What writers can learn from America's Next Top Model

Sometime around the time I was in journalism school--like the summer between the spring and fall semester, or shortly after I graduated--I came across the reality-TV show America's Next Top Model. To the extreme amusement of my friends, I got hooked for a season or two, before the general lack of intelligence among the contestants (NOT the actual professional models, but the wannabe model girls) became too frustrating for me to watch.

Why did I find the show so interesting? Because learning to be a good model is exactly like learning to be a good writer.

Are you insane? you scoff. Models are superficial and vapid! Writers are deep and profound! Well, I say, I may be insane, but you should be careful about stereotyping, because it will blind you to certain truths.

And the truth is, there are many more parallels there than you might expect between the would-be model and the would-be writer. Your typical would-be model, in all likelihood, is not just a pretty girl but a Pretty Girl--she puts a lot of effort into her looks, people compliment her on them all the time, and a big hunk of her identity depends on her being the Pretty Girl.

Likewise, the would-be writer is Deep, Profound, and Talented. They are (cue ponderous music) Putting a Piece of their Soul onto the Paper. Their Deep, Profound, and Talented Soul.

So, Pretty Girl goes on ANTM. She takes a bunch of pictures--prettily! She goes in before the panel of judges and...they tell her her pictures SUCK. She's not holding her body right. She's doing weird things with her mouth. She has a double chin. She's a wreck.

At this point, one of two things happen (at least, they happen if the girl is bright enough to understand spoken language, which is not always the case):

SCENARIO 1: The girl says, Oh, OK, how can I take a better picture? She works on her posture, relaxing her mouth, holding her chin up, whatever.

SCENARIO 2: The girl says, HOLY CRAP!!! THEY THINK I'M UGLY! Instead of, you know, trying to take a better picture, she is devastated. Her entire identity is threatened. She bounces back and forth between deciding that the judges must be wrong and deciding that she must be ugly.

The girl in Scenario 2 either eventually sucks it up and puts herself into Scenario 1, or she stays in Scenario 2 for photo shoot after photo shoot, spiraling down into self-loathing and despair until she is ignominiously eliminated.

Guess what would-be writers do when they first receive harsh criticism?

Is it easy the first time? Hell, no. I did very well in college writing very academic papers, and then I went into children's publishing. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that academic writers don't make good children's authors. The first time I wrote a book, I was crucified. The editor made no pretense: She thought I was a horrible writer, and she was openly skeptical that I had it in me to become a better one.

And I wrote down every bit of constructive criticism that editor had (rest assured, she had quite a bit that was less than constructive), and I completely revised the book. The editor was both very pleased and extremely surprised.

In a way, I was lucky--I had a job that I wanted to keep. If you're a professional writer, you'll follow your Muse right to the unemployment line if you can't take criticism. In some ways, I think things are harder for amateur writers, because if your book sucks, you can always tell yourself that you are simply misunderstood--there's no one with a big stick forcing you to do a better job. But really, what you are doing is choosing to write a bad book, because it is easier than writing a good book. And I have a hard time respecting that.