"Hannah has so much potential. If she would just apply herself..."
"This manuscript is not right for me, but I can tell it has potential..."
It's my arch nemesis.
At least it used to be.
"Potential" was what I had in geometry if I would just apply myself. Though to this day I wonder how my teacher could look at me and see geometric potential -- perhaps I sat rigidly, at right angles? Perhaps it was my exceptional work with V-for-victory arms during cheerleading practice? Alas, said teacher was sadly mistaken as to this day I can tell you with supreme confidence that an "L" is a 90 degree angle, a wonky "V" is forty-five degree angle and something about Pi. That's geometrically it. Although, admittedly, I learned the details of that last one from an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
But I'm pretty good at Tetris.
There have been a lot of manuscripts with "potential" in my career. I remember a particular chunk of words I proudly sent off to my agent, dreams of publication and solvency (hey, I'm a realist) in my head. I hovered around my laptop, inbox throbbing with emptiness. I stared at the face of my cellphone, willing it to ring, willing A to call and gush with thanks and praise and "you're the next [insert author here]" phrases. When the phone finally rang it took all of my professional prowess not to scream, "it's amazing, right?" into the mouthpiece. Instead, I feigned coolness, answered the phone and waited for greatness to be thrust upon me.
"It's okay," A said with the kind of calm that comes from not having your very soul barfed in Times New Roman on a sheath of papers and set it front of the Parthenon of Judgement*. "It's really got potential."
There it was. That word. The proverbial thorn in my side or paw or crown or whatever the idiom is. Obviously, I wouldn't know the idiom because I was no good but I HAD POTENTIAL.
"P-p-potential?" I whispered back while the booming voice in my head rallied: What does SHE know?! How did she even get this agent job anyway?! Yes, she has sold a bunch of books for me which she also helped me juje up, but what does she know NOW?! THIS IS GENIUS!"**
"Yeah! Here, where your characters are having this conversation? That could be an incredible flashback or even action scene. Flesh it out. And this character? Flat. Basically a shell of XX from your previous novel, XXX."
I listened while her words threw ice water on the fire that was raging in my belly. Because...she...was...right. I was wrong. The manuscript was a masterpiece of a 4am writing session hopped up on grape flavored Delsym and stale ginger ale. The manuscript was rubbish. The characters were flat knock offs of people living in other books who were well-rounded and engaging. But it had potential.
And potential (gulp) is a good thing.
It means there is good there. You're on the right track. You've found the mine, now start picking for the jewels. Start hammering. Sweat. Cry. Hate the world. Find your doubt. Find your fear. Keep writing. There is potential there.
Potential is encouragement. I still hate it, because it means I need to dig deeper, open a vein, and sweat. But I know it works. I know now that potential is everything. It's the jumping off point for a great story. It's the end point for a work to touch its readers. It means YOU CAN.
And you should.
*My agent is the kindest, sweetest, most effective editor/cheerleader I've ever met.
**Some of the people who live in my head are a little full of themselves.