Writer’s Syndrome

I hope you all had a happy bunny day, as my professor used to say to us.

I went to a writer’s conference this weekend. It was a relatively small and cozy affair, with talks and project discussions and lots of people meeting friends they hadn’t seen since last year, and so on.

One distinguishing feature of this conference is the hollywood-esque ‘awards ceremony’ on the last day. Every participant has the option to submit work, and at the end some are shortlisted for a prize, like the Oscars, and the final choice is announced during the ceremony. Prizes include best presentation, best characters, best mechanic, and of course, best piece overall.

This ceremony is intended to inspire people to submit good work, and to encourage people with talent to aspire to even greater heights. Unfortunately, it seems that some people take things waaaay too seriously.

Let’s take the example of my friend Tyler. Tyler wrote something for this conference last year, which was received very well by its audiences and, though the judges didn’t quite know what to do with it, they gave him two awards. Good work, Tyler.

Only now, Tyler thinks he’s the god of Writing.

This year, Tyler wrote a gender-bending piece about love. It was nicely done, it had good mechanics, and in general it was well received. But Tyler didn’t care about this.

Tyler was incensed that it was nominated for only ONE award. And he figured it wouldn’t win. So what did he do? He left the conference early, went home, and wrote an angry blog post about how nobody appreciated him. Sounds like someone has a case of Writer’s Syndrome.

Writer’s Syndrome is a term I came up with a few years ago, after reflecting on some of my own writing behavior and observing disturbingly similar behavior in others. To use myself as a case study: back in high school, I was accepted into a very competitive writing program. I won one of 10 slots, beating 130 other applicants for my space. As it was proven to me that I was good enough to get this competitive slot, it became apparent to me that I was so good that I could dole out advice like some great, benevolent writing fairy and the advice that I so lovingly sprinkled over the work of others ought to be taken with gratitude, because I was so great, right?

Basically, I was told I had a small amount of talent, and I became an arrogant little —- about it. The reality of my ability – that I’m good, but nowhere near perfect, that I have some advice to give but also a lot to get – didn’t come until five years later, when I witnessed a rather harsh – and well deserved – takedown of a story I had submitted anonymously to the university magazine.

Writer’s Syndrome is something I have observed in a number of would-be writers, particularly those who have been told by a higher power that they are talented. Tyler is one good example. Another is a girl I knew during my undergraduate days. When she didn’t think something was well written and I disagreed, her reasoning was, “well, I’m a Creative Writing major.”

This is, I think, what makes it most important for us to have a pool of peers willing to critique us. Of course we need a bit of self confidence, and we deserve to be told when our writing is good. But we need the flip side as well. Some of the writers I know are the most arrogant people on the face of the earth. I used to be among them. I hope to maintain the part where I’m a writer. But I’m trying to ditch the arrogance post-haste. And of course, a lot of writers experience the opposite of Writer’s Syndrome – crippling self-doubt.

Do you guys have experience with arrogant writers? Or maybe just ideas for critiquing someone without making them blow their tops (ahem, Tyler)?

Sorry for the rant. What did you do with your bunny day?

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What are we entitled to?

I want to start off this post with a disclaimer: there are many, MANY reasons to choose self-publishing over industry publishing, and a lot of authors go to great lengths to make sure that a self-published product has been revised, edited, re-edited, and polished to present a professional work.

Unfortunately, self-publishing still has a strong stigma attached. At this point I have only published short stories and poems, and have done so in literary magazines and e-zines. I’m working on a number of novels and, when I have finally written one that is good enough to be seen by a wide audience, the time will come for me to decide whether I want to start sending letters to agents, or to hire an editor and try to self publish. And whenever I speak to other writers (also unpublished) about the possibility of self-publishing, they wrinkle their noses and their eyes dart nervously from side to side.

They all have different ways of expressing their opinions, but at the end it comes down to ‘well, people who self-publish are the people who can’t sell their novel to a publishing house.’

This is untrue and grossly unfair (see the disclaimer above). This label might apply to some people who, upon getting a couple of rejection slips, decided to skip the process and publish their novels themselves. But it will never apply to everyone, and in pondering a way to make self-publishing a bit more acceptable to the wider eye, I started wondering what would happen were some kind of standard imposed – some kind of proof of editing, of care prior to obtaining an ISBN.

Firstly, I don’t know how plausible that would be. Probably completely impossible to enforce.

Secondly, it led me to think: are people entitled to publish their books? Is it something we all deserve to do, whether we can write or not?

One could superficially argue that the publishing industry says No. But it has become evident recently that publishing houses have to balance their books and an editor is as likely to choose something that is good as he or she is to choose something that is a more probable bestseller. Thus we have genre ripoffs (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, you name it) as well as good, original work.

At this point, the setup of the self-publishing industry implies that yes, everyone is entitled to publish. While writers who are serious about the craft and concerned for their reputations will do everything possible to make sure that their books are well-crafted and indistinguishable in quality from traditionally published books, I could theoretically put all of my blog posts into one manuscript, sans editing, and turn it into a ‘book.’

I would argue that everyone is entitled to write, if they want. Just like I’m entitled to sing in the shower, and to buy a little canvas and a set of paint brushes. But to what extent are we entitled to publish? If there is no quality control on self-publishing, isn’t there a danger that readers will lose the ability to distinguish bad from good? Will we perpetuate a downward spiral? And worst of all, will we use generalization to blacken the names of people who don’t deserve it?

Thoughts are always welcome.