The Talent Here is Ridiculous
Advice from Hollywood, part 4
Since it’s Hollywood Week, it’s only fitting that we have a lesson from American Idol’s Hollywood auditions. Just last night, Idol’s field was down to 61 performers and by the end of the show it was going to be cut to 24. The contestants’ biggest worry wasn’t their own performance but how it would stack up against their competitors.
They were all good.
Which meant it was no longer going to be just about whether they could sing. As the competition gets stiffer, the judges are looking at more nuanced details of performance—pitch, harmonizing, stage presence, uniqueness, overall appeal. And each performer is not just being evaluated on their own merits, but measured against everyone else’s.
As one of the contestants aptly commented “The talent here is ridiculous.”
You can only prepare for the competition by being the best YOU you can be. But in those times when you get a tough break, when somebody tells you “no,” when you reach the end of the line in a particular endeavor, remember it’s not necessarily a judgment on you, and it doesn’t mean you’re finished. Maybe it just wasn’t the right timing, or there was somebody else who was a better fit.
Yes, the talent here is ridiculous. So give it your all, don’t hold anything back. As they say, bring it.
Q4U: Does the idea of competition scare you, or inspire you to keep working hard, or… what?
© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent
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>You are very welcome Christine. And thankyou.
>Wow, Anon! That was exactly what I needed to hear this morning.
With your permission, I'd like to put a portion of your comment on my own blog.
>Your comparison with a singing competition is rather appropriate. Let me explain…
I am a 50 year old man whose first book is about to arrive in the shops. On the face of it my path to publication has been embarrassingly easy. Was taken on by the agent of my choice overnight on the strength of one chapter, and this was followed by an auction between every publisher my work was sent to (5 of them.)
BUT (and it's a big but) as a young man I dreamed of being a writer. I wrote daily, relentlessly …and got absolutely nowhere. Finally I put down my pen, and got on with my life. I lived a little, and then I lived a lot. Finally I decided the time was right. I walked out on my job and started writing again.
Which brings me back to the singing competition. Almost anyone can learn to sing – you can go to vocal coaches, you can learn the techniques. But out of that pool of talent, there will be one or two who stand out, because they've got soul. Their voice somehow projects the weight of a human life in a way that goes beyond technique. It's that and only that which will make you stand out from the competition.
>This post is a good example of why I stopped reading agent blogs a while ago. I only came by today because someone I just met recently put a link to your post on his blog and the title sounded encouraging.
But it is very discouraging to hear, over and over, that no matter how hard you try, it's not good enough, you have to try harder. I am really struggling to find the confidence and energy to finish the novel I'm working on and put it out there. I have been writing and rewriting in my spare time for several years now, always thinking, "Nope, it's not good enough. Start over again."
At some point, a person just has to make the decision that it doesn't matter who the competition is. You just have to do it.
So I am sticking my fingers in my ears, logging off, and going to keep revising the heck out of my battered little story until it is done. And then I'm going to make myself move on to the next level by sending it to beta readers. And after I get their feedback, I'm going to make myself revise only as much as necessary, then send it out.
>Rather than putting a ton of energy into focusing on the competition, I try to concentrate on what's in front of me.
My son solo hiked the AT as a junior in high school. He later said the hikers who succeeded (3000 attempt to thru hike each year, 90% fail) were the ones who focused on the journey, rather than the challenges. Good lesson that I try to apply to my writing and I don't even have to stink, sleep with mice or eat endless granola bars to achieve my goal.
>It is not the competition I fear. It is my own lack of confidence. Deep down inside, I know I have a great novel, the plots and themes so intricately woven, my characters believable and loveable, and yet…?
What if no one likes it but me? What if it's not good enough? Even after countless beta readers, published authors and teens (my target audience) have said go for it – submit – they'd buy and recommend – I still find things I want to change and perfect. And yet I know it will never be perfect. Perfection is subjective, even to me. No, I fear it is my own worst critic – me – who will keep me from succeeding, not the competition.
Geez, my muse and I must sit down and have a long talk. 🙂
>I'm trying to get to the place where "becoming the best YOU you can be" is enough. If I'm performing at my peak, then the competition becomes irrelevant. If my best doesn't fit, then I need to keep stretching until my best is good enough. Best is not a destination, it's a measure of quality. Hopefully tomorrow's best is better than today's.
>Realizing that the talent here is ridiculous scares me. Getting encouragement from my CPs and others inspires me to work harder.
>Rachelle, as I read your blogs I am continually wondering how I ever got published and how I keep getting published. Truly a "God" thing.
>I say bring it! I try to take the tortoise's approach to competition: I do the best I can, maintain my pace, and let the others fall by the wayside. It doesn't mean I always rise to the top, but it means I get better every time, and I keep my sanity. Good deal!
>The competition is encouraging in a counterintuitive way. It causes me to think writing must be a worthwhile endeavor or else why would so many of us be toiling away at it?
Of course, that could just be my masochistic streak showing….Marsha
>The competition excites me, but only because of the nature of it. I don't compete well in objective contests: the fastest time, the tallest tower, etc. I enjoy the je ne sais quoi of "artistic" competitions, though.
I understand what you mean about many writers competing for few publishing contracts, Rachelle. Like you, though, I think good artists always find a niche, big or small. Singers are no exception. Many of the Idol singers won't make the Top 12, but perhaps some of them will land contracts outside the competition. Oftentimes, the Idol winner slips into obscurity while the runners-up land high-profile deals. Other contestants might become successful background singers, local stars, or just enjoy singing in the church choir once in a while. 🙂 So I but don't see it as "one winner-lots of losers", as in a marathon. I see it as "one winner for this contest, and lots of other ways to win."
Perhaps I'm just a Pollyanna…but thinking like this keeps me halfway sane, at least!
>I moved myself out of the competition by choosing to go the self-publishing route. This path has been incredibly freeing because I don't have to please anyone but myself. My book should be on the market in a month or so (I submitted my files the first week of January). That sure beats the 1 to 2 years a traditional publisher takes to bring a book to market. A caveat, though, I am an experienced writer and editor, so I know what I am doing.
>I appreciate healthy competition. It stimulates me to work harder. I also enjoy learning from those around me.
>I say ignore the competition. Otherwise, querying would be nerve-wracking, and instead of getting excited about possibilities, you begin to doubt your own talents. Learn constantly, work hard, be humble and if you wish to compete, compete with yourself.
>I was thinking the same thing as I watched Idol last night. Great post!
"ANYBODY can upload their singing performance on YouTube. Voila! They're a star!"
You mean like Justin Beiber?
As for "coveted slots" with traditional publishers, who is coveting those slots and why?
Piddling royalites, no support, no marketing, dying bookstores, signing away e-book royalties. Coveted? Not by me. No competition from me.
Timothy Fish: Good points.
>Katie, while it is common for self-published books to have low sales, it is rare that a self-published book will have no readers at all.
When we look at this situation as there being a limited number of publishing lots and a limited number of people looking to buy books, this does look like a competition and it can be frustrating. I don’t, however, think that is the best way to look at this. If we have ten authors with similar books and one reader, we could say they are competing for that one reader to choose between them, but it is conceivable that that one reader will purchase all ten books. The reader might like one book more than the others, but it may be that another reader who likes all ten books picks another as the favorite. It is an odd competition when everyone can win.
Instead of a competition, it is more like a puzzle. All of us have people out there among the millions of readers who would love to read our books if they knew about them. The puzzle is figuring out how to get our book in front of those people with the least amount of overlap with the people who aren’t interested. Because we aren’t really competing for the same readers, it does me no harm to inform readers about another author when I happen to find people who might be interested in what the other author has written. Likewise, it does other authors no harm to mention my books when they find readers who might enjoy what I have written. It might seem that there is competition when two writers are writing about the same subject, but even then it is not the case because most readers want several books about a subject, not just one.
>Competition is a reality check – as you stated in your article – "it's never going to be all about you." Competition makes me want to be the best I can be and figure out how to be the best readership, publishers and agents want me to do. Whatever it takes to get the message out there.
Thanks for your encouragement. I hear good things about Rachelle Gardner.
Because He Loved Us First,
1 John 4:10
Carmen E. Richards
>Interesting… I don't think the idea of "competition" has to automatically translate into being driven by fear.
Also, in response to Courtney above… being real friends with our competitors is possible and happens all the time in every walk of life. Those kids on Idol talk about it all the time, how they've made such good friends and are so sad when their friends have to leave the show. Most writers are good friends with many other writers, even though they may write similar things. I'm good friends with several other agents, even though we are competing both for clients and for spots in the publishing houses.
>What scares me is not the competition per se, but the fact that I'm not competing based primarily on the pure quality of the writing. If that were the case, I feel I might be able to hold my own. But I'm competing on the basis of which books are perceived as having appeal to the widest audience, and there I cringe. They say "write for people like yourself and your readers will find you," but by just about any measure I'm in the weirdo fringe 10% percent of the population rather than the bestseller-making 90%.
>I started scared and I'm writing scared and when I query, it'll be querying scared, probably similar to the way my son was (no "probably" about it, I've prayed him through so many tough moments) when he started his business, as he has worked on his business, and now as he works so hard to make it successful. He knows he's competing against every other business that sells the same product. They have worked hard to offer the best product possible. Fear has motivated him through it all. I guess you could say he is one of my heroes. I try to follow his lead and to use fear instead of allow it use me, which works quite often but definitely not always. That's when I hit my knees again, so there you go. Fear can be a good thing. I totally get that I'm competing against every other author out there. Especially today. But I don't see that as the bottom line. Thanks for letting me share my thoughts on here, Rachelle.
>Anon: There absolutely IS competition to get published by an established, advance-and-royalty paying publisher.
And the analogy with Idol fits pretty well. Those kids are competing to get a record deal with an established record company, just like writers are competing for slots with publishers. Sure, writers can self-pub. But guess what. ANYBODY can upload their singing performance on YouTube. Voila! They're a star!
It's the same as self-publishing.
Those who are shooting for more than simply uploading their "performance" or their book to the Internet will always be in competition for the coveted slots with established companies.
Hear you, but Rachelle writes there is competition to be published. Not true.
However, as for having your work read, ask the thousands of traditionally published mid-list authors who sit unnoticed on the shelf and have contracts dropped on a daily basis. Publishers do not market or support you.
People browse the Kindle and Nook, and word of mouth spreads fast. Marketing and an excellent book will get you where you want to go.
>Competition terrifies me.
But then, I realise that I will keep writin, whether I get published or not, and I will try and get published and revise my work until I cry… but in the end, it is the act of storytelling that I love, and that's all that matters.
>I agree with all the folks who pointed out that the main person we need to compete against is ourselves. Writing is subjective. Reading is subjective. As we discussed earlier this week there's junk that we love and award-winners that leave us cold. If I try to compete it just makes me crazy. Part of this business is skill, part is timing and part is luck. I'll just try to write better today than I did yesterday.
>I don't know that I'm as much afraid of the competition as I am about the loss of control that comes as a writer gets further into the process. In one sense this is liberating — I am thrilled to have an agent in my corner now…it makes me feel so much less alone and a little less pressured! But knowing so many factors determine the success, or not, of my book (and how many of those factors really are largely out of my control) is scary.
>Anon 12:50 – you're right. Anybody can publish a book these days. But is that the point? I don't know about you, but I could care less about getting published if nobody reads my stuff.
To me, the point is connecting with readers. And since readers have a limited time with LOTS of books to choose from, there will always be a level of competition in this business. Even if the great rapture comes and all the "gatekeepers" get beamed up to heaven.
>Yes, competition scares me. Mostly, the competition with myself and not thinking I'll measure up and that I'll never measure up.
I'm one of those who always thinks I'm not good enough…until I see that I am. And like others have said, I think it's overcoming the competition within myself that hinders me. I tend to think the worst of my writing, maybe as some sort of weird defense mechanism, but I know that hurts me. So I have to try NOT to focus on the negative, think of the positive and be the BEST I can be. 🙂
>Ultimately, the competition is probably more with yourself than anyone else. You never really know who you're up against at any one time, but you know that whatever the time, you have to be the best you can be.
Will that be enough at that moment? Who knows, but once you've done the best you can do at that time, you have to rest in that.
>I like competition and I do think it inspires me to give something my best (though I think I would do that anyway, for the most part.) The only thing I don't like about it is feeling like you can't have real "friends" because they're competing with you.
I understand that could be viewed as somewhat naive, but I think encouragement is a huge part of this "game." And I want to be an encouragement and feel encouraged. So far, in this industry, I've found people to be hugely helpful and generous. I pray that continues…and that I can pass that feeling along…
>Competition is what propels everyone forward in one way or another, whether they'd like to admit or not.
It's important not to be caught in the web of "he/she's better than me". Instead, funnel your energy into your craft so you may evolve, ultimately making you a competitor in the large sea of talented writers.
>About the competition, BRING IT. It creates in me the drive to be the absolute best I can be. Having attended my first ever national writing conference last month, I'm hooked. Those talented folks offer the experience and resources necessary to hone my craft. Competition doesn't keep me up at night, but knowing it's there causes me to always challenge my own writing to ensure quality and engageability. Ultimately, it's in God's hands. He's called me to be a writer. He'll open up the doors when the time is right and give me the courage to walk through them.
>That's a great point. Writing is just one part of a complete package.
You must understand marketing and business, and be able to handle deadline pressure.
Winning is a lot of work. Ask any winning Idol if life's been easy since that competition ended. Wealthy, maybe, but easy, not at all.
Be careful what you wish for!
>The comparision is not apt. American Idol is an artificial contest. In the real world, if all the contestants are truly talented, they will eventually find some degree of success.
There are no artificial limits on authors. If an author can not find a publisher, they can publish through Smashwords, Kindle, etc. The gatekeepers are gone, and the age of excellent books languishing in desk drawers is also gone. Thankfully, there is room enough for any author who can pen a good book.
>Hmm . . . I'd say both. It terrifies and excites me.
>If competition wasn't fun, Monopoly wouldn't have made a gazillion dollars over the years.
And the writing talent may be "ridiculous" but I'd rather beat the New York Yankees than the Pittsburgh Pirates.
>competition fires me up…but i have to keep in mind i am competing with myself…if i can be better today than i was yesterday, eventually i will be where i need to be…
>I've gotta say I love your American Idol parallel posts. And they make sense! Just going to prove you can find helpful advice in everything.
Competition for me, I don't really care about it so much. I decide to do my best and that's enough. If someone else is better, or a better fit, that's fine. It doesn't really effect me much. I just keep going with the knowledge I'll make it soon enough!
>Competition is a good thing. No doubt about it. It makes everyone involved strive for the greatest excellence they can achieve.
Personally, I like a challenge.
>Competition inspires me. If my peers are talented, then I will push myself to learn more about my craft and set myself apart. There's no challenge in trying to beat the mediocre.
>Oh anon, you are most incorrect. If I were only competing with myself I’d have already climbed the NYT bestseller list, heck I’d own the list, because well, there would just be me. Reality is most of us are small fish in a big pond and all of those other novelist have long since honed their skills, most likely on one another. One thing I know for sure– if I want to stay alive in the publishing world, I’d better write for my life.
>I'm a competitive person. My entire family is that way. At times I have to control myself in racing towards a grocery line. It's sort of humiliating but I am working towards some type of normal behavior in this area.
I don't feel I'm competing in the area of writing. To me, it's a business, I either have a fresh idea that beats the rest or I don't.
My idea or story has to separate itself from the rest.
I think a writer knows when they have something truly unique. It's not a guess.
>Competition keeps me working hard, pushing myself to be better. I get excited when I read a great book or see a wonderful movie. It renews my excitement for my own work. I am both a longtime wannabe screenwriter and fairly new wannabe novelist. The competition doesn't scare me, but what absolutely terrifies me is that I cannot move to L.A. and I'm not "connected " . I could actually be the best writer in the world (I assure you…I'm not….) and what if I have no chance of making it because I don't know anyone? That's why I am really enjoying about the novel process -MANY literary agents don't seem to give a damn where I live or who I know. All they care about is – do they like my writing and do they think they can sell it?
>The competition is a little overwhelming, but I know I can only do so much, edit so much (and I haven't maxed out yet!). After that, publishing has to be up to God.
I'm not sure I agree w/ anon's comment. Ten-thousand queries–she didn't pick up one book from the slush, but her client list is still really long. That just goes to show how much competition is out there. It's not a scare tactic, just the hard truth.
>Competition scares, inspires and makes me work harder, but I think the most difficult is competing against oneself. It does boil down to that. But like the poor, competition is with us always. I read things so awe inspiring, tears spring to my eyes. While I may only aspire to that league, I can still appreciate the talent and try harder to improve.
I can’t agree with Lance’s observation that because there are standards for dog shows, there is no subjectivity. Subjectivity and politics take seed at many dog shows. And for that matter, there are standards for writing as well.
BTW, I went to an author’s book signing where she said books are presented to committee not so much to choose the best but to seek out the worst so they can be eliminated
>I've never had that killer instinct that people talk about. Therefore, I've never really looked at this journey as a competition. I don't see other authors or their work as competition. I see them as allies. I've learned so much from other writers and gotten much of my support from them as well.
I suppose we're all "competing" for the attention of agents (for those going that route) and for readers,and some are fighting to get on the Best Sellers list, but I think if I chose to look at it as competition, it would take the fun out of it.
Honestly, I see this as more of a one woman journey and what happens, happens. I think that's what keeps this fun and rewarding.
>I hadn't really thought about this from this angle. Great example. Thanks for the encouragement to keep on in the midst of the competition.
>Both. It is scary because I think for most of us, this is our dream. For me, writing is something I've wanted to do since I was a child mesmorized by Tolkein & Lewis.
But, it also pushes me to be the best writer I can be. Without this competition would I spend as much time combing through my manuscript? Maybe. But I like to think that pushing myself results in a much better story.
>It inspires me! And on two levels. As the writer with the books she dreams of sharing with kids some day and as the reader who gets to share what _does_ make it to the shelves! Thanks for a great post.
>It inspires me! Thanks again for another great post.
>"Does the idea of competition scare you, or inspire you to keep working hard, or… what?" –YES!
When my daughter swam on a year-round swim team, her coaches always preached that each individual swimmer needed to improve their time each time they raced. "Improve YOUR time," they would say. "Don't worry about beating the person in the lane next to you." My daughter would always say, "I improved my time today." Then she'd smile. "Because I was trying to beat the person next to me."
A little competition can be a good thing. And scary.
>Competition doesn't scare me. I have no control over what other people are doing and I'm pretty good at letting go of that and not letting it bog me down. I can only worry about what I'm doing and how I'm doing it.
>Ok, so I'm addicted to American Idol and pretty much LOVED this comparison and reminder!
As an aspiring author, competition does BOTH to me. It inspires me to work harder, to make my manuscript as clean as possible BEFORE sending in a query, to WANT it.
But, having said that, I know once I put in that effort, those long hours, that heart, that if rejection hits too many times, it might just make me crumble.
Then again, regardless of what happens, I will always write. It just may not be for the masses. 😉
Honestly, I can't take competition because the truth is, when you're trying to be the 'best' there's always going to be someone better than you. I hate the idea of an endless, desperate struggle where I eventually lose.
But like you said, competition is not what it's about for an author. Whether or not I'm the best, I can be MY best. And I know when I push myself to be my best, that's a game I can win every time.
>I won’t say that it scares me, but I will say that I don’t like it. The thing about this competition is that it’s personal. This “competition” isn’t about whether one author’s writing is better than another writer’s, but it is about whether what one author believes is a good story is better than what another author believes is a good story. This competition is more about what you say than the skill with which you say it. But the most frustrating thing of all about this competition is that what people disagree with what you have to say they don’t say it your face so that you can debate the issue—they say nothing at all.
Book Cover Design Wizardry
>I enjoy being reminded of competition and the odds stacked against us – thanks! This message keeps me grounded and realistic, raising the bar even higher as I seek to stay true to my own voice and produce the best writing possible. We're all passionate when it comes to believing in the value and promise of our work, but you're wise to sound the "not all about you" theme. Thank you, Rachelle!
>The competition neither scares me nor motivates me. I'm glad that the talent is ridiculous, because I'll know there will always be good books out there for me to read.
As for as my own stories…they either have a place in the reading world or they don't. I seriously don't compete against any of these great writers that are already publishing books or will be publishing them in the future. I just tell my stories in the best way that I can and hope they see the light of day.
>Oh I’ll bring it and keep bringing it. That’s the thing about me, I’m not sure I know how to leave it home. But I’m learning more and more this is my own race. I’m learning not to get distracted too much by the other runners. I want to be the kind of runner who genuinely cheers the others on in the race. For me, it’s about beating my own time. I’m running with a long distance mindset anyway. It helps any little victory become a milestone in its own right.
I have to say, even though I mostly compete against myself I enjoy running alongside others. They most certainly do help me keep on keepin’ on.
Running, singing…I know you get my point.
>When I read something that stuns me for its quality of prose and uniqueness of theme I usually don't spend much time thinking about my own stuff, I get excited about the talent unfolding before me. I've nearly completed Rachel Held Evans' Evolving in Monkey Town and have already mentioned it on my blog and with my book group. Same thing with "Water for Elephants" and "The Hunger Games" and "Snow Day" and "The Preacher's Bride."
Celebration is so much more fun than angst or envy – although sometimes I find myself being wistful . . . "ah to be able to write like that. I wish…"
>Competition isn't scary. The ambiguity of subjective criteria for comparison is.
If it were like a dog show, it would be much easier: the standards are known and there's no subjectivity. With writing, there are too many fluctuating variables, and many times opinions conflict.
>Maybe it's just me, but isn't winning against the competition why winning is so rewarding? What fun would it be if we all won?
>I don't mind the competition and being judged by others. It's my own criticism of myself that seems to hold me back.
>Great post, as usual, Rachelle, and so true. As a short story writer for many years (before now venturing into novels), I've always known I'm writing in a competitive field with ever decreasing markets here in the UK.
All it does is make me work harder at honing my writing and trying to produce what particular editors might want (and I'm an optimist). One such editor was speaking at our writing group the other day. She'd just accepted a story from me the day before she came. But one point she emphasised to the group? That she has so many good, regular short story writers that she has to compare us against each other sometimes.
And, yes, I was even more grateful for that acceptance as I hadn't submitted there for a while. But it does make me want to keep improving all the time.
>Forgive my misspellings its been a long night. –.–
>Realizing there are so many great writers out there. Does two things to me:
1) It does scare me I admit that and I'm happy to admit it. Because reazling that I might get passed over for someone who is better than me.
2) It makes me question myself, how am I going to connect with my readers? How should I show this scene instead of telling it? Is this story done or did I forget something…I should read it over again just in case. How do you start a blog so people can notice me? After the blog is set up….now what?
Yes the competition scares me but I wouldn't be a better writer without it.
>Out of all the agent blogs I follow (maybe I shouldn't be saying this…but it is midnight here on the west coast, and I am sleepy!), I appreciate yours the most, Rachelle. What you say always resonates with me. I really appreciate your genuine encouragement. This is what we need to hear. Although I'm not querying at the moment (or anytime soon), this is the type of quality I will look for in my agent.
>Heh, I realized the same thing watching So You Think You Can Dance. It is intimidating, but so far it's just made me stretch myself farther than I thought I could go.
>You received 10,000 queries last year and didn't take on a single client from them?
Either the competition is not that tough, or you don't know a good book when you see it.
Authors: don't pay any attention to this. It's a scare tactic. You are only competing with yourself.
>Competition definitely inspires me to work harder, but I don't necessarily feel like I'm working "against" other people. Instead, I get a huge surge of motivation when I see authors who get recognition for actually being GOOD. I want to be that. I know I can be. So I go go go!
>Competition pushes me to work much harder, to respect the abilities of the people I'm competing with and to honestly analyze who I am as a writer.
Without a realistic knowledge of your competition, you easily become complacent and overconfident in your abilities.
Competition keeps things in perspective.