Category Archives: My Thoughts

Absent Brilliance

Brilliance isn’t something you can buy for yourself. You can only receive it as a gift.

Some writers – I’d call them The Lucky Ones except for the fact that their brilliance is usually accompanied by a corresponding (and non-returnable) insanity – are granted the gift by the gods. Or The God. Or the universe. Or fate. (Pick one.)

They’re born with it.

They can’t deny it. They can’t escape it. It is woven into their being. Tell them to write something bad, they’ll try, and brilliance will whisper in the words they choose to leave out.

The naturally brilliant are not perfect. Far from it. But there is an innate and immutable beauty to their imperfection. They know this. They breathe it. They choke on it. The imperfection is where they find the best stories.

Then there are those who aren’t born with brilliance, but are awarded the next best thing: the Badge of Brilliance. Maybe someone gives it to them for a short story. Perhaps they get it for a novel. Or a blog post. They might get it once or a dozen times. It’s given to them by strangers and friends, by the well-informed and the uniformed alike. It means the most when the badge comes from someone they respect, like another writer. A brilliant one, preferably. Some who are given the badge are too humble to wear it so they stuff it in a purse or a pocket. Others display it like a neon sign.

There’s a third group and it’s a Very Big Group. It consists of people who weren’t born with brilliance, and who haven’t been given the badge.

Yet.

Ah yes, the Yet.

The Yet can be a motivator. Who doesn’t want to be called brilliant? Even those who would ultimately stuff the badge in a purse or a pocket want it. Brilliance is a writer’s brass ring. And so those who haven’t touched it (or those who want to touch it again) work hard to earn it. They read and write and study and hone their craft in pursuit of it.

The Yet can also be a monster. What if brilliance continues to elude them? What then? They become discouraged. Confidence dwindles. The dream crumbles. Writing just isn’t fun anymore.

Maybe you weren’t born brilliant. Maybe you’ll never wear the badge. So what?

Are you writing? Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Are you trying to become the best writer you can be?

Then here’s some good news: You can find happiness and fulfillment and success and maybe even wild success without having been called brilliant once. Because even absent brilliance, you are still the only person who writes like you. And there are people out there who happen to like the way you write. Or will.

I think that’s brilliant.

Saturation Point

Sit down, we need to talk.

Recently I’ve been observing some rather disturbing patterns in your behavior.

It all started out innocently enough. You had an idea, then a dream, then a plan. You were going to be a writer.

In the beginning, you wrote.

And verily, your writing was crap.

So you started hanging out in a dimly-lit bookstore, trying to look casual leaning against the shelf while stealing secrets from books on writing. You fully intended to buy one or two. Eventually. But books are expensive and you weren’t a wealthy author yet. Did you notice the stares from bookstore employees? No, they weren’t upset that you were stealing secrets. They were jealous that you actually had time to read. But you felt guilty nonetheless.

You adjusted your plan.

Your children noticed the switch from brand name peanut butter to generic and your husband wondered out loud why you were washing food storage bags for re-use, but none of them guessed what you were doing with the money skimmed from the food budget.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was first. Then Betsy Lerner’s The Forest For the Trees. Before long, your bookshelf at home looked exactly like the one in the bookstore.

Then came the blogs. The editor’s blogs. The agent blogs. The author blogs. That blog. This blog*. Oh, my, the blogs. You subscribed until your Google Reader was begging for mercy. But you didn’t stop there. You signed up for Facebook and befriended other writers. You signed up for Twitter and followed the pied pipers of publishing.

You were somewhat troubled when you kept hearing the same bit of advice, “read lots of great novels,” because where would you find the time?

“Not tonight, dear, I have a headache.” And I need to finish Cutting for Stone.

“Hey kids, tonight it’s ‘eat whatever you want’ night! Have fun and don’t forget to clean up the kitchen.” I have to get back to The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

You found the time.

My friend, you have a problem…

You’re addicted to becoming a writer.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with learning the craft and keeping up with trends. But you’re not a new writer anymore and you’re pruning in the stale, cold water of too much advice. Yes, this was a particularly bad metaphor. You know this because you’ve read a lot about metaphors, about how they can be distracting if they’re overwrought. You can’t have that sort of distraction in your novel. Nope. Never. You will not write a substandard novel, dammit!

What novel?

When was the last time you wrote…just wrote?

It’s okay to cry. I’m not here to judge you. I’m here to help you.

Time to adjust the plan again. You have tons of good writing advice in you. It’s there, even if you can’t see it. And now it’s time to get even better. By simply writing.

Put away the books on craft. Shut down the 27 tabs on your browser. You can go back to your craft books and blogs later. Much later.

Now is the time to stop being an addict to an idea. Now is the time to be what you’ve always wanted to be: a writer.

So write.

You’re better than you think you are.

 

*You clicked the link, didn’t you. Point made.

Listen

A good writer is always listening.

She listens to the voices of the long-dead, straining to hear writerly wisdom that only time and tide can reveal. She leans a little closer to Hemingway to discover the curious power of understatement and word economy. She plops down next to Dostoyevsky with her moral compass in hand and looks for truth in the floating needle that only points north when Fyodor tells it to.

She listens to the voices of the successful. Stephen King raises an eyebrow in reply when she removes a dozen sharp objects from her purse and asks, “which would you use to kill a clown?” James Patterson and his twenty-seven clones answer with a unison smile when she mutters the word “prolific” as both question and expletive. She eavesdrops on someone else’s conversation with Stephenie Meyer, then casually bumps into her on the way out, waiting until the elevator door closes before anxiously examining her coat sleeve for sparkly vampire dust.

She listens to the voices of the experts. She goes to Nathan Bransford’s place and comments generously and often, hoping for a karmic space kapow of the writerly kind. She’s certain the Query Shark can smell her coming, so she only visits when someone else is already bleeding in the water. Seven days a week she wanders the library-like halls of Rachelle Gardner’s comfy-chair home on the web. “It smells like books and coffee here.”

She listens to the voices of struggling peers. She shakes her head at the complainer who hasn’t written a decent word apart from his biting (if misguided) rant about the dearth of good novels being published today. She steps aside and allows a crit group partner the floor to dance her “Oh, why did I ever think I could be a writer?” pavane. She cries a little when her bestie reads from a heartbreakingly brilliant w.i.p., then schedules her own pavane for next crit group.

She listens to the voices of the underheard and the overexposed.

She listens to the voices of the broken and the perfect. The certain and the lost. The sellers and the buyers. The front-tablers and the remainders. The winners and the losers. The dreamers and the realists.

And as she listens to these voices, she nurtures and refines the most important voice of all.

Her own.

Instinct is a learned magic.

Something About Success

Maybe you’re like many aspiring writers. Maybe articles like this one by Amanda Hocking (or the revelation that she recently signed a publishing deal with St. Martin’s Press) simply inspire you. Perhaps this sort of news taps you on the shoulder, offers a sly smile and whispers, “you’re next.”

If so, you don’t need this post. Go write a bestseller. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I mean it sincerely. Be encouraged and write brilliantly and sell a squillion books (e- or otherwise).

The rest of you? Have a seat on the floor. I’d offer the couch, but it’s much too comfortable. You’re liable to enjoy sitting on the couch. The floor on the other hand is compressed carpet on petrified pad on cracking concrete.

I love success stories. I really do. But they also discourage me. I’m not talking about jealousy here. I’m truly happy when others succeed. I’m an editor. A writer’s success is an editor’s greatest reward. (Trust me, we don’t do it for the money.) But I’m a writer, too. And when I hear about seven-figure advances or million-selling e-books I find myself suddenly considering my own writerly mortality. The questions and doubts I’ve successfully hidden under the couch crawl out and stare up at me like hungry, sharp-toothed weasels:

  • Is my writing any good?
  • Do I have the confidence and persistence necessary to get published?
  • Are my goals too lofty? Not lofty enough?
  • Will people still be buying books by the time I’ve finished writing mine?

Hearing about someone else’s success acts as a pause button for my own writing journey. It forces me to reevaluate why I’m doing this. Do I write simply because I love telling stories? Or do I write because I hope someday to make a little (or a lot) of money selling those stories?

I usually conclude that answer to both questions is “yes,” and I have no trouble living in that tension. But in the midst of this pondering, I find myself face-to-face with a third and frighteningly more honest answer: I write because I want to matter.

This begs the question, how do you measure “mattering”? If I were to leave it up to the world (and even to well-meaning friends and relatives), it would mean selling a ton of books. It would mean getting a feature story about my writing success in the Wall Street Journal. It would mean securing a movie deal. It would mean being mentioned in the same breath as Amanda Hocking.

The odds of this happening are slim.

And that, my bone-weary friends, can be discouraging.

Thankfully, there’s a “but” to this story. (You knew there would be, didn’t you. Good for you. Here it is.)

But…if it’s true that I write because I love telling stories, I’ll sit down at the computer again sooner or later. Probably sooner. And if it’s true that I want to sell those stories, I’ll continue pursuing that goal, patiently and diligently. As I do these things I’ll remember who I am: a writer. And in that moment of clarity I’ll realize…this is why I matter.

You can move to the couch now.

10 Reasons Someone Else’s Novel Shouldn’t Have Been Published

Admit it. You’ve stared, slack-jawed at an open book in Barnes & Noble, stunned by the horribleness of the writing. You’ve whispered your frustration to the universe, a few choice obscenities that brought an audible “harrumph” from a blue-haired woman browsing the nearby Christian Inspiration section.

How is it possible this hack of a writer got a publishing deal and your (almost brilliant) novel can’t even get a literary agent’s attention?

The universe isn’t fair. You accept that. But really? I mean really? This book is utter crap. Except you don’t say “crap.” You say “shit.” And you almost never say “shit.”

Because you just can’t let it go, you buy the offending book and make it your goal to enumerate all of its sins.

Three chapters in, you’ve already found five things that make you throw up a little:

1. The writing is stilted. It’s a hodgepodge of meandering, redundant sentences and pointless sentence fragments.

2. Nothing is happening. I mean nothing. There’s no discernible plot, no tension, no conflict. I have no reason to keep reading.

3. The characters are one-dimensional. Therefore, I don’t care what happens to them. If anything were happening. And nothing is. I think I already mentioned that.

4. The dialogue sounds like it was written by a third-grader. “Mr. Johnson, the curtains were not in the curtain box that was left on my porch which is where they should have been. That is why I am crying about the missing curtains from the box.”

5. “I don’t consider the ‘no adverbs’ advice a hard and fast rule, but after reading three chapters of this novel, I may have to reconsider,” I say, dumbfoundedly.

You keep reading anyway. It’s a painful experience. When you finally get to the last page (74 blurted obscenities and 3 packages of Tums later), you’ve discovered five more reasons this book should never have been published:

6. There are no character arcs. It’s all straight lines. No one learns anything. No one grows. No one changes. No one cares. Especially me.

7. The ending sucks. True, there wasn’t much plot, but just when it was showing signs of potentially being interesting, everything was resolved. In five pages. That’s not an ending, that’s laziness. Or a word count restriction.

8. The whole thing is written in a bland, passive voice. It’s like soggy melba toast. I hate soggy melba toast.

9. There is not one original idea in this book.

10. It’s littered with typos. Okay, so maybe this isn’t the writer’s fault, but I sure wouldn’t let my book out in public looking like this. If necessary, I’d hire my own proofreader to make sure it’s prefect. I mean perfect.

Then, perhaps to compensate for the lack of conflict in the narrative, you take the offending novel, cover it liberally with peanut butter, and offer it to the neighbor’s drooling pit bull.

After moment to savor the book’s destruction, you return to your desk, where you sit with perfect posture in front of your computer. You open the file marked “latest draft” and begin to review your masterpiece – the one that’s been rejected exactly 15 times by literary agents who obviously don’t know what great writing is.

Three chapters in you start to squirm. You clear your throat. You look out the window at the neighbor’s yard. It’s littered with torn pages.

You look back at your novel. It’s littered with bad prose. Your plot wanders. Your characters blend into each other. It’s entirely possible the dialogue falls flat in a few places. Is the ending satisfying enough?

Shit.

Writing a novel is hard work.