Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Deepest Fear

There’s a very famous quote attributed to new-age guru Marianne Williamson (although I’ve heard she was actually quoting someone else) that goes something like this: Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

Maybe Ms. Williamson (or whomever first originally said this) hangs out with a completely different crowd than I do, but I find this hard to believe. Most people, I don’t think, aren’t carrying around a deep-seated fear that they are, in fact, Obi-Wan Kenobi. Most people, I believe, deep down inside are scared that they suck and no one’s ever going to tell them that.

Maybe this is just a writer thing, or an artist thing. After all, if you’re a scientist or in some other math-based profession, it becomes obvious pretty quickly whether or not you suck. If your patients keep dying or your equations never add up or you’re always losing all your clients’ money, there’s really no question that you’re not any good.

Not so for the creator-based community. Writing – any art – is reviewed separately and subjectively by each person, so that while as a society there’s an agreement about certain blockbuster works of art – Harry Potter, the Mona Lisa – there’s plenty of disagreement around others. Was 2001 A Space Odyssey a masterpiece or a joke? Is J.K. Rowling’s “A Casual Vacancy” a thought-provoking, sweeping saga or just a mess? And is my novel any good?

There’s a saying in Hollywood that you can die from encouragement, which basically means that no one you talk to will ever say that your writing sucks or you’re the worst actress ever or you can’t put two images together without boring the entire country. Because, God forbid, what if your judgmental judgment is wrong and this person actually makes it big and then refuses to work with you because of your criticism? This ignores the question of why you’d want to work with someone that you know sucks even if the rest of the world thinks he’s the greatest talent since Da Vinci, or at least the Da Vinci Code. So you spend your entire life, or at least the most productive part of it, slaving away at your art because so many people say encouraging things, and then you spend the end of your life wondering why it never happened for you.

How do you know if you’re one of the ones who really has “it,” or if people are just patting you on the head to be kind? After all, it isn’t just Hollywood execs who are trained to be encouraging. From an early age, we’re all taught that “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So if you give your book to your best friend, is she really going to tell you if she thinks it sucks? Of course not.

At the same time, we writers are supposed to be able to handle rejection. We’re told to develop tough skins, not to take it personally. After all, the first thing that happens when you find a professional who really loves your writing is that he’ll tell you a million things wrong with it.

I have gotten pretty good handling rejection on one level. I’m OK when someone declines to read my book. After all, there are a million books out there, good ones, that I’ve decided not to read myself. I have very specific tastes and interests and I imagine that agents and editors do, too. So when I present my idea and I’m told, “Thanks, but it’s not for me,” I’m disappointed but I really don’t take it personally.

What I do take personally is a rejection after the material has been read. Because in that case, the agent/editor/producer has already shown interest in the idea. It’s my take and writing of said idea that they’re rejecting.

And no, no one ever tells you that they’re passing because as a writer, you’d make a great waiter. It’s a few sentences of form letter; after reviewing the material, they don’t wish to see anything more. Occasionally there’ll be a note at the bottom saying feel free to send anything else you’re working on, and that’s heartening, but only slightly.

I’ve been writing stories since I was very young – I can remember working on a “Little House on the Prairie” fan fiction I called “Light Up the Sky with Firecrackers” (Did they even have firecrackers in the 1800s?) – and in school I was a good enough writer that I could often bullshit my way through papers relying on skill rather than content. This is why I went into PR.

I don’t think you can bullshit your way through a novel or a screenplay.

Self-publishing has really taken off in the past few years. It’s become so legitimate that a few very well-known, well-compensated authors are choosing to leave their publishing houses and go out on their own. After all, that means the money goes directly to them and they don’t have to wait a year for their book to come out.

Self-publishing means there’s no one to stop you. No one to say this idea isn’t right for us, no one to say there’s no market for it, no one to wrinkle their nose and say that no one wants to read about a character like your protagonist.

There’s also no one to say that your writing sucks. (Of course, as I wrote just a few paragraphs ago, no one’s going to say that anyway.)

I’ve read many self-published books this year, and while one or two of them were strong enough that they could have easily come from a major house, most of them had problems. There were issues with plotting, character, and dialogue. And one or two of them flat-out sucked.

I wonder if those writers got any editing help at all. Did they ignore suggestions? Did they really think readers would be interested in a three-page conversation about what the characters had for breakfast? Or maybe it’s me… maybe I’m too picky.

My manuscript is going out to some editors after the holiday. I’ve had three people read it --- two baseball parents and the owner of a book blog. They didn’t think it sucked, so that’s a good thing.

I’m also looking in to self-publishing. If these editors pass, I want everything in place so I can start that process as soon as possible.

And hopefully I don’t suck.


  1. I don't think it sucks! I'm not done yet, but that's because *I* suck. Will try and get back to you this week. :-) --Francine

  2. From what I heard at the conference, I don't think you suck. I have some friends who are going the self-publishing route, and I think there's value to it - if you're willing to do the publicity work. A woman I sat next to on the airplane back to Seattle was telling me that the publishing company's cut of the profits is way bigger than, if you can keep more of the profits and sell a lot of books, why not? It's certainly not for everyone, but something to think about. Regardless, you have a great idea, and no matter how it happens you'll be in print someday.

  3. I did self-publish a book and it was verrrrrry hard to market it. I have a built-in fan base in Pittsburgh, because people here know me from my non-fiction articles and columns -- and it was STILL hard. It sold well in my little fish bowl but it didn't make money. And really, I wouldn't do it with fiction.

    That's for what it's worth. Besides, one of these editors will pick up your book. If not, one of the contacts you made this week will lead you to one who will. You'll see!