown and would never seek to submit, or even to live amongst us, choosing a very solitary existence instead. Unpubbed vs. pubbed is a ridiculous indicator of greatness. To say critique groups are a waste of time is equally damning or judgmental without seeing the other side of it.

I've been in a critique group for 12 years. Invite only. Small. Five of us at a time. Over time, I've had 15 commercial fiction novels pubbed, one of us has had two critically acclaimed literary novels pubbed, one started writing for National Geographic and a number of national magazines, and a couple of writers over the years have gotten in with excellent agents. AND, several came and went that collectively we knew probably would not go on to be published--but that didn't diminish that they brought SOMETHING to the table.

In any critique group--particularly a good one, well run, etc .,--an ASTUTE writer figures it out quick. Writer A is a dialogue genius; Writer B has what I DON'T have--a keen eye for little detail that can complete a scene; Writer C can definitely be ruthless about what "darlings" need to be cut; and Writer D can spot even a whiff of a cliche from a mile off. You get what you put into a critique group, and pubbed status isn't a sound indicator of how worthwhile it is.

As for Spoiled Ink, don't know it . . . went and took a look. Seems to me, in a free economy, it's a reasonable fee for a service that people voluntarily sign up for. Like a critique group in real face time, I am sure astute writers will sift through and find, like a heat-seeking missile, what works for them in the community of writers there.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Joe. I'm struggling with these issues right now, as my mid-life crisis is coinciding with trying to find the courage to start a second novel while the first remains unsold. These are some good tips to maintain an even keel. Mental health can be so fragile!

Jude Hardin said...


I didn't mean to imply that ALL unpublished writers are clueless, but many of them are.

Critique groups like yours, where everyone is genuinely interested in improving, are good. Rare, though, I think. In my experience, most writers want to hear how great their stuff is. They submit for critique in search of praise. And the critiquers, not wanting to hurt the other person's feelings and not wanting backlash when their own stuff comes up, say things like "I loved the conflict on page thirty-seven, but I think you need a semi-colon here instead of a comma." Most writers don't want the truth, and even ignore it when it is presented to them. A critique group like your works because all the members have a solid knowledge of craft, and all want to hear the truth. That's what separates the pros from the wannabees, and by "pro" I don't neccessarily mean published. A writer can have a professional attitude and a solid knowledge base without being published. In fact, those things are prerequisites to having a chance.

Critique groups can be fun, and in rare cases like yours beneficial to all, but I still maintain that a writer's time is better spent writing and reading. The only way to learn is by studying authors you admire and then attaching yourself to that desk.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Jude:
I have been in some bad ones myself before I figured out what worked. You seek qualities like the ones you mentioned. I don't think you should be by far and away the best (too much of a chance you'll get a swelled head and act like a guru rather than another working writer) but you should all learn from each other, have strengths you can each draw from. I have become friendly with my group by the years we have logged with each other, but we're not afraid to boldly say, "Sorry, I know you like this chapter, but you're not advancing the plot, it's got to go." It's a dance, but if you're motivated and can watch for the pitfalls, it can work. I see what you advocate . . . and getting that ass in the chair, but by the same token, if you're not careful, you can work in delusion that you're "getting" it and no one will tell you otherwise. :-)


Sandra Ruttan said...

Joe, what were you saying elsewhere about topic drift?

There is a simple truth about critiquing that must be learned and applied.

Make sure you pick someone who knows what they're doing.

Writer, editor, publisher, avid reader, bus driver, whatever. It doesn't matter. If the person isn't capable of giving an actual critique, it's worthless.

Critiquing is something you get better with over time and with practice. But you also need to be perceptive enough to pick up on things that can be improved or technical mistakes.

Some people - authors included - don't do a good job with critiques because they put feelings first and honesty second. Some just think, "I couldn't do better myself, so what right do I have to say anything?" I sometimes feel that, but that isn't helping the person who asked for the critique.

I'm a member of an online critique group that includes people of all stages - some of us have publishing contracts, some have published short stories in places like Shots and AHMM, some are brand new to the game.

And everyone contributes value the the process.

If you're going to pay for a critique, know who you're paying. I paid for a critique one place that I wouldn't recommend to anyone, although they're a publisher. I paid an author for a critique that, were I to need another, I'd pay again in a heartbeat.

One of the best critiquers out there: M.G. Tarquini. She'll make you cry, but she'll make you a better writer.

Jude Hardin said...

Good points from Erica and Sandra.

Anonymous said...

Great Advice. I'm presently writing my first book, although I've been writing for more than 30 years. I've only recently started sharing my stories with family and close friends. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Oh, cool! I got a mention. You're welcome! :)

Kim Colley said...

Gee whiz, I go away for a few days and you put up something (another thing) really good and meaningful and important. How dare you! I especially love "Leave your name alone." I know someone who subscribes to a service that emails him/her whenever his/her name is mentioned on the web. Terrible, terrible stuff.

Jeri said...

Thanks, Kim (that was mine), and thanks, Joe, for the mention. I have an addendum. I think the only time you need to know someone's talking about you on the web is if it's potentially libelous or an infringement of copyright. You can always have a friend or family member Google you periodically for that purpose.

Jude Hardin said...

I apologize to Lee, and Spoiled Ink, and anyone else I might have offended the other night with my drunken rant about critique groups. I know it's no excuse, but I really was plastered.

I can see how a good critique group can be very useful, and I don't know enough about Spoiled Ink to say anything bad about them. Like Joe said, the fee is no biggie.

I might actually join. Lord knows I could use the help.

Maybe I should join AA at the same time...