Monday, December 11, 2006

How Good Am I?

As writers, we all think we're better than we actually are.

I call this phenomenon "ugly baby syndrome." We all know people with ugly kids. Do these folks hide their children from the public? No. Proud parents that they are, these people hand out pictures of their ugly little progeny and ask the requisite, "Isn't she cute?" to all within earshot.

It's impossible to objectively view your own creation.

So when we write something, and the writing gets rejected, we all wonder what is wrong with the editor/agent/universe because they obviously don't know quality.

Unfortunately, believing in one's talents also encourages a sense of entitlement.

The fact is, you're never as good as you think you are, and no one will love your work as much as you do. Even you writers who say that you stink, you know deep down that you want someone to contradict your beliefs, to heap praise upon your work because you secretly believe it is worthwhile or else you wouldn't be writing in the first place.

As if this situation isn't volatile enough, we add Factor X to the mix.

Factor X dictates that anyone, at any time, with any degree of talent, can succeed.

There's no real rhyme or reason to success. No universal score keeper decides who gets a break and who still needs to pay their dues. There is no objective measure of talent that dictates the haves and the have nots.

We all try our best. Some make it. Some don't. Talent, experience, and hard work all may or may not be factors.

We all think we deserve success, but not all of us attain success, and there's no way to accurately judge if what we're doing is right or wrong, because we can't be objective, and because there is no clear cut path of right or wrong, no guarantees.

In fact, we might not even consider ourselves successful, even when other people believe we are.

Kind of a conundrum, ain't it? Especially since the business model for publishing, with returns and coop, is hardly ideal.

Unfortunately, all we can do is keep reminding ourselves of these three things:

1. It's our work that gets rejected or accepted, not us.
2. No one in this business really knows what they're doing.
3. All we have control over is how much we try.

On that note, MJ Rose is once again taking anonymous requests to send to the Book Biz Santa.

Ask Santa what you want him to bring you and the winner's favorite charity will get $100 for Xmas. Details at:


Anonymous said...

Factor X makes me crazy on a regular basis! I have two manuscripts being shopped around by my agent right now, and I'm trying to stay sane, start my next project and make a living while I wait for "the call." But I walked into a bookstore the other day and I saw a novel, in hardcover... written by a former boss of mine. A certifiable lunatic, this woman. SHE gets a book deal! And don't get me started on that 17-year-old girl from Harvard who got six figures for a book she plagiarized! Arrrgh!

Like you said, there is no universal force dictating who succeeds and who doesn't. But sometimes it feels like there is.

Mark Terry said...

I'm glad to hear somebody else say:

No writer is as good as they think they are.

I've been saying this repeatedly on my blog since it started. And I've got news for everybody, which you've pointed out here, but I'll rephrase:

Some pretty crappy writers are going to have a lot of success.

For whatever reason, some editor thought their work might sell. Hey, live with it. Haven't you seen a good movie with a really, REALLY bad performance in it?

Ever been to a concert or heard somebody who sucks? (Does anybody actually know what Britney Spears sounds like without her voice being overmastered?)

Well, life's unfair sometimes and this is a case of it. Books get published for a lot of different reasons--compelling story, great writing, interesting characters, but sometimes the story's compelling and the writing sucks or the writing's beautiful but the character's boring...

It doesn't matter. They got a big deal and you didn't.

Why am I ranting? I don't know. I must have something better to do, like polish my work.

Tom Schreck said...

Duke Ellington, or someone like that, was once asked "what makes good music good?" he answered with something like "if it sounds good it is good."

I gotta believe that this whole writing thing is subjective and books that sell appeal to people on some level. Marketing/PR got it into enough hands but something else took it further.

Luck plays a part but I don't think it plays the only part.

Sure Brit's talent is questionable but for whatever reason her package (pun semi-intended) appeals. what that says about culture is something else but she's resonating whether she "deserves" to or not.

(And Hi Mark!--I didn't realize you were a fellow Midnight Ink writer.)

Anonymous said...


I think I live on the opposite side of the spectrum. I work compartmentally. One compartment of my brain constantly screams that I 'must write better,' while the other compartment sends stuff out. I tend to squeeze my eyes shut and forget about it. I have to work very hard to not make my queries sound like apologies, LOL. My editors just laugh at me. Thank god they buy it, that's all I can say.

Anyway, how boring would it be, if we wrote--or thought we wrote--the "perfect" book, and had nothing left to strive for?

Sometimes I wonder if people find the motivation to continue to try because deep down, something "knows" that they will get published some day. Or if they get published because they find the determination to just keep trying. Who knows?

Anonymous said...

Agreed. And being professional about it rather than 'entitled' can mean the difference between starving while you wait to be recognised and making a living. Okay, it's not great to know that worse writers get better deals than you, but as long as you are writing, you're generous with your time and talent and you don't act like a prima donna, you've got a chance.

I think like this: everybody can name one heavyweight boxer, Mohammed Ali, and loads of people can name the man he fought, Joe Frazier. I may never be a literary Ali, but there's a hell of a lot of heavyweight champions out there that nobody can remember - I'm happy to be Frazier to some other writer's Ali! And that means being professional, polite and always ready to get on with something that might lead to a publication contract

anne frasier said...

i basically think i suck, so does that mean i'm even worse than i think i am?
oh, this is a sad, sad day.
i have to go make a fresh kick-myself sign.

Anonymous said...

Well, uhh, there's trying, and then there's trying.

As in keeping on versus striving to improve.

And unless we believe that there's some objective standard against which we can improve, it's all just keeping on.

Which is a waste of effort.


Rob Gregory Browne said...

You're right, I probably think I'm a lot better than I actually am. Then again, who knows? Sometimes, like Anne, I truly think I suck.

A friend of mine, a long time TV writer, once told me that every writer he's known who thought he was great was actually mediocre at best. He told me this while we were working on a show together and I immediately thought, jeez, I must really stink then.

What's sad is that we never really know. We may know that people respond to our work well, but then we've seen people respond to truly bad writers (and movies and performers) as well.

So what does it all mean?

Not a whole lot. We just need to do our best and hope it all pays off.

Jude Hardin said...


What objective standard?

I'd really like to know. Should we try to emulate the critics' darlings, or the authors who sell the most (this week)?

Or should we write something original and true, something only one author ("Me") could have possibly produced?

Ain't no such thing as an objective standard in the arts, IMO. Write wtf you love, behave like a pro, and maybe you'll be dealt a good hand.

Anonymous said...

Anon, your point is a good one. To repeat the same pattern (keeping on), and expect a different result (getting published vs. not), is not realistic. So many adults sadly blame themselves, rather than analyzing their methods.

Jude, I think you're mostly right about objective standards. But there's certain things we can measure. The more techniques and craft we can become aware of and learn to measure, the higher our own skill goes.

The more we improve, the more we discover that's measurable. That never accounts for that last 'spark' of talent or magic or luck, but it can take one pretty darn far.

Anonymous said...

Success is a hard concept to grasp because it’s different for each of us. And it’s open-ended. In trying to achieve success, nothing is enough. I’ve never met a writer who considers themselves truly successful, and yet every writer I know (including myself) is striving (or wishing) to be a success. Maybe the only way to achieve success is through the eyes of others. The rest is hearsay.


Jude Hardin said...

Good point, Sky.

Of course we must strive to improve. But I think it's largely those intangible, subjective elements that take one author to the next level while another stagnates. Stephen King says you can't make a competent writer out of an incompetent one, and you can't make a great writer out of a good one, but you CAN make a good writer out of a merely competent one. I agree with that. There are many ways to improve on craft, but talent simply can't be taught.

There are all sorts of objective standards for, say, building an automobile. Any engineer can tell you exactly why a Ferrari is better than a Chevy Cavalier. Can any aquisition editor tell you why, assuming an equal mastery of craft, one manuscript hit the bestseller list while another sunk to the dregs? I wonder.

Jude Hardin said...

Maybe the author who sunk couldn't spell for shit. ACQUISITION.

Stacey Cochran said...

I've been reading Susan Page's The Shortest Distance Between You and a Published Book. She describes the exact phenomenon here, and points out that its root cause is that writers confuse their hopes with their expectations.

If you set your hope for a book you've written too high, you will never be content and happy. She describes a bestselling author she knows who sold 100,000 hardcovers and felt disapppointed because his hopes were higher than that.

Conversely, if you set your hopes too low, you may never get paid what you're really worth.

I've taken from reading this that it's better to have high hopes, but to counter-balance that high hope with realistic expectations.

For example, I have high hopes that I'll get an agent for The Colorado Sequence, that it'll find the right editor, at the right publisher for it, and that I'll be able to sell enough copies to make everyone happy.

My expectations, on the other hand, are that it most likely won't find an agent and that I'll self-publish it with Lulu and sell between 50-100 copies. And that I'll learn a great deal from the experience, and maybe can help other authors through the experience as well.

If my expectations are much more modest (keeping my hopes all the time high), I've found more contentment.

My two cents worth.


Allan Guthrie said...

"i basically think i suck, so does that mean i'm even worse than i think i am?"

Means you have high standards, Anne.

JA Konrath said...

I've read you, Anne, and you're an excellent writer.

If you think you suck, it's not because of the writing. It's probably because most artists are prone to moodiness. I have my moments too.

Jude Hardin said...

Stacy: It seems the theme to the book you mentioned is "hope for the best and expect the worst."

I disagree with that. It's a self-defeating philosophy, one that I have to guard against myself. In order to succeed, I think, we need to EXPECT the best. Anything short of that simply will not do. Disappointments are sure to come, but that's when you sharpen the old pencil, roll up the sleeves and try harder.

Mark Terry said...

I'm not really sure hope for the best and expect the worst is the greatest way to go, either, although hope for the best and PREPARE for the worst might be.

In terms of writing and publishing, I suspect, hope for the best and be realistic about what to expect, which is not necessarily the worst. You can hope that your book will be picked up for $1,000,000 and a major movie starring Brad Pitt and/or Angelina Jolie and you'll go on Oprah and Leno, but a more realistic notion is a decent advance, positive support from your publisher, selling through your printrun by working your butt off, maybe having some foreign language sales and possibly a movie option.

Writing your book and thinking, "I'll send it out but nobody will pick it up and I'll end up self-publishing through LuLu" seems to be self-defeating. If that's really where you think it's going, don't bother with the headaches of marketing and looking for an agent.

Realistic: Write your best work, hunt diligently for an agent who will sell it to a reputable publisher so you can work diligently to get your name out there and write another book and another...

Mark Terry

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Joe. And it cuts deep to the bone. I've always said that creative people (and maybe all people) live the dichotomy of thinking we're better than everybody else and we're also the lowest form of life--all at the same time.

You're absolutely right in saying we need to constantly go back to what we can control, and what we can't. And do the best with what we can control.

FizzWater said...

I have salsa in my hair.

Jude Hardin said...

That's funny...

I have hair in my salsa...

Don't give up, Guyot. I hear Brylcream is an excellent low-cal alternative for topping tortilla chips.

Stacey Cochran said...

Jude, you wrote: Stacy: It seems the theme to the book you mentioned is "hope for the best and expect the worst."

That's not it at all. It's theme is "set your hopes as high as you can, but make your expectations more realistic."

I know I can sell 100 books. In a year and half, I can sell that many copies. I've done it once already.

And while my hope is that I'll rise to become a New York Times bestselling author in the next 10-25 years, my immediate expectation is much more down to earth.

Personally -- this is just me -- I see having realistic expectations as the complete opposite of having a defeatist attitude. To me, having realistic expectations is a confident, positive way of looking at the business. It's "this is the hand I've got; let's see how I can play it."

And it's saved me a ton of heartache.

I'm still proactive and assertive about getting my work out there. I've sent out 150 queries to agents in the past 4 weeks, and have another 300 lined up for the next month and a half.

That's healthy. I think -- for me at least -- it's the absolute best place to be. I love it. It kicks ass.

You don't buy it, though. And that's cool, too.


Stacey Cochran said...

Incidentally, I received another positive response from another literary agent.

Here's a video of me reading the positive response from the agent.

Jude Hardin said...

Stacy: I have to say, I've never seen anyone more determined. If you ever want some feedback, send me something via email. Best of luck, brother.

Anonymous said...

I know enough to know I'm not good enough. Sure, I write a cool turn of the phrase here and there, but there are so many better.

Thing is, for me, comparison just never works. All I know is that I HAVE to write. The ideas are just there screaming at me to put them down. I find myself lusting for the adventure of storytelling.

Of course, other times, it's hard labor, like San Quentin, hard labor. LOL

And interesting points about who gets published and who doesn't. There is a measure of arbitrary, I suppose. But timing is huge. One of the chief reasons I'm in print today is that PJ's Lord of the Rings movies and JK's HP books made fantasy hot again.

my .02

Anonymous said...

I love your list of three things. Thanks. :)

Bernita said...

"We all think we're better than we actually are"
I must really, really suck then.

Jana Oliver said...

I go with the incremental approach. At present I'm with a small press and my numbers are not in midlist range (yet). So that's where I've set my eyes. Some authors might shudder at striving to be midlist, but when your further down the totem pole, the middle of the pole looks really tempting.

Once I hit midlist, then more gazing upward. If each move takes you a step further up, the pole you're doing well. Add in that crazy Factor X and sometimes the movement can be very swift.

As for the perception of one's writing. I'm a good writer. I can be a much better writer. I try not to diss myself as there's enough negativity in this business. However, I am fully aware that there's room for improvement. That fact keeps me humble.

s.w. vaughn said...

JA: Does not suck! Anne: Does not suck! Rob: Does not suck! Bernita: Does not suck!

SW: No longer cares whether or not she sucks, and no longer cares whether or not anyone thinks she sucks. Has to write anyway. Is reminded of a recent quote in a motivational book she had to read for work: "Trying is not good enough."

Hooray! SW will die happy, and possibly sucking, but knowing Yoda was right.

ec said...
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Stacey Cochran said...

Thanks, Jude!

I appreciate that.


ec said...
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Anonymous said...

I try to be realistic. I am optimistic and have belief in myself, but I don't think I'm the greatest writer of all time. It's a constant juggling act though, trying to keep hope alive, not let your ego rule, and not get depressed and want to burn everything - LOL

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. It does seem to be a bit of a crapshoot regardless of how good we think we are vs how others see our work. Anyway, I was pondering on this very point and surfing about when I came across this little nugget of info on CNN.

And it got me thinking. Right now POD is shunned a lot (by myself included) because it's seen as the alternative to mainstream publishing much like e-publishing (which I'm actually ok with). However this article talks about these things being built and shipped all over the place. NY Public Library gets theirs in February, for instance. Now, once these things reach critical mass, what then? Stores will love them because they won't have to worry about overhead, stock, returns etc (think Walmart). Just keep this suped-up photocopier stocked and that's about it. A bookstore in a can. The industry won't need reps or shipping and as for marketing, I assume it would be minimal. One could run a publishing house with thousands of titles with a staff of less than ten. We're all kvetching about the no-talent hack who got the six figure deal. My question is could these things change that? If no one has to preprint stock anymore sales could be based on author's ability. POD wouldn't be competing against mainstream publishing. It could become mainstream publishing. Books wouldn't necessarily have to go "out" of print either. Midlist authors could stay midlist for decades instead of months(eek! Talk about Purgatory) JA I'd love to see a blog on this topic. This thing could potentially do a serious end-run on the traditional power base in the publishing world. Opinions anyone?