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?
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 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
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?
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