Monday, May 28, 2007

Author Egomaniacs: Do You See What I See?

Which authors do you think are egomaniacs? Any bestsellers you’ve got stashed on your shelves? Newer authors you think are already too big for their britches? Anyone spring to mind?

I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend, for a variety of reasons. One is the comment trail here. Another is a private communication. Then there was that email I referenced last post. And the final straw? The comment trail over at my friend Vincent’s blog.

We all know that the average person is prone to thinking the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. How many people do you know who could look you in the eye and say honestly - honestly - that they’re completely happy with their life and career right now? I bet not very many. I certainly don’t know many myself.

As writers, I think we live with the yo-yo of success and failure… or perhaps better put, the yo-yo of confidence and insecurity. I would wager a guess that less than 1% of the writers out there haven’t had a rejection letter at some time or another. We all know what it is not to be wanted.

But I do think it’s easy for us to think that the very successful, that authors like Ken Bruen, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride, Laura Lippman, Ian Rankin etc. never face insecurity. That they’re completely confident in their career and work and never have a moment’s doubt. Well, okay, it’s not so easy to believe that with Stuart. One needs only to have read his blog posts about Book The Fourth to know differently… And as someone said to me recently if ever Ian should have moments of doubt he only needs to read himself referred to as God* here to feel better, not like the “rest of us mere mortals.”

The thing is, I get people emailing and saying to me they’re nervous or embarrassed to ask me to read their stuff, and I find it rather heartbreaking. Why should anyone be nervous about asking me to read their work? Is it because they’re that insecure, or because they think I’m someone special? Because believe me, if it’s that latter, let me be the first to say that I have a lot to learn myself.

I do know there are some authors who are egotistical jerks, although I’ve encountered precious few. And to be honest, when I do encounter someone who is all “look at me, aren’t I hot shit?” I’m pretty much done with them.

I’ve never really been one to think that way. On a daily basis I doubt my ability to pull off the next book, to make the short story in progress come out just the way I want it to, that anyone will care about what I write, that I’ll find a new publisher. I read books by other people and they get me thinking about all sorts of important things – I’m one of those people who cherishes important books, far more interested in stuff with substance than fluff – and I feel this sense of failure. “I didn’t do that with my first book” or “I could never pull this off.”

I’m never one to rest on my laurels. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who thinks they’ve ‘arrived’ and ‘made it’ is kidding themselves. As one international best-selling, multi-award-winning author said, “You're only as good as your next book, not the book you wrote 20 years ago!"

I know some people might find this hard to believe, but there are a lot of successful authors who feel pretty isolated. The result of achieving some status is often alienation from within the community. People presume the ego into them. I’m terrible for this. I just assume people don’t want to hear from me. I tend to think so-and-so’s very important and I’m nobody so why would they talk to me?

And you know what sucks? I tend to think that even after I’ve met people.

I thought about it a while back, and started a thread about it on Crimespace, about why we don’t encourage each other more. I think some people are afraid showing any vulnerability at all will be interpreted as a sign of weakness, so they keep it bottled up, hidden away. The results? Others often don’t understand that they, too, are human and struggle with their own insecurities. And the author feels that sense of isolation more profoundly than ever and never really gets that reassurance.

Now, I’ve been aware of the ups and downs that come with being in this business and being in the public domain, to a certain degree, for a while. Yes, I’ve been trashed on forums and blogs. Yes, I’ve been trashed via email. There have been a good number of days that I’ve cried. And there are people I’ve never met that I never want to meet because they are malicious and mean, horrendous gossips and have hurt me deeply, despite the fact that I don't even know them. (This is part of the reason I tend to be defensive of friends under attack. In recent months when people have been piling on I've felt alone, and nobody likes to feel that way.)

If asked, I’d put myself on the insecure side of the fence. I think this is both a good and bad thing. The good thing about it is, because I am not so conceited as to think I’m God’s gift to the literary world, I’m always pushing to do better. I’m willing to learn. I dream more of having an editor that will believe in me and invest the effort in me through a few books to build my career than having a six-figure advance. And I know there are a lot of people who wouldn’t like that, who’d think I have it backwards: I don’t. There is nothing more important than the craft. The sales will be what the sales will be, and you’ll get it in an advance or on the back end as royalties, but no amount of money or promotion can change the reality of putting out a sub-par book. And that’s something I never want to do. I look back on my own early efforts (especially short stories – ugh) and my new policy is that I only want to have 2 or 3 stories published per year, and they have to match or exceed the quality of what I’m currently producing. I mean, if I place more, great, but I’m not pushing for that. The point is quality, not quantity.

I don’t really want people saying I’m the richest writer out there. I want people saying I’m a great writer.

And you know what? That’s something you’re always struggling for. Nobody “arrives” and then everything they do is perfection. Every single author I respect pushes themselves to always do better. Their focus is on the quality of the work instead of the sales.

And I would bet money that all those authors I respect have their dark days when they struggle with doubt and feel like the writing isn’t going as well as they’d like. I bet they all have days when they get horrid emails and letters that make them feel lousy. I bet they all have authors they look up to and respect and think they wish they could do what that person’s done with their work.

Wherever you are on your journey, you aren’t alone in how you feel. We all relate to that. The big problem is, most people just can’t, or won’t, admit it. I haven’t got much room in my life for people who’re pretty full of themselves. But I’ve always got time for anyone who needs a shoulder and someone to tell them to keep going.

Just remember when you look at someone who seems successful, who seems to have it all together, who appears to have everything you want, often all you’re seeing is the image. A lot of dark days and less than perfect moments go into every second of success.

(And if you’re linking to my blog, please drop me an email and let me know so that I get your blog added to my links. Yeah, I still haven’t finished updating them…)

* If I was Ian, I'd hate me for it.


Chris said...

Thanks for this post (I think). It's nice to realize the doubt is a common experience, even if the flip-side is it never goes away. Of course, I never much expected it would.

Oh, and I've added your blog to my links. That makes me sound like a reciprocation-seeking dork, though. Really, I'm just a world-class procrastinator, and you're always an engaging read -- a link here on my own page is quicker than waiting for Crimespot to pick up your post...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ha! You know what I was thinking Chris? It makes me seem like I'm seeking validation. Look, I extracted a compliment from you!

I've added you to the links. And yeah, there are mixed feelings about a post like this. I actually know that a lot of the successful authors I'm friends with have weak moments, but I'll leave it to them to tell their stories or not. If you're very lucky you get a few people behind you who believe in you and you can't quit because they'd come kick your ass. That helps you deal with the doubts. The threat of physical violence motivates me to get back to work.

That, and the love of writing that won't go away...

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Chris Holm is a mad scientist. Very dangerous. You've been warned.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Gee, now you tell me! I think I draw the line at hillbillies...

Chris said...

I'll have you know that in the circles I travel in, I'm a completely normal scientist.

Okay, that sounded like a stretch, even to me...

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Hey, hillbillies are people too. Sort of.

So, now that I've given Chris a hard time, I guess I'll talk about your post.

Over the years, I have met a few authors--mostly new ones--who had way more ego than talent. I think they're in the minority, though.

Most of the writers I know and hang out with are insecure about their careers. I sure as hell am. I'm constantly pushing myself to improve, and I don't know if I'll ever reach a point where I'm satisfied.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Chris, define normal. Then we'll talk. ;)

Patrick, I don't think we ever get to a point where we're happy. I think Evil Kev's basically reached the point where he doesn't hope I'll be happy, because that's impossible, but that I'll make some money, because that's actually attainable.

And it's really saying something if it's more likely that I'll make money than be happy with my writing!

PJ Parrish said...


As I sit here avoiding chapter 3 of the newest one (which will be book No. 9) I am fraught with the same demons I had with No. 1. The one thing experience has taught me is that I should embrace this. If I don't, I begin the death spiral toward complacency. How can you expect a reader to get excited about your book if you can't anymore? A little terror is good for the writer's soul.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"I should embrace this. If I don't, I begin the death spiral toward complacency. How can you expect a reader to get excited about your book if you can't anymore? A little terror is good for the writer's soul."

I love this perspective. Absolutely true. Okay... there is something disheartening about the fact that the fears never really go away, but there's also something so wonderful about knowing you aren't alone.

I think this is what I find most helpful about the blogs. They give you an ability to connect to others going through the same thing and get a bit of support.

And they're cheaper than therapy.

Sandra Ruttan said...

(And I'm printing out that comment and putting it above my computer.)

Eileen said...

Almost every writer I know is usually balancing between freaking out insecurity and liking their own work. Usually leaning towards freaking out.

John Irving is one of my favorite writers- I heard him speak last year and one of his quotes when asked what he reads he said something along the lines of "I don't read much because I find most of it isn't that good as compared to my own work." He did like Dickens. It was one of those comments that made me go- huh. Still love his writing.

John McF said...

Well, I just want to say, I'm pretty damned happy. My writing, though, only makes up a tiny part of that happiness. And I'm certainly on the freak out insecure side, when it comes to the writing.

But I did spend a long time on the fringes of the movie business and that really taught me the value of writing for yourself. In the movies, ten guys are going to want changes for reasons that have nothing to do with storytelling (usually budget, locations and casting). I used to make all those changes, it was part of the job.

When I quit that (and when people tried to encourage me, and get me to keep working at it, I had to tell them it was like heroin for me, don't give me more - this may be why I always hesitate to encourage writers, I've seen it make a lot of people miserable and not that many happy. But if you want encouragement, I'll be happy to give it) and started writing books I had to go in with the attitude that I'm only out to please myself. I really had to make an effort not to care about sales or publishing or anything. I still try not to know anything about the business end.

I used to feel that I had no business writing because I didn't read enough. I wasn't much of a reader as a kid and even today I'm very picky. Not as picky as John Irving, maybe, but picky. I start a lot of books but I don't finish that many anymore. I hope it doesn't come off as ego, but in any business where rejections outnumber acceptances about a hundred to one (a thousand to one? I used to wallpaper with rejection letters), you need a pretty strong ego (or belief in yourself) to keep going and not start compromising all over the place. Because what's the point of just writing more books like others that have already been written?

John McF

Sandra Ruttan said...

Eileen, I just can't relate to someone with that amount of ego! And I think it would kick in this instinct in me to pull his work apart. That's part of why I feel the double-edged sword about reviewing. I know it can always come back on me, so I'm very cautious about backing up criticisms and trying not to make it personal.

Truth is, there isn't a single author who's stuff I've read who didn't make a mistake. And I've made my share, so I feel it when I'm pointing out the weaknesses of others. I've heard of a few people like Irving, but I tend to avoid their work once I've heard that.

John, ultimately we do write to please ourselves, but there is still a hell of a lot to learn, and often we need external critique in order to see how we can improve our work. Otherwise, none of us would need editors.

But if it takes a strong ego to keep going in this business I should quit now. I don't have that. I am realistic about my capabilities to a point, and yes I've picked up books where I've said, "I write better than this." But that doesn't mean I'll get published. Quality is no guarantee of that, and a big part of author growth is being able to listen to reader criticisms and review criticisms and to assess them, take what's fair, discard what isn't. I could say I'm happy with SC as my debut novel. But if my third book is on the same level as SC then I will not be happy with myself, and I expect with each one to look back and see things I could improve. If I can't, then it's time to quit, because I've already written the perfect novel and there's nothing left to strive for.

Anonymous said...

good work keep it up...

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pattinase (abbott) said...

Writing makes me happy. It's not until I face trying to get it in print that I feel sad. And that was more with the lit stuff than the crime stuff. That was when the doubt kicked in big time.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, that's exactly the point I'm talking about Patti. Of course, when you're writing with a book deal, it does change that dynamic, because you know it will go in front of an audience.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Reading from published authors that it doesn't get any easier is the best gift you can bestow on all of us would be novelists.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Amra, sometimes it doesn't feel like a gift...

But it does let you know you aren't alone.