Only for Humble Narcissists

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I swapped manuscripts with a few other writers last Saturday. This week I read the first of their novels, and it was slow at first, but once I got to about chapter 10, I was hooked and stayed up late reading it. Since the point of swapping is to give each other feedback, it worked out well that I could tell her I love the story but also have plenty of suggestions about tightening those first ten chapters.

I should have gone straight to the second manuscript, but I’ve still got a week left, and — what can I say? — I suddenly wanted to go back to my own manuscript (Wendy and the Lost Boys) and see how it held up.

  • Did I have the same problem with a slow start?
  • Were there inconsistencies I had missed?
  • Would someone stay up late reading mine?

Writing is such a funny mix of arrogance and insecurity. I mean, even my students, when I told them they’d be creating a blog and website this semester, said they thought blogs were only for narcissists. And I guess there’s some truth to that. You do have to be a little arrogant (in a good way?) to think that people would want to hear what you have to say. But obviously the world would be a pretty quiet place if nobody said anything.

And at the same time, of course, whenever we say something we worry that it will sound dumb, or just not as good as someone else could have said it.

The arrogance goes deeper for people who are or want to be professional writers. As I read back through my manuscript last night, it was a sort of narcissistic experience. I’m so happy with how it’s shaping up, how much better it is than the first draft was, how clever some of the dialogue turned out, how perfect a few of the descriptions are, how fun some of the scenes are to read. I glowed with pride over all that stuff, thinking, “My group is going to love this!”

But my insecurities are just as potent. I found three typos and three or four obvious inconsistencies, and I cringed every time — and those are just the tiniest bits. Too often I end up thinking that the entire premise of the novel is flawed, and that I’ve wasted all these months (maybe over a year, by now) on something that is ultimately dumb.

I have to remind myself, as I think most writers do, that I’m contributing. I remind myself of all the books I’ve read and loved over the years and how sad it would be if some of those authors had been too scared to publish. Again, it’s arrogant to believe I could write something on par with the great things I’ve read, but it still goes back to the fact that there wouldn’t be any more to read if some people didn’t take the leap.

Why me? Well, because I’m arrogant enough to think I can do it, and humble enough that I’m willing to ask for feedback to make it better.

In my experience at writing conferences, etc, the humility is definitely the necessary factor for balancing out the arrogance. You have to be willing to swallow your pride and hear all the faults in your writing — whether the first ten chapters need to be tightened or the entire thing — and you actually have to get into the crazy mindset where you’re excited to be torn apart like that.

And I think I have hit that looney stage, because I can hardly wait for next Saturday.

After critiquing my group member’s manuscript and writing down all my suggestions about those ten chapters and such, I feel excited for her to get the feedback and make the story better, because I love the story enough that I care and really want to read a better version of it.

More than anything else, I want my own manuscript to keep getting better. So hooray for critique groups, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they like mine enough to hope it improves.

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