and the Everyday Writer
(with apologies to
Holly Lisle for the title)
Ego is a bad thing for a writer. It can be the single biggest stumbling block between him and
publication, because it won't even let him get to the point where his only
obstacle is the perversity of the market.
With ego as his shield, a writer defends himself from all manner of
He doesn't need to spell correctly or get his grammar
straight; he's a Writer, and above such petty concerns.
Anyone who dares criticize some aspect of his Glorious Work is not to
be listened to, because such a critic is obviously a philistine who failed to
understand the greatness of his Art. Revision
is not even in his vocabulary. He
treats any advice about the business end of writing similarly; he need not
worry about the niceties of formatting, or the reasons against simultaneous
submissions, because surely the world is just panting to read his tales. Any
editor with two brain cells must, of course, recognize that fact and fall down
at his feet, contract in hand.
Motto: ego is evil. Ego
will get you in trouble. If you
have ego, you won't try to make your writing better, because you'll believe
it's already perfect.
Consider for a moment one of the commonly-repeated bits of
sage wisdom in the writing world. It
goes like this: "If you want to be a writer, you've got to have a thick
skin." Thick skin is your
only defense against the steady stream of form letters you're likely to
encounter before an editor or agent shows interest in your work -- or worse,
the nasty letters that imply the editor's four-year-old son writes better than
you. Once you're published, thick
skin will keep you safe from the critics who just don't like your work, and
the readers who have an even lower opinion of it .
It's quite a valuable asset to have.
But where exactly is this thick skin supposed to come from?
Nobody ever seems to mention that when they trot out the old adage.
Are you just not supposed to care?
I find that one doubtful. If
you care about your writing, you'll care what people say about it. Shrugging negative feedback off without getting jaded is
I propose that your ally in building up that thick skin is
the very enemy you're supposed to shun like the plague: ego.
Take, for example, S. L. Viehl's response to every rejection
letter she received: "HEY, YOUR LOSS!" That, right there, is ego talking. It's the writer saying that the editor is wrong, and will
live to regret it.
Such a response need not be reasonable. In
fact, when faced with your third (or forty-ninth, or hundred and twelfth)
rejection letter, sometimes it's better not to be reasonable.
However, when you sit down to write again, or to revise -- that's the
time to lock the ego away in a box and work on Making It Better.
But when you're reading the bland, impersonal words of somebody who,
you're convinced, didn't even take your manuscript out of the envelope before
rejecting it, reason takes a back seat. Indulge
in some flights of fantasy. One
day, years from now (or maybe sooner than that), when all of your seventy-two
novels have been made into blockbuster movies, and they devote a whole section
of the bookstore to your work, and college students get degrees for writing
papers about the richness of your writing, that editor is going to cry himself
to sleep every night knowing that he could have been the one to discover
your genius, had he only bothered to actually read your submission.
But it makes a good Band-Aid.
"But," you say, "my writing isn't that good.
And I know it."
That's fine. I
already said this kind of response is only loosely grounded in reality.
But odds are, no matter how much you're aware of the flaws in your
manuscript, there is something in your writing that you like.
You may not be able to consciously point to the part you think is good,
but it's there. And that is one of
the ways in which ego is your friend.
The balancing act of ego and reality is a very complicated
one. You have to be arrogant enough
to think that your ideas are so good somebody's going to want to read them; that
gets you started. Then, as you
write, your confidence has to fade just a tad, so you don't spew out words
without thinking about them; for many writers, the best bits of story seem to
flower when you have to struggle for them.
Then, when it's done, your ego has to jump back into the fray to remind
you that yes, the idea is worth revising; you shouldn't just chuck it in the
Then, when the revision actually begins, the ego needs
to be reined in once more, so you actually find and fix your flaws.
Only let the ego out when your enthusiasm for the task begins to flag.
He can come out and fight a couple battles with the demons of doubt once
the story is sent, but you want him in perfect health when that letter comes
back. If it's a positive response,
the two of you can throw a little party, where he'll continually brag that he
was right all along. If it's a
rejection, he'll come to your defense, shaking his fist in the direction of New
York City and denouncing the stupidity of editors.
Your ego isn't your enemy, but neither is he a close friend.
He's sort of like the internal editor that way.
He can support you when the going gets tough, but he tends to think that
the path should always be easy, and that it's everyone else's fault if it
isn't. Learn when to listen to him,
though, and when to stick him in a box, and he'll get you through the tough