I have a confession to make.
I have recently developed a serious addition to The X Factor UK.
I’ve never been a fan of so-called reality TV, and yet each week finds me snuggled up under my blankets, obsessively watching the most recent show, laughing and crying along with the contestants and the judges. I can’t get enough of it. All of which prompted me to ask the simple question: Why?
It’s not the singing. I like music as much as the next person, but I like what I like. Most of the songs on the show aren’t ones I’d choose to listen to in a blue fit.
It’s not the talent. As much as I love a bit of karaoke, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. A singer has to be spectacularly bad for me to notice an off-key note or flubbed lyric.
It’s not the interactivity of live voting. I’m not even eligible, being that I live in another country, and I watch the show days after it aired. (As to why I watch the UK version, and not the Australian iteration, I can answer that in two words: Simon Cowell.)
No, it’s something a lot more simple than any of those things.
When a young man stands up in front of the judges and sings Labyrinth’s Jealous with so much emotion it makes even Simon Cowell shed a tear, we’re not sitting at home crying because of his talent. We’re preparing to hit the “Share to Facebook” button because not only is he an incredibly talented singer, we know that he’s really singing to his best friend, who died two years earlier.
When a 40-year-old woman stands up and sings Whitney Houston’s I didn’t Know My Own Strength, we’re not moved because of her awesome vocal ability. We’re moved because not only does she have an awesome vocal ability, she also spent years helping her new husband learn to walk again after a horrific accident. In fact, after her audition, Simon Cowell said, “That could be the best backstory we’ve ever had on X Factor.”
It’s their stories that move us, and their singing ability that provides the medium for us to experience their stories.
Which brings me to the overall story of X Factor, which is where we move from backstories to the way each character changes as the plot — the challenges — push them into more and more difficult, emotionally fraught situations. What the judges are looking for, and what they encourage the audience to look for, is not merely great singing. They are looking for a performer who changes for the better; someone who can bring the elusive X Factor on to the stage in performance after performance.
But, what does that really mean? And what can we, as writers, learn from it?
In my “research” (read: binge watching), I came to realise that there are four categories of performance. Now, I’m not talking about types of performers — an individual contestant can easily move between these categories from performance to performance, and they often do. And that’s what keeps us watching, week after week: the promise of change, either for better or worse.
So, what are these categories?
1. Confidence Outweighs Ability
In these performances, the contestants have a perception that they are much more talented and/or skilled than they actually are. You mostly see them in audition rounds, where they quickly become part of the “worst audition ever” YouTube compilations that are viewed almost as many times as a video of a cat cuddling a baby sloth. But you also see them further into the competition, where contestants, buoyed by their early success, go drinking instead of rehearsing, forget their lyrics, or spend more time talking about how awesome they are than actually putting in the work to be awesome.
2. Technically Perfect
There are literally no flaws with these performances. Every note is pitch perfect. Movements match the music. Lyrics are correct. The costume suits the song. The song suits the performer. And yet… There’s just something not quite there. There’s no heart or soul. The performance is technically perfect, and eminently forgettable.
3. Heart of Gold
These are the performances we look forward to. The ones that are shared across social media, that make us cry or leap up and dance. They may or may not be as technically perfect as the previous category, but the performances are full of heart and soul. These are the performances that make the judges say things like: “You meant every word you sang.” The contestant has taken a song written by and for someone else, found a personal connection with the lyrics, and then performed it in a way so that we, the audience, feel that emotional connection for ourselves.
4. That Certain, Special je ne sais quoi
Every now and then, there is a performance so perfect, so soulful, so amazing, that it shines above and beyond even the best of the Heart of Gold performances. We know them when we see them, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes them stand out so strongly. When Simon Cowell tried to describe a performance at this level, he struggled for words, and then said: “Do you know what I felt like when I was watching him? I felt like I was at his concert. It’s the only way I can describe it. It’s that, you cannot keep your eyes off him.” When someone performs at this level, they don’t just own the stage, they own your whole world for the duration of their performance.
You see exactly the same categories with writers and their novels.
There are those writers whose confidence far outstrips their abilities. The ones who don’t think they need an editor, who aren’t interested in studying the craft, and who publish story after story, sure that their lack of sales indicates not a lack in their own ability, but the “stupidity” of buyers. You also see it in writers who have a fantastic debut, but whose second or subsequent novels could have really benefited from another set of eyes and a few extra rounds of revision.
There are novels that are technically perfect, that follow all the “rules” of fiction, but simply don’t engage our interest.
Then there are novels that make us laugh and cry, that touch something inside us. We read them again and again, recommend them to our friends, write fan letters to the author and fanfiction for ourselves. These are the books we love, the ones we display on our bookshelves, the ones that inspire us to write.
And then, every now and then, we come across a novel in the fourth category. These are the books Donald Maass calls “breakout novels”. They’re not only technically close to perfect, with plenty of heart and soul, they own our entire world from the first page to the last. These novels take up residence in us more intimately and can even change our lives.
Now, I don’t believe for a second that these categories are a measure of a writer’s talent. You aren’t automatically relegated to a particular category at the moment of your birth. It’s knowledge and practice and hard work that lets you move from one category to another — and just because you’ve reached category three or four once doesn’t mean everything you ever write is going to sit within that category. That hard work is ongoing.
The key to moving your work from one category to another is as simple and complicated as self-awareness.
The Writer Unboxed X Factor
Let’s take a moment to play a little game. Imagine, if you will, that you are a contestant in the new reality TV show: Writer Unboxed X Factor.
You’re ushered on stage in front of an arena audience to read the first five pages of your current Work In Progress. And there, in front of you, are the four judges you need to impress if you’re to make it from the audition to the boot camp round: Donald Maass, Therese Walsh, Heather Webb, and Dave King.
You overcome your nerves, and you start to read.
What happens next? What will the judges say?
There are numerous resources out there to help you improve your skills — some of them written by the judges in this scenario — but those resources aren’t going to help you without the self-awareness to identify where your writing sits at the moment.
How would you fare in Writer Unboxed X Factor? How do you feel about that?
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