The Vampire Test and Other Tips for the Writing Life
When successful writers disagree, what’s a new writer to do?
Posted January 24, 2020
Sometimes I use this blog for writing tips, some of which can be found here and here. I’ve been in an MFA writing program, listening to advice from bestselling writers and marketing pros. I know well enough that writers disagree about writing tips and strategies, but I can see how the inexperienced writers among us could get confused.
I agreed with one bestselling writer who advised us to keep our work private—don't show anyone what we’re currently writing because it can subtract the magic. I've experienced that. Premature exposure, whether in writing groups or conversation, can kill my story’s momentum. I’ve found that talking about my work leaks energy. It’s as if I’ve filled the gas tank, getting ready to drive, and then punched a hole in it. I might get in and go, but I won't get far. I’ve learned the hard way to keep my latest characters and plots to myself. (Yes, I write this blog, but that's different.)
So, I was surprised when a marketing professional recommended a book, Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. He’s a bestseller, too, with Steal Like an Artist. He encourages us to set up a website or some other means of public display and put our raw in-progress work out there. Engage others in ongoing critique. Despite what I just said in the paragraph above, I get this. I'm aware that building an audience means engagement. With so many people publishing today on so many platforms, we have to be “findable.” We have to stand out. Some writers have used Kleon's advice to attract and grow an audience.
Despite my preference to keep unfinished work under wraps, I read Kleon’s book. He did make sense, especially in the age of social media, but it still feels like I’d be letting people watch me put on my make-up. The idea of making a work-in-progress (WIP) visible is daunting. Yet it has worked for some writers, and it gives hope to writers who haven't landed at a traditional publisher. At the very least, Kleon persuaded me to reconsider reclusivity. I've learned that survival as a writer relies on resilience and continual reinvention.
Kleon does recognize some dangers in this approach, e.g., the damage that certain members of our audience can inflict. He devotes a chapter to trolls and warns us not to feed them. They're the pile of manure that crushes a new spring bud. While publication of the work can negate their damaging impact, there's no such protection for those who tag their WIP to the wall of a website.
One of the tips I appreciate is Kleon's "Vampire Test,” which he describes as “a simple way to know who you should let in and out of your life.” When you spend time with someone and feel drained afterward, “that person is a vampire.” The test also applies to jobs and hobbies. If it depletes you, don’t think too long about it. Just lose the life-sucker.
We all know people who steal our energy. Maybe they’re chronic complainers, or they find fault with us, or they try to undermine our enthusiasm for a project. Perhaps they downplay our achievements. They don't just bring negative energy that weighs us down; they physically deplete us. Personally, I think Kleon could have spent more time discussing this peril. Some people are really quite destructive and they hone in on WIPs they can demolish. They know an easy target when they see one.
In The Science of Vampires, I described psychological vampires, or people who have what I called Vampire Personality Disorder. They thrive on the resources of those they encounter, drain them, and move on to their next prey. Dead inside, they siphon life from others.
So, beware! They're out there.
If you expose your WIP as Kleon advises, you’ll be vulnerable to both vampires and trolls—even in a writing critique group. Some writers (like the guy in my second paragraph above) can afford to lose visibility in order to reduce erosive contacts, but most of us lack that advantage. So, use the Vampire Test, set boundaries, and prepare an exit strategy. Once you identify a vampire, as Kleon says, “banish it from your life forever.”
Advice from writers can be confusing and contradictory, but every writer I know has had to develop a vampire defense. That's one suggestion for new writers on which I think we all agree.
Kleon, A. (2014). Show your work: 10 ways to share your creativity and get discovered. Workman.