Thoughts on Writing
#45: You Brilliant Hack You
by Seanan McGuire
Exposition is part of both these roles, so here's today's expanded
You are brilliant and you are a hack. Sometimes you're going
to be both in the same day. Embrace these two sides of your soul. Then
bash their heads together until they start playing nice with each
other, because nobody likes the golden goddess whose every word is a
honeyed pearl, and nobody likes that other girl, either.
One truly of the fascinating things about the writing process is the
self-contradictory nature of it all. You have to have enough faith in
your skills and your ideas to sit down and put them on paper, where anyone
can see them. And then, if you want to be a professional
writer—if you want to actually do this for a living, rather
than as a form of private catharsis—you have to find a way to
let people see them. Critique groups. First readers.
Eventually, if you're lucky and determined, an agent or an editor. All
those people are going to poke holes in your work. And this is going to
So how do you balance the ego needed to write with the humility needed
to take critique? How do you walk the line between ALL SHALL LOVE ME
AND DESPAIR and "screw it, rocks fall, everybody dies is a valid plot
choice"? It's time to talk about the angel and the ape, and how we are
supposed to balance ourselves between the two. Also, about why being a
hack isn't always a bad thing.
Ready? Good. Let's begin.
First, Let's Lose the
If I say "brilliant," how does that make you feel? If I say "hack," how
does that make you feel? Okay. Think about those feelings for a moment,
and try to set them aside.
I know that when someone calls me brilliant, it makes me happy, and
makes me feel like I'm validated in my work. When someone calls me a
hack, it hurts my feelings, and makes me wonder why the hell I bother.
The trouble isn't that other people call me these things. I can't
control what other people call me. The trouble is that sometimes, I
call me these things, and that can be a serious problem.
We need to strip these words of their power over us. Don't let
"brilliant" make you cocky; don't let "hack" make you sloppy. Remember
that they're two sides of a coin that we spend every day flipping, over
and over again. Sometimes it's heads, sometimes it's tails, but it's
always going to be the same coin. Maybe you can increase the number of
times you get one side or the other by practicing your flipping until
your fingers fall off, but you can't get a coin with two heads, or two
So you're brilliant. So what? You still need to work. So you're a hack.
So what? You still need to aspire. Embrace both sides of the coin,
without automatically elevating one over the other.
So Wait. Are You Saying Being Good Doesn't Matter?
There's a big difference between being good and
being brilliant. "Brilliant" implies that you've
just had some incredible stroke of genius, something that will forever
change the status quo of your psyche—or at least enable you
to say "dude, did you ever think about..." and have all your friends
say that you're deep. There are lots of brilliant thinkers who aren't
good writers. The two words aren't interchangeable.
Also, "hack" doesn't automatically mean "bad." According to Wikipedia,
hack is "a colloquial and usually pejorative term used to refer to a
writer who is paid to write low-quality, rushed articles or books 'to
order', often with a short deadline." You know who writes books
quickly? I do. Cat Valente does. Tim Pratt does. Lots of people do. The
idea that anything written quickly must be of low-quality is silly.
Good and bad will be achieved through practice, talent, skill, and
insane amounts of hard work. Anyone who's ever let a homework
assignment slip until the eleventh hour knows how to be a hack.
Let me be honest: I enjoy being a hack. I get uncomfortable when a book
takes too long to write, like I must be doing something wrong, or it
would already be finished. I like seeing words appear on the page,
sometimes as fast as I am physically capable of typing them. Being
brilliant is super-fun, but that comes before I sit
down and start hammering out the actual text of whatever it is I'm
trying to accomplish.
What's Your Point Here?
Some days you will be amazing. Some days you will not. Some days you
will be swift and sure. Some days you will not. Some days you will have
people tell you that your best ideas are trash, and that your worst
ideas are gold. Some days you will not.
Some days you will drive all your friends crazy. Some days, you will
Be brilliant. Be a hack. Be whatever works for you. And if someone
tells you that you're doing it wrong, tell them to go flip their own
coin for a while, and see what comes up.
© 2013 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".
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