Thursday, October 11, 2007

Are You a Brilliant Writer?

I’m sitting here in front of my computer without a clue of what I’m going to blog about. I have several ideas but none of them feel right for today.

When in doubt I like to drop back to my favorite topic: Writing.

Not technique or rules. Not advice or encouragement but perspective. Writing is an odd profession in almost every respect. You can enter it late in life, as a prodigy, or by design after schooling. No matter your success in the industry everyone, and I mean everyone, thinks they can be just as successful. Just this week I was in the post office and the postal worker asked me why I was sending out so many books. I told him I was a writer and he said as soon as he retired from the postal service he was going to write novels for a living. Good luck with that plan.

No other profession intrigues people with the belief of vast rewards, free time and a fun diversion. The truth, at least for the writers that I know, is far more problematic.

The job of writing a novel starts off with the romantic notion of writing something that speaks to people. Something that taps emotions through human interaction, drama, comedy or thrills. Sounds great.

The reality is that crafting a novel is difficult and never, ever, ever gets easier. I am never satisfied with something I write. I am reluctant to hand it into my agent or editor, fret over it after I’ve sent it off and always revise once I get half a chance. Recently I might have started to get past that when I was reminded by someone I respect that even the slightest easing of focus or passion changes a story from a marketable, publishable novel to a nice piece of writing my friends might enjoy. It was a kick in the ass I needed and frankly wish a few other writers might get once in a while.

Recently an unpublished writer asked me if I ever write something and then think, “This is really great.” I thought she was kidding. Then she said that she felt she had just written something that was, and I quote, "brilliant". Brilliant is tough to live up to. If I’ve worked on a few chapters and they don’t suck to the point of making me nauseous then I feel like I’ve made progress. I try to read books on writing and related topics on a regular basis, which is a little weird because I never read much about writing before I was published. I want every book I write to be better than the last. This is also a problem because of the subjective measurements. Do you go by reviews? Sales? Reaction by readers? Who knows, I just want me to like it a little better than anything I have written before it.

I slacked off a little recently but now I know for sure that I don’t want my writing to make me vomit. (Jeff Shelby, Paul Levine and others can insert their joke of choice here)

Sounds like a pretty low standard but I would be hesitant to read something that the author considers “brilliant”.


(For the record I've never read the three books I have shown on this blog. I never even heard of them.)



Can you tell when an author “phones it in”? If you’re a writer do you have similar experiences? This is something I’d really love to hear about.

19 comments:

  1. I know a published writer with a few books under her belt who thinks she's brilliant. She thinks everything she writes is perfect. Honestly. I've read her work. Let's just say that she's got an amazing sense of self-love.

    Me, not so much. I'm with you, Jim. I read my work and keep thinking, I know I can do better. But constantly challenging ourselves means we'll continue to get better, because we're not deluded and think we don't need to keep learning.

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  2. James O. Born10/11/2007 7:00 AM

    Karen,
    Does Alison get mad when you talk about her like that?

    Jim

    I wished you'd used a man as the example so I could work Shelby into the comment.

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  3. Every once in a while I'll write something that I feel is pretty good, but the bulk of the time I feel like a complete hack and like I'm pounding my head against a wall trying to get it right. And when anyone tells me they think my stuff is good my opinion of them usually drops a little.

    Except Jeff, he doesn't have any more respect to lose.

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  4. I didn't want to make it too easy for you, Jim.

    And no, it's not Alison, of course. It's someone who most likely would never deign to visit this blog. Or mine, either, for that matter.

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  5. patty smiley10/11/2007 9:00 AM

    You are so right-on-the-money with this, Jim. It's a good sign when writers wring their hands over their work product, because no matter how "brilliant" your book may be, there will always be some other author whose book makes yours look like See Jane Run.

    The only writer I know personally who falls into the I-am-brilliant category obviously has no idea that there is a fine line between self-promotion and braggadocio. The latter is a total bore.

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  6. "I slacked off a little recently but now I know for sure that I don’t want my writing to make me vomit."

    Why? Your writing makes everyone else vomit.

    (You said to insert joke. Just following directions...)

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  7. "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." --attributed to Gene Fowler, among others.

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  8. Reading my own writing is like eating week-old pizza. Of all the quotes about our craft, the one that pokes me squarely in the eye is this one, which definitely comes from Gene Fowler:

    "Sometimes I think my writing sounds like I walked out of the room and left the typewriter running."

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  9. "I want every book I write to be better than the last. This is also a problem because of the subjective measurements. Do you go by reviews? Sales? Reaction by readers? Who knows, I just want me to like it a little better than anything I have written before it."

    I have the same goal, but I phrase it a bit differently. I want every new book or short story to mark growth. What that means is that I set challenges for myself, and try to rise to them. It may be as simple as "Write a short story in first person narrative." It may be as complex as ripping a character's life apart to the point they're left in utter ruins, with the goal being to make a reader feel their pain, maybe even cry. It's not perfect, but it reduces the simple paranoia of "next book must be better" and enables me to focus. I seem to know a lot of authors caught in that "next book must be better" nightmare loop, who've missed deadlines and paralyzed themselves freaking out over it, so I came up with a coping mechanism.

    "The only writer I know personally who falls into the I-am-brilliant category obviously has no idea that there is a fine line between self-promotion and braggadocio. The latter is a total bore."

    Absolutely, Patty. It's why I don't miss DL.

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  10. "I know for sure that I don’t want my writing to make me vomit."

    THAT is brilliant. And I think it's the ONLY thing I know for sure about writing. Hard to get confident enough to have any certainty about it, most days, for me. Just this morning I got an email telling me that my writing is "ponderous and crude." Oh well.

    And Paul, Gene Fowler sounds amazing. I first heard the "stare at a piece of paper until" quote in a speech Douglas Adams gave.

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  11. I'm happiest when I put together a few words and they actually make sense. :-D

    Been compiling notes and research towards 'a paranormal mystery thing', and spent last week writing a good chunk of the opening chapter, and a couple of extra scenes. As I get to know my protagonist and her situation, other peripheral things sort of fall into place. Been practicing adding background from some of my own travel experiences and such. Bits of the jigsaw that I've been plugging in from my own life's experiences confirm that writing what you know adds so much depth to a piece.

    Who knows, I may even show the manuscript to someone some day to actually read. Might need a few Dark and Stormies for courage though. :-D

    Meanwhile, other paying writing gigs are requiring my attention. Sigh.

    Cornelia: your writing is not 'ponderous and crude'! What self-important twit uses uppity language like that to a published author? Sheesh. Your writing is expressive and well paced, and noir is mean't to make the reader edgy with its dialog and threat. Tell that person to go bag their head.

    Marianne,
    PS: My husband has almost got me talked into going to Bouchercon next year. He swears he can train into DC and go look at art museums and such. Sigh. Soooo tempting. Would you lot talk to me a little bit if I attended? :-) The programming panels always sound way so much more interesting than the science fiction ones these days.

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  12. Marianne, it would be so fun if you came to Bouchercon!! And thank you for not thinking my writing is ponderous and crude. I wrote the guy back and then got a very nice and apologetic email in response. It sounded like he was having a hard day.

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  13. Patty, very well stated:
    "there is a fine line between self-promotion and braggadocio." I can also think of at least one person who falls into the latter category....But, one man's floor is another man's ceiling. So it is hard to determine how "fine" the line is;though sometimes someone's overblown ego leaves no doubt.

    Jim......don't think I've read anything you've written, here or elsewhere, that would make me vomit......may make me slightly sick,but....Seriously,thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Jon

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  14. James O. Born10/11/2007 12:16 PM

    I knew you guys would have good input.

    I alos correctlly predicted the exact joke Shelby would make.

    Jim

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  15. Yeah, just a few days ago over on Tobias Buckell's blog (www.tobiasbuckell.com) someone asked him if he ever got the feeling during edits that he couldn't tell if his work was any good or stank like week-old dead fish.

    I commented that I generally felt that way by about page 10 of the rough draft. (Which might open me up to jokes as well, but hey, it's true. How the hell would I know if it's any good? I just write the stuff.)

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  16. "I alos correctlly predicted the exact joke Shelby would make."

    Well, you emailed it to me and asked me to post it, whining about how no one every commments on your posts...

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  17. "he said as soon as he retired from the postal service he was going to write novels for a living."

    I think I've had a lot of retired postal workers in critiques groups, past and present. Sitting on one's butt only seems like easy work. The typing takes place half way between your butt and your head, but the actual writting all happens in your brain. And it ain't easy. If it were, your postal worker wouldn't be waiting for retirement, would he?

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  18. Three years later, I can now pick up THE DEVIL'S RIGHT HAND, read a few pages, and go, "y'know, it's possible that this might not suck."

    Baby steps.

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  19. What makes a writer? How do you know when you have what it takes?

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