Saturday, July 9, 2011

11 Things Top Model Taught Me About Writing

Laura and Ann, go on with your weird, charming selves.
This also works for Project Runway, Top Chef, and plenty of other creative contest-based reality shows. I'm talking about writer-as-contender. Whether you're after a contest final, a contract, an agent, or a good review, they way you pursue the coveted and finite prizes of this industry matters. Here's what shows like Top Model have taught me:

1. Everyone has an off week. Even the stand-out talent on any of those weekly whittle-down shows gets a lousy critique or two. As long as the judges know you've got potential and want to see more, one missed target isn't enough to sink you.

2. The judges want to be wowed. Most judges—and indeed editors, agents, contest entry readers, reviewers—don't get off on ripping people apart. A toxic few may, which is unfortunate, but the professionals don't, I promise you. They'd far rather be delighted than disappointed.

3. Be yourself. This comes up constantly on those creative shows—know who you are and play to your strengths. Don't try be someone else, even if you love their work, and don't just go through the motions of what you think a writer does. Don't just pose. A genuine weirdo is infinitely more charismatic than a soulless imitator.

4. Be a pro. Be humble, but not self-deprecating to a point where people cringe. Believe in your work, but not to a point where you're telling the judges they don't know what they're talking about. Always be gracious, sincere, and attentive, but unafraid to admit politely that you disagree.

5. Be emotional. You know all those boring, wooden, flat, cold girls who get sent home at the start of any Top Model cycle? Don't confuse strength and poise with bottling emotions. Self-control is good. Repression is not. Unless you want to deliver stiff, lifeless, forced work, don't be afraid to feel.

6. But don't be a psycho. Like a shaken soda, intense sensations like anger, jealousy, distrust, and betrayal need to be allowed to settle before they're uncapped. Nothing undermines professionalism quicker than a reactionary outburst, fight-picking, retaliation, or passive-aggressive gossip or sabotage.

7. Be a good housemate. Your fellow writers are many things; your peers, your friends, your colleagues, your competition, your connections, your future collaborators. Friendships are invaluable in this brutal business, but respect professionalism. If you're tempted to gossip or blow off some steam, never take it for granted that no one else is listening. Snark isn't the same as wit, and as good as it might feel in the moment, it doesn't flatter you. If you're tempted to vent online, ask yourself, "Would I put this in a public post?" It's the interwebs, people. The cameras are always rolling. Never forget—the reunion show's got clips.

8. Accept defeat gracefully. If you get voted off (a contest loss, a rejection, a shitty review) take it like a pro. If appropriate, thank the judges for their time and interest, and exit with a smile. Last impressions count, too, so leave a pleasant taste in their mouths. It's okay if you're faking it for the sake of dignity—grace doesn't have to feel good.

9. Triumph just as gracefully. If your fellow contestants are heartbroken, don't do a touchdown dance at the podium. Own and celebrate your happiness, but again—dignity.

10. Tabloids are a bitch. On the grand scale of a national reality show, no matter how popular a contestant is, for every ten fans, every ten flattering gossipy blog posts about them, there will be a certain percentage of cruel ones. The same goes for reviews. No one—no author or genre or book or voice or plot—can please everyone. Not even close. And not your job. And sad as it is, some people are naturally, toxically contrary, and will make it a point to hate things that others praise. They don't matter—dodge them like turds on a hot sidewalk. For the rest, know yourself and what you're feeling, and if you're going to click on an editor or agent's e-mail or a review link, do so when you know you're in a frame of mind to handle it, good news or bad.

11. The show ends, but the job doesn't. No triumphant high or sting of defeat lasts forever. Take heart if you struggled and came up short, because one set-back is just that—one set-back. You didn't final in the Golden Heart, but a year from now, who'll care? You still get to write, and isn't that what you love? What's that you say? You won the Golden Heart? Well, bask in that excitement and take your bows, savor but don't wallow, because the glow is joyous but fleeting. Careers grow or fizzle well after the show's finale airs. When the newness and attention of a triumph wanes, what you do, alone in front of your keyboard, is what really matters. So make damn sure you love it.


  1. Great post! I am now inspired, but in a humble way. I am ready to take on the world and dazzle it respectfully, then resume work in my garret, content with my art. (For reals.)

  2. Great advice. I always knew watching reality shows could be a worthwhile pursuit!