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Thoughts on Writing

#37: Hype

by Seanan McGuire


We live in a world of hype. We swim in hype, we breathe hype, we eat and drink and sweat hype. But what does it mean? To expand on today's thought:

Don't buy into your own hype. There will always be people ready to tell you that you're so awesome you should be elected President on the basis of sheer badass. There will always be people ready to tell you that you're brilliant, that your books are the best things ever written, that they can't imagine why you aren't winning every award in the industry. That's okay. Those are not bad people. They're good for your career, and frankly, they're probably telling the truth; everybody has the one author that can do (almost) no wrong, or the one book that's absolutely perfect as it is. Still, those six, or sixty, or six hundred people? Are just six, or sixty, or six hundred people. If you let yourself believe them, you're going to hurt yourself in ways that I can't even begin to describe.

Hype is natural, normal, and entirely unavoidable. Some of us react to it positively—"Wow, everybody loves this, it must be awesome!" Some of us react to it negatively—"Wow, everybody loves this, it must be horrible!" Some of us just learn to ignore it, and trust our own judgment about the things we do or do not enjoy. No matter what our reactions to hype, at the end of the day, it's going to exist, and it's going to be a part of your writing life. You're going to need to deal with the good parts, the bad parts, and most importantly of all, with the parts that involve not believing everything you hear. Let's take a good look at hype, what it means, and how to keep yourself from falling under its sway. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

What Is Hype?

Hype is the sound an excited pug makes when it barks. Hype is also the sound an excited person makes when they talk about something they really, really love. When I gush about the new James Gunn movie on basis of nothing but the poster and the early buzz, I'm hyping it up. When I talk about how fantastic this season of Supernatural is going to be, I'm spreading hype. Hype is innately positive, because to hype something is to imply that it's the best thing since sliced bread. (There is negative buzz, there is not negative hype. It's a semantics thing.)

Hype is wonderful. Hype tells you what your friends are excited about, and since you know where your areas of interest overlap, it tells you what you should be excited about. When Andy, who loves horror movies, says that something is good, I know he's probably right. When Amy, who knows my love of horrible parasites, says that something is disgusting and horrible, I know that she's probably right, too. Her negative statement is actually positive hype when directed at me. It's that funny thing we call "context."

Hype is horrible. I've actually had people dislike me because I was a friend-of-a-friend, and they'd heard too many stories about me before we ever met. The hype surrounding my appearance predisposed them to judge me against an impossible standard, and there was absolutely nothing that I could do to change their minds. When you've been told to expect the most amazing thing in all creation, meeting one perky blonde with a fondness for zombies and Diet Dr Pepper isn't exactly what most people would call "satisfying."

So hype is a double-edged sword. It can spread the word of something good. It can also convince people that something good is secretly something bad.

Finally, the biggest difference between hype and buzz—a kissing cousin, if not an actual sibling—is that hype can be created on purpose, whereas buzz is something you can kill yourself trying to create and still fail to generate. Buzz happens. Hype can be made. This makes hype innately harder to trust, since it's basically the cubic zirconium of word-of-mouth. That doesn't prevent it from happening.

Will I Get Hype?

Oh, absolutely. Everything gets hype. Think back to when you were a kid, and your teachers would always have that one kid who could do no wrong, the one whose papers were the best and whose math scores were the highest. Maybe that kid was you. Odds are good that most of the class really wanted to throw that particular kid into the nearest creek, because hype gets old after a while. Or think about high school. High school comes with all sorts of different types and flavors of hype. There's the girl everyone says is the prettiest, who actually becomes the prettiest, even if some of the other girls are more objectively beautiful. There's the guy everyone says is the smartest, who actually manages to convince other smart kids that they're dumb, even if they may be technically smarter. Hype is everywhere.

If you want an example of hype in your own life, stop and think about a time where someone—a parent, friend, or spouse—has praised something you've said or done all out of proportion with its reality. You felt really good about that haircut, batch of spaghetti sauce, or repair job, didn't you? That's hype. That's cool. Hype is natural and normal, and a little bit never hurt anybody. Sort of like sugar. A little sugar won't hurt you. Too much sugar, and your dentist bills will be a horror movie all on their own.

That's sort of the point.

Hype is Only Part of Your Balanced Breakfast.

There are always going to be people ready to tell you that your writing is perfect as it is. That you've changed the literary world. That it's a crime and a sin that you aren't winning the Pulitzer for your engrossing Meerkat Manor fanfic (but it's going to happen any day, just you wait and see). That you are the prettiest pumpkin in the patch.

You can thank them. You can appreciate them thinking so. And if you believe them, there's a good chance that one day, when you least expect it, I will hit you in the face with a pumpkin pie. As this is a waste of a perfectly good pie, I'd really rather you didn't. Look: all of these people are right, because you have clearly written or done something that makes them incredibly happy. And all of these people are wrong, because if you were worshiped as a golden god renowned in song and story, you'd never get anything done. You need to take hype and praise with a hefty grain of salt, and remember that all men are mortal, and all men are fallible.

Never allow yourself to buy into your own hype to such a degree that you stop listening to critique or allowing yourself to be wrong. Once you decide that every good thing that's said about you is objective truth, rather than individual opinion, you're very likely to wind up in a position from which you are unprepared to deal with reality. "But of course I'm the best" is not an attractive or appealing approach from an author...and it's not a position that allows you to grow.

Embrace the hype. Beware the hype. And whatever you do, remember that you're not the one that's meant to be purchasing the hype.
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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