Do Some People Lack the Talent to be Authors?

Talent is always a spirited debate. After the last post, we got in a rather spirited discussion in the comments regarding talent. Lora, an editor, was relaying a common malaise many editors feel (I’ve felt it myself plenty of times), which posits the eternal question.

Are there just some people who simply lack the talent to be novelists?

Good question.

A huge problem is that far too many people believe that a “clever” idea and command of the English language is all that is required to become a novelist, yet that is not the case. We’ve witnessed this with the rise of self-publishing. There are simply a lot of really BAD books out there.

Lora challenged me to write a post that might serve as some kind of a litmus test for talent, but in truth? Such a list is beyond the scope of my abilities because I don’t know if such a checklist exists.

Sales certainly are no indicator of talent. There are plenty of brilliant books that don’t sell or sell poorly and there are other works that sell a gazillion copies and show us clearly how taste has at least fifty shades.

Some emerging writers possess all the technical skills, yet their writing is uninspired, utterly lacking in the je ne sais quoi required to elevate the writing from the mundane to the magical.

Their “stories” are flat and functional, much like a DMV building. Sure, it has the right walls and fire escapes and passes inspection, but it isn’t a place we’d want to sit down and get comfortable.

Other writers are completely lacking in the technical skills, yet even with their wobbly first tries, one can see a spark of genius there.

Does Talent Matter?

Stephen King talks about talent in Danse Macabre (and other places as well) and I really love his view on it. He says:

Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work. ~Stephen King

I firmly believe that and we will get to that in a moment.

Yet, even though King is no huge fan of “talent” he does admit talent is necessary even if it isn’t quite the panacea people might imagine. He equates talent to a vein of gold in a mine. One has to do the hard work of digging for the ore, refining, etc. (the nasty work most people don’t want to do).

He says if you spend an hour and a half a day writing for ten years, at the end of ten years, you’ll be a pretty good writer. Just as if you spent an hour and a half a day digging, mining, and refining ore, you’d eventually have decent stockpile of gold.

Yet, spend ten years refining common earth? At the end of ten years all you’d have is common earth.

Sad to say that common earth writers do exist.

In my experience, I would have to say I have no good answer for how to spot a common earth writer. Most emerging writers who seem to completely lack talent actually lack something else.


Remember at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that too many people believe this job is easy and that, in my estimation, this is the crux of the problem.

In the pre-digital paradigm, not everyone could be published. This meant that aspiring writers who failed to do the hard stuff—read prolifically, study, practice, take classes, go to conferences, get professional editing help when needed, etc.—languished in the slush pile.

One of two things happened.

Either the aspiring writer finally gave up after enough rejections OR he/she was forced to take a hard and critical look at the work and improve. Write more stories, and better stories. Creative crucibles were personal and private affairs.

The reason it used to be a really big deal to call oneself a “published author” was it was a title granted only to those who’d successfully endured the gauntlet and the title was the crown of olive leaves denoting the victor.

The writer had solved the labyrinth and emerged as author.

These days no such crown exists and we writers have been demoted to comparing rankings and royalty checks to discern “success” and if we are “good writers,” which can be demoralizing in itself. In the pre-digital paradigm, simply being published was met with awe from mere mortals because it represented a threshold few were ever able to cross. Even if we only sold a handful of books, we were still a success.

Now that “success” has been democratized? I’m not even sure the best writing is what makes the most money. In fact, I’m certain of it.

Pride Before the Fall

I get writing samples so bad I wonder if the writer has ever even read a book. It isn’t fiction, it’s self-indulgent navel-gazing. The characters sound like girls playing Barbie or a young boy fascinated on his personal holodeck. There is no understanding of POV, pacing, structure or even the essentials of good dialogue. I don’t have a novel, I have tropes mixed with cliches then slathered in purple prose.

****Hint: People don’t keep referring to one another by name when they talk in real life.

I can always tell the writers who won’t make it, and oddly it has really nothing to do with the writing.

Often I get a really nasty e-mail in reply that all their friends loved it and their writing group thought it was the best thing since kitten calendars. I’ve also gotten people who took my classes just to argue with me the entire time.

Then go blog about what an idiot I am.

It Really Isn’t All About the Writing

Yet? Some of the absolute worst writing I have ever encountered was not the end. Their creators went on to be successful and even damn fine authors. Why? Because they were teachable. 

When I shredded their pages to the point one couldn’t even see the original text, they cried, then got over it and took my offer of help. They were willing to spend hours on the phone with me showing them how to kill all their little darlings. They read the craft books I recommended, took the classes I offered, did the exercises I assigned. They slaved and wrote and rewrote and then? Voila! 

Sure, they sucked. But one day?

…they no longer sucked.

I had a winner of my first 20 pages back when I first ran the contest in 2011. Oh my GOD it was bad. But I offered help as I generally do. We spent hours on the phone and Kathy was struggling. She continued reading my blogs. She took my Hooked class….and got slayed again.

And again.

And yes, again.

Then something remarkable happened. She signed up for my Hooked class again last year. I didn’t see her name and just read pages and they were….brilliant. I didn’t want to stop. It was a REALLY excellent submission.

Then I saw the name and almost cried I was so proud.

Another emerging writer paid me for a full edit. The book was excellent to the midpoint then completely fell apart into a disaster. I explained how it went wrong and what needed fixing and how to fix it. Instead of insisting I was a moron with no taste? He listened. I just forwarded his final to a literary agent friend of mine. Two days after sending in his manuscript I got a breathless e-mail from the agent that she was simply stunned by his talent.

Was it talent? Really?

Every time I have run into what might be written off as a “common earth” writer I’ve seen a person who refused to grow. They brought pages every week for critique and despite help and suggestions? Never changed.

They refused to read books on craft because they didn’t want their writing to be “formulaic.” They didn’t read fiction in or even out of their genre because “NY only published crap.” And on and on and on. They just kept recycling the same dreadful writing and now that self-publishing has made it possible to skip gatekeepers?

These same writers greedily snatch up the title of “published author” but then gripe that their crappy book isn’t selling because they “don’t have the mega marketing budget of a NY published book.” In their minds, all that is lacking is the right marketing plan, ad campaign or newsletter list.

Digging for Talent: Back to the Mines

Image via Flickr Creative Commons courtesy of James St. John

When it comes to varying levels of talent (or lack thereof) I think we need to return to the mines. Some mines are easy. Gold dust and small nuggets all scattered about. Very little effort required to get at the good stuff. We all want this kind of mine and yet it, too is imperfect. This “gold” also requires refining. Also, gold scattered on the ground is no clear indication of the size of the overall vein. Maybe this writer has ONE good book in her.

There are those of us who dig through layer after layer with only a dream. Some vague indicators of gold. If we just keep pressing, we will find it. It is there, just an S.O.B. to get to.

Then there are those who go digging for gold and find something else entirely. They strike oil, massive veins of salt, or a giant artesian spring. Still valuable, just not in the way planned. Some writers begin writing fiction and find they are far better bloggers or they excel at non-fiction. Some discover they are crazy good editors (more skilled at the refining process).

And lastly, there is common earth which I believe exists. These folks are almost “tone deaf” when it comes to storytelling. No matter how teachable, how many classes, the writing will just never be there. They are the person who can never quite deliver a punchline. This type of writer exists for sure, but may not be as common as we imagine.

In the end, I have no litmus test for talent, but I have a pretty good indicator of success. Are we teachable? Are we striving to grow, to get better, to actively seek tough critics to make us grow? Do we have rhino-skin? Can we take constructive criticism?

Are we sticking with this long enough to grow that talent? Are we reading enough craft books or taking enough classes to develop discernment so we know constructive criticism from sniping BS? Are we being brave enough to ask the hard questions and ready to endure the answers? Are we making the most of the editors we hire? Or are we defending and arguing? Are we writing? Yes take classes and read but we also need practice. Are we getting enough?

Are we humble?

To me? THAT is what separates the amateur hack from the pro, NOT necessarily skill level.

What are your thoughts?
I LOVE hearing from you guys!

****The site is new, and I am sorry you have to enter your information all over again to comment, but I am still working out the kinks. Also your comment won’t appear until I approve it, so don’t fret if it doesn’t appear right away.

Also know I love suggestions! After almost 1,100 blog posts? I dig inspiration. So what would you like me to blog about?

Talk to me!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of MARCH, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook





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    • Sandy Rowland on March 22, 2017 at 12:31 pm
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    A great post! Have to share.

  1. Awesome as usual, Kristen! Thanks for the pep talk

    • Mary Foster on March 22, 2017 at 12:41 pm
    • Reply

    Michelangelo agrees with you, Kristen. He said something like, “People wouldn’t think I was so great if they knew how hard I work.” Now back to the mine . . .

  2. Love this post! Please send Kathy my congratulations.

  3. Kristen! I actually shrieked a little when I came to the part about me, LOL. And maybe teared up a bit, too. Thank you SO SO much for all you have done to help me get to this point in my author journey! I couldn’t have done it without you…and I’m still learning. HUGS.


    1. Kathy, although I knew you had grit and perseverance, I didn’t know this story. It, and you, are very inspiring.

      • Michele Curton on March 25, 2017 at 11:50 am
      • Reply

      As much as I learned and am encouraged by the article, K.B. Owen’s comment really completed it for me. Many thanks ti both of you for sharing!

    • Jeff on March 22, 2017 at 12:44 pm
    • Reply

    Gut wrenching, full of honesty and another great “zoom out and look” article.

  4. This is the truth. When I first started editing years ago, I didn’t believe in talent. Working as an editor proved me wrong. Now I believe that talent exists, and that there are some people who’ll work hard and still not make it. But I’ve also seen people with a smidgen of talent and a LOT of hard work go on to be fantastic writers, and I’ve seen people with a lot of natural talent who refused to work hard go nowhere. Some talent is needed. A lot of talent isn’t.

    1. That’s exactly how I feel–some talent IS needed, along with hard work, humility, and teachability. All of those qualities are required. I just can’t force myself to edit someone who is missing (or rejects) any of those qualities. Thank you. 🙂

  5. I am going to keep trying, every month, until I win a 20 page critique. Until then, I will keep reading your blog posts as they come out. 🙂

    1. Good luck, Thomas.

  6. Oh, so true. As usual, I think you’re spot on. I told my mentor to be brutal when she had to because I could take it. I wanted to learn. And then there’s the guy who sent me a totally awful children’s book because he didn’t like what an editor friend had suggested and she sent him to me because I’ve published a children’s book. Gave him a gentle but firm ‘this isn’t publishable as is, but here are some ideas on how to fix it.” Never heard from him again. I think he thought he was Dr. Suess. Everyone can learn, not everyone thinks they have to.

  7. Thanks for the inspiration. I am always filled with self doubt about my ability to write. This article is a big eye opener for me that hard work also pays especially in writing. Thank you

  8. Well, this got me to thinking. I especially liked the comments on remaining ‘teachable’ as we work to be better writers. Thanks. Good post.

    (Shared on G+ & on my FB author page.)

  9. Kristen,

    Ohhhhh, thank you!! You nailed it! This is exactly what I’ve been struggling to define… to explain to others… and you did it perfectly. Thank you again!!

    Big hug,


    1. Kristen, this isn’t a comment to be published, I just wanted to let you know that the two checkboxes don’t work:

      1-Notify me of follow-up comments by email
      2-Notify me of new posts by email

      Maybe you could check with your webmaster to see why?

      Thank you!

      1. Oh thank you for letting me know. The site is new as you know so if stuff doesn’t work I am VERY grateful for the heads up. I will let her know and THANK YOU!

  10. Great stuff, Kristen, as always. Is there a link missing at the end for Rise of the Machines? It seems to stop with the word “on”. I thought that odd.

    Thanks for all you do!

    1. Ooops. Probably botched the cut and paste. Aaaaaand I have been screwing it up for months and never noticed *bangs head*.

  11. Being a 21-year educator/administrator with a PhD in the arcane science of education, I have to say — well-written post. It’s a discussion I’ve had, both formally and informally, often and in a variety of disciplines, and I think your reasoning is sound.

    One sort of unrelated example — we did a longitudinal study at a previous institution where we tracked entrance tests (“talent” for an academic effort) against success rate (which in our case meant not just the ability to sit through classes and make certain grades, but also the knowledge to pass a licensing or certification exam. We found there wasn’t nearly as much correlation as people thought. Sure, there were those at the bottom — the equivalent in your post to those who just plain don’t or can’t write English, I guess — who you’d expect not to make it, and they didn’t. Then there’s the ones at the top — the ones in your post that Stephen King refers to in his comment about talent. They didn’t make it as often as the ones at the bottom didn’t make it. The ones in the middle, though, were separated by a quality that the entrance exams couldn’t measure.

    So that’s my two cents, for what it’s worth. Thanks for an interesting read once again!

    – TOSK

  12. Thank you ever so much for this Kristen, I couldn’t agree more. I love the advice shared and it’s true, sometimes we just want to see our name on the front of a cover and refuse to work hard to make sure the content looks half as good as the cover.
    I’d loved to take the classes, am I correct to say ‘plotting for dummies’ is helpful for those who wish to write a book?

    Thank you ever so much, really helpful.

  13. Great post. I was actually thinking of this today as I looked back at some of my earlier works and I can see my errors. Recently, I had a developmental editor rip apart a manuscript I am working on. It felt good. What felt good is that I was able to look at the critiques and areas of improvement objectively and not subjectively. A few years ago I wasn’t able to do that.

    I think all writers need to grow at some point from being so sensitive about their books to learning how to handle a critique. Perhaps it really isn’t talent that makes a writer succeed as much as being willing to learn from our mistakes.

    Thank you!

  14. Wonderful, wonderful post.

  15. Great post. Reminds me that I’ll never have read enough craft books, and I can never stop growing and reading blogs like this one. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Charlotte A. Keith on March 22, 2017 at 1:36 pm
    • Reply

    Nice, I liked reading that information. It reminds me to keep working hard… I keep practicing and trying hard.. So I have to make time to try even harder. thanks ..

  16. As a former teacher of everything from grade one through college, I know exactly what you mean about some people being teachable and others not. I rarely felt my students’ success was due to anything I did, but because of something inside them (not necessarily intelligence, either). I would do the same thing for everyone, but some would flourish. Some wouldn’t.

    Just to be contrary, couldn’t we say that some people have a TALENT for learning?

    1. I dig that 🙂 .

  17. Hard-hitting, but true.

  18. Greetings, wise one and fair :-).
    Yes – I’m afraid it’s me again (blush).
    “Do Some People Lack the Talent to be Authors?” Well, if an Idiot may rush in where angels fear to type – I’ll suggest the true answer is ‘um, nope.’ With a possible side order of ‘er, unfortunately’, and an alternative side of ‘but thank (insert your deity of choice here) for that’ :-).
    And why do I offer two possible answers to the question? Well, to me at least, it’s because of the question. Or maybe a definition. After all, Talent aside, what’s an ‘Author’? According to the OED, it’s ‘a writer of a book, article, or document’. And it stops there. It doesn’t say they have to be a _successful_ writer, or even a good one (I’ll commit possible heresy and say some successful authors may not be good ones – and some good ones may not be successful). But by the OED definition, you can be an Author without one shred of Talent. A pen and paper, or a keyboard and hard disk are pretty much all it takes.
    Yes – I’m being pedint… padont… er, picky with words (blushes again). But isn’t that, sort of, what writing is? Being picky with words :-)?
    And I’d go even further – that whole Idiots rushing in thing. Because while it is undoubtedly true that hard work will help anyone who wants to be a _good_ author – it may not help those who want to be ‘successful’. Talent alone _might_ do that – but so might luck, or bumping into Justin Bieber in a bar and him Tweeting to all his followers how amazing you are. Because to me a good writer can be good, even great, every time they type a word. Even if nobody ever reads them. But a _successful_ writer? That takes one ingredient that may not require ‘good’ writing at all. Because what it really takes is readers. And I’ll suggest it’s possible there are books out there selling lots of copies that might be, um, less than good – but folk are reading them. Sometimes even after paying :-). And books selling few or none that might be great – but nobody’s reading them. whether because nobody’s heard of them, or found them, or they found them and passed over them because all they looked at was the review count, and it only had… Well, you get the picture. But both of those types of book? Well, I’d suggest they’re both written by Authors. Because they’ve been, um, written :-).
    And why did I offer the ‘thank (insert your deity of choice) for that’ answer? Because, for me, there’s another thing. Because, for example, once upon a time if you’d shown someone a painting by Dali, they’d have called it childish rubbish, and said whoever painted it was no kind of ‘artist’ at all. Because, as Marty McFly demonstrated in Back to the Future, today’s heavy metal ain’t yesterday’s (and now sadly missed) Chuck Berry. And as a result, someone who may be considered an amazing musician today might have been locked up for assault with a deadly axe if enough yesterdays hadn’t happened yet. Because sometimes, just sometimes, it’s the people who are written (heh, see what I did there?) off as ‘talentless’ today who, accidentally or otherwise, start what will become the way things are done tomorrow.
    Well, or something like that. I’m probably blethering – after all, I’m an Idiot (blushes for the last time) :-). I throw myself on your mercy, wise one and fair – aye, and those others here. Thoughts? Comments?

    1. All very true and I HAVE MISSED YOU!

      1. Lady Kristen
        But… but… but you’re normally such an excellent shot! I _knew_ that wasn’t a car backfiring this afternoon (blush)!
        To be honest (a Bad Habit(tm) I’m trying to break :-P), I was caught up writing something under my, um, ‘other’ pen-name. I’d tell you what it was, but this isn’t the place for the Great Sin of Marketing(tm) :-). Drop me a note if you’re intrigued – it turned into my first audiobook as well (no – not narrated by me (blushes again)).

        1. Oops – posted from ther wrong email address (blush)

  19. Maybe your new website will like me better than your old website 😀 Great post. Reading “Grit” by Angela Duckworth and that hard work element is very important. It can overcome a lack of influence, connections, etc but talent is still important.

    1. I love that book and have blogged about it. Great suggestion! 😀

  20. Fabulous post.

    Chunk Wendig is another good place to read his thoughts on talent.

    I’ve not worked with nearly as many writers as you have, but the handful I have worked with have shown how true your statements are.

    Writing is work. Writing is editing and rewriting. Writing isn’t talking about being a writer but applying butt to chair for months on end to dredge up a lousy first draft. Then more butt to chair to edit it into a less lousy rough draft.

    It’s work. And a lot of it
    Most likely which will be unpaid, or paid at significantly less than minimum wage.

  21. Again, Kristen, you hit right at the heart of the matter.
    Even when I’m proud as hell of a story I’ve written, I continue to face the man in the mirror…asking him if he’s a CEW (common earth writer).
    Maybe one day I’ll be confident in the answer.

    • Laura Rodgers on March 22, 2017 at 2:24 pm
    • Reply

    I agree wholeheartedly. Some people lack the talent that is required to create good writing. I don’t think that means there isn’t a place for the common Earth writers. Writing is an art and like all art it’s subjective. I see that whenever I dig through the Goodreads reviews of books I dislike thinking, “How on Earth did anyone enjoy that?” As a novice writer it both scares and encourages me. I’m afraid I’ll never find my gold, no matter how deep I dig. On the other hand, I’m still hopeful that I’ll find my audience (even if it’s just my Mom). Great article! Now back to digging.

    • Karen on March 22, 2017 at 2:25 pm
    • Reply

    Shared! Will be rereading later. Thanks for how you set classes up. That plotting class looks great and works for those with day job. The added recording is even better.

    • Claire O'Sullivan on March 22, 2017 at 2:38 pm
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    Excellent post. Talent can be a gift. Even talented writers must hone their craft. Must. I’m great at writing crap, but then the editing comes while I face palm, realizing it’s crap. OK, so everyone knows the first draft is poop. But, within a work, it’s easy to see (mostly–after the learning, the listening, the hard truths) if characters are flat, if the plot is engaging, if the antagonist/obstacle is a worthy one. I have had some tell me– you must reach the 6th grade level reader. OK. I get it. But others tell me ‘raise you readers to a greater understanding.’ I have mixed feelings. If I have to stop every other word to look it up, foreign language or English, that stops the flow. I love King’s novels, not because I like horror, but his craft. I’ve purchased a novel in an airport. Well. You can imagine when I reached the end while on the airplane. Me, sobbing. The guy next to me, wide-eyed. So, talent counts–innate or pounded over months, years. Throwing crap out into the world by any means, traditional publishing or SP (and I’ve seen both)only serves the ego. Boil all that stuff down, I agree with you!

    • Natasha on March 22, 2017 at 2:38 pm
    • Reply

    I love the remark about ‘several’ shades of talent out there 😉 very diplomatic of you 🙂 great post – humility is certainly the main ingredient for me when it comes to anything I’ve managed to improve. That plus the hours of work, as you mentioned! Thank you for the reminders in this post.

    • Michele Holm on March 22, 2017 at 2:39 pm
    • Reply

    I LOVED this! Loved loved loved it. I’ve been writing for well over ten years now, and have gone to many classes, and have umpteen books on the craft of writing, which I read when I’m not reading fiction. I still have some I have to read. I started writing YA (my first book was terrible, second better, third – better, (I hope) but still not good enough. The query process is a drill, but some agents are really nice and encouraging. One gave me such a nice reject letter, it gave me the courage to keep on.

    I’ve since switched to adult fiction and I’m just having fun now, writing. I used to read mostly YA because that’s what I was writing, (and I am no where near a “young” adult anymore) but now I get to read the adult stuff. I hope that one day it’s gets published but Stephen King said you have to write for yourself and for the love of writing. I try to keep that in mind. I loved this post, Kristen, because it was so inspiring. I remember Stephen King’s quote about talent and that also was encouraging.

    Anyway, sorry to babble but I had to say how much I appreciated this.
    Thanks so much, and have a great day!


    1. Babble away! I love the feedback and am happy to make your day 😀 .

  22. Talent has always struck me as a scary word. It often carries an implication that some people simply cannot do it, and I really don’t like the idea of that.
    Self-doubt is often one of the biggest obstacles, and it needs no more fuel.
    Lately I’ve chosen to define talent, at least for myself, as being “the will to persevere and keep trying”. I feel that’s the only way to combat doubt, by simply saying “I will never stop trying”.

    I’ve known people who say “I’m going to try for X years, and then if I don’t ‘make it’ I’m going to move on,” and I feel like that perspective almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    Granted, everyone walks their own path, but for me the solution was to deny the question, and simply say, “It doesn’t matter if I do or not. What matters is that I keep trying.”

    Of course I also think your point about feedback is well made.
    Receiving criticism can be difficult, but it’s also par for the course. Anyone can say “If I only had the resources,” but that doesn’t change anything. Instead it’s important to consider what we do have, and make the best choices that we can.

    It’s funny how some people have this idea of “getting there”, and then they’ll be all set. No matter how good a person is, there’s always room to learn and improve, and I think creativity is at its heart an act of exploration, asking questions and finding our own answers.

  23. I have been sent books to review. They were so substandard I declined making a public review rather than be honestly unimpressed and embarrass the author. They had reviews done on back cover that were so emphatically full of adoration that it was easy to see they were from friends and not honest.

    1. That’s one of the most annoying things about Indy/SP books–reading reviews that praise a very pedestrian novel to the skies.

  24. I actually found your post encouraging. I’ve almost given up on writing about 100 times, but I can never quite let go.

  25. Kristen,

    As always a great post and one that requires us to stop and think. Am I the author that is unteachable? Or if I work hard enough, my story will emerge full of bright colors, sounds, and smells? I always worry about being the first one. (Which is why I follow your blog and make sure to take your classes and read your book! 😉

    Recently, a self-pub author left a link to an excerpt of his non-fiction on my blog in his comment. That’s fine, I don’t mind that. I did check out the excerpt though. I’m no non-fiction expert, but I felt it took him way too long to get to his point. In an email to him, I complimented his writing and asked who his editor was. His answer? Himself!

    I suggested he have another pair of eyes on his work. Just a suggestion, but he took offense and told me my advice was unearned and unsolicited.

    Really? Don’t write a book if you don’t want to hear feedback. And he had left his link on my page. Sounds like solicitation to me. Just saying.

    1. We got people like those when I used to be in critique groups. Usually never saw them again. Sorry but we need Big Girl/Big Boy pants for this line of work.

  26. I had the misfortune of being born to a musical prodigy. From the time my mom was three, she could hear a song once and reproduce it with near technical proficiency. I say this is a misfortune for me because I didn’t share her gift, and when I wanted to learn to play an instrument, she told me people born without talent can learn to hit the right notes, but they’ll never be really good. As a child, I believed that lie just as she believed it. As an adult, I took violin lessons because I really wanted to learn and didn’t have someone telling me “no.”

    After a few years I quit, but while I was learning I progressed quickly because I worked at it. I practiced every day, even took my violin with me on business trips so that I wouldn’t miss a single practice day. Surprisingly, no one in the hotels complained. Writing is no different. A little talent (don’t have to be a prodigy) and a lot of work and lessons equals success.

  27. I’m so glad I stumbled across your website. You address areas that I’ve been fighting with myself over since I started this whole writing/publishing fiasco. Thank you for illuminating my world, and letting me know that even though I had no dream of being a writer, I still can with trial and error, and lots and lots of learning.

  28. There is nothing I would like better than for you to tear my work to shreds, with the added tools of teaching me what went wrong.

  29. A whole lot of people don’t want to improve their writing; they want to game the system. I’m always about learning more so I can be better, so that readers will want to buy my stories, and because it’s fun for me. When I was on message boards, I thought everyone was like me … books are huge projects … why invest time if you didn’t want to learn. But a surprising number of the writers wanted the shortcuts. They wanted someone to tell them what words to change so that it could be a best seller. I worked with a cowriter who wanted a best seller because he hated what he did for his regular job. He didn’t want to write because he enjoyed it; he wanted to win the lottery so to speak.

    Though I draw the line at humble. I would never consider myself humble. Thinking about humble often translates as devaluing our skills or saying the book really isn’t that good. I’m confident and proud of it.

  30. When I had only read the title, the answer was YES. All those nitwits that send me illiterate emails asking to post an article that “matches perfectly with my content” should not be writing anything!

    Seriously, not only practicing but also reading fiction books and “craft books” (though I hate the term craft books).

  31. I appreciate your words today. Today is a day where I feel the pain of a fair-to-middlin’ miner who knows she’s got a lot of time she must spend with the pickax. Grit, humility, passion, talent, time: it’s the best mix for success. Joe Renzulli, who studies gifted youth, says giftedness (talent) = above-level ability + creativity + task commitment. I *think* I’ve got that mix BUT all of it requires constant maintenance, care, attention. (My ability has grown because I’m coachable…and needed a lot of teaching, to your point) I’ve rationalized my wasting writing time lately. So how committed am I? Must rally.

    1. Oh, I like that equation! Talent = above-level ability + creativity + task commitment. It takes both the intangible and tangible qualities to develop talent. As an editor, I adore people who are “coachable”…you are one of the few who are rare and refreshing!

  32. It’s great to read something constructive about the theory of writing, instead of the mechanics. I am a firm believer that it takes a plethora of tests and work consistently over years to refine your skills to become a great writer… if you also have that X-factor in the way you think that can be transposed to the page and engage readers.

    Loved your views in this post.

    Writers have to keep at it, keep improving. Grow and take on the world!

  33. As Calvin Coolidge said,
    “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated failures.
    Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
    Of course, having talent, genius and education help – but only if you persist.

    • Lucy Staugler on March 22, 2017 at 5:24 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you!!! I really needed this amazing article!!! Spot on?

  34. Kristen,

    Great post. Although it’s about writers, it could serve on a broader scale as a prediction of success. Those who engage with others and support their efforts, learn from others without envy of their success, and embrace change, often exceed in whatever they attempt. You did a super job with this. Every new writer should read it. I’m also glad you acknowledged that there are a few who won’t have what it takes.

    • S M Spencer on March 22, 2017 at 5:32 pm
    • Reply

    A bit like the saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get”

    Inspiring, as always

    • Charlotte French on March 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks Kristen for yet another brilliant post. I have your ‘Rise of the Machines’ at my bedside table. Love your work! At present I am a very busy boutique owner so precious little time to explore. I read, I write a bit about all kinds of things, just for me, doing some humble blogging again and I keep learning where and when I can. I listen to audio books to and from work and I listen to ALL genres, thinking I can learn from all of them. Mind you there are some shades of poor writing that I just couldn’t stomach.

  35. Inspiring as always, Ms. Lamb. I appreciate your spine-straightening, take-no-prisoners approach to slapping us in the face with the big cold mackerel of truth . . . but doing it with love. No question that will can beat skill every time, if as you say the will is teachable.

  36. The short answer is, “Yes.” Just as some people lack the talent to be anything one can think of, there are those who lack the talent to be authors. Can hard work overcome a lack of talent? In some cases and to some degree, yes.

    When I helped coach my sons’ high school soccer team, which generally lost, I identified the issue as a core of players the head coach believed had more “talent” than the other 20-25 members of the team. Unfortunately, those core players bought into the fallacy that they were better than their teammates and so they tried to win games all on their own, and then blamed the rest of the team when they lost.

    When I ran drills with my sons and other players I told them, “Give me 10 field players who have pace, desire and just flat out love playing soccer (and a goal keeper who is at least halfway decent), and I will destroy a team of players who think they’re ‘all that.'”

    Writing is not a team sport. Publishing may be, when you consider critique groups, beta readers, editors, proofreaders, cover artists and designers, etc., but at the end of the day it’s the writer who carries the load.

    Can a writer who has the literary equivalent of pace, desire and love of the “game” succeed without talent?

    Maybe. To a certain degree.

    Unfortunately, I do believe – just like there were kids who, no matter how much they loved soccer, were never going to be decent players – there are some people who will never be good enough writers to be top-notch authors.

    That’s an unpopular opinion in the “If I can dream it I can do it” society we live in. We surround ourselves with cheerleaders and pursue a goal that, while worthy, may not be attainable.

    One last caveat before all the rebuttals start rolling in:

    I know I will never be a good mechanic, astronaut, doctor, concert pianist, etc. I also know that if I dedicate all my free time to learning about how cars work, watching YouTube videos, getting my mechanic friends to provide some free training, and so on, I might be able to fix at least half the things that go wrong with my car. But I better be prepared to invest in all the tools, training, diagnostic equipment, manuals, time(!) and everything else I need to reach that level. And I need to practice, practice, practice. It’s not going to happen by accident.

    Yet, even then, I could not go down to the local car dealer and apply for a job as a mechanic. I’d be okay as a backyard mechanic with all that investment, but I just don’t have the aptitude or talent to pull it off as a professional – to fix cars well enough to ask someone to pay me for it.

    Everyone can be a writer. Not everyone can do it for a living. And I suppose that’s the distinction (in my humble opinion) between being a writer and an author.

    1. I agree with you completely. I also see that same distinction between a writer and an author. I personally have natural gifts and skills that with very little work I easily rise to the top. And there are many, many other things I have worked sooooo hard to achieve a high level of skill in, yet I could never get there. We can all attempt a variety of things and even work for years at them, but we need to have natural aptitude to become a genuine expert and rise to the top (whether we are recognized or not). Thank you for your thoughts.

  37. I used to always say anything that came easily to me was ‘talent’. Then, I decided that ‘talent’ meant that the ‘anything’ was something I’d done in a former life — so, it was ‘easier’ for me this time around. In my striving to become a ‘whole’ person, one who has expanded all abilities to their max, I figured that meant pushing the ‘easy’ stuff forward with hard work, ’til I could produce something of brilliance. It also meant I needed to continually learn more, not just about the ‘easy’ stuff, but also about stuff I really sucked at…

    So — I follow you, and I learn, and I share what I learn with the writer’s I help through editing.

    And good stuff happens.

    Thanks for being a part of the good stuff. :o)

  38. I think the whole thing is a joke these days. But would-be’s don’t realise this because they are still thinking in terms of an earier era. Kinda like a blacksmith who stuck to his bellows two decades after model Ts had been introduced.

    And I make this observation out of compassion, because I feel for these souls since I was in the same boat as them until recently. The dynamics have changed, but our expectations haven’t. (not really. not much)

    Do it for its own sake, but not to ‘make it’ or ‘get discovered’ because there’s no there there, in regards to holding onto the old paradigm. The ground has shifted under our feet.

    So many things are wrong with ‘dreaming of writing success’ that I don’t know where to start. Everybody here should go watch ‘Press Pause Play’ (free on youtube or netflix. And look up Andrew Keen (Cult of the Amateur, 2007). It’s a lovely dream, really it is, but if handled wrong it can bite you worse than any rattlesnake. Ah, boa constrictor is probably more apt. A slow death to the dream is what I myself experienced.

    Anyway, I love Kristin and Bob Mayer too even though he annoys me sometimes. These are the only two remnants of my old ‘writing life’. Once I figured out it’s a cyber shell/selfie game I gave up the ghost.

    Wish you all the best, though I hope you don’t do yourself harm the way I did by hanging onto a deluded dream for too long.


  39. Good post, Kirsten and telling points. Producing a publishable novel isn’t magic, it’s constantly working on your craft and lots of reading. Electronic publishing is a boon. It can get your dusty old bits and pieces out of the bottom drawer and give them new life. And it’s a curse because, as you say, there’s no apprenticeship to be worked through. The same with letters to the editor, I’ve always thought. Lack of space meant that only the better and more articulate letters got through. Now we have antisocial media and every nutter can have a say.

    I took a writing course once and loved it. What I learned was that if you already have the knack for it, a course will enhance your skills. If not, you might still get that certificate but it won’t make you a writer. I know that your focus is on novel writing, Kirsten, but that course also taught me that you can still be a writer even if you can’t write novels. People despair when all that hard work is still born. You can write adverts, articles, non fiction. It’s a wide field and if you keep at it you can find your niche. You’d have to have the knack for prose writing to make it interesting and as in novel writing make sure you do your research.

    Novel writers have to have talent to succeed. Talent can’t be taught, but it can be brought out, another point of yours, I think. Someone once said that talent rises to the top like cream. Everyone can sing, but not everyone can be Pavarotti, everyone can act, but only a few can be Lawrence Olivier. Everyone can write…

    1. I love your post!

  40. Kristen, I apologise for calling you Kirsten. Can I add, wearing your glasses and proof reading to a writer’s necessary skills.

    1. LOL. It is a common typo. Usually I don’t even see it 😀 .

    • Jamilah on March 22, 2017 at 6:56 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks so much for this perspective. As a teacher, I’ve often thought about intelligence as more of a function of how hard a person is willing to work to learn something than something innate. That being said, teaching has shown me that many people are gifted with specific intelligences. I think talent is just another word for a type of intelligence a person has. Those talents are like muscles though; they can atrophy if they’re not worked on. On the other hand, many people with a less developed talent in an area can beef up that intelligence and become brilliant in that area if they continually work at it. There are some people who simply don’t have the aptitude to go far in an area, but as you say, those people aren’t usually the norm.

    • Michal Babay on March 22, 2017 at 7:06 pm
    • Reply

    Great post, and very inspiring for those of us who are unpublished. It’s good to read stories about writers who had to really work at their craft, and finally made it.
    Thanks for keeping us motivated to grow!

  41. I loved this post and found it inspirational and encouraging. I’ve considered giving up numerous times, but I never do because I can’t “not write.” I may not becone a successful published author, but it won’t be for lack of trying. When I first became serious about wanting to write a novel, five years ago, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and I didn’t have the thick skin I have today. In the last few years I’ve taken classes, attended workshops and conferences and I think I’ve read just about every book there is on craft. Wow, it’s all made a huge difference in my writing. I look back at what I thought passed as writing, in those first couple of years and I truly cringe while reading my own work. All the head hopping and on the nose dialogue – ugh.
    Your article reminded me of that quote by Calving Coolidge:
    Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
    I love that quote.

    • Lance Thomas on March 22, 2017 at 7:24 pm
    • Reply

    That was a sincere post you zapped. I doubt you even read it.

    1. LOL. no, Babe. I loved the comment. I just was writing and hadn’t approved comments yet. Trust me, I feel your pain. Thanks for taking time to express them so beautifully. And like you said, we do it because we love it not to reach some bar of success because frankly these days? It is really fickle. I mentioned how “democratizing” publishing has created many, many problems.

      I do hope you will continue writing, though. Sometimes we need a break. Breathe and return to it with clearer heads and different expectations.

  42. Superb post, Kristen. I’ve always thought fiction editors would have to be brave people to wade through the detritus some of us writers produce. But I’m sure it’s worth it when you strike gold every once in a while!

  43. Hmm, this is a little depressing. Every time I read something like this, I start to second guess myself and wonder if I’m one of those people slaving away at the keyboard with no clue about my lack of that indefinable “thing” that is talent. Then I start to panic about the fact that I can’t define what talent is in order to determine whether I have it or can develop it. Then my anxiety kicks in and then… well, I have to go distract myself.

    Honestly, I think talent is subjective. What one person believes is talent, another person thinks is…well, someone who should consider a different career. Most of the books and media that are hyped today and beloved by many do not impress me in the least, yet to their gushing fans, they’re the most amazing thing ever. I don’t get it. I wonder if I’m missing something. I start panicking that I don’t have the self-awareness it requires to recognize talent in myself and others. My anxiety kicks in… Yeah, you probably see where this is going.

    The only way I can remain functional and keep digging in that mine is to not worry too much about whether I have talent or not. I put in the work, I consider the critiques of others, and I revise like crazy, but I can’t allow myself to spend too much time considering whether I’m any good or not, otherwise I would be too paralyzed by my fears of being a talentless hack to keep writing.

  44. On many days, writing makes my brain ache and I feel tangled in a soup of information and ideas. I hope I can persist until I find gold, but I’m scared that I’ll quit.

    Writing communities such as this one really help.

    1. Hi Vanessa

      me too — but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? It’s a sense of accomplishment, and whether or not an agent or PH picks it up is moot (in my opinion). When I finish a manuscript, I feel as though I’ve done something, something tangible. I started out as you– afraid, what if someone doesn’t like it? Where do I begin? Trust me, after 4 yrs of writing one novel, rewriting a MILLION times, receiving critiques and then again tweaking, editing … learning the craft ounce by ounce, it finally landed in the hands of an agent who requested it- a first! Whether it hits their trash pile or not, that’s the furthest I’ve gotten. Far cry from ‘please never submit anything to me again,’ from a different agent. So pick a plot, any plot. Now create a character who has to overcome great odds to resolve the conflict. Don’t be afraid to put some of yourself into your character (even readers know that!). But don’t stop. Let your voice sing. Join a group online like Scribophile (free for those of us who are poor), or local literary associations. But again, don’t quit, not if this is your passion.

      1. Thanks Claire! Your words mean a lot. And thank you for sharing part of your story…it’s given me some fresh perspective : ) I hope all your publishing dreams come true!

  45. Humility…good point. I entered the game as a French/Music/Drama teacher who had never taken a University level English course ever. But my story is a splinter in my mind with no danger of fading. So, when I started the task of creating a “novel”, I knew that I was starting at ZERO in terms of what I knew about structuring/voice/the creative process. I read; I researched; I tried to catch all the images that littered my brain…then I assembled. I went through 8 drafts, but I made sure to tidy it up as much as my limited editorial skills allowed (Gotta love the Grammar / Syntax settings in Microsoft Word.) It was simply not possible for me to enter this game arrogantly. I remain intensely motivated to glean any and all tips/suggestions/criticisms from those who are further along the “Literary Continuum” than I am.
    (I know that my novel #1 requires further retooling, editorially speaking. My story is engaging, or so my intended audience tells me. I look forward to the time when I am able to afford to have “professional” eyes read it through.)

  46. I have scribbled Steven King’s quote on a post-it note and stuck it to my forehead. Thanks for reminding us that it takes a lot of grind, and sometimes wailing and gnashing of teeth, to get good at the craft of writing. Just like any craft. I had a painful rejection recently but I thanked the rejector for their honesty and agreed to take on all their feedback and they wrote back and said, ‘You’re a true writer because you’re listening and want to get better.’ It didn’t stop the wailing and gnashing of teeth but it was encouraging!
    Thank you for being a straight shooter with us and sharing your good thoughts.

    • CARSON BUCKINGHAM on March 22, 2017 at 11:01 pm
    • Reply

    Just bought your book and I LOVE it! This article above was most interesting. I have run into the common earth folks in my editing, as well, and they are frustrating in the extreme. Stubborn. I asked one of them why he hired me, if he wasn’t prepared to listen to me. His response? Oh, I just needed you to check spelling and punctuation. I know the writing is exactly where it should be (it wasn’t). I sighed, shook my head, and took editor’s pay for a proofreader’s job.

    1. Yes, that is the agony we face. It’s not worth it for me to pour my best into “common earth folks.” It’s frustrating, exhausting, and makes me hate editing. Then when they are stubborn, unteachable, or basically clueless, I feel like I’ve wasted part of my life (and a whole lot of my brain and heart) that I can never get back. No amount of money is worth that. Lately I’ve been only accepting writers who are *rewarding* to edit.

  47. I believe this was one of your finest posts. Love the way you weaved in King’s ideas.

    “…and show us clearly how taste has at least fifty shades.” Muahahaha!

  48. What writing craft books do you recommend? I learnt a lot from your logline & synopsis classes.
    I beilieve we are all here to learn for the rest of our lives. Might as well focus on our passion.

  49. Kristen, you know I love you, I’ve loved you for a felt lifetime now, but this post really made my heart swell like on the first day, LOL. I signed my book off to a traditional publisher and now I’m working with an (awesome) editor. She looooooved my book, read it in a night or two, and then . . . she had me re-write almost the whole darn thing, LOL. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but I marked 35 spots in the book she’d like to see re-written. She demonstrated exactly what she wanted by writing a scene for me, a scene that was so kick-a$$ good that I was intimidated and unable to write for two days. But then I kicked myself in the butt, started working, and guess what – I’m getting the hang of this! I feel my skill stretch and grow. And the book turns so much better. So, always grow grow grow. Cheers to that

  50. Thanks Kristen, for another wonderful post.

    • Natasha Hansson on March 23, 2017 at 10:07 am
    • Reply

    I’ve been following your blog for sometime, first time commenting though. I think what you say about humility here is applicable in any situation and any industry. It seems the one thing really successful people have in common is humility and the desire to always be improving.

    My WIP is my first novel and your posts have been great motivation to keep going and giving me direction. I’ve already bought several of the craft books you recommend and they were a HUGE help when I got stuck.

    Suggestion for future post: I was trying to find information online regarding publishers indicating what traits they most liked in a debut author in particular. Most of the advice I found was either from authors themselves, which is only one side of the story, or from literary agents just saying what not to do. This is very helpful information, but what about what is good to do? I realize that in the end you need a good story to be published no matter how likable your personality is, but I feel like many people may be hindering their otherwise good story, like what you mention with not taking suggestions and criticism well.

    I thought it might be a great blog post idea to discuss what debut authors editors really liked working with, and more importantly, why. While telling people not to be sensitive to critique is good, it’s not good to be a pushover either. Do publishers like authors who eagerly jump into the editing process? Who have strong opinions about publicity for their book? Or are these traits seen as stubborn and hindering?

  51. I appreciate your unvarnished truth and have read your articles to improve my writing. I’ve published three novels and am still learning. For the last one I hired an editor in London who tore my manuscript apart and instilled in me the dictate to show, not tell. I am presently writing my fourth book, which is called How I Escaped Depression. Though it is not fiction, I am writing it with the rules of the game for fiction. I pray I am not an earthy writer.

  52. bravo

  53. I have a sign on my wall that says “Hard Work beats Talent when Talent doesn’t Work Hard.” I agree with you that almost anyone can LEARN to write, if they’re willing to do all the hard work. And I’ve seen examples of all the same you have (and I think I might have been 1 or 2 of them).

  54. Nice discussion. I really believe that writing comes natural to some and it is a struggle for others. I have the ability to write anything, anytime, anywhere. Some writers just lack the ability to paint a picture with words which is a skill that excellent writers should have.

  55. All the people reading this, a bunch of them are saying, “Is it me? Am I the unteachable one?” And then there’s ones who aren’t saying that. The former are teachable. The later are not.

    I think this is an apt comparison to professional sports. If you want to be a professional right winger for an NHL franchise, you’ll need boatloads of talent, but you also gotta be more hungry than all the other right wingers out there. There must be intentionality in all that you do, and striving for the end goal.

    There’s novels a plenty out there, some of them are awful. Some need an editor but the voice is there. And others are fantastic treasures, voice, story, plot, arc, it’s all there and the book is a pleasure to read. There are certain things that must fall into place for a book to be the fantastic treasure, and it isn’t just “have gobs of talent.”

  56. I agree with a lot of what you said. I am self-published now, but when I first got serious about writing and joined RWA, there was no self-publishing as you described. I went through the years of writing manuscripts and then rejections. I wrote four/five books before was published by a digital press. Those years were hard, but a curious thing happened. There were rejections, but “good” ones that said my writing was good but (fill in the blank for a reason for a “no”). It’s never easy getting a harsh critique or a rejection, but there is value in learning the craft and how to become a BETTER writer. I worry about authors who skip that process entirely because in the zeal to self-publish. The ones who don’t think they need critique partners or editors b/c they don’t want anyone telling them how to write their story.

  57. Wow. This. Exactly this. I’ve believed this for years, and I now think this article needs to be required reading for every aspiring author. It really saddens me to see how many very talented authors give up because they don’t have the persistence and humility to accept that talent isn’t 100% of the equation. Most of the successful authors I know are the ones who were willing to put in the work to improve and get better. Thanks for writing such a great post.

  58. ooh…major kickass post that really nails it. gulp! so did I see myself? oh yeah…should I just quit? maybe. i’m coming from a slightly different direction, however, and still have no niche on my blog–which is obvious. I will definitely use your link to my blog tho. good job. AND, I will probably reblog. thanks so much. this was terrific.

    • Donna Spivey on March 23, 2017 at 3:48 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you Kristen for this blog! I saw myself in several areas and noticed some of my drawbacks.
    I am 40,000 words into my first novel. I am stuck but have been afraid to reach out for help. Now, I’m toughening up my rhino skin, taking your inspiration and looking forward to diving back I to the deep end again.
    Thank you!

      • Claire O'Sullivan on March 31, 2017 at 12:37 am
      • Reply

      Hi Donna

      Tough skin develops fast when in a serious critique group. I look like a rhino, elephant, maybe an alligator … The learning never stops. When it does, you are figuratively or literally, six feet under. 🙂

  59. Thank you for the post. I have been through the gauntlet, am going through it, and I think will go through it with every novel, short story and blog post until the end of my days. It’s how I improve. If I close my mind to constructive criticism then my work will suffer and my readers will not be entertained.

  60. This is such an insightful post! Thank you so much for writing this, absolutely loved it! It’s probably my greatest fear that I’ll never be any good at writing (it’s the thing I love doing the most). I understand that I probably still have 10 years to go and 20 books to write before I improve, and even then I may turn out to be a common earth writer! hahaha 🙂 All the rejection and criticism I’ve received so far has been tough, but we have to take it all on board, develop a thicker skin and learn and grow like you said. I’m going to try my best to improve this year and take on any advice I’m given (it still stings though!) I was recently continuing on with one of my half-finished novels from a year or two ago, and the writing was absolutely atrocious! I laughed myself silly at some of the words I was using! I think I’m going to have to re-write most of it, but hey, onwards and upwards right 🙂

    • Therese Nagi on March 23, 2017 at 7:17 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for your helpful post Kristen.

  61. Thank you for being a constant source of inspiration. I read this and then look at myself to see what needs to change. It’s like a daily challenge.

  62. It’s good to know hard work and talent have the possibility of going somewhere. This piece was inspiring though and I liked it. It’s helpful 🙂

  63. Wonderful to know hardwork and talent can pay off we are willing to learn. I guess that’s the most important part eh? Thanks for an inspiring yet realistic view 🙂 Love your new blog.

    • Joshua Davis on March 23, 2017 at 9:50 pm
    • Reply

    Great stuff. Love the emphasis on being teachable and working hard.

  64. Wow, what a powerful post. So very true. Also, a good reminder even for those of us that have been writers for a while – we’re never too good to listen and learn.

  65. Like your new site and enjoyed this post. I worked in business consulting for years and always knew hard work was the only way to discover whether someone had what it takes to run a successful business. Talent or maybe the “vision” had to work hand in hand with learning, planning, and leaving the ego behind – just plain well thought out hard work.

    I believe writing requires the same dedication to those qualities. When I retired I took up writing full-time. I always loved telling stories and over the past few years have worked hard to become a better writer. Whether I have talent doesn’t seem all that important. My objective is to be published by a reputable publisher and I’ve done that with a small publisher, who recently closed its doors. I about to query my new novel, and I want to know the gatekeepers will give it their seal of approval.

    Thanks for your post – It told me I was moving in the right direction – reading, learning, and working hard at my writing.

  66. Well said. It’s no different than other arts or skills. I have zero talent for singing. It wouldn’t matter if I took voice lessons and practiced eight hours a day for ten years — I still wouldn’t be very good. That might not stop me from singing karaoke at the local pub and enjoying myself, but I’d never get a recording contract. Should I record myself and try to sell my records to the public? Likewise, someone else might have a natural gift for singing, but never work at it or take lessons or practice, so they won’t grow and develop the natural talent within. And yes, sometimes a mediocre singer has some other talent, for showmanship for example, and gets an overly produced record that becomes a big hit, but that doesn’t make them a great singer. And there are thousands of brilliantly talented singers, musicians, and bands struggling to make ends meet while playing bars on the weekend and street corners for spare change who will never be discovered and make it big on a national level.

    As an editor, I’ve also seen the completely untalented who, no matter how hard they work at it, they might get better but will never be good or great. I’ve seen brilliant writers who will likely never make a living from their novels. I’ve seen those who, whether talented or not, are never going to work at it hard enough. We’ve all seen the supremely talentless have best sellers.

    But I’ve seen beginning writers with little skill show some spark of talent or genius who worked and worked at it until their skills were polished, their talent shined, and a little luck of the draw in being in the right place at the right time with the right book catapulted them to success.

  67. I’m practically paralyzed with fear about my ability, or lack thereof, to write well. I wonder if you might consider a column about mentally challenged writers? I have Bipolar and PTSD and I’ve been struggling for a decade to write (well). How do I know when I have written something worthwhile? I want my friends to see it and like it, but – what if they are just being supportive and the work really sucks?

    1. Doug
      Being bipolar and having PTSD are major stories–whether non-fiction or using your history as a jumping off point for characters.

      Give yourself a goal. You have something to say (as do all writers and authors), what is the one thing you want to say? Do you want to write a fiction/detective with OCD? Someone did, and tastefully, and voila! there was Monk.

      I read a MS about a man who’d been a Marine, and ‘seemed’ to go through after-war experience fine until his brother had a near-miss. He came apart, and told his story of PTSD. It was a riveting story that tore from his soul.

      PTSD and bipolar do not mentally challenged make. They make for writers with depth. JK Rowling lost her mother as a young woman, JK married, was abused, divorced, living on welfare, contemplated suicide. If she can put pen to paper, not knowing where that the attempt would bring a Harry Potter generation into the world, then, she would’ve lost, and the time she put in to hone her craft made her the better for it (not just monetarily) because she fought her own demons in the books she wrote.

      Folks with bipolar disorder are well-known to be creative, thinkers, sensitive with mood swings that are not the typical. But google ‘famous bipolar people.’ It will surprise you.

      So, think of what it is you want to say. Fiction/non-fiction, set your characters and don’t be afraid to draw on you as part of your main character.

      What matters is you want to write. I gave up a long time ago that I’d ever be a famed author. However, another find among everything else, my financial, personal disasters, spiritual walk.. was that I now had something to say, and no matter how far the MS would travel (even if to my drawer), the words were spoken.

      Be here. Find Scribophile. Join groups. Buy books. We never feel we are good enough. Ever. We have afflictions (I have epilepsy and crippling migraines) and bad situational statuses (I live in a garage). You are not alone in this. Another writer I know has end stage kidney disease, yet he writes because he is compelled to give his grandkids a gift before he dies.

      Be ok with feeling like you’re a horrible writer at first. 🙂 Trust me. Make sure you are reading, writing, blogging, editing–daily.

      Tennis shoe commercial says it all: Just do it. (coz we are here for ya)

    2. Hi Doug,

      Everyone is mentally and emotionally challenged in some way! 😉 The fact that you have been writing for a decade (pushing through your fears!) plus you have a passionate desire to write well proves you have surpassed the vast majority of writers who quit for lesser reasons.

      Kristen has a class called “Hooking the Reader—Your First Five Pages” that is just what you need. You can know *for sure* where your writing is at from a professional you can trust. 🙂 I don’t know what the date is for her next class, but I would encourage you to take it.

      Wishing you all the best,


      1. Thanks for the recommendation and what I enjoy about doing that class is that I remember being new and just getting rejected. I didn’t know which areas of my writing needed work and I concentrated a lot of time and energy on the wrong stuff. When I do critiques, I point out what needs work and often give links to specific posts of mine where they can learn the technique or specific craft books for the skill in need of work.

    • Jennifer Terry on March 24, 2017 at 9:50 am
    • Reply

    I agree 100%. Being teachable is so important. It does hurt for someone to critique your work, but you have to listen, take the notes, and improve. It’s the only way to learn.

    • Gulliena on March 24, 2017 at 9:55 am
    • Reply

    Its been one of my dreams to write a novel and i hope to do that someday overlooking the odds. At the same time, i fear that i am one of those who you’ve talked about above, the ones who haven’t got it in them to be an accomplished writer but one should never lose hope and keep up the good work and strive to make their dreams true.

  68. Hahaha “fifty shades of taste”.
    I loved reading your post and I’m sure I won’t be able to forget it.

    • Betty Cowart on March 24, 2017 at 11:15 am
    • Reply

    Kristen, I enjoy all your blog posts but this one really hit the spot. Thank you for confirming that a modicum of talent coupled with teach-ability and hard work make the author. Thanks too for sharing Kathy’s story — she’s now an inspiration to me! Kudos to you, Kathy, for toughing it out. 🙂

  69. I had a phase where I was deaf to constructive criticism. Thirteen years, six books, and one job in journalism later I feel like I’m only beginning to become a halfway “talented” writer. I can’t write a good book without other people’s input–the blunt, honest kind.

    I’ll always write books and try to sell them but the enjoyment of the writing process and sharing my work is more important than having to be the next J.K. Rowling. My happiness used to be dependent on my amazon far-from-best-seller ranking. That was a miserable place to be.

    1. Amen! Write to write. There’s always someone whose work will be better, and others, worse. But it’s the passion, the joy that drives us. There’s gifted, then there’s talented. I had a friend in college, gifted. Never opened a book. 100% genius. An A in everything. I was an ‘eh’ B student with proclivities to the B- and C department.

      But I worked my arse off and had all A’s in college. I don’t know if my friend, Andy appreciated his A’s. I know I did, mine. My husband can barely read, yet hand him a musical instrument and he’s gifted — maddening! I spent years learning classical piano. Passable. Then I tried blues. Three months later my husband, who had never touched a piano until then, said, ‘play it like this.’ Gifted – Andy in everything. My husband – anything musical. Me – I don’t know if I have talent, but if I don’t write, don’t push, don’t ask for help… then I will never know.

      And yet, you have six books and a job in journalism. Wow! I’d love to be the next JK Rowling, too, but it looks like we both have found our happiness scale elsewhere — in our love to write.

  70. I try not to predict whether a particular work or writer will be successful in the marketplace. Some truly awful books have done very well. Some highly untalented writer wrote them. I know a guy who is writing a mediocre book. About a year ago, he told us of a spin-off project that he thought would make a nice freebie to gather eddresses. Three of us told him to forget the first project and go full-bore on the spin-off.

      • jorgekafkazar on March 26, 2017 at 1:32 am
      • Reply

      I should add that the spin-off is a brilliant concept and his talent is more than enough to carry it off in a fraction of the time he’d need to finish and market the original project.

  71. An excellent post. Right on, as usual. I do feel it is essential to add one point, though. To state that in the good old days, those who ran the gaunlet…(worked hard enough) got to be published, is a misleading assessment. That is or should be a standard baseline, yes. But it has always been, and even more so today, all about business. Publishers are looking for a story in which they can get the most return on their investment in a mass market. Period. It has nothing to do with being “great” writing. It’s what the market wants. Otherwise, you can’t explain one million copies of Kim Kardashian’s Selfies.

    1. Lol. True

  72. So you think you can write?
    1. why aren’t you writing?
    2. why aren’t you reading?
    3. how many hours a day do you write, read, take classes?

  73. I don’t say this as often as I should, but I say it whenever anyone asks about writing craft: when I think of people who have impacted my writing, you are always at the top of the list. You never fail to come up with a gem. Today’s “are you teachable?” may be the best yet. Not only for success at writing, but for everything in life. Thanks.

    • Brock Hendry on March 27, 2017 at 8:54 pm
    • Reply

    Great article! Hope to win

  74. This blog really hit home on so many levels. Thank you for your honestly about some self-pub authors. I’m sure we’ve all read our share of garbage. I for one still seek the validation from a publisher.
    Kudos again

  75. Amazing article! I agree there’s no litmus test for talent. But the qualities you list are what writers should strive for. But success. How you do define success? Many traditionally published authors sold almost nothing–and were panned–in their lifetimes (Dashiell Hammett, for one). Failure? I worked in publishing for more than 20 years. I know that what is published is often the result of power in editorial meetings. A persuasive agent. Connections. What’s needed to balance the list. Timing. Is being published being successful? Or is it good reviews? Or sales? Or? Success is an arbitrary, heartless task-master. We just have to keep writing.

    • Maggi Fox on March 30, 2017 at 5:44 am
    • Reply

    Terrific post Kristen. Certainly makes one think. Thanks for the clarity.

      • Claire on March 30, 2017 at 1:51 pm
      • Reply

      After reading several authors-to-be, I have come to the conclusion that some folks are so anal (er, stubborn) that they don’t accept any constructive critiques. They stick to such dry guidelines, poor characterizations, that I can’t swallow the kool aid they write. That’s about the time I determine that a writer has zero talent- not because of the book idea itself, but because they are unteachable and the novel becomes an act of suffering for me. Many are rejected once or twice, not willing to go the distance, not willing to learn rules bend. They jump into the Indie/SP stream–what, to see their name? Prove they are published? Ugh. Some words are deemed by Strunk and White as a no-go zone. Really? Look up the date on the book. Some authors follow those rules to the T, and do quite well. Others are too painfully boring to read.

  76. Funny how things work out…I came here for the first time in a long time, and with the idea of reaching out for a “critique partner.” But now, after reading this, I fear I may be just one more of those egotistical self-pubbers…avoiding the hard work. (Until 3 years ago I was in a small local weekly group, which went through my first book with me – so I know I’m “teachable.”)

    I’d still love to find and meet with a critique partner over coffee. I’ll read your genre, if you’ll read mine (politically-incorrect + Visionary/Metaphysical).

      • Claire O'Sullivan on March 30, 2017 at 2:07 pm
      • Reply


      I belong to Scribophile and get some terrific (and some not so terrific) critiques. You can join any group. Or not. If you peruse around, you can start critiquing works for free but it requires points to post a chapter, and the free version– you can get the full version for 65/year. Then you start ‘liking’ writers works (and hope they follow you back- they usually do if you are reading their work faithfully). After you semi-polish your WIP, you can join a BETA group–they don’t check SPaG but they do for emotional investment in the work. I used a google program at first and my critiquer said “oh, this is wonderful.” Well, no. It was the first draft. Even I know better than that. I hope you check into it. Best advice I’ve received. My MS is now in the hands of an agent (having been rejected several times because I picked the wrong genre type…)and I have Scrib to thank.

      1. Thanks so much, Claire. I’ll join at the Basic-level. Part of my goal, though, is to get together with at least one other person – in person – as I’m a super-hermit, basically. 😉

        1. Hermit – me too! I just went to Scrib and am accepting/adding you as fan 🙂

          My second WIP SUCKS at this time. I didn’t think I’d be able to purchase the yearly so I plastered my NanoWrimo crappy WIP on scrib to work on it as I go (because on the basic you can only post 1 chapter at a time, so I rushed to get all the chapters up before my time was up). Needless to say, I am getting critiques on a first draft. Sigh. That’s ok. They have great comments.

  77. Awesome. I keep a quote from Emile Zola on the wall of my office: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.” It never stops being true.

    I agree with what you said 100%. You did a great job of summing up the conundrum of “talent.” It is why, as a music teacher, I will soldier on with the most toneless of pupils as long as they are willing to work hard. I think any good teacher will not prevent someone from following their dream but keep coaching them along as long as they are willing to work for it. If they eventually reach the point that they recognize “common earth” in themselves, that is their call. They might not dream of being all stars. Maybe they are like Eddie the Eagle: victory for them might be in being allowed to participate, and they refuse to be told they can’t. But Eddie was extremely teachable.

    On a side note, there are some funky things happening on this comments page from my mobile device. The “Up” button refuses to move, which means it is sometimes in front of the text field I am writing in. Kinda annoying. Just thought I’d let you know.

    1. Talena!! You are the perfect example of a writer who started simply, learned everything you could from everywhere you could, did all the hard work (and then some), and succeeded in publishing an amazing first novel! You are one of my favorite authors, and it was an absolute delight editing your book and working with you! 🙂


      1. Lora. Fancy meeting you here. I thought that was you. 😉 Thank you so much for your awesome encouragement about my work. What a great way to start my day! 🙂 I’m so glad you asked Kristen to write this post. And a large part of my success on my first novel was finding the right editor/coach right off the bat–you! Have an awesome weekend!

    • Shawnessy on March 30, 2017 at 7:06 pm
    • Reply

    I am new to these parts but I looked around and I like what I see. The articles here are just what an aspiring writer like me wants (and needs) to read. As to the subject of writer talent, Stephen King said (referring I think to his own talent) ” the equipment comes with the original package.” So you have it or you don’t. But of course, that’s only the first part. One has to use,maintain and constantly upgrade the equipment. Great article Kristen.

  78. Hi all

    Now that I have ‘outed’ myself that I live in a garage, you probably can guess my income and ability to pay for an editor. Welfare doesn’t want to cover that, how rude. So … I find anyone with SPaG and syntax experience (lots of it)and had them read for points. Yep. I sent the proposal, first 3 chapters and synopsis (with prayer) to an agent (not my first time…) who requested the entire thing. Still in their hands. Thankfully, they have their own editors, and look at content. You can imagine my shock. My grammar is lackluster.

    The longer the agency has it, the better,(my reference being Perry Mason). The longer the jury is out, the likelihood of the defendant improves. I hope and pray, anyway.

    I wanted to address the professional edit portion. I understand the importance. Some of us are bereft of the money to afford 20 bucks for a professional edit. On Scrib, someone gifted me $65 dollars. Seems like a little, but that goes to my ‘rent’ of the garage, as my disabled husband works about 9 hrs a week.

    I wouldn’t know how to address this, otherwise. I also use a free website and was told by another writer that a free website was unprofessional, and I needed to hire a pro to put one together…


  79. I just set this post up on ‘Writer’s treasure chest’. It was a little easier when there was still the chance to re-blog. But I hope you will like it anyway.

  80. Gosh, I started off reading every comment, but had to reluctantly give up, there are so many.
    Thank you for this post. It has given me the necessary inspiration to keep on trying and learning. I hope I’m not one of the people who are the common earth in your mine. I hope I have a bit of talent that I can nurture and grow.
    Well, I must go back to reading all my books on the various aspects of writing.

  81. I can’t even imagine how tough your job must be. I kinda see the same thing with visual artists. As a visual artist myself, I’m actually pretty good at the technical aspect. But I sometimes lack that spark of creativity and being creative is an important aspect of being a true visual artist and it’s not really something that can be taught.

    In regards to the art of writing, I hope I’m in the category of having some talent along with a willingness to learn the technical aspects.

    • J.S. on April 4, 2017 at 5:36 pm
    • Reply

    One of my favorite things about writing is finding an exciting new tip or way to improve the pov narration I use.

    I too have ran into writers that refuse to listen, even if the advice is carefully worded to focus only on the work. People like that still take it personally. Some will be that way, even if I point blank state that the critique is to help … and they asked! O_o

    I think they ask for help when what they really want is prase.

    I’m still a new writer, but can spot crap. If it’s bad I say so and point out why. If it’s good, then yes, praise.

    There isn’t too much to worry about, because you can’t help people who don’t want it so, let it go and give it to those that do. 🙂

    If you haven’t already, please do a posting about close third person (deep pov). It’s frustrating having to explain to cridics (other writers) almost every time what it is, its rules, and that it isn’t a mistake having the inner monologue not in italics (arg).

    Making a posting would help educate writers on this pov who don’t know about it. Thank you if you do! <3

    Oh I found a nice reading/writing app: Penanna it's pretty nice. The quality of the books vary. Imop yhe quality is higher then in Wattpad. They both have main websites too.

    I like them mainly for the feedback, friends made and critics.

    • Stephanie Scott on April 6, 2017 at 11:33 am
    • Reply

    There are two writers I know from different writing groups; one is now one of my critique partners. When she first came to our group she was eager to trade pages. Her work was decent but lots of beginner mistakes (same ones I had made/was still working through). I suggested a few craft books. I saw her again in 2 weeks and she’d already bought, read, and implemented tactics from the craft books. She has finaled and won RWA chapter contests, has a lit agent now, and is working toward self pubbing. She’s come so far and worked so hard.

    On the other side is a writer who spends the entire conference pitching to agents–sits in the pitch room all day taking the no-show spots to pitch to every agent. Does not attend the craft sessions. This writers work actually became *worse* after subsequent critique sessions. The writer talked about the dream of a book tour in 75 cities (!) and wants to know all the shortcuts. *sigh*. Working, but not focusing on the right things.

    • Chad Pettit on April 6, 2017 at 6:13 pm
    • Reply

    This is something every writer should read. I really appreciate the honesty and advice in this because it says what needs to be said in a way that everyone can understand. Thank you.

  82. What if you are one of these people who has been told that doesn’t have talent, and you listen to this advice and decide to give up the writing but…something compels you to get back to it. You do. You try fiction, attempt crime writing, have a go at blogging but it’s more like some insurmountable mountain which cannot be climbed. There are thousands of great articles telling what you should and should not do, but you end up taking a deep breath and resign yet again and yet, the writing just won’t let you be!

      • Claire O'Sullivan on April 8, 2017 at 10:32 pm
      • Reply

      I’ve been there, and more than a few insults slung my way. I sighed, put everything away, yet no matter how hard I tried, that tug to write (more like an obsessive John Deere tractor pulling me along) brought me back. So, to all those naysayers, whether you write to publish or to please yourself, your best defense is to write. And read. Learn the craft, yes–in fact, keep at it, read the type of books/authors that you want in your genre, and voice you gravitate toward. But don’t give up. Even if you are writing for yourself. There’s nothing like looking back twenty years and saying … if only. Someone told Zane Grey to give up. Here’s an article for your flagging spirits:

      1. Thanks Claire for your response. I have stuff written twenty years ago. and I think, not bad. I think it’s also to do with having the confidence to put it out there for people to read. But yeah, I will keep on. Take care.

          • claire o'sullivan/cynthia mahoney (claire is the pen name...) on April 9, 2017 at 4:07 pm
          • Reply

          Me, too! I’d put it away, did send it out, and had several rejections. One agency kept it and kept it… I finally wrote and said, can I determine if I should 86 this? They wrote back: ‘OH, sorry, we are now non-fiction! It’s been on a shelf. Gathering dust. Apparently, an editor was interested. We don’t know who, but… here’s your MS back.’ ERRRRGGGGHHHH. It was then out of technological date. But I kept it til my husband accidentally tossed it…

          I still have the triology research tho.

          Maybe when I am done with my 2nd and 3rd WIP…


            • Maggie on April 10, 2017 at 7:13 pm

            The same happened to me – I sent my MS to a well known feminist publisher in London long before it closed down. It was a crime story set in the area where I lived. They liked it very much but were undecided, so undecided that they kept it for 9 months!! I would write, call to find out what’s happening and they’d give me the same old spiel about ‘not too sure but they’re still thinking about it. In the end I got fed up and asked them to return the MS. I waited a few months for its return, and when it did, I was shocked to see the return address was somewhere in Australia. So in a way, the process of publishing my story, or any story, has put me off. But I’m looking to do a memoir (as I notice my fiction is always based on my experiences) so I hope that once it’s finished I have the nerve to see it right through to the end.

  83. A simply amazing post. Thank you for writing it.

  84. I can do hard work, bring it! Bring the pain! So much studying, writing, more studying, reading, more writing, sucking, depression, joy, pride, more reading, sucking, more depression, hard work, and finally after five years. I can do this, okay maybe it still sucks but I got a feel for this now. Why do we love to do something that causes so much pain?

    I will outwork the ones that are obsessed with the perfect comma placement, I’ll outwork the ones that have re-written their first chapter until it’s a glob of boring gray matter, I’ll outwork the ones that cling to the rules so tight their povs are suffocated. I’ll slash and hack the book to pieces and keep what’s good, a pile a of glittering bones waiting to be built up again! I’ll drink more coffee and delete more exclamation marks.

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