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.

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.

Peace.

*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).

7 Things that Keep Editors in Business

A long time ago, in a life far, far away, I worked as an assistant manager of a Pizza Hut. The owner of this particular store (a former Pizza Hut corporate big-wig) had hired a man we’ll call “Gary” (since that was his name) to globally manage the stores. Since each store already had its own manager and more than a few assistant managers, I wondered what Gary’s responsibilities entailed. I found out one Friday in the middle of the lunch rush hour. He entered the restaurant as any other customer, waited to be seated, then proceeded to order enough food for a family of six.

Since this was my first experience with Gary, I was puzzled by the fear that marked the faces of my lead cook, the hostess, and every other employee under the red roof. (Even some of the regular customers seemed to cower in his presence.)

I soon learned that Gary’s primary responsibility was delivering surprise inspections. On this particular Friday afternoon, he was troubled by the dents in the Parmesan shaker (ten point deduction); the microscopic tear in the red and white checked table cloth (goodbye five more points); and worst of all, one of the pizzas he ordered was overcooked (there goes the hope of a passing score).

Inspection fail.

At first I was a little peeved at the nit-pickiness of Gary’s complaints. I mean, dents in the Parmesan shaker? And the pizza wasn’t that overcooked. After my fifth surprise inspection, I began to wonder if he kept finding things wrong with the store solely to justify his job. But then one day we scored a 97, much to the delight of the store manager (a man I feared not because he was my boss but because he was a semi-pro kickboxer and carried himself in the store like he was stalking an opponent in the ring).

It was then that I finally understood what Gary was doing: he was teaching us the difference between good and great, illustrating (in his own snarly, self-important fashion) how vigilance and attention to detail can introduce excellence where “good enough” once held sway.

Here’s the clever transition from a post about pizza to a post about editing. (You were way ahead of me, weren’t you?) Yup. I’m Gary. All editors are Gary, though thankfully, most of us don’t look like we’re trying out for the part of Blake in the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.

So to that end, here’s a list of seven things that keep editors in business. Fix all of these in your novel and we’ll all be out of a job.

Or maybe we’ll find something else that needs attention.

  1. Pet Words and Phrases – These are the words that just keep coming back like the killer that won’t die in a cheesy horror film. You may think “Becky spat the words at him” is perfect for the scene you’re writing, but what you don’t recall is that Becky spat words three pages earlier. So did Louella. And Fred. And in the next chapter, Timmy is going to spit words. With so much spitting going on, your novel is drowning in saliva. Kill the repeat offenders when possible. Please.
  2. Head-hopping – I’m aware there’s an ongoing debate (I prefer to call it a conversation) about the whole POV issue, but my complaint here is very specific. Let’s assume you’re not trying to write from a pure omniscient POV (it might well be the hardest to pull off with excellence). Okay, so you’ve got your four or five main characters and each one is reasonably well defined. Good for you. So why, in the middle of Jason’s scene, does the unnamed baker across the cupcake counter have to interrupt his POV to point out just how indecisive Jason is being? Head-hopping within a scene is confusing. And I think it’s just lazy writing.
  3. [To be added later] – I have a writer friend who can churn out 10,000 words in a day. In order to maintain that pace, she often slips in placeholders such as [descriptive word] when the right words don’t come quick enough or when further research is required. But long before she turns her novel in to her editor, she goes through the manuscript and fills in those blanks. This way, her editor won’t have to wonder what she meant by [large potted plant with spiky leaves]. Now, if you’re collaborating with your editor early in the process, this isn’t such a horrible thing. You can work together to solve the puzzles. But if you’re saying “this is it – this is the final draft” and it’s full of holes…well…fix it first, dear Liza.
  4. The Brady Bunch Syndrome – This may just be my pet peeve, but I’m constantly amazed by how many novels (including many published novels, mind you) end so abruptly. Characters you’ve come to know and love suddenly resolve all their issues and everything is dandy. End of story. It almost feels as if the writer just got tired of writing and said, “well, I’d better end this now.” Give your ending due consideration. If you’re pushing the edge of your word count, don’t automatically cut from the ending. Just write your novel, then go back and trim (most likely from the middle). Allow the ending to breathe. A good story doesn’t stop at the last page. Well-written characters live on.
  5. Perfect Characters – This is a corollary concern to the previous item. Have you ever known anyone without a flaw? I don’t mean have you ever known someone whom you perceived as flawless, I mean have you ever known a perfect person? Me neither. Allow your characters to show their weaknesses – even the ones you want the reader to despise. Give the reader a peek behind the curtain to see at the very least, a hint of their humanity.
  6. Name Dropping – When writing dialogue, it’s not necessary to attribute every spoken sentence to a character by name. Nor is it necessary to write out their full name every time they appear. If we’ve already met Skip Johnson, it’s okay to say “Skip stepped up to the counter to order a Nehi Grape soda.” If you’ve chosen your character names well (if they’re not too similar, for example), the reader won’t be likely to mistake Skip for someone else. Also, think about how people address each other in real life and apply that to your dialogue sequences. Yes, it’s true that written and spoken dialogue have a different pace and flow about them, but if you’ve got too many names flying around the page, it can be unnecessarily distracting for the reader.
  7. Thesaurusitis – Do I need to say more? A thesaurus is a great tool, but when used as a crutch, it can obfuscate the congenital pulchritude of the scribed utterance. Sometimes the first word that comes to mind is perfect. Use it. Unless, you’ve used in a dozen times before. Then see item #1. (Obvious tip: To improve your natural un-thesaurusized vocabulary, read. A lot. Above your grade level.)