Brilliant Writing Doesn’t ‘Just Happen’

Genius does not just simply happen.

Shakespeare did not sit down one day, decide to write a play, and immediately scribble off Romeo and Juliet. Jane Eyre was not Charlotte Bronte’s first attempt at a book. Charles Dickens did not write Great Expectations out of the blue.

All these people were supremely talented, it’s true. But along with that talent came very hard work. Before they even put pen to paper they reading other people’s work, learning what worked and what didn’t, what they liked, what tricks other people used. They were assimilating plots and characters, probably without even reading them.

They all served their time as writing apprentices of a sort. Dickens was a journalist. Charlotte and Emily Bronte both wrote stories for their Belgian professor. Shakespeare probably started off writing fractions of plays, missing scenes for other playwrights, small scenes for the comedians. Hard, thankless work that taught them how to structure a story, how to use grammar and language, how to develop their voice.

Even when they did start writing, they weren’t immediately successful. Their stories went through rewrite after rewrite. There are several different versions of Shakespeare’s plays, changed to suit the actors and the theatres. The original manuscript of Jane Eyre is covered in corrections -and she had to send it to 5 different publishers before it was accepted. Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations.

And they were lucky in their time. Shakespeare wrote at a time when playwrights were finally coming into their own, and allowed to write. 50 years earlier or 50 years later, and theatres and plays would have been banned. Jane Eyre appeared at a time when women wanted a strong passionate female character. Dickens wrote just when the fashion was to present stories month by month in periodicals, which exactly suited his style.

The point is, being talented isn’t enough. The author needs to learn from others, learn their craft. They need to work hard, write and rewrite and rewrite. They need to be persistent, and they need to be lucky.

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One response to “Brilliant Writing Doesn’t ‘Just Happen’

  1. What is distracting and inescapable here are the patches of bad writing: “You can become unhinged and cut loose from the world. You can believe you are a permanent outsider. But the innocence of a child will bring you back and give you the shield of joy with which to protect yourself.” Ewwww. As Bosch readers know, Harry found he had a 4-year-old daughter at the end of his last case, “Lost Light.” But that’s no excuse. (Ross Macdonald often talked about innocence corrupted without falling into that sort of squishiness.) If you’re a Bosch fan, that passage — and worse — aren’t going to matter. If you haven’t tried Connelly, all I can say is that as a storyteller, he’s good enough so that even crap like that isn’t enough to keep you from turning the pages.

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