Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Perils of Overconfidence

As anyone who has watched a reality television show knows, there is one sure-fire no-doubt-about-it way to tell if someone is going to get voted off the island or "auf"ed by Heidi Klum: overconfidence. When a reality tv, uh, person looks the camera in the eye, talks about how great they are and how confident they are in their alliance, before you can say Jeff Probst, poof, they've been blindsided and voted off the island. Works like a charm.

Just. Like. Writing.

Let me first start in opposite land and stress how important confidence is to a writer. Every writer, from the rankest amateur to biggest bestseller, experiences the type of rejection that would make Vlad the Impaler tear up and beg for mercy. Writers sometimes don't even have the confidence of their friends and family, it's hard work, and it takes some series intestinal fortitude to stick with it and keep on writing (that or alcohol).

Confidence = good. Confidence = important. (I heart word math)

But in my line of work I'm in contact with quite a few aspiring and unpublished writers whose confidence... well, let's just say their confidence in their writing sometimes exceeds their ability. Here's a general rule I've discovered among the unpublished: the people who are most unwilling to heed sound constructive criticism and the ones who most need to heed said constructive criticism are the ones who are most convinced of their own genius.

There's good reason for this rule to apply -- one of the absolute most important attributes of any successful writer is the ability to scrutinize their own work in order to improve it and make it better. The minute a writer starts thinking what they write is genius is the moment they stop scrutinizing their work for places where it can be improved upon, changed, or, most importantly of all, removed. A healthy skepticism is an essential tool in a writer's arsenal. Also bourbon.

So let's all learn a lesson from the hilariously inept Four Horseman alliance from this season of Survivor, who were stunned to find out that their genius plans were foiled by a formerly homeless guy named Dreamz. Overconfidence will not only get you voted off the island by someone who pluralizes his own nickname with a "z," it might just interfere with your writing as well.


Dot said...

Yes. I think lots of writers haven't learned yet that writing = revision.

But I'm all for adopting Jeffrey Sebelia-sized attitude during the submissions process.

Dan Leo said...

I'm reminded of a scene from Richard Seaver's intro to his Samuel Beckett anthology " I Can't Go on, I'll Go On".

Seaver was working with Beckett on a translation into Englsih of a work Beckett had originally written in French, and, responding to a slough of despair into which Beckett had descended concerning the project (he was middle-aged, barely-published and little-known at the time), Seaver blurted out in youthful enthusuasm that Mr. Beckett was "a thousand times more important than...than...Albert Camus for example!"

"'You don't know what you're saying, Dick,' he shook his head sadly. 'No one's interested in this...this rubbish.'"

Well, Beckett went on, even though he couldn't go on, and eventually he won the Nobel Prize.

john levitt said...

From Nathan:

"The minute a writer starts thinking what they write is genius is the moment they stop scrutinizing their work for places where it can be improved upon, changed, or, most importantly of all, removed."

A corollary if this is the writer who becomes so powerful and successful that he/she no longer accepts editing from anyone.

Anne Rice and Laurel K Hamilton spring to mind (though I'm not positive about Hamilton) The result, predictably, is that their work goes downhill, sometimes at breakneck speed.

Not to mention George Lucas. He's notorious for his inability to accept anyone's input or suggestions. Greatly talented, he still needs the equivalent of editing. The result? After making three iconic films, and having the opportunity to do absolutely anything, he came up with three more mediocre ones. It's not like there weren't people working on the films who didn't see the problems -- he was just so convinced of his own genius and judgment that he wouldn't listen to anyone.

Jillian said...

I can't relate to your TV analogies, since I don't watch TV (gasp!), but I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of overconfidence in writers.

The best thing that ever happened to my writing was a swift and painful kick in the patootie by Miss Snark. Mine was the first Crapometer entry she ever ripped apart, and oh, it was well deserved.

Mind you, at the time I felt a bit...miffed. How DARE she misunderstand what I was trying to accomplish in my Beautifully Written First Page?

Fortunately, humility and reality kicked in, and my writing has never been the same (this is a good thing). She will be listed among the most valuable contributions to my Success Path.

I like the way you write "ouchie" things in such a way that it's almost impossible to offend your readers. Then again, I don't take offense easily.

Good post, Mr. Bransford.

Christopher M. Park said...

I definitely agree. I actually wrote a blog post on this a couple of months ago, though I approached it somewhat differently. For instance, I don't heart reality TV (sorry). But you bring up a lot of excellent points here.


Nathan Bransford said...


You said it very well in that post!

Christopher M. Park said...

Thanks Nathan!

Annalee said...

I was in a workshop class once back at my old school where one of the students wrote horrid Mary-Sues and yelled at anyone who offered any criticism (including 'the newspaper headline you quote appeared in The New York Times, not The Washington Post'). She and the prof went way back, though, so he'd never back anyone up. Oh, the memories...

But hey, being a total overconfident pain in the ass worked for Wendy on the first season of Project Runway, didn't it? She made it all the way to the final three before she got aufed. Maybe the overconfident writers you're dealing with are hoping that the submission process is secretly televised.

Dave said...

I've worked on technical publications (Scientific research) and the critics are many and unmerciful. You have to remember that the comments can make it better.

Sara said...

I think all writers should start off as beat reporters on the city desk of a daily newspaper. Getting your work ripped apart by a cranky editor every evening will disabuse a person of any illusions he or she may have had about his or her writing genius. You come out of newspapers, and it's hard to find someone who will be hard enough on your WIP. When you finally find the person willing to rip your manuscript to shreds so that you can re-write it into something better (and your manuscript can always be better), you will make that person your very best friend.

David L. McAfee said...

As much as I loved this entire post, I have to say it doesn't apply to me.

No, really.

I really am a genius. Honest.



Ah, long as I'm admittin' stuff, the bourbon applies to me, too. Now...where did I leave my Jim Beam, anyway?

Mary Paddock said...

For about six years, I "hung out" at a serious no-holds barred online poetry workshop (though I'm hardly a natural poet). If I was in love with the sound of my own "voice" before I posted my first work for critique, it didn't last long. There's a lot to be said for having an ego-ectomy early on in the game. After some of the crits I received there, a form letter rejecting my work wasn't that big a deal and only served to make me work harder.

I wish this experience on all beginning writers.

Michele Lee said...

A word of caution- remember the source. Some people really are trying to help you. Some people aren't. I was part of an online crit group that would tear everything I wrote apart... unless I wrote "this has already been published and I'm just cleaning it up to look for reprints" in the submission.

People who make it a point to tear you down because "You are too big" or who personally attack you as well as tear apart your stories, well, don't put too much stock in all the opinions.

But for godssake don't let your mess go out without at least one other read from someone who is not you.

Bernita said...

It's alright to think you're "good" ( you need something to keep you going)) - but not to think you're "great" ( as in meglomania.)

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I just picked up a recent release of Ender's Game and in the introduction Card mentions the "internal contradictions and stylistic excessess that have bothered me since the novel first appeared". I laughed out loud because I knew exactly what he meant--in reference to my earlier work (and some of my current work as well).

Really, there's nothing like a well-meaning group of critiquers/friends who tear your work apart once a fortnight or so.

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