Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday Cheer: The Perils of Overconfidence

I am currently on blog holiday, and am re-posting some refreshing concoctions from Christmases past.

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But in my line of work I'm in contact with quite a few aspiring and unpublished writers whose confidence...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 Here's a general rule I've discovered among the unpublished: the people who are most unwilling to heed sound constructive criticism and the ones who most need to heed said constructive criticism are the ones who are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.



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Gottawrite Girl said...

I am coming out of blogiday myself... all that red meat musta really slowed me down more than I thought!

Happy holidays...


Lady Glamis said...

Overconfidence. Yes. *backs away from ideas of genius*

I'm not a genius.

Have you found, Nathan, that an author's confidence level goes too sky-high when they get published?

Stephanie said...

I've known the type. I'll also add that these are the people who will talk for HOURS about their latest novel, never noticing everyone else is bored to tears. They are, sad to say, more often "talkers" and not "writers." They write merely for the thrill of having something to brag to everyone about. "Look at me. I wrote a novel."

DaniC said...

:) so true.

This is a great site. Guess you've snagged another Follower! :D

Happy Holidays!

Anonymous said...

Lady Glamis,

I've seen confidence levels go beyond sky-high just because somebody landed an agent, never mind a publishing deal. It's not the puffing-up that's so disconcerting as the puffee's attitude that everyone else is cwap.

What's that proverb about pride coming before a fall?

Zoe Winters said...

LMAO! This post was well worth reposting. I totally agree with the "pluralizing one's name with a 'z'" concept.

And I love that you use the phrase "I heart..."

Dara said...

I have met a few writers like that.

My issue had been quite the opposite--a lack of confidence, so much so I wouldn't let anyone--not even my own family--read what I wrote because I thought it to be so poorly written that I couldn't bear to show anyone.

I've since passed that and found that I didn't give myself enough credit. I'm certainly not a "genius" writer in the slightest--there's a lot I have to learn--but at least I have a slight bit more confidence than I once had and know that I can write better than I always thought. :)

Anonymous said...


If these are posts from Christmases past, why are they dated October, May and February? ;)

Julie said...

A quote that I think goes along with your post:

Writers have to simultaneously believe the following two things:
1) The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.
2) The story I am now working on is worthless drivel.

Of course, believing two contradictory facts at the same time is sometimes referred to as madness – but that, too, can be an asset to a writer.

~Orson Scott Card

BarbS. said...

Sometimes I think writing fiction is not unlike writing a dissertation. You've got all the pieces to your argument assembled, but you hit the point where you go, "Ewwww, this is sooooo not worth it." Drivel? Absolutely. I mean, when it comes to fiction writing, what's so important about figments of the imagination?

Thank goodness this wasn't a post about romance writing! Wordver is loubewed.

Steve Fuller said...

Luckily, I think everything I write is crap. :-)

Madison said...

I try to read my work through naked eyes so that I can find all the mistakes I can. Of course I still miss some and that's why I let my friends read my work, because they aren't afraid to tell me when something is crap! :D

Ulysses said...

I am a genius. I've got the IQ test scores to prove it. HOWEVER, I still worry about losing my job, wonder whether I've made the right mortgage decisions, worry about what kind of home my children will eventually place me in... and all the other stuff that goes with being a decadent Westerner in the new millenium.

Being a genius hasn't actually helped me much. I like to think I recognize my own faults when they're pointed out to me, but then everyone thinks that. In my experience, hard work will get you farther than either excess intelligence or talent alone.

Ego, however... I believe art is a supreme act of ego. Not only must you believe you have something worth writing, you must believe it's worth reading, and that no one on the planet can present it to the reader better than you. I think that kind of ego is essential. The kind of ego which says, "I'm so good, no one can help me improve," is the kind I hope I avoid.

Feel free to disagree. I'm feeling a bit full of myself (and turkey) at the moment, and deserve to be taken down a peg or two.

Trakena Prevost said...

I spend half of my time thinking my novel is complete crap, and the other half flying from excitement. I think any writer goes through both phases many times while writing.

Leis said...

99% of what I write is cwap. The rest is pure genius. More champagne, anyone?

Scott said...

I bet Dreamz listens to Wu-Tang Clan.

As the front man in a band, I understand that I operate under a certain level of arrogance that others, perhaps, do not. I think it's what I tap into when I begin a novel or a screenplay; I know it's good, and can't afford to think otherwise. But once I'm in, I'm self-correcting the entire ride, and the applause at the end is an imagined thing out of an indifferent ether.

Landing an agent that shared my self-belief would be fantastic. However, it would only mean one other person telling me to keep earning it or be prepared to duck lots of tomatoes.

A Paperback Writer said...

You know, it's not just writers and reality show folks who do this. I've spent years and years doing folkdancing, community theatre, and other live, amateur performing. It's a lot of fun, and there are often lots of talented folks doing it.
But it's almost a given that those performers who brag the most about their own talents are the ones who are mediocre on a good day.
I remember one guy who was trying out for a dance company to which I belonged at the time. The director corrected him on a style issue, and the guy threw a fit, screamed that he was "damn good dancer," and left. We never saw him again. And the rest of us laughed about him for years. In fact, whenever someone screwed up in rehearsal, one of us was sure to say, "You're a damn good dancer, but ---" and get a laugh before we fixed whatever had gone wrong.
I try to keep that attitude about my writing. I may very well be "a damn good writer," but if I throw a tantrum over something small, no one is going to take me seriously.

anotheranon said...

I so agree with Anon 9:34 -- someone gets an agent or a (very mediocre) book deal and suddenly they are an expert on everything. And what's more horrifying is that they truly think they've written the Great American Novel. (if only, huh? I'd like to as well, believe me.)

It makes me sad for them when their release date rolls around and, because their book is not a lead title, or maybe because it's a paperback, or maybe because bookstores themselves are going under, they aren't stocked (at all) at Barnes and Noble or Borders. This has happened, and I am nothing but pained for them. Because I wouldn't want that to happen to me, or any writer, really.

ut I always wonder if they regret all the hoopla that they've spewed all over a blog or pub site?

Beth said...

"...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."

Also true of contestants on American Idol. I'm just saying.

Lea Schizas - Author/Editor said...

Being objective where your work is concerned is a must, especially when you have critique partners or an editor helping finetune your manuscript.

Knowing how to market your book is one area that many have no clue what to do. They wait until it's been contracted to begin the buzz.

My only problem area is how to make the query interesting enough to get an agent to read my stuff. However, quitting is not my middle name. I'm perfecting.

Simon Haynes said...

"Have you found, Nathan, that an author's confidence level goes too sky-high when they get published?"

I'm not Nathan, but I can assure you mine didn't. I just started worrying about a new set of problems.

Sarah Jensen said...

I know these people exist, but most of the writers I've come across are the opposite. They are brilliant, but don't realize it. Maybe the over confident could lend some of their ego to the less confident, and even things out a little. :)

Sarah said...

I think you need confidence to keep writing and humility to keep revising.

I don't know about anyone else, but the most obnoxiously confident writers I've run in to aren't even writers.

They are individuals with an Idea, and all they have to do is write it. Writing won't be much trouble at all because the Idea is the hard part.


Anonymous said...

Confidence means knowing when something's not working and needing/wanting/willing to put it right. What's awful is when you see something that you think the betas missed, and you can't figure out how to work out of it.

For example: I'm wrestling with a middle section of my own book--though the book is finished! Betas are good, but I still need that expert MENTOR to point me in the right direction.

Anonymous said...


Darnit! Saw your post AFTER I commented.

I think it's all about the craft: making sure you're saying what needs to be said not only to advance the plot, but for emotional effect, and to keep the reader turning pages.

emmadarwin said...

Yes, any slush-pile reader or writing tutor knows that the truly bad writers are the ones who least know it. Not so long ago (sorry, can't find the link, will post it if I do) I read a study of a sample of students doing a bunch of tasks. Roughly speaking the students who were bad at the tasks consistently thought they'd done pretty well, and also thought that they were among the best of the group. The best students knew they'd done well, but usually thought they were lower in the group than they actually were.

What's really interesting is that when half the students were taught how to do the tasks better everyone - bad and good - got better not only at the tasks, but at knowing how well (or badly) they were doing them, and how good they were (or weren't) relative to everyone else. The competent got a stronger sense of just how much they could do: secure in their skills, until then they'd had little idea of just how useless it was possible to be. The incompetent at last knew enough of the subject to realise just how much they couldn't do, and how much they had yet to learn. And the control group of students who weren't taught to do the tasks better stayed much as they were.

Moral: one of the first things people who want to be writers must learn, after the first, careless rapture of pouring words onto a page, is how bad they are and what good writing really is. Moral for teachers/fellow-writers and the like, is how to help these writers to and through realising how bad they are, towards being better.

Roland said...

If you're short on bourbon, try acid (about 4 gel tabs). It'll shatter that pesky overconfidence into little mirrors of terror AND make your writing incomprehensibly brilliant. Though now it's on your ceiling.

Writing Failure said...

Whenever I'm feeling overconfident, I try to get a call into my critically abusive mother.


Melinda Szymanik said...

The more confident the person, the more resistant they are to any advice. But alas what to do when you cannot seem to hoist your own confidence out of the basement. This current publishing climate does not help. I'm trying to stay confident after having two books come out in 2008 but the realities of the economy and publishing in general are doing their best to grind it out of me. I'm hoping for better things in 2009.

JohnOBX said...

As me dear old dad hammered into me:

"If you think you're green, you'll ripen. If you think you're ripe, you'll rot."

They are words I live by and write by.


Have you ever wondered... said...

beautiful advice... well stated. confidence is a very thin line to balance upon.

btw happy new year!


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