Friday, April 15, 2011

Happy Writers Society: Eyes On Your Paper

I've never cheated. In school, I was terrified to be accused of such a heinous crime, so I would stare at my paper like it was the only thing in existence. Even the clock was forbidden, because what if I looked up to see what time is was and the teacher thought I was looking at my neighbor's test? Or what if I sneezed and she thought it was some kind of diversion tactic? Or what if I stared at the ceiling trying to remember why, exactly, the Red Scare happened, and she thought I was reading a secret message in the popcorn texture?

I was a little paranoid.

But I really hated the idea of cheating. Both doing it and having other people trying to cheat off me. Maybe that came from years of being the "smart kid." I did get asked by kids if they could cheat off me. I really did. And it ticked me off because I put in a lot of work and I didn't want others taking credit for it. It seemed like they constantly overlooked or devalued my efforts, asking to have them as their own.

Heck, even when I didn't put in the work I had no desire to cheat. I felt like I should take responsibility for what I did and didn't do, and if that got me a B (yes, that was a disastrous grade at the time) then it was my own dang fault.

Have I ever told you that I was the most boring teenager alive?

I'm not sure what happened to my staunch practice of keeping my eyes on my own paper, because the second I got involved in the online writing community it was kind of like I became the biggest cheater ever. I was constantly looking at other people's papers, constantly in search of other people's answers in hopes that they matched mine.

"Oh, she's doing THIS with her blog/twitterfeed/Facebookpage/etc. Maybe I should do that too? But what if I don't want to? Is what I'm writing on MY paper wrong? It's different from that person's, and that one over there, and it's certainly not as good as Nathan Bransford's. How does he DO that?"

"Dang, that writer only had to query ten agents before she got an offer! I must be doing something wrong...I obviously didn't study enough, having done more like two hundred. Do I suck or what?"

"A book deal in a WEEK? Are you friggin' serious? I thought people said the publishing industry was slow! It was slow when I was on sub...probably because my book was stupid. That must be it. If they really loved it, they'd have read it and given me an offer in a week, too."

You might say, "But, Natalie, that's not really cheating. You're basically saying that reading any publishing news is cheating, but it's just staying up on the business."

Okay, yeah, the analogy isn't perfect, but here's where I attempt to get deep. I may not be cheating off anyone else by thinking these things, but I am cheating myself. Out of joy. Out of pride in my own accomplishments. Out of time spent on my book. And more.

It makes me wonder how I'd have felt if I had cheated when I was younger. Would it have made me feel stupider, seeing what I was missing on the test instead of just trying to answer as much as I could? I bet yes. Would I have spent months tormented by feelings of guilt and inadequacy? Probably. Would I look at my classmates differently, judge them unfairly, having seen how they "measured up" to me but not knowing how much effort got them there? Maybe.

Lately, I've gone back to my uptight teenage roots. I keep saying to myself, "Keep your eyes on your paper. YOUR paper. It's the only one that matters."

I can't tell you how helpful that's been. Not that I have completely cut myself off from the publishing world, but let's just say that I've gone from "cheating" off other writers to "studying" with them. We all know Study Groups can be fun AND educational—and so not cheating. We have so much to learn from each other, and sharing and discussing doesn't equal cheating, as long as when you go to take the test it's all you.

And the biggest secret of all? Unlike the educational system, each test is designed specifically for the taker. Designed to challenge you, teach you, and yes, even make you shine. So in reality, your only competition is yourself.

Now, say it with me: EYES ON YOUR PAPER.


  1. "Have I ever told you that I was the most boring teenager alive?"

    Haha, no worries, I was the same way. I imagine a number of us were. And while it's sad to think that you've had to withdraw a bit from us (we looooove you!) it's also completely understandable. I feel the urge myself sometimes (as we've discussed). What matters most is being healthy and true to one's self. All else will fall into place. :)

  2. I had the pleasure of meeting agent Holly Root about a year ago and she promoted a very similar message. No matter how much I KNOW it, though, it's SO HARD to not compare yourself to others. I'm struggling with this currently, and it's nice to hear a gentle reminder. (Also, I was a similarly boring teenager. Very straight-and-narrow. But throw writing into the mix and suddenly I'm a mess. I was never an 'artist' and this whole emo-insecure-writer thing doesn't look good on me.) Thanks for the pep talk. :)

  3. I'm quite struck by the idea that comparing is cheating yourself out of joy, pride in your own work, etc.

    SO TRUE. So true.

    You are wise, my friend. :)

  4. Awesome post. I find I compare myself to others a lot... especially the agented ones. Just trying to be one of the gang, you know. But, your advice is refreshing. KEEP MY EYES ON MY OWN PAPER. ;-)

  5. Love this post. *keeps eyes on my paper*

  6. Yup. Being on sub means I'm constantly reminding myself that my journey will differ from the publishing journeys of everyone else.

    Reminders like this post definitely help!

  7. Terrific post, Natalie!

    The secret message in the ceiling popcorn texture... was the truth about the secret of how they put the caramel in the caramilk bar.

  8. I first heard this idea from Holly Root. It's one of the most beneficial bits of writing advice I've ever gotten.

  9. Great post and so applicable to me. It's really tough to trust that my journey is the one that I need to take to be my best self. I like the analogy and will remind myself to look at my own paper.

  10. I love the cheating analogy because I was that "No, you may not see my paper" kid, too. I see keeping up with the biz as cramming for the hugest, hardest, most crucial exam -- one without a teacher, text, or study guide. Well, other than Nathan Bransford and his blog, of course. :D The personalized test idea raises the stakes somewhat, yes?

    Thanks for the great post!

  11. Exactly what I needed to hear. Being too up on other people's writing news is making me paranoid and overly optimistic. What a horrible combination!

  12. I can only ever remember cheating on my math homework because I was so appallingly horrible at math. At the back of the text book they listed all the 'odd' number answers. I copied those suckers down without a second thought, then hoped that when the teacher called on me it would be for an odd numbered problem. I had a 50% success rate. Not surprisingly I still suck at math.

    What you call keeping your eyes on your paper, I call refusing to keep up with the Writing Joneses. It's hard, so hard, not to measure yourself by someone else's yardstick, and then use the same yardstick to beat yourself up with. I struggle with it every day. But I also know that NOT beating myself up with what others are doing is the only way I'll get anywhere in this game with soul and sanity intact. You know, as intact as it ever was ;)

  13. I so understand your point. And I, too, have disconnected myself from publishing to some extent recently. When an agent (who later passed) asked for an exclusive 3 week read, I stopped querying. I found I could finally relax & be at peace. I decided to take an additional 3 weeks until my first 2 chapters get posted on Anne Mini's blog for comment & critique. And though I'm terrified of the possible backlash, I feel the feedback will energize me to get back in the saddle. But I do agree that the publishing world in general can be very draining so keeping one's eyes on one's own paper can help us remain focused. Good post, Natalie.

  14. Thank you. It's so easy to look at others and compare yourself negatively to them. Thanks for reminding us not to do that.

  15. Wonderful post! (I sympathize with the school days, too... It especially rankled me when they would copy my art projects. Geez, get your own Muse, people!!)

  16. My mom once told me that comparing yourself to others is self-destructive, and as I've gotten older I've realized it's so true, no matter what field you're in. You're right about studying other writers, rather than cheating off of them. There are lots of wise, talented people out there to learn from, but there has to be a balance. Don't forget to value your own unique voice in the process.

  17. Great post and analogy. I try to think of other people's "papers" as a source of inspiration-I can do that too!

  18. Comparing ourselves to others often brings so much misery. The truth is that in publishing, there are as many navigable roads as there are authors. All of our journeys are different, unique, and--yes, I dare to say it--precious. (Even the potholes and roadblocks.)

  19. I wish we could've gone to school together and been nerd friends!

    I love this post. Thanks for the millionth time for your encouraging words!

  20. Natalie, I can't tell you how glad I am to see this post! I am a major "cheater" when it comes to the pub business. I see others' papers and it makes me feel bad, too. I am soooo happy to see I am not alone in this. I need to do as you say and not take others' success as my failure or that I'm doing something wrong. Everyone is different! Thanks so much for helping me see this. Your blog always puts a smile on my face. ;)