1. Stop comparing your achievements with others.There’s a popular quote floating around the interwebs, which maintains that “comparison is the thief of joy.” Some people think Theodore Roosevelt said this, while others attribute it to numerous different sources. Regardless of who said it first, it’s a worthwhile statement to ponder.
It’s all too easy in life to focus on what we have in comparison to what other people have, whether it’s money, fame, success, power (or in my case, stunning good looks and abs of steel). And it’s always pretty easy to find somebody who seems more fortunate than us. Having found that lucky bastard – er, I mean that more fortunate person – it’s easy to envy their success, and to bemoan our own lack of the same. And that just never leads to warm and fuzzy feelings.
Artists are among the most susceptible to this kind of thinking, and it can really work against us if we dwell on these comparisons too much. On one hand, it can make us doubt our own chances at success, eroding our confidence and planting the idea in our minds that we are NEVER going to make it – a prophecy that can quickly become self-fulfilling.
On the other hand, it can make us bitter and envious of others’ success, to the point where we disparage these people as simply being lucky, or talentless hacks who had some insider connection, or cheaters who somehow gamed the system, or any other number of ways to diminish their accomplishments and rationalize why they are further along in the publication journey than we are. We ask ourselves why did they get all the luck? How come their book sold and mine didn’t? How did they get invited to be a panelist at that cool literary conference, when nobody invited me?
Folks, try not to go down this path, because as my good buddy Billy Shakespeare once said, that way madness lies. Yes, it makes sense to pay attention to what’s going on in the marketplace, but if your happiness and self-worth is based on how many Amazon reviews you have in comparison to some other author, you’re always going to find a way to be disappointed.
When I was developing this post, I found a great observation on a site called TinyBuddha.com. While I’m not endorsing that site or any specific philosophy, I really liked the following passage I found in this blog post:
The thing about comparison is that there is never a win. How often do we compare ourselves with someone less fortunate than us and consider ourselves blessed? More often, we compare ourselves with someone who we perceive as being, having, or doing more.I think there’s a lot of truth in that observation. There’s also a whole apples-to-oranges thing that comes into play. Writing – and any art – is incredibly individualistic. Everybody comes from someplace different, and has their own set of gifts – and obstacles. All we can do is make the best of what we’ve got, and stop comparing our achievements so directly to those of others. After all, you can’t control how successful your book will be. All you can control is the actual writing. Which leads to my next resolution.
And this just leaves us coming up short.
2. Start comparing your abilities with others.I suspect this notion will not sit well with some of you. It’s quite popular – at least publicly – for writers to adopt a very democratic view of their literary colleagues: sort of an “all writers are created equal” philosophy. You see this in conventional publishing, when one writer’s work is rejected by an agent or editor, and his or her literary circle of friends immediately forms a sympathetic mob, condemning that poopy-headed agent or editor for not recognizing literary greatness. You also see this in self-publishing, where writers will vehemently defend the right of absolutely anyone to call themselves a writer and publish their own work, all while gleefully thumbing their noses at the “evil gatekeepers” who can no longer keep them down.
Look, I get that it’s nice to be supportive of other writers, and I’m a firm believer in the “writers helping writers” mindset. But to suggest that every writer out there is equally skilled or talented is something I just cannot buy. I mean, I think most of us can agree that good writing stands out when we read it. But what does it stand out from? Not-so-good writing. And I think it’s our responsibility to learn how to tell the difference.
What does good writing stand out from? Not-so-good writing.Is this subjective as hell? Absolutely. But deep inside, I think most of us can tell when another writer has us outgunned. I’m just suggesting that we should embrace the fact that some people write better than us, and then try to learn everything we can from those writers.
I’m also a professional drummer, and when I was starting out, I hungrily sought out drummers who were better than me, because they were the people I could learn the most from. That approach served me well, so I’ve adopted it as a writer as well. For me, the fastest way to improve my writing has been to identify who is doing it better than me, and then soak up as much knowledge as I can from studying their work.
To make this a more manageable task, I recommend focusing on the specific aspects of a writer’s work that appeal to you the most – the stuff that makes you slap your forehead and say, “Damn, I wish *I* had written that!” Maybe it’s their ability to write gripping action that gets your heart pounding, or incredibly compelling characters who become utterly real to you, or emotional scenes that bring you to tears, or hilarious plot twists that make you snort your coffee all over your Kindle. Pay close attention to the reactions they elicit in you as a reader, and then dig deep to figure out how they did it. And then…
3. Steal something.Continuing my tradition of using foggily attributed quotations, some famous artist (I’ve seen it ascribed to a range of people from T.S. Eliot to Stravinsky) once said, “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.”
“Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” ~ some famous art dude or dudetteSure, that’s pithy and clever-sounding, but what does it mean? Here’s my take: when you borrow, you’re using something that does not belong to you. When you steal, you take over ownership of the object (rightfully or not). Applying that metaphor to art, a borrowed idea might not ring true to your own artistic voice, but a stolen idea is something you have taken and made your own – ideally to the extent that it is no longer recognizable as the other artist’s idea.
As ironic as it seems, it’s the “making it your own” part that I believe makes this stealing justifiable, because you’re inspired by the work of another, and you’ve internalized the concept and done the work needed to make it fit into your own writing.
I hasten to add, I am NOT talking about plagiarism. Actually copying the prose of another writer is unconscionable, immoral, and just plain lazy. But taking a concept or technique you admire in another author’s work and applying it to your own can really help you step up your game.
For example, I’ve been studying the work of Jonathan Tropper, an author whose work I enjoy. Tropper is particularly good at creating big “cinematic” moments, something my own work could use an injection of far more frequently. And he’s willing to really milk those scenes, sometimes to the point where it can become an almost-too-perfect “Hollywood moment.” But then he redeems himself, by having the narrator or one of the other characters make some snide/self-aware observation about how Hollywood-like that moment seems. In doing so, Tropper beats us to the punch, negating any “oh, that’s too unbelievable and movie-like to be plausible” criticisms we readers might have – but he still gets away with inserting that Big Movie Moment. This is a brilliant technique, and I am SO going to steal it.
Another opportunity to steal is in taking a high-level story concept and recasting that story through a new lens. This is a time-honored tradition. Look at how many ways we’ve seen classic stories reimagined in other books and movies. Without these “thefts,” we would never have Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clueless, Apocalypse Now, Wicked, A Thousand Acres, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ulysses, West Side Story, Shakespeare in Love, and O Brother Where Art Thou? – not to mention all the Frankenstein and Dracula offshoots that are perpetually sprouting up.
4. Give something away.Okay, if you’re feeling guilty about the idea of stealing, here’s your chance to make up for it. How? Take something that has been of value to you as a writer, and give it to somebody else.
This might be a book on the craft that you’ve found particularly helpful, or simply a copy of a novel you love. Or you could dig even deeper, and give somebody your old Kindle, smartphone or tablet when you upgrade your own. Or you could simply share a piece of insight that has helped you as a writer – either one-on-one with another writer friend, or publicly through a blog, discussion forum, or other social media vehicle.
We are ALL capable of helping another writer in some way, regardless of how far along we are in our own writing journey.The bottom line is that we writers all need help in some form or another, and – this is something many people don’t seem to realize – we are ALL capable of helping another writer in some way, regardless of how far along we are in our own writing journey. We just need to look for that way, and then find the gifts we can give.