When you write a story, you often have to ask yourself, “Is this tale good enough to send to editors or agents? Is it ready to publish? Could it be a bestseller?” Oddly enough, you as the author may be a terrible judge of your own work.
This principle was brought up to me years ago by my mentor, Algis Budrys. He was a leading critic for a major newspaper and a magazine, so he read widely. He once mentioned to me that, “For 20 years, I’ve asked well-known authors, ‘Which one of your books do you think is the best?’ Almost always they get it wrong. They don’t pick the books that the public likes best, or that the critics like best, but choose instead something that deals with conflicts that are especially powerful to them. Almost always, the author chooses some . . . obscure book that no one else would look at twice.”
It’s an important principle to remember when you finish a novel. You may think that it’s great. After having just gone through your “birthing pains,” you look at your newborn and it seems beautiful to you. But maybe it’s not quite so beautiful to others.
Most people are pretty bad judges of their own efforts. A few years ago, there was a newspaper story about a man who believed that if he rubbed lemon juice on his face, it would make him invisible to cameras. So he rubbed some lemon juice on his face and went out and robbed some banks. When the police caught him, he was astonished that they had been able to recognize him.
Some researchers at Cornell University learned of the incident and wondered how the man could be so self-deluded. So they performed a study in which they tested people’s powers of logic, recognition of humor, and so on.
What they found was fascinating. The people who scored lowest, in the bottom 12 percentile, very often thought that they had performed fantastic!
In the same way, we as authors sometimes delude ourselves. People who need a lot of work sometimes act like prima donnas. They can’t figure out why the rest of the world doesn’t recognize their talent—including editors, agents, literary critics, and their own spouses.
You’ve probably met such a person. Very often they will attach themselves to writing groups, trying to feed their egos, and then promptly drive away anyone who has any common sense.
But, amazingly, I often find that the opposite is true: many truly great authors often don’t recognize their own gifts. If they really are great, they seem to doubt it, and therefore belittle themselves. They might be too frightened to send stories to editors or agents, fearing rejection.
Now, it’s interesting that in the study that I mentioned, many people who were painfully unaware of their own inabilities often proved to be quite successful. For example, managers in companies might be terrible at many tasks, but their own sense of self-importance assures them of a measure of success. You remember the saying, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”? I’ve had bosses who did that. They’d promise a customer, “Sure, we can get the job done by tomorrow,” hoping to add some functionality to an existing bit of software, and suddenly they had to pull a team of a hundred programmers together to try to do the impossible. Sometimes, our teams even managed to do the impossible—and that’s the genius of it!
But usually, our old manager ended up with a bit of egg on his face.
Now, incompetent writers will make similar promises. They overpromise and under-deliver. But at least they deliver.
An author who suffers from low self-esteem, on the other hand, will not deliver at all.
So what are we to do? I think that we need to find the courage to work at our writing. Sometimes, look to others for opinions. If you give a manuscript to ten people and three of them tell you that you’ve got a problem, then fix the dang problem. Don’t argue and sashay around and call them all idiots.
Meanwhile, if you write a story and ten people tell you that you’re amazing, then use it as fuel to get yourself writing, to push harder and work longer, so that you continue to improve and write more amazing works.
One Slot Left for The Advanced Intensive Workshop Next Week
If you would like to join us next week for the Advanced Intensive Writing Workshop, I have one slot left. Learn more here.
My Writer’s Peak workshop is happening November 2nd and 3rd. Learn more here.