Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lessons from American Idol

You know you’ve watched too much American Idol when you can unerringly predict a contestant’s performance based on his or her pre-audition interview. If the young lady cares for her aging grandmother and has a sweet face, she’ll sing like an angel. If she’s dressed as a character from Star Trek and says her friends think she’s better than any previous contestants on Idol, she’ll screech like a stray cat in the alley. Or slightly less in tune than the stray cats.

It shouldn’t surprise me to see such a similarity between American Idol hopefuls and unpublished writers, but there it is. The more a person talks about how great his manuscript is, the more I know it’s going to suck. Please don’t tell me that your mother, sister-in-law, daughter’s English teacher, etc. couldn’t put it down. Don’t tell me how much they loved it. Especially don’t add the phrase, “and they don’t usually like this type of book.”

Your fate is sealed. I know it’s going to be a stinker.

I’m at a point now where I can spend one evening with a classroom of fledgling writers and determine which one’s homework I’m going to look forward to reading and which one I’m going to dread.

Talent does not need a sales pitch. If you’ve made it to the audition room in front of Randy, Simon and Kara, then shut up and sing. Similarly, if you’re invited to submit your manuscript – publisher, class homework, friendly critique group, whatever – shut up and hand it over.

I’ll repeat here some words of wisdom I picked up long ago from an author I knew casually (and whose name I’ve forgotten): “The only person whose opinion you should listen to is someone who is in a position to write you a check.”

It’s great if your grandmother loves your short story. But she’s your grandmother. She’s supposed to love every little thing you do. This is, you’ll remember, the woman who recorded your first deposit in the Big Potty. You want to wrap that up and send it to an editor? Didn’t think so.

So let’s take a lesson from our Idol viewing: Shut up and sing. The public will ultimately decide whether to keep you or vote you off.

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