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Writing: The pros and cons of self-delusion

I had a great time at East Brunswick Library last night. Forty people turned up to hear my talk, 10 Things Every Writer Should Know. Folks seemed to enjoy it, and afterwards, some even bought a copy of Fur-Face, for which I'm extremely grateful. A huge 'Thank you' to everyone who came along, especially EBPL's Susan Kaspin, who was kind enough to invite me to give the talk in the first place.

During my presentation, I talked about excusitis - the failure disease. In describing the symptoms, I mentioned how some folks convince themselves that finding an agent or publisher is a matter of luck, nothing more, nothing less. As it turned out, someone in the audience actually believed that, and told me so, which got me thinking about writers and self-delusion.

The pros and cons of self-delusion
To a certain extent, writers need a little self-delusion (I know I do), particularly when we start out. If we ever hope to reach our publishing goals, we have to believe we're good enough, even though there's little evidence to support that belief. In fact, I suspect deep down, most of us know we really aren't as publishable as we think, at least, not yet. The best we can do is hope (and work) to become so.

That's certainly the case with me. When I write something I'm proud of, in my head I might give it (say) 9 out of 10, in reality, it's probably deserves an 8 or even a 7. Still, as long as I'm making a conscious effort to improve, I have no qualms about kidding myself in the meantime.

Whenever I pitch a story or send a query letter, I visualize an acceptance letter. Before every talk, I spend a few minutes pretending I'm 'on stage' as it were. I imagine the room's full of people who laugh at my jokes, and try to convince myself the audience will be glad they came (I also practise, a lot, because I know how my brain likes to sit back down again as soon as I get up to give a presentation).

These delusions are helpful, at least to me.

However, when almost everyone in your critique group says the characters in your story aren't realistic, or the plot doesn't make sense, telling them they just don't 'get it' is an unhealthy kind of self-delusion. The same goes for folks who try to convince themselves (and others) that getting published is a matter of luck, a crapshoot, that work rejected by agents and publishers is no different from the work they take on.

I guess we all delude ourselves in one way or another, the trick is to only do it in ways which can lead us somewhere good.

How about you?

What kind of writerly self-delusions have you come across?

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( 45 comments — Leave a comment )
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Oct. 11th, 2011 12:22 pm (UTC)
"When I write something I'm proud of, in my head I might give it (say) 9 out of 10, in reality, it's probably deserves an 8 or even a 7."

You know, I actually do the opposite -- I tend to underrate my own work. (haha -- Or perhaps it's a self delusion to assume I'm underrating!) But I really had to go through a lot a lot a lot of outside readers before I began to entertain the thought that what I wrote might actually be interesting to someone else as a reader (much less as an editor or an agent).

I find a lot of people think landing an agent or an editor is a crap shoot. There is a bit of luck involved (once you get past the writing-a-respectable-manuscript part) -- but on the other hand, so much of what we call "luck" is recognizing the opportunities presented to us & taking advantage of them.
Oct. 11th, 2011 12:38 pm (UTC)
And putting in the hours :)
(no subject) - msstacy13 - Oct. 11th, 2011 12:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karin_gastreich - Oct. 11th, 2011 12:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2011 12:44 pm (UTC)
It takes a real pro to run a good con.
Oct. 11th, 2011 07:17 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a tag line from Leverage :)
Oct. 11th, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
I think the most common self-delusion is quality writers under the delusion they are not good. I forget what it is called, but the delusion that they are just faking it.

I wonder, does that mean writers fall into five categories:

1) The awesome writer that knows they are awesome.
2) The good writer that thinks they are slightly better than they are.
3) The good writer that thinks they are faking it.
4) The bad writer that thinks they are good.
5) The bad writer that KNOWS they are bad.

With 1 & 5 being the least common options.
Oct. 11th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)
I don't know, but I hope to work my way through them all at some point :)
Oct. 11th, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC)
I think the hardest thing for a new writer to grasp is that, no matter how well written the story is, not everyone is going to like it. They cling to the idea that if they can just write well enough, everyone will love it, and it won't happen. I'm not at all fond of Hemingway or George Eliot and yet they're still in print somehow. Related to that is a refusal to accept the concept of marketability. It doesn't matter as much whether the editor likes the book as whether he or she thinks it will sell.
Oct. 11th, 2011 07:21 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean, everyone loving your work is a wonderful thought. Of course, if you've got a 'my old gran' in your family, that's one delusion too far :)
Oct. 11th, 2011 02:59 pm (UTC)
I am not writing because I do not have the time.
Oct. 11th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
Definitely a symptom of excusitis :)
Oct. 11th, 2011 03:19 pm (UTC)
I've come across so much delusion, I couldn't even BEGIN to write it down without wanting to poke my eyes out with a sharp red pencil.

The most recent one is an author who believed that once a manuscript is accepted, the author's job is done. All editing, complete. Nothing more to do than slap covers on it and put it on the store shelves.
Oct. 11th, 2011 03:50 pm (UTC)
They are in for a major shock when one of my copy-editors gets to the work. Unleash the pendantry!

(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Oct. 11th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Oct. 11th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mary_j_59 - Oct. 11th, 2011 11:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Oct. 12th, 2011 09:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2011 05:22 pm (UTC)
If I had known at the beginning how incredibly long the path to publication would be, I'm not sure I could have kept going. Luckily I "knew" I could do it a lot sooner than I did!
Oct. 11th, 2011 07:23 pm (UTC)
Fair point, though I do believe there's a road map which can help us get there in half the time. If only we knew about it from the start.
(no subject) - peadarog - Oct. 12th, 2011 02:50 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC)
I have this delusion that I'll finish writing my book some day! =D
Oct. 11th, 2011 07:24 pm (UTC)
That's not a delusion, that's a racing certainty :)
(no subject) - mongrelheart - Oct. 13th, 2011 01:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2011 08:00 pm (UTC)
Hmmm? I don't know what my delusion is. I do know many think that you write draft one and it's submission ready. I've never had that thought. But I did journalism in high school and college. I was a managing editor. I know better. Plus, I've read parts of my first drafts. They SUCK!
Oct. 12th, 2011 05:23 am (UTC)
I do know many think that you write draft one and it's submission ready.

I know I did: http://jongibbs.livejournal.com/23770.html

Mind you, it makes for a great story. I include it in all my talks :)
(no subject) - tracy_d74 - Oct. 12th, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2011 10:12 pm (UTC)
I suppose the idea that I'm working hard enough or long enough could be a delusion.
Oct. 12th, 2011 05:20 am (UTC)
Lol, if it is, then I suspect we all suffer from it :)

Mind you, I think some folks tell themselves they're doing enough of the right things, when they're really not.
(no subject) - dendrophilous - Oct. 12th, 2011 08:15 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 11th, 2011 11:39 pm (UTC)
Good post, Jon. But I do wonder: what's the difference between a delusion and acquiring some basic confidence? Because, for a long time, I thought I couldn't possibly write a novel. I think a lot of people suffer from the delusion that they haven't got a story to tell. That's a deadly one. Much better to be overconfident, IMHO!
Oct. 12th, 2011 05:25 am (UTC)
I agree. It's much better to think you can, find you can't, then vow to change the result next time, than simply not bother trying.
Oct. 12th, 2011 03:16 am (UTC)
"...most of us know we really aren't as publishable as we think, at least, not yet. The best we can do is hope (and work) to become so." So, so true, and thanks for this really honest, frank post.

Every time I read a book I rate, I'm reminded that I have a way to go yet. As you say, it's all about putting in the hours and effort and being open to learning all the time. In fact, I hope I never stop trying and learning - anyone, author or otherwise who believes there's nothing left for them to learn is ... um ... deeply delusional!
Oct. 12th, 2011 05:30 am (UTC)
I think this is a good test to see if you're still working on improving your writing skills:

Read something you thought was excellent when you wrote it a year ago. If you can't see ways to improve it, you're either a brilliant writer, or you haven't learned much in the last twelve months.
(no subject) - jennygordon - Oct. 15th, 2011 05:42 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Oct. 15th, 2011 06:30 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 12th, 2011 04:41 am (UTC)
That grammar and punctuation aren't as imporant as just telling your story. Drives me mad! If you want me to read your story, punctuate it properly!
Oct. 12th, 2011 05:31 am (UTC)
Good point. Of course, for folks like me, it's easier to acknowledge the need than to achieve :)
Oct. 12th, 2011 09:20 am (UTC)
For me, it's the delusion that my English is as good as my Danish. Only, sometimes I get feedback from native English speakers saying 'interesting word choice'. When I look the word up in a dictionary it means something else than I thought.
Oct. 12th, 2011 05:39 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't worry, Jakob. that happens to me all the time :)
(no subject) - claudee - Oct. 23rd, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 13th, 2011 06:40 am (UTC)
Jon, you got it right. I think we need to be a bit delusional to keep moving forward in getting our work published - otherwise we'll never share our work with those who can help us get there - editors, peers, agents, publishers, the public. But in a way its really just being positive and optimistic, isnt it? And if we need to be delusional to achieve that, it works for me ;)
Oct. 13th, 2011 07:00 am (UTC)
Re: Delusions
Me too, Donna. Me too :)
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Things What I Wrote and Other Stuff

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