I Know I’m Good Because…uh…

 by Gar Anthony Haywood

 

Like  everyone else here (I’d be willing to bet), I have a Manuscript In a Drawer.

You know the one I’m talking about.  The orphaned child that Cannot Be Published, because it’s too flawed or too violent, too personal or too counter to the market decrees of the moment.  It shames you, and yet it calls to you.  It is useless because no one else wants it, and yet you have a love for it that will not die.

 

In my case, the  MIaD is 140 pages of a standalone thriller that has never found a reader who didn’t prove to be indifferent to it.  My agent didn’t get it; my former editor passed on it without breaking a sweat; and the two or three other people to whom I’ve shown it over the years have all responded to it with a collective shrug.


It’s gotta suck, right?

 

Well…

 

I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that it might.  It is going on seven years old, and the idea from which it sprang is much, much older than that, but here I am, as convinced as ever that this is one great book.  A modern classic of noir fiction that if I don’t write, some other smart bastard eventually will.

So help me God, I have tried and tried to believe otherwise.  I take the manuscript out of its musty hole every now and then and scour its pages for that thing, that big, ugly wart of mediocrity that everyone else but me can see—lousy prose, phony dialogue, a plot that just drags on and on—and I can’t find it.  It isn’t there.  My instincts tell me again and again that I’ve got something here, something special that a large audience would embrace if they only had the chance to discover it…

…and yet I won’t go back and finish it.

I’ve got better things to do, bigger (read: more likely-to-be-profitable) fish to fry.  It is my baby, and yet I fear that to devote any more time and energy to its care and feeding would be an inexcusable waste of however many days I have left to write on this earth.

In other words, I’m in a long-standing state of paralysis where this book is concerned, and the reason is quite simple:

I don’t trust my own judgment enough to fight for this thing.

 

And I know what you’re thinking: Who the hell does trust their own judgment?  The writer has yet to be born who isn’t shackled to some extent by insecurity.  Self doubt is as much a part of our makeup as a need for wide-spread acceptance and, yes, the cash to pay our mortgage in perpetuity.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the people who achieve large-scale success in our business tend to have a very healthy appreciation for their own work, if not a downright, pathological determination to see it take over the world.  You talk to these people, you read and/or listen to the interviews they do, and what you hear is someone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass what their agents, editors or critics have to say, and probably never did.  Their inner-voice has told them that their stuff is worth every penny of a six-figure contract and a fifteen-city book tour and, by God, they aren’t leaving the room—or sticking their manuscript in any goddamn drawer—until they get it.

Man, I would love to be one of those people.

But I read my work and I just don’t know.  I like it, some of it even makes me proud as hell, but is it great?  Even when it feels great, when I read it and re-read it and keep coming away with the same conclusion—Damn, this is some good shit!—what is that but just one man’s opinion?  The feelings of a father who can’t see anything but beauty in the (quite possibly homely) child he’s created?

Perhaps if every writer of my experience who exhibited the kind of unassailable self-confidence I’ve been talking about was as good as they think they are, I’d be more inclined to follow their example and go balls-to-the-wall for something I’ve written when my gut tells me I should.  But too many of these people—in my judgment, anyway—are completely clueless as to the quality of their work.  Even those who have made it, and who have the sales figures to prove it, aren’t all that.  I’ve read them and I know.  So this listening-to-your-inner-critic business is not exactly an exact science.  Sometimes she’s right on, and sometimes she’s about as trustworthy as a dime store compass.

 

Let me tell you a little story to illustrate my point:

Years ago, I attended a Writers Guild screening of “The Sixth Sense,” which was followed by a Q & A with the film’s writer and director, M. Night Shyamalan.  “The Sixth Sense,” you may recall, was Mr. Shyamalan’s breakout hit; he was a relative unknown prior to this point.  Yet he told the WGA audience that, upon completing the film’s screenplay, he gave his agent instructions to shop it to only a handful of major studios, making sure each understood that bidding for the script would start at one million dollars.  Then he locked himself and his family up in the most expensive hotel room he could find in Philadelphia and waited for the offers to roll in.  Which, needless to say, they eventually did.

 

Nobody had to tell Shyamalan he’d created something extraordinary.  He knew, and he behaved accordingly when he took his script to market.  The man got his money, and the rest is history.

Now personally, I think “The Sixth Sense” is a pretty damn good movie, so if any original screenplay ever deserved a million-plus writer’s fee, that one probably did.  Meaning M. Night’s supreme confidence in its worth was arguably justified.

But…

Anybody here see some of the man’s more recent films?  “Signs”?  “The Village”?  “Lady in the Water”?

They stink.  Hoo-boy, like the month-old tuna sandwich you just found in the pocket of your kid’s windbreaker.  A million would have been about $995,000 more than Shyamalan should have been paid for writing the screenplay to any one of them—and yet I have no doubt that, had he written “The Village” first, he would have given his agent the very same instructions he issued for “The Sixth Sense.”  His faith in his own talent is that unbreakable.

(Get it?  “Unbreakable”?  Forget it…)

Anyway, Shyamalan is a prime example of how unreliable an author’s assessment of his own work can sometimes be.  You’re so close to the material, it’s invariably so saturated with those things in life that you find wonderful and scary and important, that of course it strikes you as genius on occasion.  But is it?  Or is its brilliance just another figment of your hyperactive imagination?

This question is on my mind right now because, just in the last two weeks, I’ve finished a novel it’s taken me almost three years to write.  I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.  It’s big, smart, complex.  But it’s not particularly commercial. Almost every character in it is black, and few of them are women.

 

I don’t care.  I read it and think, “Big Time, goddamnit.”

Still, the novel’s not going to my agent until I’ve gotten three or four second opinions from a select group of readers I trust.  Because I’m the guy who wrote the Manuscript In a Drawer, remember?  The “modern classic of noir fiction” that’s never raised anyone’s pulse but my own?  What the hell do I know about the value of the book I’ve just written?

Is this a problem you can relate to?  Or are you one of those rare birds who always knows immediately when they’ve written a winner or a stinker?  Maybe you have a Secret Reader locked up in a room somewhere who has impeccable intuition about such things, someone you can always rely upon to give you the straight scoop about your latest masterpiece.

If you believe yourself to be a great author—and come on, people, some of you do—where does that belief come from? 


And how do you know you’re right?

 

MANY THANKS TO GAR FOR GUESTING TODAY.  IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU – GO TO:

http://www.garanthonyhaywood.com  and tell him Evil E sent you.

 

24 thoughts on “I Know I’m Good Because…uh…

  1. Mark Terry

    I immediately thought of my MitD, which I’ve shown bits to people who liked it okay, and showed it to my agent who flat out said, “I hate it.” And it’s exactly like what you’re talking about.

    Yet I sent her another one that she didn’t like (about 100 pp) and when she didn’t like it I just shrugged. Maybe she was confirming what I thought.

    On the other hand, I recently sent her a manuscript for a kids’ fantasy novel and I was delighted that she loved it. And one of the reasons I was delighted that she loved it was I had a very strong gut reaction to this book that indicated to me that if she didn’t like it, I didn’t care. I was going to find an agent or editor who did.

    We’ll see if any editors agree with us. I think it’s possible to give up on your own work too soon, but sometimes negative comments only confirm what we think (rightly or wrongly) anyway.

    Best,Mark Terrywww.markterrybooks.com

  2. Twist

    Gar,

    Another book from you? Made my day. Hurry up and get it out there.

    Twist(who had to watch Mike C’s book trailer twice before she recognized you)

  3. Alex Sokoloff

    Hey Gar, always great to see you!

    But ooof, uncomfortable topic. I always sweat about my work not being good enough. I know it’s good – but it’s never good enough.

    And I doubt that any really good writer doesn’t feel that what gets on the page falls short of the ideal in her or his head, so I think the hyper-confident ones are either lying to themselves or maybe playing the game a little better than the rest of us.

    Sometimes I love a particular piece of mine more than other stories, but that doesn’t at all mean that other people feel the same way, so I think sometimes we just LIKE one story better than another – as a matter of taste, not necessarily merit.

    But in terms of making my work the best it can be, a great critique group and/or trusted readers are essential. There’s no doubt in my mind that trusted peers can bring me and my work to the next level. THANK GOD.

  4. Donna

    I’m very very glad to hear that there will be a new book from you Gar. About bloody time, if I may say.

    And I have none of the worries you have because basically I think EVERYTHING I write is a pile of steaming shite.

    Donna

  5. Bill Peschel

    Man, you are soooo right about the need to have an iron ego to keep going. That’s why some of us never get published, and some can’t help but be published.

    But some are doomed to play out the roles created in our heads. Just as I’m uncertain of my talent, I’m equally certain that, if and when I do get a book published, I’ll look back and think, “That was easy! Why didn’t I start doing this 25 years ago?”

  6. Steve Brewer

    Very good column, Gar, and good news that you’ve got a new novel coming. Real writers (as opposed to self-promoters blind to their own flaws) always are filled with doubt, I think. As Thomas Mann said: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” If it’s not hard, if you’re not terrified that the work’s no good, then you’re probably not doing it right.

  7. pari

    Gar,Welcome to Murderati. Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post.

    Supremely confident with my work? Nah.

    But, Gar, you seem to be writing about two different things: quality and marketability. They’re very different, IMHO.

    That MIaD you have may be magnificent — just too far ahead of its time.

    I’ve got two MOaS (manuscripts on a shelf)that are so horrid, they don’t deserve a reworking (they’re both finished). I keep them to testify to how bad my stuff was when I started — and to acknowledge that if I don’t work hard, I could produce that drivel again.

  8. Duane

    What a cool post, Gar. I can be a real needy bastard when it comes to my work–I don’t feel comfortable until my own select group of readers assures me that no, I didn’t completely screw it up. And when I have that rare burst of self-confidence, I immediately start to panic. Because if I think something’s good, then no doubt I’ve missed something vital. And I’m unable to see how horrible it is.

    Sick, isn’t it?

    To echo Donna, I’m looking forward to your next book. (And really curious about your MIaD…)

  9. Gar Haywood

    Thanks to everyone for the generous welcome and kind words about the book.

    Twist:Of course you didn’t recognize me as Jerry Edgar in Mike’s film. I was in character.

    Donna:You’re daft.

    Pari:I’m more concerned with criticism received regarding the quality of a piece (“I don’t get it. It doesn’t move me.”) than its marketability. Marketability generally cannot be argued, but quality is always subjective. When you think the quality is there, but others disagree, how to decide who’s right?

  10. Alex Sokoloff

    Actually I think marketability is as subjective as writing quality. Agenting is an art, too, and the right agent can sell something with sheer force of personality, and sometimes even, dare I say, VISION, that others would find completely unmarketable. It happens all the time.

    Your new book sounds fantastic – I can’t wait to read it, and I hope your agent has the vision to put it over big.

  11. Naomi

    I had one of those unhealthy devotions to my manuscript–I was going to get that thing in publishable shape, no matter what. It got neglected at times, torn to shreds, rebuilt, massaged, kneaded, etc. During that whole process, I relied on works and characters like Easy Rawlings, Ivan Monk, Blanche White, and yes, Aaron Gunner, to convince me that yes, maybe, just maybe, some reader out there might be interested in what I was trying to do.

    Insane? Most definitely. Egomaniacal? You betcha. It was a crapshoot. Was it worth the effort and devotion? At times I’m not sure.

    For me it’s been plain scrappy stubbornness, not necessarily talent or self-confidence, that pushes me forward.

  12. pari

    Gar,Re: Who’s right?

    Each person who offers an opinion is right. Isn’t that awful? But I believe it’s true because it IS so darn subjective.

    What I’m wondering from your question is if there’s something small that’s stumping readers . . . . The comments you cite, “It doesn’t move me” and “I don’t get it,” are incredibly vague. They sound like the standard “not compelling.” Do the people who read it have more specific critiques — a place to look to see if you’re deluding yourself or if it’s more mechanical?

    Quality may not be the issue at all.

    Just a thought . . .

  13. Louise Ure

    I agree with Alex’s first post. I question everything I write, never sure if it’s even worth the paper it’s printed on. And someplace in the back of my mind, I believe that those supremely confident auteurs have the same trepidation I do, but they’re better actors than I am.

    I’m so glad to know you have a new work ready to spring on us, Gar! But I’m also volunteering to read that MinaD, if you’d like another pair of eyes on it. You’ve intrigued me with that one.

  14. Elaine Flinn

    Oh, hell – which one of us *doesn’t* have one or two (or three)MinaD? But I’ll bet on one thing – mine could never come even close to one word of Gar’s.

    While I fully enjoyed the Aaron Gunner series – I have to admit that MAN EATER and FIRECRACKER were my favorites. Can you tell I can’t wait for the new one? šŸ™‚

    And what a treat to have you here today, Gar! Thanks so much…

  15. JT Ellison

    Gar, lovely to meet you. Welcome to Murderati!

    This is a great topic. I have a critique group and independent readers who look at most of my work before it goes out somewhere. I don’t even worry about trusting myself — I just write the best possible grouping of words I can and trust them to tell me if it works or not. I’ve hated scenes that they love, and I’ve loved scenes they hate.

    Since they’re almost always right, I commend my soul to their keeping and try not to worry. Try being the operative word.

  16. Guyot

    Steve Brewer said it best.

    And may I just take this moment to say that Gar Anthony Haywood is one of the most underrated voices in crime fiction.

    We NEED him back on the shelves.

    If any of you have not read the Gunner series, you must. They are great. And the two Shannon books are as good.

    I was recently interviewed via email, and one of the questions was for me to list my top ten crime writers of the past two decades.

    Gar was one of them.

  17. JDRhoades

    Ah, yes…my MitD. The humorous mystery. The one my agent doesn’t even want to see, but which I take out and look at occasionally and think “damn it, this is pretty good.”

    Come to think of it, Gar, I think you may have actually read it one time for the St. Martin’s competition.

  18. Elaine Flinn

    By the way, Gar – I saw The Village and thought it was pretty lame too. Glad to know it wasn’t just me. What a let down after The Sixth Sense.

    Kinda reminds me of reading a great new author and then ho-humming the next book. Or – hearing mucho buzz about a debut author and then after reading said ‘blockbuster tome’ wondering what the hell all the shouting was about.

  19. Gar Haywood

    Pari:

    In retrospect, the feedback I was getting on my MIaD generally came in three forms:

    1) Make it less dark;

    2) Change the Central Character In Jeapordy from male to female;

    and

    3) Make that character more a victim than an aggressor.

    All of these notes run completely against the grain of the kind of book I want to write, and strike me as wholly commercial in nature.

    So I’ve been blowing them off.

    These complaints only relate to “quality” in the sense that the readers voicing them clearly don’t appreciate my present take on the material, which I think—perhaps stubbornly so—is right on.

  20. Shalanna Collins

    Gar–Thank you so much for visiting and talking to us today!

    I have also gotten feedback from agents on my books, advice that was clearly intended to serve some segment of the market and would not improve the book artistically. I don’t know whether I should have done the changes just to get into print, but I didn’t . . . that time. Next time . . . I just don’t know. It’s tough to keep trusting your own instincts.

    Hope we do see your MinaD. I’m always up for reading and giving reactions, BTW. I love your Airstream Trailer (RV retired couple) mysteries! (I could only find two of them in print, though.) I buy them when I see them in various venues so I have copies to give to aspiring authors. “See–this is the way it SHOULD BE done,” I tell them.

  21. Mark Terry

    There may be some ways to interpret these differently:

    1) Make it less dark;May need a little humor to keep it from being TOO depressing.

    2) Change the Central Character In Jeapordy from male to female;Could mean your main character is so hard-edged he’s unsympathetic. Soften him up a bit, help the reader relate, it may not be that big a change.

    and

    3) Make that character more a victim than an aggressor.Hmmm. Does your character’s actions exacerbate the tension? Not a bad thing unless the way he does it makes the reader start rooting for everybody else. I think Harry Bosch always walks right on the edge here, myself.

  22. Naomi

    Or it all could be personal taste.

    Messing around with the main character could ruin a book. I could see adding characters as foils to see more of the protagonist’s personality, etc. Or maybe flashbacks to understand why the character is more of an aggressor. But to actually change the gender or personality? Might as well start from scratch.

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