To Be Great, Strive to Be Ordinary

You've Got a Book in You by Elizabeth Sims

The following guest post from Elizabeth Sims is adapted from her newest book, You’ve Got a Book in You, from Writer’s Digest.


As you plunge into writing your book, here’s the main thing to do:

Strive for the ordinary. Because that’s what the greats do.

If I were a person who used vulgarities, I would say, “You are shitting me.”

I am so not shitting you.

Do not even strive for near-greatness. Look, do you think that every time Joe DiMaggio stepped into the batter’s box he strove to make the most perfect swing in all of baseball? No, he strove to hit the ball.

Do you think that every time Picasso picked up a paintbrush he scrunched up his face and said to himself, “OK, boy, whatever you do, don’t blow it. Don’t ruin this canvas. What you’ve got to do is try really hard to produce another triumph that will make the art world sob with emotion.”

Right.

Picasso probably didn’t say anything to himself, he dove into that canvas with a child’s bright, open anticipation.

Do you suppose that every time Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, J.D. Salinger, Martin Luther King, Jr., F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, Charles Dickens, or Isaac Asimov sharpened their quill or uncapped their Parker Duofold or clicked their Bic or sat down to their massive gorgeous loud clunky Underwood, they thought, “Ah! Now to unveil brilliance to the world!”

They sat down merely expecting themselves to relax and write.

So, then: I want you to behave just as the greatest geniuses behaved. I want you to strive to write an average book. A decent book. An OK book. In order to do this, you must first write an average sentence. And you have to start somewhere. And that is no sweat.

“The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped.”

That is the first sentence of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Cross-Country Snow.” It’s fashionable to bash Hemingway these days (mostly in the form of scoffing at his machismo), but whatever you think of him, you have to love that sentence. A whole writing lesson lies in it: There’s the lesson of beginning a story by writing a simple, declarative sentence, and there’s the lesson of where to start your story.

Whenever I get to feeling anxious about the writing I’m doing, I remember, “The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped.” In fact, if you pick up my second novel, Damn Straight, you’ll notice that I sort of ripped off the structure of Hemingway’s sentence for my first sentence:

The power struggled back up for about ten seconds—ten brown little seconds—then failed again.

You don’t have to start at any obvious beginning, no matter whether you’re at sentence one or in the middle of Chapter Fifty. Get right going.

Unleashing Your True Voice

Another aspect of being ordinary—and being yourself as a writer—is unleashing your own voice.

What does that really mean?

Voice. English teachers talk about it; writing teachers talk about it. Agents and editors talk about it.

Professional authors never talk about it. We just write the best we know how. Voice is simply your style of writing, your way of expressing yourself. Authors write in different styles, we know this. Ernest Hemingway wrote blunt and punchy, for example, while Virginia Woolf wrote smooth and delicate.

Readers love a unique, authentic-sounding voice. Agents and editors hunt assiduously for original voices.

Your voice as a writer is the words you choose, the rhythm you use, the colors and inflections that characterize you.

No one kind of voice is better than another. All you want to do is be yourself. Like everything else good in writing, a free, unique voice stems from flow: from you, the writer, being in harmony with your world and your material.

How to Kill Your Voice and Disappoint Your Readers

  • Overthink your writing.
  • Be extremely careful; that is, try to write totally grammatically, as if the world’s meanest teacher were looking over your shoulder.
  • Try to write as if you’re smarter or dumber than you are.
  • When you want to show that you’re being casual, write down the first cliché that comes to mind.
  • When in doubt, get tight.

How do you write with your own original voice? Stay in touch with your heartbrain, and write it how you’d say it.


You've Got a Book in You by Elizabeth SimsIf you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend Elizabeth Sims’ You’ve Got a Book in You. It’s perfect for writers about to tackle their first manuscript or writing project. Click here to get a sample from Amazon.


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Elizabeth Sims

Elizabeth Sims

Elizabeth Sims (@esimsauthor) is a bestselling author and writing authority. Booklist described her crime fiction "as smart as it is compelling," and Crimespree magazine praises her "strong voice and wonderful characters." A contributing editor at Writer's Digest magazine, Elizabeth's craft-of-writing advice has appeared in those pages since 2006, and she's a sought-after speaker at conferences around the U.S. When time permits she coaches aspiring writers individually and through workshops. She loves to help fledgling authors find their wings!

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30 Comments on "To Be Great, Strive to Be Ordinary"

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Esther Aspling

I go one step further than “write it how you’d say it.” I typically write it how I think it. I’m a bit more liberal in my mind than in my speech, okay, a lot more.
Love this article by the way! I’ll be sharing 🙂

http://forthisisthetime.com/

Jane G

Elizabeth, thanks for a great post!
I especially love the part about voice.When I try too hard, I’m back to writing a composition for my fourth grade teacher.

Shirley Showalter

Excellent advice. I love the way you structured this post and followed your own advice in doing so. I remember telling a writer I admire that I’ve given up trying to be great. But that doesn’t mean giving up. In fact, in many ways, that’s what my memoir is about. As a child, I dreamed of greatness. Greatness is like humility and happiness. It’s a by-product of relaxed and disciplined effort and can’t be wrestled into being by will.

Harold Thompson

Right over the center field fence. I also like to think when Hemingway was sitting in those Paris cafés he wasn’t thinking about his “brand”.

Stacey Laatsch

“Overthink your writing”…man, I am so guilty of that. Here’s my trick I use to get over myself: I write first thing in the morning, while the rest of my house sleeps–wake up, stumble to coffee machine, plant butt in chair, and, bleary-eyed, begin. My brain is not yet functioning at high-aspiration level.

Great article. The “strive to be ordinary” in the title intrigued me to click and read 🙂

Jason Braun

Good show! I think the writers you mention didn’t wait around for inspiration for brilliant ideas either. They worked like ordinary people work on anything, steadily making slow progress everyday.

David Biddle

They have a saying in sports: “Stay within yourself.” Good advice to all. I think an addition here may be, “know when you’ve gotten outside yourself, don’t worry, the beauty of writing is that you can edit yourself back inside.”

Marquita Herald

Well said! Re finding our voice – I think a lot of people are really confused by that, including my fellow bloggers. One mistake I see made time and again is copying the style of another writer. Not only can’t you keep that up for a prolonged period of time, it just really is no fun trying to be something you’re not. Thanks for the inspiration!

Victoria Noe

It took me a little while to find my voice in my blog. Part of that was over-thinking, but I had too much of a that teacher voice. I wanted to separate myself from what I was writing, which of course, turned out to be impossible. Once I realized that I was my writing, and got over sharing my experiences, then it came together. Thanks for the reminders!

Diana Stevan

What a helpful post! I love how you emphasized the fact that every writer has a unique voice, worthy of attention. Also, you generously shared how you modelled your own beginning sentence after one of Hemmingway’s. Every good artist borrows and steals gems. You’ve shown how you’ve made one of those your own. Thanks, Elizabeth.

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[…] – Elizabeth Sims, To Be Great, Strive To Be Ordinary […]

Nita Leland

Helpful advice for me as I begin my rewrite. Thanks!

Rhenna Morgan

Needed this today.

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[…] to be successful? Elizabeth Sims says to be ordinary and have a good voice. Need inspiration? Sarah Ockler explains how Tarot cards are part of her writing process. Think you […]

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[…] To Be Great, Strive to Be Ordinary. Really? Elizabeth Sims’s (@ESimsAuthor) guest post for Jane Friedman isn’t as counterintuitive as it might seem. Her point is that trying too hard to be great is a sure way to be awful, to stifle your natural writer’s voice, or at least to end up with writer’s block. Relax and be you, especially in the first draft, and you’re on the road to something special. […]

Paul

I had a student ask me recently how I managed to write while surrounded by great literature. I told him sometimes I had to put down the good stuff for a bit while I worked on my own writing. I like this post better. Great advice.

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[…] To Be Great, Strive to Be Ordinary […]

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