Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#45: You Brilliant Hack You

by Seanan McGuire

Exposition is part of both these roles, so here's today's expanded thought:

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 suck.

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 Judgments.

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 tails.

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 not.

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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