Is Hubris Holding You Back?

Kath here. We’re so pleased that Lorin Oberweger is guesting at WU today. Lorin is a highly sought-after independent book editor and ghostwriter with almost twenty-five years experience in publishing. Her company, Free Expressions, offers writing seminars nationwide with literary agent Donald Maass and others, as well as the acclaimed Novel Crafting Retreats–intensive story development weekends for writers in all genres of fiction (FYI, scholarships for the Your Best Book workshop ends Feb, 15, 2013).

Lorin’s students and clients have millions of books in print and have been published by imprints of HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Scholastic, and other mainstream and independent presses. They have also gained representation with some of the industry’s leading literary agents.

An award-winning author, Lorin’s poetry, short fiction, and articles have appeared in well over one-hundred periodicals, including THE MONTSERRAT REVIEW, STORYQUARTERLY, and the bestselling regional anthology FRENCH QUARTER FICTION. Recently, an excerpt of her novel-in-progress, ITCH, was awarded “Best of Workshop” at Writers in Paradise, co-founded by author Dennis Lehane. She is represented by Tracey Adams at Adams Literary.

Every aspect of my professional life is devoted to helping writers succeed, creatively and commercially. I am so intensely grateful to do what I do and so intensively passionate about writers that it drives me a little bonkers when I see them stand in their own way. This topic–ego–has made itself known in my own life and in my clients’ lives in some potent and occasionally harmful ways. I’d love to help anyone who needs it find the courage to move past self-protection to making real progress toward their dreams.

Follow Lorin on Twitter @WriterLor or on Facebook. Or she can be contacted lorin@free-expressions.com.

Is Hubris Holding You Back?

I’m not a fan of cold, hard truths. I think wisdom can be gained without suffering blunt force trauma to the psyche.  So, let’s call this a warm, soft truth instead, one meant to support and nourish while asking you to peel back some psychological layers—and then poke at the delicate tissue underneath.

That warm, soft truth is that many writers let hubris stand in the way of their true artistic development and of their ultimate success.  Instead of looking within, they blame their lack of momentum on a contracting market or the whims of industry gatekeepers. They dismiss rejection letters as being uninformed. They fault their agents for not pushing hard enough or the reading public for having bad—or at least unsophisticated–taste.

Sometimes, that damaging pride steps in to tell writers it’s “cheating” to get help with story development or editing. And sometimes it compels them to scoff at writing workshops or popular books on craft as being somehow beneath them. Often, this derision comes without any kind of real investigation into whether or not such things would truly benefit their work.

Not all writers, of course. Some are fearless in this regard, willing to open up to the process, to come at the work with both enthusiasm and humility. These writers tear happily into their fifth or twelfth draft; they give themselves finger cramps taking notes during writing workshops—even though they’re already agented, already published, even already WELL-published.

They understand that a desire to grow does not constitute a failure of their present selves. But that’s a tough belief to sustain.

Why? Because the writing life demands a lot of ego fortification. It means toughening our psyches to rejection, to the peaks and valleys (and deeper valleys) of drafting a novel. It means holding our meager little flames aloft when the world seems filled with hurricane force winds.

And it means doing so within a system that confers value on writers for achieving certain milestones—gaining representation, for example—rather than for pursuing an ongoing, avid exploration of craft.

One has only to watch the dynamic at any large writing conference to see this in action, to watch the pained transactions between students and faculty. Sometimes, it feels like being the wallflower in a room where everyone’s eyes are tracking the popular kids on the dance floor.

So, of course, we lead with our credentials, whatever those might be. We hasten to show the agent, editor, or published author, “Hey, we’re not like all of these other people. We’re different. We’re special.”

But again, that’s ego; it’s pride. It’s about gaining a position rather than gaining artistic mastery. It’s understandable, but in the end, it may not really serve us. The truth is that you’re not special in that you want something that hundreds of thousands of other people also want. And you are special in that the path you take, the way you put words to paper, the stories you tell can only be committed by you.

If we can proceed on that as truth, I’d ask you to take a moment to dive down to that quiet, authentic part of yourself, the part that knows the answers, and consider the following: 

1.   Are you often guided by some form of the question, “How will it look if…?” Example, “How will it look if I don’t get a contract this year, when all of my friends are getting contracts?” Or, “How will it look if a published author/professional editor/writing instructor like me attends to a writing conference as a STUDENT?”

First, how would it look to whom? Are you imagining an audience of people whose sole preoccupation is to sit in judgment of your choices? Or are you conjuring the voice of some critical figure in your life–a parent, teacher, or partner—and giving that voice power over your progress?

Because you can’t really know what other people think, why not imagine a throng of supportive, caring artists around you, all whom understand that success comes in its own time and who admire your dedication to the study of craft? Why not make that internal choir an encouraging one?

On a side note: if you have people around you who truly DO voice those negative views, ask yourself where their egos enter the equation. What do they fear? How does your desire to grow threaten them? Extend them understanding and love, but don’t give them power over you—or your work.

2.   Do most conversations about writing revolve around other people (not your characters)? Do you point fingers—blaming your agent for her lack of effort or editors for their lack of daring? Do you deem other writers unworthy of their successes? Do you gossip about contracts and conference hook-ups more than you read books on craft, experiment with new forms, or just plain write?

If so, what do you gain from this approach? Is all of this conversation a way of masking a deeper concern that your writing—or your story—isn’t quite where you wish it to be? Would you benefit from taking some time away from industry concerns to read a book on craft or revisit a long-cherished novel? What can you do to turn the frustrations and competitive nature of the industry into a benefit for your actual writing?

3.   Have you stopped growing? Have you allowed yourself to progress so far as an artist and now find yourself spinning your creative wheels? If you go to writing conferences—as a faculty or a student–do you spend more time in your room or in the bar than you do in class? Do you feel as though you’ve gained sufficient mastery of your craft and that there’s little more for you to learn? And is that really possible?

As a challenge, what can you explore that you’ve yet to explore? If you’ve been with the same critique partners forever, can you add some fresh voices to the mix? Can you read poetry or books on screenwriting? Can you find a local writing workshop and attend each class as though you’ve never learned a thing about writing? Can you sit placidly, listen deeply, take notes with an open and earnest spirit? Can you apply “beginner’s mind” (to use a Zen term) even if you’ve been at it for decades?

Before us stretches a brand new year. What would it mean to muffle the voice of ego within you, to accept that it’s not about being better or worse than others? That it’s not about their success OR your success? What would it mean to your writing if you allowed yourself to shed the skin of hubris and emerge perfectly beautiful and whole and willing to startle yourself again?

Where my own work is concerned, I can’t wait to find out. And where your work is concerned, I can’t wait to READ.  Here’s to a truly NEW new year!

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Comments

  1. says

    Great article and timely for my personal writing journey. I just wrote a blog article about ruminating over the past year and my writing experience. There have been successes, but there has also been a reevaluation of who I am as a writer and what I want to be. It’s not just about the external success, at least for me. It’s also about writing what is most fulfilling, and I’ll dare to say, where I feel lead to write.

    You’re spot-on with the role ego can play too. Blech. I can pander to my ego too easily if I’m not careful. After all, it’s tough to answer the umpteenth question of “So what have you published lately?” from friends and family.

    I keep trying different shoes of writing on, looking for the best fit and a style that suits me. In the meantime, I learn and glean as much as I can.
    Julie´s last blog post ..Ruminating

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  2. says

    Sometimes haven chosen this path feels self-indulgent enough. If I choose to ignore rejection and fail to strive to make my work worthy of appreciation by other, carefully-selected experts, it becomes even more self-indulgent. So I continue to strive.

    It’s a time of the year when I frequently say (to myself–never to others), “This is the year I’ll gain representation, or perhaps even a publishing contract.” But I’ve been saying that at this time of the last three years. And each year since, I can see the effort that has gone into my work has led to growth and improvement. In hindsight, I can see that it wasn’t ready yet. So, no matter how good I’m feeling about the improvement, I’d be shortsighted and foolish not to accept the possibility that the same will apply to the coming year.

    If I allow myself to be depressed by this reality, it can be due to nothing but hubris. If I accept that I’m still growing as an artist, that should be enough. I’m a lucky man. I’m not wanting or lacking for much. Having the opportunity to strive to be worthy of my work’s potential is a gift.

    The only pride I should feel is for my perseverance in continuing to holding my meager little flame aloft. I should be thankful, not bitter or covetous. Thanks for the beautiful reminder, Lorin!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Lessons For The Leader- Christi Craig Guest Post

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  3. says

    I’m busy today, just checking messages and such… The email announcing this post was on the list, and I lifted an eyebrow and scanned the email. And I thought, ‘…hmmm…’ and read.

    This is right on point. I had caught myself eyeing others’ successes and, at the same time, acknowledging that I needed to be sure that I did not stagnate. I had been budgeting for editing, for advice – and I think it is a good thing. Thank you for posting this entry that reinforced my thoughts and made me take a breath and say, “Yes! I will do it!”

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  4. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    “Why not imagine a throng of supportive, caring artists around you, all whom understand that success comes in its own time and who admire your dedication to the study of craft? Why not make that internal choir an encouraging one?”

    I am lucky. I don’t have to imagine this. I found in at WU and WU Facebook. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t appreciate this fact.

    And thank you, for this reminder of what it’s all about.

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    • says

      I love the positive attitude.
      I look forward to participating in the described environment.
      Besides finishing my novel in 2013 I hope to become more social media aware. Writers Unboxed is part of my first baby steps.

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  5. Jackie Garlick says

    I believe I may have inspire portions of this incredibly sensible, inspiring, spirit nurturing rant…or way, that might just be the hubris talking. :)

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  6. Sevigne says

    It’s not always pride that stops writers from going to conferences or workshops. Sometimes the size of these events that make them daunting for certain writers.

    The very best workshop I ever attended was my first, in 2004. It was a workshop for children’s writers, founded by David Greenberg, and it takes place in Oregon every summer. There were maybe fifteen writers and about ten faculty. The structure included daily presentations by faculty, time with one’s assigned mentor, private writing time, and group sharing time. The “classroom” sat right next to the beach and overlooked the ocean. The other great workshop I attended that year was at Big Sur. It was bigger and it was a different arrangement, but was also excellent.

    Because of these two experiences, I looked forward to attending my first SCBWI conference in 2005, in New York. It was awful. It so packed, every time I had to go to another session, negotiating the stairs or elevators metamorphosed into an experience swarming ants or sardines in a tin. I’ve heard, since, that it even more more writers attend. I can’t imagine what that’s like (though I will find out in February, if I want to listen to Meg Rosoff, which I do).

    I’ve heard similar things about the beautiful workshop in Oregon; that not only has it doubled in size but that the goal now appears to be to get the attention of an agent or editor.

    I may try Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference again. I did enjoy that experience. There was enough space, and not too many attendees, it was possible to relax even while stretching one’s mind.

    I’ve looked at workshops that interest me in the future, and can only hope they won’t grow beyond their current bounds by the time I can afford to attend.

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    • says

      It can be positively daunting to attend a large conference, you’re right. Sometimes I avoid going because of the stress levels. My planner fills up as soon as I say I’m going. Lunch with agent and editors, dinner with writer friends, give workshops, etc.. It’s too easy to schedule every last moment and never have any down time to just enjoy friends or the pleasure of being there. But I enjoy the speakers and classes, so I always take advantage of those. I’m learning to be kinder to myself, even if I can’t do everything.

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  7. says

    I am just now perfecting my goals for the new year. These thoughts and ideas are so provocative, I am adding this to my list:
    Shed EGO and be a student of writing and life.

    Thank you!

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  8. says

    Thanks, all!

    It can be so tough to turn off that external (and internal) static, to keep one’s eye on the story, the reader, the challenges that are personal to each writer.

    We want to feel as though we’re progressing in our chosen fields, a very natural desire, and sometimes that status-seeking (a term generated by the lovely Don Maass) gets in the way of the real work and of real success.

    And it’s tough sometimes when our inner voices keep up a constant insecure patter or our external influences–family, friends, etc.–make it all about success in the form of publication, money, fame, none of which have to do with the deep down joys of the art form.

    By the way, Sevigne, I definitely don’t mean to suggest that the only way a writer can push herself past her current skill level is to attend workshops or conferences (though, of course I’m a proponent). And I agree that you have to find the right workshop or conference to suit your needs. There are all kinds that offer small group experiences and REAL challenge to the writer.

    (On that note, let me add to Kath’s mention in my intro: the scholarships offered by Free Expressions are good for either our Your Best Book workshop OR the Breakout Novel Intensive with WU’s Mr. Maass. :-))

    Thanks again, all!

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    • Sevigne says

      These types of events have the propensity to be exponentially developmental. And it’s always good to meet people in real life and make (possibly) lifetime bonds with other writers and professionals. But money does seem to have become the bottom line for many of them, unfortunately; especially for conferences. Otherwise there’s no reasonable explanation for pushing workshops and conferences beyond the natural capacity of people working together to walk away with a sense of true growth, rather than negative overload.

      I’m aware of your workshops (obviously). Donald’s workshop has been on my list for two years. Perhaps next year will be the right time.

      The other thing, however, is finding the workshop that actually works for how your subconscious processes information. Something like the workshop that you’ve offered with Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, and Christopher Vogler, wouldn’t work for me unless I had a completed draft coming in. I know this is, because for years I tried desperately to apply external methods taught in various craft books (including Scott’s) to build the architecture of the story and character motives, etc., and got nowhere. And the reason for that is not because I *didn’t* understand the method; it’s because it’s not how my subconscious process such methods. However, I can see that a completed draft, generated the way my subconscious works, would allow my conscious mind to apply everything taught in such a workshop to a completed draft.

      What I would like to see is the development of workshops or conferences that focus on the strength of the subconscious to generate original work. There are enough renowned writers who have spoken openly of this way of writing; that workshops or conferences that focused on using the subconscious would be credible–and incredible!–if led by the right instructors. These workshops would in no way eschew the necessity of craft until it becomes skill. But I suspect they would help a great many more writers than the workshop industry currently caters for.

      Craft has nothing to do with method. Too many workshops are structured as if these two things are the same. That’s the reason for a proliferation of workshops focused on teaching writers to use an external plot structure to generate storyline and narrative. The external plot structure is not treated as one way of working, it’s treated as if it’s the Holy Grail (which it is not…truth be known, that’s the subconscious).

      Craft is purely technical, which is why, at a certain point, you no longer use it consciously. Just as you no longer think about shifting gears or using the brake, once you’ve learned how to drive. When craft becomes an automatic skill, the more you deepen your skill (which I think is the point of your article), the more your capacity to express your original ideas expands.

      Method gives the creative self its direct connection to the physical world. This is something you find only by trial and error. It may change over time or even from project to project.

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  9. says

    Heh. It didn’t take me long in medicine to gather that certain status symbols were meaningless to me, except that they sometimes served as a shortcut to legitimacy in other people’s eyes. Graduate from med school with good marks? Nice, but now there’s residency to get through. Have an office and the right to wear a long coat? Sweet, but let’s just see how all this schooling functions in the real world, and whether you actually have the ability to help people effect change when it counts. When I was in the exam room, it got real pretty fast. The lab coat by itself was a surprisingly poor diagnostician. ;)

    I find writing so much more competitive than medicine; there’s way more emphasis on image over substance. (In fact, we often credit image as being substance.) Anyway, I’m grateful for the grounded, humble, life-long learners who keep it real. Thanks for being one of them, Lorin. Merry Christmas to you and yours.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Think Your Partner Doesn’t Support Your Writing? Look Again

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    • says

      Good description of starting in the field of medicine. It reminds me of when I began teaching. The theory based teaching degree served as a foundational confidence builder. The interaction among students developed my effectiveness.
      My experience in the area of writing is not as balanced. I have chosen to focus on writing and sharing my work. The enjoyment and comments of my readers takes the edge of the competitiveness atmosphere. In listening or reading fellow writer’s work I try to follow the same attitude as my readers–enjoy their labor unless asked for suggestions. Courses and conferences is an area that is developing now. I have to admit past editor comments have been educational.

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  10. Marilyn Slagel says

    I haven’t read the comments yet, but only because I can’t take the time at the moment – I’ll read them later today.

    With all the talk on numerous sites about the end of a new year and beginning of another, I want to be honest here and say “I am absolutely terrified!”

    My book was released in November. I’m nearly paralyzed with fear that I can’t do a sequel as well.

    What is wrong with me? I’m truly experiencing anxiety over this.

    Any opinions?

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    • Sevigne says

      Yes. As far as I can tell, it’s completely impersonal. Many authors speak of this, and I’m not even sure it’s limited to debut authors. I know this first-hand, through one of my critique partners whose book sold this year. The moment she sold her book, she became stumped on working on the second book.

      In fact, she wrote to me last night with a plan to hold one another accountable, beginning in January, which would entail her completion of a first draft of her second book by the end of May, also the time I’ve set for myself to complete my draft.

      The answer is, it’s completely natural. Even though your first book is now released, I’m sure you want it to be successful and do well and it’s natural for part of you to be afraid that it won’t. This, too, is impersonal.

      The conscious mind believes that it created the originality of your story. It did not, no matter how many times it tells you it did! It’s also the part that’s paralysed, now that the first book is done. You’re not paralysed, it is, because it’s not creative in the way you know your second book needs to be. Your originality comes from a completely different part of you. A you that you’ll never be able to see or touch or hear with your conscious mind. It’s the part of you that was original for your first book, and is always original. It can’t help but be original. Its nature is to be original. All you have to do is believe it’s easy to connect to this part of yourself and at some point it will be. Good luck!

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    • says

      What a coincidence! I released my book in October. It was an interruption of an effort on a novel. In my back pocket I have the seeds to the next novel and a possible extension to my first book.
      How do I do it? My best guess is that at heart I am a problem solver, a teacher. When a concern bothers me, I look into ways of solving it. I discuss approaches with other people. Then, through fiction, I work out some of the ideas discussed to see what good or problems might arise.
      Can that work for you?

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  11. says

    Yes, that inner voice doesn’t know when to stop chattering its mantra of insecurity. Here’s to a new year when I give it something to occupy itself while I keep my eyes and typing fingers on the story.

    Thanks for the post!
    Marisa (@marisabirns)´s last blog post ..This Day Forward

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  12. says

    Thanks for a great post, Lorin. A moment to reflect, a memento to breathe and forget abt agents and editors and bestsellers. A reminder that all writing is naming that which has not yet been named exquisitely.

    Thanks!

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  13. says

    Lorin,
    What a thoughtful, gracious post. Thank you for sharing your observations and questions with us. I’ll take many of your insights with me — especially this phrase, which I loved: “…and willing to startle yourself again.”
    Marilyn Brant´s last blog post .."Yours at Midnight" is here!

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  14. says

    Thanks, Lorin! What a great post! It doesn’t take people long to figure out who the arrogant (ergo insecure) writers are. And I’d wager the writers with a healthy dose of hubris are NOT in writing groups. There’s nothing healthier than being involved in close-knit writing group with trusted people who are good writers (not writer-wannabees who love nothing more than “talking” about writing when they should be parking it and actually writing!)

    Hubris be gone! Now…I need to work on whittling down the rest of the excuses I use that hold me back!

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  15. says

    Lorin,
    There is no more powerful and relevant teacher than one who walks the talk and that level of integrity can be felt through their words. It is my good fortune to have come across your blog and more importantly, you. Models of love and integrity are what give the world the opportunity to evolve. Thank you for your wisdom.

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  16. says

    Lorin,

    Such a beautiful, gentle reminder that the craft IS THE THING! Yes, I want to soar over the next hurdle, yes I want success, but ultimately, the best compliment I could ever receive would be that I’m a great writer, not just a published writer. It IS hard when year after year, you have no better answer than “not much” when people ask what’s happening with your books. I really wish they asked instead, “have you grown as a writer this year?” Because that is my focus (and with help from YOU) I can say “YES! I learned so much this year!.” Thanks for this, Lorin.

    Tracy

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  17. says

    Lorin,
    Thanks for the cautionary wisdom. As a writer, I want the quality of my writing to be judged by savvy, experienced editors and readers. We are not our own best critics. This post is a great reminder that humility and a constant quest for self-improvement are two important qualities for writers. Thanks.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..An Ode to ‘A Christmas Story’

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  18. says

    Learning how much I don’t know has been my biggest adjustment as a writer. At last – at long last – I’m in a place where I love the feedback I get from my writing partner, readers, and, now, from my editor.

    When I think I’ve done something well, they show me how it can be better. When a scene is weak, they let me know why it doesn’t work. I augment their advice by studing the craft of fiction daily.

    So I’m still the final adjudicator but without their benchmarks, my work would flounder.

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  19. Larry Wilson says

    A mentor, in another area of my life, taught me the principle of always having a teachable spirit. True masters are always learning.

    I participate in an online critique group, where most of us are struggling to learn our craft. But there are some professional authors among us who still know the value of learning from others. One of them has won multiple awards and is a rising star in his genre, but still submits his work. I just wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with his success.

    We may argue with editors and agents, maybe even fellow writers, but we can’t argue with our readers. They either like our stories or they don’t, and we can’t justify ourselves to them. Our work will always have to stand on its own.

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  20. Robin Yaklin says

    Thanks for such a great end-of-year bit of advice and inspiration. Two craft books are on my desk for reading in the next few weeks.

    And, to all who have not been to BONI. I’ve seen it described as a drink from a fire hydrant. Tis true, but so worth the douse.

    Merry holidays!

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  21. Robin Yaklin says

    P.S.: I hate autocorrect. It mangled my post! Does anyone know how to disable, beside taking my iPad out and shooting it?

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  22. says

    It’s hard not to hang on to the insecurity, and harder when you take a hit to pick yourself up and put yourself out there again. But in the end, we’re writing because we love to write. We’re writing because we see our characters and want to bring them to the page with as much truth and clarity as possible so that they exist for others as clearly as they do for us.

    I may be incredibly naive, but I still believe that if we write a great book, whatever the market conditions are, it will eventually get published as long as we keep trying and keep writing. We may have to write four more great books before that first one gets published, and then that first may need revising for the fifteenth time because we HAVE grown over the span of the intervening books. But I believe. Does it work like that with writing, or only with fairies and Santa Claus? :)

    Lorin, I can honestly say that taking your workshop was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my writing. You and Brenda and Emma Dryden are incredible, motivating, and recharging!

    Happy Holidays,

    Martina
    Martina Boone´s last blog post ..WOW Wednesday: Robison Wells on What It Takes to Be a Writer

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  23. says

    I agree that we need to put our egos aside to learn and grow as writers, but I also think there are two separate issues here presented as one: “true artistic development” and “ultimate [commercial] success.” It would be wonderful if these were an inseparable pair–if one came bundled with the other. But there are many great books that will never be popular, and there are a lot of popular books that are not particularly great.

    Seeking out and listening to criticism is admirable, but you have to know who to listen to and when to put your foot down. Some advice will make your book more beautiful and meaningful, and some will make it more sellable. A lot will do both, in which case there’s no contest. But when one conflicts with the other, you need to decide whether compliance will serve or hurt the purpose of your work. Did you want to write a melancholy literary saga, but everyone’s trying to turn it into a cookie-cutter bestseller? Or did you intend to write some feel-good fluff for a quick buck, and everyone’s trying to turn it into a timeless masterpiece? In either case, I would seriously consider the input, but politely reject it.

    You have to be wary of crossing from “confident” to “arrogant,” but there’s also a fine line between “humble” and “spineless.” Personally, I think happily tearing into the twelfth draft is the latter. Assuming the difference between drafts is more than a few minor tweaks, you would only get to that point by incorporating every change everyone suggests, regardless of the value it adds or takes away. You’re not “rewriting” anymore; you’re basically writing an entirely different book from the one you started out with. You might as well leave it alone, get it out, and start fresh.

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  24. says

    Sage advice. For those who relish polishing their work I would suggest two other sources of support. An editor prefaced her many comments with, I hope what I am about to share with you is seen as opportunities to make your work outstanding and not as criticism. That shield enabled my work to improve. I’ve found editors are amazing. With that attitude participating in writers’ circles can also be a supportive means of polishing a piece of work.

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  25. says

    Thank you for your sage advice. It is always good to have the reminder to be wary of hubris. I have read before that once you think you know how to write that is when you are most incapable, so I always come to the blank page or the next edit with the desire to learn what I can improve on for the next project.

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  26. says

    Thoughtful and useful advice. That “How will it look if” question is a relentless predator on our confidence and our willingness to try and fail and learn.
    Thanks for the timely reminder. And, okay, I’ll sign up for that workshop I was waffling about.

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