March 1st, 2011

Self-Defeating Attitudes

If you were to ask me the biggest difference between those who make it in this business and those who don’t, I’d say that it’s the ability to listen.  I can’t always tell those who are going to succeed, but I can always see within a sentence or two those who will certainly fail…the people who want you to hear them but not vice versa.  Those who don’t want constructive criticism or reasonable advice, even from the pros, because they already know better. 

There are several different self-defeating attitudes that fall under this umbrella:

1- The “but she did it.”  Sometimes authors will find a single example of an author (usually a bestseller) who did something that’s generally a no-no in publishing, like head-hopping or turning in a book twice the size of general guidelines, and belabor it to justify their own work.  First, of all, if you’re a huge, #1 New York Times bestselling author you can get away with a lot more than when you’re starting out or lower on the totem pole.  Books can be longer, because publishers can charge more and readers will pay it, because they’re a) a known quantity and b) an obviously pleasing known quantity.  However, readers won’t pay the same price for someone new and experimental for them.  Bookstores won’t order as many copies if the price point is too high, because they’re aware of this.  Also, there’s limited shelf space, so if they can shelve two fatter books or four thinner volumes within the space they’ve allotted for you…well, you do the math.  The same with chancier narrative elements—readers and publishers are more willing to take risks with authors who have proven themselves capable of pulling it off and appealing to a large audience.  This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions and that you can’t get away with breaking the rules, but the more rules you break, the better you have to be to override the factors competing against you.

2- My work is camera-ready.  Seriously, I’ve seen and heard this.  First of all, we don’t use cameras, but, second of all, this is a huge red flag that you consider your work finished, complete, end of story.  Name me a brilliant, talented, successful author, and I’ll name you someone who STILL wants to go back and rewrite her earlier work…or continue to tweak the latest.  All working writers know there’s no such thing as perfect, just as close as you can get to it at any given time.  In fact, it can be very difficult for some authors to surrender their manuscripts come deadline, because they’re still striving toward something that can’t totally be achieved.  (Not that all of my authors aren’t perfect, you understand.)

3- You don’t get it.  (Generally this comes along with condescension and unveiled slights that the pro who’s too uncultured to “get” your work is clearly also too stupid to pick up on.  Or not.)  Yes, ours is a subjective business. Not everyone will get your work.  However, if you hear the same comments time and again or if people are failing to connect with your writing/characters/storyline or whatever, maybe you should look to the work and not decide that it’s a failing of the readership.  You don’t get to pick your readers like you do a jury of your peers (and even then you only get so much veto power).  Your work must speak for itself and appeal to a broad audience if you want to build a successful career.  Take any constructive criticism to heart.

I’m not saying that as an author you should take anyone’s word as gospel.  In fact, what I’m encouraging is thought.  Give careful and realistic consideration to all the advice that comes your way.  Some will be good, some will be bad, but if you discard it all because you’re afraid your vision will be tarnished, you’ll never learn and grow as a writer.

If you want to write for publication and not just to please yourself, you’re going to have to learn how to play well with others.  Listen, sort, assimilate that which makes sense.