Friday, March 25, 2011

The Importance of Being Egotistical - Or Earnest (Whichever)

First off, I want to just wave to all the new people (waves) and say thanks tremendously to the AMAZING responses I've been getting to Dust to Dust, both here, at Brenda's blog, and at MissSnarksFirstVictim's Secret Agent Contest.  Wait.  That's three places.  Both does not apply.  I'M A WRITER NOT A MATHEMATICIAN WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!?!  But seriously.  Y'all are blowing me away.  I'm blushing here.  Seriously.  Possible spontaneous combustion is in the forecast, there's so much heat in my cheeks.

Which brings me to today's topic, or: The Importance of Ego.

This of course comes with a big, heaping helping of caveat, because as with all aspects of writing and being a writer, less is more. 

But the fact of the matter is, writing - as with any creative pursuit - ultimately boils down to subjectivity.  There is no quantitative formula to measure how successful a writer is at his or her craft.  A New York Times bestseller averaging seven figure advances can be criticized for the quality of their work, while a critically acclaimed award winner can struggle to move more than five thousand copies of a book.  Which is more successful?  Even the measuring stick by which we judge ourselves is entirely subjective, so how can we possibly give equal weight to every reviewer, agent, editor, reader and piece of criticism or praise they levy our way?

Simple answer:  We can't.

Realistic answer:  We creative types are inherently neurotic beasts, and thus rational objectivity does not help when the blog with ten followers hacks our precious book to shreds, the Dream Agent tells us our manuscript is too rough to publish, or our mother hesitates just a second too long before reassuring us 'No, really, I love this!  It's your best work yet!'

And that is where the ego comes in.  Because it is OKAY and even necessary to have it in appropriate doses.  This is a business where you need to believe in yourself first and foremost, because if you can't convince yourself that you have a worthwhile product, then how can you expect to convince an agent and an eventual readership of that?  Some say you need to have a thick skin to work in a creative field, but I don't know that that's precisely accurate.  You don't want to just shrug off negative feedback that comes your way.  By doing that, you keep yourself from growing or benefiting from the parts of their feedback that are accurate, even if they're not framed in the most constructive way.  Instead of focusing on cultivating a thick skin, cultivate genuine confidence in your strengths.  That way you can hear criticism and soak it in, make use of it - without detracting from the things you know you're good at.

Of course, easier said than done.

Slight hop, skip and a jump over to put on my actor hat for a second:  True story - I once had two auditions in the same day.  For the first audition, I was told to my face (very few casting directors believe in sugar coating things, hah) that I was too ugly for the part.  For the second audition, not two hours later, I was told that I was too attractive for the part.  Insert slight confusion.

But of course, skip to the end of the day, and which was I obsessing over?  The casting director who'd told me I was too ugly.  Doesn't matter that not two hours later I'd been told I was too attractive for a role - that was out of sight, out of mind.  Instead, I was obsessing over this one particular casting director and a role I didn't even really want that bad, and her entirely subjective judgment call on something I couldn't change even if I wanted to.  On the surface, I said I was over it, I'd dismissed it, I had a thick skin.  With my friends I laughed it off, made jokes about her being bitter and came up with scenarios that would explain that kind of reaction, made me look good and her look very very bad.  But really, all that proved was I didn't actually have a thick skin at all.  It meant no matter what I SAID, it actually bothered me very much.  When our first reaction to criticism - deserved or not - is to lash out or hit back, we should always stop and think for a second - you know, there's GOT to be a better way to respond to this.  And sometimes, the best thing is to not respond at all.

And that's where genuine confidence comes in, and why there's no substitute for it.  And why its okay to be a little egotistical.  False modesty isn't actually modesty at all.  Find your strengths.  Hone in on them.  And believe in them, and hold tight to them.  If you KNOW you write kick-ass characters and you get negative feedback on your plot you can say, honestly and securely - okay, this guy didn't like my plot.  That doesn't mean I'm a bad writer, because I still KNOW I write kick-ass characters and he didn't say anything about that, so let me take a look at this plot and see if I can make it deserving of these characters.  You have more than one strength, guaranteed, so find them, big, little and in between.  So that even when someone says something needs improvement on what you consider a strength, you still have other things to fall  back on and take support from.

If you write great descriptions, trust in that.  Find things that AREN'T as subjective, get as factual as you can about what you're good at.  If you've done your homework as a writer and are familiar with what's on the shelves right now in your genre and you KNOW there's nothing else like your MS out there, then nobody can tell you your idea isn't creative and original.  If you've logged the hours and done the research you need to bring your setting or time period or protagonist's skillset to life, then you KNOW you've busted your butt and people can second guess the end result - but they can't make you doubt that you did the work and you put in the effort.  If you are truly passionate about what you're writing and KNOW that you're writing it because it resonates with you, and the emotions are pure and raw and you're not just trying to cater to market trends - then you can make it all the way to the NYT Bestseller list and have thousands decry you as a sell-out hack, and you can smile politely and thank them for reading because thick or thin skin, you can say with confidence that they are not right.  You know why you wrote your book, and nobody can do or say anything that actually changes that. 

Did you know that con artists and con games used to be called confidence men?  Confidence games? Because the people they conned, that's what did them in.  That's what got them hooked.  The confidence.  The complete seeming conviction in what they were saying, what they were saying.  By leaving no room for doubt in the 'con' they were running, they convinced their 'marks' that there was nothing to second guess.  People didn't think things through, because the confidence man gave them no REASON to think anything through.  What they were proposing was just so obvious, so clearly matter of fact, there was just no room for doubt.  There's a phrase, 'fake it til you make it.'  As an actor, I live by it.  Walk into each audition like you own the room, even if you're a total basketcase of nerves on the inside, and people are already impressed.

The casting director meeting you for the first time sizes you up with her professional eye and thinks: 'Huh.  This guy's not nervous at all.  Maybe he knows something I don't know.'  And she pays just a little bit more attention to your audition.  You stand out just a little bit more from the pack.  And in time, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  By pretending to be confident, looking the part, you get the role, and your actual confidence grows.  As a writer, conduct yourself professionally, don't let agents or blog readers or publishers see that you're nervous, that you're uncertain how your query will go over or if they'll like your manuscript.  Do your best work, put it out there, and trust in your strengths.  And if you can't quite do that yet, then just PRETEND PRETEND PRETEND.  You'll get there in time.

Now as to that big heaping helping of caveat from earlier.  There be danger in these waters, as it can be really easy to take this to the wrong extreme.  People start to believe their own hype.  That's why its important to be honest with yourself, surround yourself with people you trust to be honest with you and not just say what you want to hear.  Keep yourself and your ego in check.  Don't be afraid to make fun of yourself.  Whenever you hold tight to a strength of yours, take a second to make fun of a weakness, remind yourself its there, that you have room for improvement, but remind yourself in such a way that you rob it of its power to hurt you.

The example I gave earlier, of the casting director that told me I was too ugly for the part - I've heard similar things since then.  Hollywood's a brutal business.  And it always stings a little bit, before rationality has a chance to take hold again.  But ultimately, I can say I don't really let stuff like that linger and bother me, because I know better.  I can remind myself I've heard enough responses to the contrary.  So that even if I can't factually, quantitatively say those casting directors are wrong, I can factually say that plenty of other CDs have a contrary opinion.  And when you can reaffirm yourself with FACTS - baby, you're golden.

But just so I never get too full of myself or just start listening to the people singing my praises versus the ones with some (potentially valid) criticism, I remind myself to take a little time to make fun of myself every now and again.  Like when I have a new headshots session, like I just did yesterday (whee!  new headshots are the actor's version of a brand new manuscript all ready to query - like, oh, hey, Dust to Dust ), I do my best work, and try and get the best possible shot to show myself off to casting directors and agents like this:

But before I start looking at my own headshot and thinking oh god yes, Kalen, you SEXY BEAST YOU, I make sure I have a shot or two in there like so:

Because its really hard to take yourself too seriously when you're giving the camera your best Blue Steel, Kalen, you GIANT FREAKING DORK.

And thus all is right with the world.

So let me hear your strengths!  I want self-validation people, and I want it NOW!  The next time you get a rejection on a query or a partial or a full, or a reader gives negative feedback or a publisher doesn't chomp at that submission quite like you hoped, what are you going to tell yourself?  Let's hear it!


  1. I love what you said about confidence and ego versus a thick skin. I think both are important--there's cruel if truthful feedback and then there's feedback that's just plain hateful trolling.

    Also, when I saw your headshot pic in my Reading List, my first thought was "GREASE LIGHTNING" LOL

  2. Right! All things in moderation, in essence.

    And haha, I know what you mean. I did like six looks in the session. A couple ended up going a little retro, lol.

  3. STUPENDOUS post, as always. LOL, Zoolander, you handsome beast you. And the second headshot is my fave! And GRRR on that director. You are so not ugly! I'd kinda like to slap him.

    Anyway, you're right. Vanity; it's always hanging around to bite us, even in writing.

    Yes, we have to believe in our work, especially when it seems like no one else does. But that doesn't mean we make our egoes so big that we don't have room left to HEAR constructive criticism.

  4. Oh, and here's my own caveat ... we hear the criticisms, but our gut tells us whether or not to listen. That's what we should listen to. GUT. Not ego. ;-)

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  6. Haha, thanks Anita. It was a female casting director, and while I appreciate slaps in my name, its all good. She was probably just havinbg a bad day and took it out on me. Its a stressful business and people venting on the undeserved is part of the package.

    And yeah its a fine line. And it does come down to trusting ourselves and our gut, doesn't it? If we're honest with ourselves, we can usually navigate pretty much any situation.

  7. BLUE STEEL! If that doesn't make an agent weak in the knees, they're not human!

    be honest with yourself, surround yourself with people you trust to be honest with you and not just say what you want to hear
    Yeah, that's the only way to do it. And sometimes they're gonna stay stuff you don't agree with, too. It's so hard to separate criticism that's useful from criticism that's in the "write your own book" category, but that's a really important skill, too, and in the confidence category.

    It's definitely a matter of PRETEND PRETEND PRETEND most of the time, I admit. But there's a reason actors make good writers. Going old school Stanislavski never hurt a writer--or pick your offshoot. But it sure as hell doesn't hurt at a conference, either.

  8. I think your blog is under-discovered. Great info here. I've popped over from your Secret Agent + the Show Me the Voice contest entries (and also your awesome crits of my 250 words (speaking of which, you were actually to first one to point out the repetition at the beginning was distracting, so thanks a bunch for that!))

    Anyway, I'll definitely be following your thoughts now :)

  9. Right Katey? And why go for an offshoot when you can go for Stanislavski - it always makes me so happy that you get when I divert into acting or dancing rambles. So excited your Philly trip seems to have gone so well, btw! I know its not how you originally planned it but seems to have worked out well all the same!

    Thanks hope, and nice to meet you! That's an awesome compliment, and your entry was great as well! I really enjoyed how different it was!

  10. Too right. I've often had occasion to thank my parents for bringing me up in a summerstock theater, that's for damn sure. Stanislavski! :D

    Philly did work out really well in the end. Yay!

  11. Wow and I thought some of the comments I've gotten in Fiction Workshop were bad.

    I'm glad to see that you haven't taken the casting directors words to heart.

    Although I'm still many months and drafts from the submitting process I just keep telling myself to be true to my characters and my story and it will find the right home. And I keep repeating that until the little inner critic inside of me that must be related to that casting director shuts up.