The Egoless Writer
In 1995, I started a career in IT at a very large company. I left in 1996, only to come back to the same company in 2000, and I’ve been there since. One of my coworkers had a document tacked up on his cubicle wall called The Ego-less Admin. It was a set guidelines of what someone in our line of work should consider whenever dealing with irate users.
I still have that document today. Every now and then I read it just to help stay focused. IT is still my day job, and while I would love to write full time, I am well aware and comfortable with the fact that it may not happen. But I also decided to try and help others learn to succeed at writing. I figure if I gave good advice or inspiration to the a future New York Times Bestseller, then I could die having made something of a mark upon the world (moreso if I helped make it a better place.)
With that I’ve adapted the rules for the Egoless Admin to reflect upon the craft of writing. You may agree or disagree — it doesn’t matter to me as long as you think about what’s said here.
The Egoless Writer
Writing! That strange craft that looks so easy and feels so hard when you actually sit down to do it. That first blank page scares the hell out of everyone of us from beginner to seasoned pro — there’s no shame in admitting such. People fear the unknown and that fresh page is precisely that.
Regardless, this essay is for anyone who writes and has reached that Fateful Decision:
Are you writing for yourself?
Are you also writing for an audience?
— and chose “B”. Not that there’s anything wrong with “A” — I think it’s safe to say we all started from there. And note that option “A” does not mean you exclusively. It includes friends, family, even fellow fans (if you write fan fic). You know these people — you love them and they love you, warts and all. If you go option “A” and you’re not violating someone else’s intellectual property, self publishing may very well be an option. And by that I mean Kinko’s or Lulu, not some predatory vanity press like Publish America (Check Preditors & Editors and you’ll see what I mean). If you’re just going to make copies of your work for a small number of people, do yourself a favor and make it cost effective. Cook books, memoirs, even chap books can fit into this category where it’s justifiable to self pub.
But in choosing the latter option, you’ve made a big step that may feel just as intimidating as the blank page. Now like the actor on stage with the bright lights in his eyes, you must face people you’ve never met before let alone know. They’re the readers, the real conspiracy behind a writer’s success or failure in the fiction business. Tracking a reader’s tastes and peeves is like nailing down an electron, but they all have one thing in common; they’ve read your work and have something to say about it.
Enter the Egoless Writer. The advice that follows, when mixed well with common sense, will help you endure those slings and arrows.
The Egoless Writer has five simple rules:
1. Remember, it’s not about you.
2. Shut up and listen.
3. Focus on action.
4. Get out of the way.
5. Always give them something to do.
We’ll take a look at these one at a time first.
Remember, it’s not about you.
In fact, it stopped being about you the moment you chose option B — writing for an audience. The people that make up your reading audience are going to encompass a very broad variety of tastes and interests, and to be honest not all of them will like your work. It’s important to remember that fact as well as recognize the difference between comments about your writing versus comments about you. The latter carries less validity as the personal distance between two people increases. An insult by an anonymous poster on a message board or a blog need never concern the writer. Likewise, form rejection letters does not mean the editor hates you. Your work simply failed to keep their attention.
Shut up and listen.
The object of a critique partner is to read your work as an editor. That means reading it to make sure your prose is effective and well crafted. It also means that in the process your partner will point out both strengths and weaknesses to your writing. Ideally this is the sort of critical eye an editor will use on your manuscript. And since you shouldn’t argue a rejection slip, you shouldn’t argue with your critique partner. Let your critique partners have their say before opening your mouth.
Focus on action.
Action drives the plot. It shapes the characters, sets the scene, and engages the senses. Something needs to happen, and it needs to happen in every scene and every chapter. Likewise, you need to do something. Write, read, critique, as long as you’re spending time being a writer and not just talking about writing. Whether you’re on your first novel or your fiftieth, an hour spent learning the craft is never wasted.
Get out of the way.
When your work is published and released to the reading public, the reaction will be a total crap shoot. Not everyone will like or appreciate it. Some people will see the story you wrote, while others will read between the lines and see some subtext you may or may not have intended. This is perfectly natural. Let them all have their say. The trolls and flamers of the readership will always show themselves for what they are without any help from you.
Give them something to do.
If your book stirs up conversations at the office water cooler or a message board, then you’ve already done this to a point. Whether it’s posting a silly statement on Twitter, a deeply thoughtful blog post, or a contest on your website, always do something that keeps your readers engaged. Attention spans in the Information Age can be fleeting and it’s more important than ever to keep in touch with your audience. Have fun with it, but be earnest in your activities and never try to appease anyone.
Now let’s look at how those rules work together.
It’s your story on the block at your local critique session. The first person to comment hammers on one particular scene in which you take pride. So does the second one. Then the third. You realize they’re not “getting it,” but you keep quiet (#2) because there’s something not coming across in the prose (#1). One person cites a writer you’ve never heard of, saying that she “does it better.” So you take a note to look up the writer’s work at the local bookstore and add the cited work to your “to-read” pile near — if not on — the top (#3).
After your latest release hits the shelves, you notice a comment on your message board where someone wonders if you have a negative opinion of something because of how you portray a character. You decide to stay out of it (#1) because you’re working on a project with a tight deadline (#4). However the heat around the post starts and battle lines begin being drawn between your fans and your detractors. Before things get out of hand you invite the original poster to elaborate. (#5) Poster does so, and you watch the ensuing discussion carefully (#2). Once you see where the offended reader is coming from, you post an acknowledgment (#3), citing any references you used in the writing process and offer they do the same. (#5) Discussion continues, but it’s clear some people are itching for a fight, forcing you to close the thread (#3) but not before you offer a few other works by colleagues that focus on a similar theme (#5).
In the end it’s best to remember that good manners cost nothing, and yield high returns. By keeping your ego in check, you’ll be able to present yourself to the reading audience as capable and eloquent, and someone to watch for on the shelves.