Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Writer's Mantra - Shut Up and Listen Carefully

The one question that I've been asked several times lately is a very familiar one. It's the old "What's the best piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers?" It's weird for me to even consider answering this question. I mean I just got a publishing deal. I'm not even a published author yet. Who am I to give advice?

You know who I am? I'm you, with a different set of circumstances. Maybe with better timing or more determination or a timely idea or better smelling shampoo, etc. Whatever it is, my point is I'm no different than you. I'm you just a little ahead of where you can be in your writing career. I'm your future you. So what would I, as your future you, say to you about obtaining your future goals? I say "Shut up and listen carefully" should be your new mantra.

Before you get offended or confused, let me explain. Writers can be very opinionated and defensive and yet at the same time really insecure and paranoid. This comes out in how you interact with other people, how you talk, how you act, and even how you write. In order to become a better writer, I had to tell myself to shut up already and start listening carefully to what's really being said.

How do you listen carefully? First, you have to take ego out of the equation. All the ego - not just the "I'm the best writer in the world" ego, but the "I suck and can't even write 'how to' manuals for a can opener" ego. This is the hard part, but it's doable. You gotta tell your ego and your critic to shut up and then you have to listen.

For example, earlier in my agent querying period I received a rejection from an agent that said my ms wasn't submission ready and not of the caliber of writing she accepted. My initial reaction was anger and defensiveness. Who the hell did she think she was? For someone who had gotten so used to rejection, this one stung my pride quite a lot. I was furious. But after I calmed down, I thought about her words and I looked for the kernel of truth that I sensed in my gut was there. I told my egotistical self to shut up and I listened to my gut who told me to take another objective look. When I did, I was chagrined to find that I had been a bit sloppy. A few spelling errors and even a repetitive paragraph in the first ten pages. She was right. I wasn't submission ready. In this new publishing era where editors look for the most polished manuscripts, I had more work to do.

It is inevitable that most of us are our own worst critics. It's just as important to tell your critic to shut up. You know the one that sounds like Joan Rivers and says you suck and you're ugly. That guy. You need to punch that guy in the face and tell him to shut up. Listen to your gut not your critic. Your gut wants to help you succeed. Your critic wants to make you stab yourself in the eye with a spoon. So who do you really want to listen to?

Listening carefully also means to weed out the negativity. To weed out the naysayers. The people who just want to bring you down (whether on purpose or unconsciously) and say things that undermine your confidence. Listening carefully means recognizing truth from untruths. Not easy to do when your inner critic is bitching at you about how badly you stink. He helps all that negativity take root and you begin to second guess yourself. He needs an ass whooping. And you need to listen carefully. When you take your ego and your critic out of the equation, then a negative criticism becomes easier to analyze. It's easier to consider whether it really has merit or if it's just trash talk.

One naysayer told me that my first book (which I shelved) was "too oriental for western sensibilities." After I kicked in his teeth (in my head), I listened carefully to what that criticism was really about. In my first book, I had some difficult Korean names. The kind that make you scratch your head wondering how to even attempt pronouncing them. Fair enough, I thought. I never did like the fact that I had no idea how to pronounce all the Elvish names in Lord of the Rings. I kept that in mind when I wrote Prophecy. Now I have names in my book that are easier to pronounce. Did I sell myself out to do that? Absolutely not. I listened carefully. I disregarded the inherent racism in the implied criticism and instead focused on how to address it.

As a writer, there will be many times when your ego and your critic will get in the way of your writing. Don't let them control you. Don't let them block your forward progress. Tell them to shut up so you can listen carefully. Only then can you find the truths that will work best for you.


Lisa Aldin said...

Terrific post! I agree. It can be so difficult to look at things objectively. And I love that you addressed both egos -- the good and the bad. Both are blinding.

Anonymous said...

Oh I so needed this today. That annoying guy is screaming at me today and stupid me has been listening. Argh. Thanks for helping me shut him up. :) Wonderful insights!

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

This is such a terrific and important post. Thanks for sharing. All writers should follow this sage advice.


Unknown said...

I love how you differentiate between our gut and our inner critics--it's so true that one wants to knock us down and one wants us to succeed. Even more reason to shut up and listen.

jjdebenedictis said...

Personally, I need to stop listening to the inner voice saying, "Oh, this page isn't going smoothly? You should yoink around on Twitter."

Thanks for this great post!

Kimbra Kasch said...

Love those lessons - especially kicking his teeth in (in my head) ;)

KristywithaK said...

Great advice! In Nancy Lamb's how-to book 'The Art & Craft of Storytelling' she has written an entire chapter called 'Enter the Bitch'. She addresses that voice (the Bitch) that tells us we have no business writing anything. We are in control of our negative voices and it's up to us if we choose to listen to them or not.

out of the wordwork said...

Terrific post, Ellen. Especially about that inner annoying naysayer guy (or gal) inside you. Gut is good. Critic bad. Rinse. Repeat.

Anonymous said...

Great advice! Knowing what is needed and putting it into practice isn't always easy but you make it sound possible.

BTW, congrats on the publishing deal. :)

Carol Garvin

Whirlochre said...

Maybe the trick is to let the ego and the critic get laid.

Assuming the ego could stomach the critic and the critic could accept the ego.

It's a literary mutant love-child scenario.

Meanwhile, demons, like fancies, must be biddable.

Amy said...

This is great advice! I will definitely keep this in mind the next time the naysayer pops into my head. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I like the part when you kicked in his teeth in your head. Good visual.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

THank you everyone! I really appreciate all the comments! This is something that I had to do regularly to myself. I was like a crazy person battling my ego and my critic. But it's gotten easier to do now. And the trick is to remind myself to always keep an open mind.

And Whirl - you kill me. Always do!!

Charles Gramlich said...

You're right. Listening truly to feedback is hard to do, but absolutely necessary. Although at times too you have to say no to the advice coming in. It's a touch road to follow.

Kelly Polark said...

Great post, Ellen! It's hard to take criticism, but we need to take what is said and learn in our own way how to make our writing better.
I'm so happy for your success!

Lisa L. Leibow said...

Great advice. Only, one comment in your introduction is really getting to me. My shampoo smells every bit as good as yours! ... oops, I'll make the defensive me shut up and follow your valuable advice.

All kidding aside. The attitude you encourage here is what helps make success.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the wonderful advice! I especially liked the part about modifying character names. It's a great example of finding the "truth" in even the most frustrating feedback.

Share Time: I met an agent and was telling her about my novel and her eyes lit up when I told her it was about AWESOME IDEA. Afterward I realized the novel really only skirted around AWESOME IDEA instead of facing it head on. Cue revisions. Again.

Richard Levangie said...

Words to live by.

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