Welcome back to the Seven Deadly Sins study. Last week, we covered Overconfidence. This week, we’ll be taking a look at a far more destructive sin: Vanity. (Bear with me, this is a long post)
As writers, success is a very subjective and elusive thing. Meaning, most of us take it where we can get it. We write to please others, and having achieved that, often are pleased with ourselves. To that end, since selling works of fiction is so difficult, we develop a sense of pride in our rejections and critiques.
Beginning Writers are noted for their abundance of “form letter” rejections; often for the same book to different lines and publishers.
Moderate Writers can pick out the single lines or paragraphs that were written by the reading editor, smiling--and yes, I’m guilty too--while they trace the actual ink signature.
Advanced Writers tend to recieve the multi-page rejection/revision letters. Sometimes they are bulletted with specific revisions required. Other letters are detailed business letters explaining why the book doesn’t work for them in it’s current form, but explains also what larger themes and underlying difficulties keep the work from being publishable. Advanced writers pour over these letters, searching for any possible compliment, raking their own backs at each now painfully obvious mistake.
No matter what stage you are in, it is fully possible to become vain about your writing. The stage you’re in is simply a clearer way of defining how ashamed of yourself you should be.
Let’s define vanity, as it pertains to a writer. To be vain is not to say to yourself, “I love this line! It’s funny, it’s brilliant!”. Writing Vanity is best described as believing you are above criticism.
Now, don’t get me wrong. A writer should always have the guts to fight for important aspects of their writing should a Critter not agree with something they created. But you should have a stronger argument than, “You just don’t get it.” Ultimately, a Critter’s role is to help you by looking for the weakest points of your project and reporting them to you for retooling. They shouldn’t be in it for the glory of being your CP or for the opportunity to take you down a peg. Your job as the Critted is to accept those critiques with grace instead of as an invitaiton to war. This means picking your battles when defending your work. When you’re vain is when you simply refuse to bend.
Advanced writers are perhaps most guilty of this. You’ve identified your process by now. You know what works for you. You’re “this” close to selling and have developed a good business relationship with your reading editor. Things are looking well. But your Critter thinks that something isn’t working in your story. You “know” this is core to the internal conflict, it must stay. Even though the Critter makes a modicum of sense about it completely undermining something else or not being a strong enough motivation. Yadda, yadda, yadda. You know you’re right and refuse to consider adjustment. And this will kill your story.
The truth is, Advanced Writers are a lot like doctors. They make horrific patients. So well versed in writing terminology and philosophy of craft, they usually cannot see the forest for the trees and put up the loudest arguments as to why they are right. But many times, they are wrong and it costs them. Knowing your stuff and knowing your story do not necessarily mean knowing everything.
Second in line is the Beginning Writer. Few people are as cock sure that they know what they are doing as people who do not. They are shocked at form letters and justifiably mystified as to what they can do to improve, since form letters tell you pretty much nothing about your work individually. I’ve come across a few who simply assume the editor was “clearing her desk” or my favorite, “They probably had an editorial assistant read it.”, assuming that EAs have no knowledge of the business. A beginner has not had their teeth kicked in hard enough to know better.
But the moderate level writers, it can still happen to you. You’ve been at this a while. You’ve found that it’s coming a little easier to write. Perhaps you get the sense that you’ve outgrown your critique partner. They aren’t able to help you with the craft end as much. They aren’t as familliar with “house style” grammar and you find that their corrections aren’t helping. They defer to you more often than not and crits have become little more than compliment sheets. This is a very dangerous stage for a writer because you don’t necessarily know where the floor really is, or how far off of it you’ve gotten. You know enough to know you know more than the average bear. But can you tell if you’re turning into an arrogant pup?
To find out, lets take a look at the role of Critiques. The purpose of criticism is to have someone impartial look over your work for errors you might not be able to see, as most writers simply get too close to the project by the time it is finished.
Vanity will render these critiques utterly useless if you believe that you know much more than anyone who reads for you. Do not make the mistake of thinking that a Critter is only as valuable as the level to which they write. Or even how long they’ve been writing. Fresh eyes are fresh eyes and everyone has strengths. Just as all writers have weaknesses.
Falling too deeply in love with your own flow can make it hard to see the basics and where you are failing them. It will blindside you so that when a rejection is rendered, you may not even be able to take the advice of the reading editor--and this, my friends, is career suicide. There is always something to learn.
So how do you sort the constructive criticism from the unhelpful without succumbing to vanity? The most important thing is to investigate the Critter’s explanation for each point.
Constructive criticism involves sound reasoning and craft implications. If they say word choice is awkward or motivation seems lacking or that the scene drags, look for ways they could be right instead of wrong. A good part of receiving critiques for your betterment is your attitude. If you’re looking for a fight, you will find one. Look for a helping hand and odds are, you’ll find that instead. Good critters will provide not only indications that something is off, they will often offer suggestions to improve or ask questions that you can work the answers for in, thus strengthening the weak point.
An unhelpful critter can be identified by utter lacking of craft or reasoning. They only have opinions and are explained as such: “This doesn’t work for me. You should do...” Beware of the angry critiques, or the ones where your critter feels the need to hammer a point by explaining throughout the document where you have screwed up repeatedly. A good critter will note a repeating error, not by fingering it with a neon sign, but by showing an example once or twice and informing the writer that this is something they should look out for throughout the document. The most unhelpful critiques are the compliment types. Accept compliments for what they are--one person’s opinion that can help you feel more secure about a line or a plot or a character and about you; no more, no less. Compliments should be accepted and then ignored. They are not facts you can lay in front of the editor and therefore, do you no good. No matter how from the heart they may be, professionally, do not take them to heart.
The next task to avoiding vanity is to actually make use of critiques, particularly without beating yourself to the ground. Many authors fear egos--I’m one of them--because they can so easily grow out of control. Now that you can identify a way to judge if a critique is worth heeding, you can hopefully do the using part. Not beating yourself up because the crit is right about having gone the wrong way (particularly if it means major rewrites)...this is much easier said than done. But it should be done with grace.
Just because you are not Queen of the World does not mean you’re the slime of it instead. Me, for example. I’m basically one of those types who responds best to negative reinforcement, which means in my own critiques I’m painfully blunt and I spend a lot of time telling myself that I’m stupid for making various mistakes. I kick myself when I’m down. Why? Because I learn from mistakes. I learn from failing. Truthfully, I just get pissed off and I hate giving anyone the satisfaction of being right that I suck at something--even myself--so I strive to do better. But it’s a pretty unhealthy way to motivate yourself not to make the same mistake again.
Ask yourself a few questions when crits hit to the bone. Is this a craftpoint you knew well? Is this something you can study to improve? Is it a minor point in the whole tapestry of the manuscript? Judge yourself from an impartial point of view. Learn from a crit. Make notes to yourself and place them somewhere in view of your most common writing area--things to remember. I have a mousepad I was gifted with at Nationals one year that has nearly every inch of it printed with some sort of craft point reminder: GMC, Word Count=Page Count charts, BIC HOC, Scene & Serial, etc, etc, etc. I use it as a frame for my son’s picture, another reminder of who else I’m writing for. Try to turn a mistake into a lesson you can use later.
It’s very difficult to make yourself admit things about your writing. We all want to get it right. We all want to sell. But the only thing you gain by not being able to see the value in other’s people’s viewpoint is the ability to sell yourself--short.
Next week’s lesson: Deadly Sin #5) Indecision