Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Humility is Sexy

by R.C. Lewis

Disclaimer: I'm not a literary agent. I don't really know what they think, beyond the thoughts they put out there on their blogs and Twitter feeds. (I do not listen to the haters who think agents are an elitist clan of devil spawn who take joy in crushing the dreams of aspiring writers.)

But I think they would agree with the title of this post. Let me explain why.

First, you have to understand humility. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't beating up on yourself. It isn't saying your writing is crap, especially right after someone has complimented it. It is not a lack of confidence. I grew up with this simple definition:


You can definitely believe you know a few things while acknowledging there's room to know more. I have a student who epitomizes this. With all her accomplishments, she could easily have the biggest head on campus. Yet bragging would never occur to her. She does what she does, no big deal, but if you compliment her, she'll thank you.

She doesn't tell you all the reasons why your compliment is misplaced.

So, why do I suspect agents find humility sexy? I'm sure they want confident writers who believe in their ability (well, most of the time—we all have moments of doubt) and don't have to be talked down from the ledge every other day. Confidence is not the opposite of humility—arrogance is.

We've all seen arrogant aspiring writers (and, er, some published writers, too). The ones who lash out at anyone who dares criticize their masterpiece. Who insist it's your fault for being dense if you can't keep track of their fifteen different narrators. Who don't care if you tell them word counts much over 100k make publishing pros twitchy—not a single word can be cut from their 450k-word debut thriller. Who say they will never change X about their novel (title, character's name, their vision of printing the whole thing in Comic Sans) no matter what a publisher says.

It ain't sexy.

(Okay, those were extreme examples, but even when you scale them back, I'm thinking they're not too attractive.)

Humble writers do their research on the publishing industry and don't blame 'the system' for all their problems. They handle critique like a pro, not giving in to every beta reader's whim, but being open to possible improvement. They'll aspire for greatness, knowing there will always be more to learn, and never claiming they've already arrived and why haven't you acknowledged it yet?!

Is there anything that helps you find the balance, neither tearing yourself down nor puffing yourself up? Taking the stings of critique and the occasional right-hook of an agent rejection without letting them destroy you? Taking compliments and accolades without thinking you've arrived at the top?


Kaylie Austen said...

Well said!

Revo Boulanger said...

EXTREMELT well said!
I understand many writer's undying affection for their work and, I'm sure, in their minds this is entirely justified. What baffles me is the perception that refusal is a personal slight.
I may still be feeling my way through the labrynth but
I also understand that this is, fist and foremost, a business!
I never felt agents are genies, ogres, or star-makers. They're in business to support themselves, looking for business partnerships.
I get that first-timers have a rough road, but it helps to understand why that is.
I view an agents stable like a sports team; I'd assume in a perfect world they'd want savvy veterans, consistent performers,and a rookie or two with the potential for greatness to maintain a balanced organization. But even rookies, no matter the raw talent, have to follow structure because really, what business wants to coddle a flake? Why waste effort in coddling and training them in many of the facets they should already have grasped?
Does this hold true for me? Hehe, not entirely...yet. But I AM learning. The balance mentioned here is the trick.
Right on, RC

Christopher Hudson said...

Humility is sexy, eh? Wonder why agents aren't tearing off my shirt.

Jean Oram said...

Very good point, RC! Humility is so important in this business. It's difficult to work with someone who has a big ego. I've heard of agents passing up on a great writer because of the ego. They knew they wouldn't be able to work with that person.

Christopher H--Lol!! Maybe they just haven't noticed you yet--but when they do look out!!! ;)

Mindy McGinnis said...

Humility = Teachable is an excellent way to put it. And while you may not be an agent, I've seen time and time again on agents' blogs and tweets - an egotistical hook is the STD of queryland.

Rick Pieters said...

I'm not exactly sure what "an egotistical hook" is, but that's a great comment, Mindy. The STD of queryland. Yup.

Good reminder, Rachel, and your student is a good example.

Jennifer Merritt said...

Great post. I going to talk to my oldest about humble = teachable.

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks, Kaylie! :)

Revo, so true. We're taking something very personal to us (our stories), but we're putting them into a setting that has to make business considerations. We have to keep that "personal" part in check and behave professionally, no doubt.

Christopher, like Jean said, just give it time. ;)

Mindy, I think you've created a new catchphrase there with "STD of queryland" ... blog post of your own, perhaps? ;)

Rick, she definitely is a great example to her peers and adults alike.

Thanks, Jen. Guess I should thank my parents for teaching me that definition.

Sarah Skilton said...

When I was querying lit agents, I remember learning there was a right way and a wrong way to compare yourself to published authors, i.e. it's helpful to point out what genre or style you tend to write in, but don't say, "I'm the next so-and-so / bestseller." Instead, suggest that, "Since you rep so-and-so, you might be interested in my book about X." It's all about the phrasing.

Matt Sinclair said...

I know it's been noted already, but I really liked your equation.

R.C. Lewis said...

Sarah, indeed, if you're going to do comps at all, you have to be so careful how you word it, not to mention which published authors/books you choose to compare to.

Matt, glad you like it. :)

Leslie Rose said...

Ah, so often the artistic personality doesn't coexist with humility. It's refreshing when you find that combo. I try to stay positive by keeping files of compliments so I can go visit them when I'm heading down into the dumps.

Angela Solano said...

First let me get the LMFAO song out of my head. OK, done!

This is very true. I have been hit with some hard facts lately on two of my MS and at first I wanted to blame the establishment for being wrong (and I'm still not 100% sure they are not wrong lol) but nothing I can do to change things. They are what they are.

Fortunately, I did take a chance and send my work to the three awesome people and was able to get that feedback I needed. I learned something from each of them. They each had their own types of awesomeness :)

For me, I basically had to remember that these three people were trying to help. They each had a skill set that I was not as strong at. Did finding out that my mss as is would be hard to sell because they did not fit in an established category hurt? Absolutely. After a few hours or a day or so of being pissed (not at them, just in general) I was able to come up with ways to fix that. Instead of insisting I was right and they were wrong, I realized that I had A LOT more to learn about the publishing business.