While on Facebook earlier this week, I saw a fellow author requesting beta readers for a story she’d just finished. Normally, by the time I see such a post, others have leaped into the breach, and the author has more than enough volunteers. This post was just a few minutes old, so I was the first volunteer.
The story was excellent, impactful and clever and tightly written, not an easy hat-trick to manage. I have no doubt it will find a publishing home. Among my minimal feedback, I included in a comment I only reserve for short stories that really speak to me. “This is one of those stories that fills me with unseemly, writerly envy because I didn’t write it!”
I’m confident I’m not the only writer who feels this way sometimes. I suspect envy over another writer’s excellent work is something we all have to grapple with from time to time. I remember laughing out loud when Pat Rothfuss blogged about a blurb he’d been asked to provide for Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and one of his suggested blurbs was “Brandon Sanderson’s writing is so good it’s starting to piss me off.”
A little envy and a sense of competition now and then is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As with most emotions in life, it’s what you do in response to them that marks your character. Below, I’ll break down the spectrum of responses a writer might have to this situation.
Writer’s Envy, a bad response: “I’ll never be able to write anything that good or be that successful, so I might as well give up!” If this is your route, you need to get some perspective. Trust me, no matter how confident the writer may feel about the story, at some point they looked at it and wondered why they were bothering with something so terrible. And that seed of doubt lingers on, sometimes even in the face of positive feedback.
Writer’s Envy, a worse response: “I’ll never be able to write anything that good or be that successful, so I’m going to do everything I can to subvert this person and their career!” Sadly, this happens. Don’t be one of the people that makes it happen. Despite what you may think, writing is not a zero-sum game. Have you ever noticed how the more great stuff you read, the more you want to read? We are all in this together, and we can all help each other and make things better for everyone, or we can tear each other down and make things worse for everyone.
Writer’s Envy, a response where everyone wins: “Wow, I’m really impressed with this. I should consider what about it worked so well, and see if I can use what I learn to improve my own writing. In fact, seeing this piece of quality work produced by a peer inspires me to go work on my writing right now.”
Real world example time. When I was back in school getting my engineering degree, I learned that my own department, Aerospace Engineering, was very different than the Computer Science department. Computer Science had a listserv of all its students, and they were permitted to email a certain number of lines of code out to one another to help in figuring out homework programs. It was meant to foster community. Instead, what happened was that certain bad eggs would email out lines of code they knew were wrong, trying to sabotage their fellow students to keep their own class rankings high. What was supposed to be a community of support turned into an ugly morass of paranoia and mistrust.
By contrast, my own Aerospace Engineering department managed to cultivate a tight-knit group of engineers-in-training. The professors encouraged us to work together on homework problems that were too complex by design to be easily solved by one person. This is how engineering works in the real world, and they were trying to replicate that. We students obliged, sometimes staying up all night to finish homework and going out for 4:00 AM McDonalds. The best students often took additional time to help the average students (right here) work through complex concepts they were slower to grasp. It was a tough major, and we needed a good group of guys and gals to get through it with our sanity (mostly) intact. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d had to worry about my peers sabotaging me at every turn.
Writing professionally is a tough gig, too. As Kristin talked about earlier this week, in the age of the internet, everyone’s a critic, and someone who doesn’t know your personally isn’t going to be worried about hurting your feelings. This is the value of a writing community. We learn from each other. We lean on each other. And sometimes, we get a little kick in the butt when we see each other succeed and think “I want to feel that way too.”