Inspiration, Perspiration and Aspiration

Thomas Edison is famously known for coining the oft-quoted phrase, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” Some folks hovering in the shadows of the publishing industry have glommed onto this quote as a rallying cry for aspiring authors. “It’s not about talent – it’s about hard work,” they say. Well, they don’t actually say “it’s not about talent,” but the implication of Edison’s statement when recklessly applied to creative genius is that anyone with even a penny’s worth of an idea can work hard enough to someday achieve their publishing goals.

Nope. Not true.

I’ll wait while you take a moment to quote examples of “no-talents” who have worked their way into successful publishing careers.

Done? Yeah, I hear you. We could easily turn a corner here and start talking about what “talent” is, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say that even the “worst” published writers have something to offer the reading public. [Oh, and that Edison fellow? He didn’t actually invent the light bulb – he improved on other people’s work. His “inspiration” was about refinement and revision and re-invention. Sound familiar, writers?]

Edison’s quote has been so misused that I sometimes feel sorry for the light bulb. But did you know Edison had more to say about “genius”? Perhaps as clarification for his “1/99″ comment he allegedly said, “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come by accident. They came by work.”

Ah, yes. Now we’ve got something usable for aspiring authors. It’s gonna take work. This is no surprise to any of you who have been studying writing books and agenting blogs and attending conferences in search of publishing wisdom. Keep at it. A lot of hard work can make a good idea into a great one.

But (you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you) all the hard work in the world won’t turn an uninspired novel into an inspired one*. If your story is boring or unoriginal or badly written, if your idea (or your re-invention of someone else’s idea) isn’t the least bit interesting, your chances of being published are slim.

This isn’t the sort of message I like to deliver. I’d much prefer to say “all aspiring writers have an equal chance of getting published someday if they just work hard enough at it.” But that would be a lie.

I simply can’t downplay the importance of inspiration. Of a good idea. Of a great story. Of a compelling voice. Nor should you.

Do you have it? Do you have the inspiration or talent to set you apart from the rest? I don’t know. Maybe. (This is where you can be thankful for the role of subjectivity. One agent’s “I don’t see it” is another agent’s “you’ve got what it takes” when it comes to identifying inspired writing.)

However, let’s remember: Edison was no idiot. He was gifted with a highly capable brain. Likewise, some people have a natural gift for writing. (If you’re one of them, lots of folks secretly despise you. Oh, they don’t wish you harm. They’re just upset that God didn’t spread the inspiration a bit wider and feel it’s particularly unfair that through some processing error in the Brilliance Distribution Department you ended up with their share.) Every idea they exhale dances like Baryshnikov. Of course, if those folks never do a lick of work with that inspiration, they’re as unlikely to be published as those who are all work and no inspiration.

Which leads me to a suggested revision of Edison’s quote, specifically tuned for the writing community. If you’re uncomfortable with seemingly impossible math, you might want to look away. Here goes:

“Finding success as a writer is 100 percent inspiration and 100 percent perspiration.”

Think about that for a moment. Actually, you know what? Think about it until my next post.


*Please note, I’m not saying you can’t find new inspiration for a novel in the process of working through it. I’m simply stating that any book that is completely void of inspiration is most likely unpublishable (by traditional means, anyway).

10 Reasons I Don’t Want to Be a Bestselling Author

1. I’ll have to purchase a whole new wardrobe from somewhere other than Wal-Mart so people don’t accuse me of wearing my false modesty like a neon sign.

2. Jerry Bruckheimer will want to add explosions to the movie adaptation of my bittersweet love story.

3. I’ll be the guest who gets bumped from Letterman when his lovefest interview with Julia Roberts runs long.

4. Struggling authors will hold quarterly “Hate Stephen Parolini” days to coincide with the receipt of their royalty statements.

5. An interviewer will ask me questions like “Did you know you had written a bestseller?” and “What’s your secret to writing a bestseller?” over and over again until I finally lose the very patience that helped me to complete a novel in the first place and I’ll snark my response to her and ask “What’s your secret to asking such inane questions?” and then she’ll get all huffy and accuse me of calling her “insane” and when I correct her and say “No, the word was ‘inane’ and I was referring to the questions” she’ll get even huffier and yell “So are you calling me stupid?” to which I’ll reply, “Not, ‘stupid’ per se, but possibly ‘vocabulary-deprived’” and I might giggle a little at that but she’ll have already started swinging the microphone toward my head and when it lands with a dull thud against my skull I’ll fall limply to the ground (all the while, chiding myself for having fallen in collusion with an adverb) and wake up days later in the hospital with temporary memory loss and blindness that last just long enough for readers not to care about any subsequent books I might write.

6. I’ll have enough money to afford a new laptop. This will trigger a six-month season of writer’s block while my muse considers whether or not she wants to move from the old one.

7. People will ask me all kinds of questions about my writerly influences and quiz me about famous authors and their books and stuff. I can only get away with saying “I like Tender Is the Night even though it lacks the brilliance of The Great Gatsby and occasionally reads like Fitzgerald’s thinly-disguised memoir” so many times before people will realize just how under-read I am.

8. I’ll never be able to go to the grocery store again without being swarmed by adoring fans. Er…wait, I’m an author, not Robert Pattinson. No one knows what I look like. Cool.

9. Everyone I know will ask me “So, which character is based on me?” and when I offer a generic response they’ll be immediately disappointed that I didn’t say “the beautiful protagonist” and will think instead that they were the inspiration for the shrill, selfish, tramp and then they’ll stop talking to me. Which, I suppose, could give me inspiration for another character in my next book.

10. Oh, yeah. I have to write another book.

Unexpected Things

So, yeah. About the roaring silence.

Sometimes the best-laid plans…etc.

Life has sent a few (significant) unanticipated challenges and changes my way recently. And these things aren’t about to go away. So… I’ve had to make the difficult decision to re-direct my energies from this site to the Real Life Stuff.

I’m well aware that the way to build an online audience/platform is through regular, uninterrupted blog posts. And that just isn’t going to happen here. Not for a while. But rather than shutter everything and write it off as a fun three-month experiment, I’ve decided to leave the blog right here. When I have a writing window, I’ll finish one of the many posts waiting in the “drafts” folder and let you know about it through Twitter or Facebook. But… don’t hold your breath. (Well, you can if you want. Just don’t blame me when you expire.)

I’m not happy about this. I like it here. But you know how life works, right? Of course you do – because that’s what you’re writing about. Maybe one day you’ll read all about my current life challenges… in my novel.

Thanks for all your comments and kind words.

Live well. Write often.

See you… sometime.

How Do You Write What You Don’t Know?

[Note: Stephen is currently collecting data on what it’s like to experience a great deal of pain (for use in some future work of fiction, of course), so this post is gonna be short. He’s really counting on a couple of you providing the bulk of the post in the comments section. Bring on your wisdom.]

Okay, here’s the question of the day: How do you write a scene where a character experiences something you’ve never personally experienced? I mean things like shooting an innocent man. Jumping from a speeding car. Standing on stage in front of 100,000 adoring fans. Facing your greatest foe. Kissing someone who is not your spouse. Being told you have a terminal disease. Learning that your teenage daughter is pregnant.


Yeah. These aren’t little things. Perhaps you’ve experienced some of them. (If so, you have my sympathies. Particularly if you’ve done the whole dying thing.) But I want to know how you approach the situations you haven’t experienced. And I’m not just talking about how you calculate the number of times you roll on the dusty ground after leaping from the car. I’m talking about the entire experience – especially the emotions that accompany the drama.

Does the loss of a favorite pet give you enough familiarity with ache to write a believable scene about the loss of a lover or a friend? Does the bitterness you felt toward a co-worker who took the last donut give you enough raw material to write a scene about a man who discovers his employees have been stealing from him?

Okay, floor’s yours. Talk amongst yourselves. Tell me what you know.

[Swallows pain pills, climbs into bed, closes eyes. It’s called research, people.]

I’m Good at Drawing Frogs

When I was 10 years old, I liked drawing almost as much as writing. And though I dabbled in the drawing of reptiles, particularly snakes (which are actually a bit more complex than one might assume, despite their limbless design), I became particularly adept at frogs. If you wanted a drawing of a frog, you came to me.

I enjoyed drawing frogs. I mean, frogs are definitely the sort of creature boys ought to draw if they draw at all. Well, frogs and spiders. (Though if you ask me, spiders are more about math that art. Can you count to eight? You can draw a spider.)

But I also liked horses. Now before you accuse me of being all girly (no, I did NOT sew my own G. I. Joe clothes… I manufactured them – please, make note of the distinction), I’d like to add that my love for horses came from watching The Lone Ranger on TV (a totally masculine show because the protagonist is a cool cowboy who wears a mask), and not from falling in love with Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague (although, yes, I did read it – purely for research purposes).

It was only natural that I would attempt to combine my love for drawing and my interest in horses.

Only one problem. I was a frog specialist.

My first attempts at drawing horses were disasters. If you know anything about horses, you know that words like “sleek” and “majestic” define their shape, whereas, frogs are all about “bulbous.”

I quickly became frustrated and disappointed and nearly stopped drawing altogether. I thought that all artists would naturally be able to draw anything they wanted.


Thankfully, in the midst of my pre-adolescent pencil-and-paper angst, someone asked for a picture of a frog. I drew it. And it was good. Damn good.

Meanwhile, I bought a book called “How to Draw Horses” or something like that. I studied it. I practiced. And I improved. Had my interests not suddenly shifted to All Things Sports, my horse drawing ability might have soon eclipsed my frog drawing skill.

Okay. Segue here.

When I first started writing, I became quite good at instructional copy. Curriculum, sunday school lessons, things like that. I enjoyed writing instructional copy (in part because I was good at it).

I also loved reading novels.

Do you see where this is going? Of course you do. I wanted to write novels.

My first attempts were pretty awful. They were… bulbous. I almost gave up writing when I realized how far off the mark I was.

But then someone asked me to write curriculum. For money. Real money.

So that’s what I did. And over time, I added all sorts of non-fiction writing to my resume. I became an editor and discovered I was good at that, too. Then I worked my way into editing fiction (which is what I do almost exclusively today). The whole time, I never stopped trying to improve my fiction writing.

Here’s the perfect place in my over-long post to reveal all the amazing novels I’ve written and published. Except I’m still working on that. I think I’m at a place where my novel writing is as good as (or even better than) my non-fiction writing, and I might just be a better writer than editor. I guess we’ll see soon enough (“soon enough” meaning as soon as I finish the current w.i.p. and start doing just what you’re doing – submitting it to agents).

The point of all this? Simple: Find out what you naturally write well; write lots of it; and, if possible, get paid. Meanwhile, keep getting better at what you love.

Someday, you might just become adept at drawing horses.

Well, that’s it for today… I’ve got a few frogs to draw. Gotta pay the bills, you know?

See you next time.