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Do Some People Lack the Talent to be a Successful Author?

talent, talented, how do you know if you're talented, talent to write, talent to be a successful author, Kristen Lamb

Talent is so utterly subjective. How can we know if we actually have it? Recently, I was chatting with my cousin who’s an incredible artist.

She mentioned how, no matter how many compliments or how many sales, she can’t help but feel like an imposter.

I, of course, responded that authors suffer the same malaise. Imposter syndrome is alive and well, and it doesn’t matter how many books we write, the titles we earn or how many books we sell. For a lot of us? We still can’t help but feel like a fraud.

That we don’t actually have any talent. Oh, and that any moment someone might find out we’ve fooled the world and have no talent at all.

All of this posits the eternal question…

Are there just some people who simply lack the talent to be a successful author?

talent, talented, how do you know if you're talented, talent to write, talent to be a successful author, Kristen Lamb

Good question. Especially in the age of digital publishing, when a million plus books and climbing are published every year. Readers are drowning in the slush pile, which is a fairly clear sign of a SEVERE lack of self-awareness. Too many writers are publishing too soon, before the work is ready for market.

And, since this problem doesn’t look as if it will sort itself out any time soon, how do we handle this in the interim? When do we know we’re ready, especially if we don’t publish traditionally?

That’s a big question, so I’m going to tackle this from another, simpler, angle.

My POV?

One 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. 

Drowning in BAD Books

talent, talented, how do you know if you're talented, talent to write, talent to be a successful author, Kristen Lamb

Plenty of readers have 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. Why?

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. Then, 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. Their stories are devoid of that certain je ne sais quoi required to elevate the writing above the mundane and tedious.

They write ‘stories’ are flat and functional, much like a DMV building. Sure, the story has the right metaphorical walls and fire escapes.

It could pass inspection, but it isn’t a place anyone would want to get lost in and never leave.

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?

talent, talented, how do you know if you're talented, talent to write, talent to be a successful author, Kristen Lamb

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.

King 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, but…

Common Earth Writers Exist

In my experience, there is no simple way to spot a common earth writer. Most emerging writers who seem to completely lack talent actually lack something else.

Humility.

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.

If they didn’t?

One of Two Things Happened

talent, talented, how do you know if you're talented, talent to write, talent to be a successful author, Kristen Lamb

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. The title was the crown of olive leaves denoting the victor.

A lowly writer had solved the labyrinth and emerged as the highly esteemed…author.

These days no such crown exists.

We authors have been demoted to comparing rankings (which can be juked) and royalty checks (which is just tacky). There are very few ways to measure ‘success’ and know honestly if we are ‘good writers.’

Which can be demoralizing in itself.

In the pre-digital paradigm, simply being published was a HUGE accomplishment. Even mere mortals had a reverent awe for published writers. Being published represented a threshold few were ever able to cross.

Even if an author only sold a handful of books, they 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 don’t edit as much as I used to. But still, I receive 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 little kids playing pretend. Instead of a story, there is ‘scene’ after ‘scene’ of talking, eating, shopping, dressing, drinking, or other characters talking about something or someone else.

Usually that ‘something else’ would make an interesting novel. But no, we’re forced to endure the retelling of this intriguing development second-hand through ‘characters’ flatter than copy paper.

#FlyOnWallofNothingHappening

There’s no understanding of POV (point of view), pacing, structure or even the essentials of good dialogue or basic punctuation.

Too often, the pages I receive aren’t even a novel. They’re tropes mixed with cliches slathered in purple prose.

Which, to be crystal clear…IS FINE. Give yourself permission to be NEW. We all begin somewhere and that’s why people like me exist. We love teaching new writers how to mature and become skilled authors.

And Yet…

I can almost 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. Oh, and their writing group thought it was the best thing since kitten calendars. I’ve had people pay to take my classes, only to argue with me the entire time.

Then go blog about what an idiot I am.

It Really Isn’t All About Talent

Yet? Some of the absolute worst writing I have ever encountered was not the end. Their creators went on to be successful. Some made 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. These authors dove into craft books I recommended, took the classes I offered, did the exercises I assigned.

Since they took their art seriously, they slaved and wrote and rewrote and then? Voila! 

Sure, they sucked. Because they were NEW. But one day? They no longer sucked because they were no longer NEW.

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 I slayed her pages again.

And again.

Yes, y’all guessed it…again.

A Remarkable Thing About Talent

talent, talented, how do you know if you're talented, talent to write, talent to be a successful author, Kristen Lamb

She signed up for my Hooked class back in 2017. I didn’t see her name and just read pages and they were….brilliant. I didn’t want to stop. It was a TRULY excellent submission.

Then I saw the name and almost cried I was so proud. She went on to be a multi-published author who’s doing better with every book.

Another emerging writer paid me for a full edit. The writing and story were superb until the midpoint. Then, it completely fell apart into disaster. I explained in detail how it went wrong and why and what needed fixing and offered suggestions how to make the story work.

Instead of insisting I was a moron with no taste? He listened and got to work. When he sent his repaired manuscript back to me, I immediately 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. He got a contract and I received GF brownies as a ‘thank you.’

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 ‘NYC only published crap.’

And on and on and on. They just kept recycling the same dreadful writing and once self-publishing made it possible to skip gatekeepers?

These same writers greedily snatched up the title of ‘published author’ but then griped that their crappy book wasn’t selling. And the reason it wasn’t selling? Because they ‘didn’t have the mega marketing budget of a NY published book.’

In their minds, all that was lacking was the right marketing plan, ad campaign or newsletter list. I STILL hear this complaint.

Nope, it’s the book. Not the marketing.

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 SOB to reach.

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.

This is 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 for skill (and, perhaps, ‘success’). A skilled writer can hook hard, hook early and engage an audience to the degree that there is no logical place for a bookmark.

Is it possible to do this every time? No. We can’t write a book everyone will love, BUT we can write a book a lot of people love.

Beyond this….

Can we remain 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? Could we possibly read more craft books or take some more classes to develop our skills further? I have a WHOLE LIST of classes below that are all affordable and you get to enjoy them from home.

Even though I’ve been working as a professional writer for almost twenty years…I STILL TAKE CLASSES. I read every craft book I can get my hands on, and I read two books a week (a fiction and a non-fiction usually).

Can we be 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? How often are we writing?

Yes take classes and read but we also need practice. Are you getting enough?

Are we humble?

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

I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU!

Do you think some people lack the talent to write? That no matter how much training they are utterly tone deaf to story? Or do you believe (like I do) that it’s more often a case of rushing, of not enduring the process to go from NEW to SKILLED?

Maybe there is something in between? I love hearing your thoughts.

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of OCTOBER, 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).

In the meantime, treat yourself to a class! You get a FREE recording with purchase. Let us help you refine that gold! You don’t have to do this ALONE! Oh and people who take my classes get extra goodies 😀 .

The Art of Character: Writing Characters for a SERIES

OCTOBER 1st! TOMORROW! Use Binge10 for $10 off.

How do we create characters that readers will fall in love with, characters strong enough to go the distance? Find out in this THREE-HOUR class that also comes with detailed notes and a character-building template. Again, use Binge10 for $10 off.

This class dovetails with my previous class:

Bring on the Binge: How to Plot and Write a Series (ON DEMAND). Use Binge10 for $10 off.

Need some help with platform and branding?

RESCHEDULED: Spilling the TEA: Blogging for Authors

TONIGHT, September 30th. Blogging is a powerful way to build an author brand and also make a great income doing what we love…writing. Use Tea10 for $10 off.

Branding: WHEN YOUR NAME ALONE Can Sell (ON DEMAND)

Use brand10 for $10 off.

Come join all the nerdy fun! See y’all in class!

Want to meet me in person? THIS WEEK I AM IN HOUSTON, TX!

Click to sign up.

The NEXT week, I am keynoting in the Permian Basin!



19 comments

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  1. I edit indie authors and the added value I give is education. I explain, perhaps in far too much detail, the whys of my suggestions. I give them links to reliable sources so they can learn more. Some will shrug it off, saying, “I can’t learn this stuff.” A few are actually offended by any suggestion that their words are less than golden. My most cherished clients are those who embrace the opportunity to learn more about their craft.

  2. Kristen, I think this is a brilliant perspective! You may remember from us chatting what thick rhino skin I had to grow before I ever got published. A lot of even traditionally published authors fail to keep climbing and growing and learning. Whether they had talent or not doesn’t matter if their books don’t surpass that talent. Thanks for the exploration! I wish we could do an Indie & Trad presentation together some time–pros and cons to both sides 🙂

  3. Food for thought. Interested in your 20 page critique. What do you charge to do one?

    1. I charge $50, but it is very thorough with not only line-edit but content edit as well. It’s helpful if you keep getting rejected or aren’t selling. I can tell all good and bad habits in a really small sample.

  4. This is EXACTLY what I need from you! I have a book that’s been edited four times (by others, not including myself because I edited it infinity+1), but I still feel like it doesn’t have that OOMPH of snarky humor that is so me. I need help!

    *throws big unicorn pillow on the floor and THEN gets on knees because them joints HURT otherwise*

    So I will humbly ask you to put my name on the biggest (or most colorful-whatever works for ya) piece of paper and pick ME out of that hat- because I’ve been questioning whether my work is good, or just moose drool!

    *realizes she can’t get up and calls 911 for a crane rental because she ain’t a petite primrose*

    I was gonna be subtle, but that ain’t me either…LOL Love you- LOVE your articles!

    • J. Richardson on September 30, 2019 at 4:53 pm
    • Reply

    Learned a few things from this article and particularly enjoyed the part about humilty. I can think of a few authors, one is very talented and arrogant and another who is a writing teacher, also arrogant and a terrible writer. IMHO, if a writer values others as much or more than themselves, they are worth getting to know and learn from.

  5. A friend reads everything from a popular alternate history writer. He even goes so far as to buy hardback copies of every new book this writer puts out as well as later getting the paperback versions. This writer is traditional published by a major publisher. Because he has so many diehard fanboys/girls, the publisher doesn’t even bother to edit his work. His books are so full of spelling and other errors to make it look like a self-published series. When I point this out to my friend, he defends the guy saying the writer isn’t rich so he can’t afford to hire an editor. With as many books as he sells, he can easily afford someone to fix the glaring amount of typos and other problems. It’s like this writer doesn’t take pride in his work. This guy ends his series in the middle where you don’t know how it turned out.

    If i ever get to the point of publishing, my second goal is to make sure the book is as error free as possible.

  6. I am currently reading one of the authors who have rushed their book. Reading it, I get the impression he has not edited, or even re-read it. There is potential there, if only he had spent a bit more time before hitting publish.

  7. Yeah, I’m having a ‘middle’ problem. I’ve been working on this book for years. I had a middle that was so big and convoluted I just chopped the whole thing out. Figured I could rewire the beginning to the ending. Somehow. I just need to get my ya romantic protagonists from a cozy little high school in central Illinois to the colosseum in Rome fighting for almost Thanos-sized stakes. Smoothly. Organically. With mounting, logically connected tension. Right. Ugh. If I was really talented, I would’ve started this project when I was still young enough to rewrite it about a thousand times. At this late stage, if I kill all my darlings, I will have no infantry to marshal for the final battle.

    Still, you make a good point about humility. I did a beta reading for a fellow indie once. Early on he spent about 100 pages recounting a complex economic argument fought out entirely in a corporate board room. The spelling and grammar were impeccable. When I told him I had no clue where the book was going, or what his story was about, he said good, that was exactly the effect he wanted. So … confusion. He wanted me to be confused. Because it was good for me. It meant I was teachable.

    Picture LEGO Batman saying “You’re welcome.”

    And he will be published before me. There is no justice.

  8. Hooking hard I think I’m getting the hang of (the last lot of beta feedback included “I forced myself to go to bed half way through your book – it was a major effort of will”) but hooking early? Major work in progress. But I am determined to get the hang of it. Like Hannibal, I will find a way or make one. Only with less cruelty to elephants.

    • Ruth Berge on September 30, 2019 at 9:28 pm
    • Reply

    Being new, and being way too tender about what’s been written. I told my mentor to beat me up, ok, not literally. She was brutal. Ink all over the words I agonized over. I re-wrote. The new writer has to be willing to take it on the chin and learn the craft.

  9. Another great post, Kristen! Keep them coming! 🙂

    • Cherie on October 1, 2019 at 10:44 am
    • Reply

    Thank you for this post! Imposter syndrome is real and I have it. Although I’ve written and published 4 books and have been writing stories most of my life, there are times when I still don’t feel I’m quite good enough.

    I still try to write better and better and believe there’s always room for improvement! My goal is to take one writing class per semester starting in January. I also learned that I need to increase my reading time per week from 1 book to 2. Again, thank you for this post!

    • Patti Rae on October 1, 2019 at 11:07 am
    • Reply

    Thanks Kristen for this reality check. As authors, we often read about other authors who are spitting out a new book every 6 months, and at first, I wondered; is that what an author has to do to be successful? But then I have to ask myself–how can any of their books be any good if they are puking them out every 6 months? I know that I’m probably not the norm, but I’ve been writing my story for over 20 years, and it is now a 5 book series going through the tedious editing process. First with a developmental editor, and she returns my MS with red lines all through it. Then it goes to my copy write editor for polishing. This process to prepare for publishing started about 5 years ago, and everything is taking longer than I expected. But what I have learned through this long, pain-staking editing process is how to be a better writer. Because you are right. There is a lot of crap out there today, and I want my books to be the best they can before I dive into the cost of publishing them. As you have mentioned in many a blog post; there are no short cuts to be a good writer. It takes practice, training, and years of rewrites, and when my books do hit the shelves, they’re gonna sizzle! I’m doing the hard stuff now, working through the suck, even when it hurts, because I know when we are deep in the trenches, we are close to success. You taught me that.

  10. As a writer who worked my work from drivel (putting it nicely), into not-quite-so-bad work, some people just don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Most just lack imagination and passion. Without those two things, you might as well just write how-to manuals, or legal documents (someone has to do it!). There might be something to talent, but only a little something. I agree wholeheartedly, it is 99% hard work really. It’s like catching that spark and making it into a fire, easier said than done. <3

    Meno<3

  11. Thanks as always! It’s never fun to receive feedback (or even ask for it) so it’s great to be reminded how important humility and hard work are here.

  12. Hi Kristen, been following for a few months now (you might have seen my pingbacks), but this is my first comment. I have burnout or imposter syndrome at the moment. I am not a new writer, I’ve been writing for forty years and publishing for almost ten, always indie, and that’s the problem – I haven’t found my readers, so the lack of readers’ response is what threw me into this state. I wonder if I have talent or what it takes to write stories people want to read. I’m sure I’m not the only middle aged woman who likes certain kinds of stories and I hate certain genre tropes and I think I have my own voice, but well… I consider myself a professional writer, with one professional sale under her belt (a story to Pulphouse #5), but lately I don’t like anything I write, so I need another eye to tell me if I indeed suck or not. Luckily I have a wonderful editor who is also my first reader, but well… another eye is always welcome in case you draw my name from your hat! 😉
    Thanks for the informative posts!

  13. I love reading your blog. It always inspire me and brings out new ideas for the novel I’m working on. Thanks.

    • Kristal DeJong on October 10, 2019 at 7:02 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Kristen! The crazy bunny lady from Spring, TX here. I really enjoyed meeting you at the NWHRWA writer’s workshop. It was awesome!

    I do agree with your other commenters that many authors sometimes worry whether or not they have talent, and they are the ones who care about their craft. Worrying about lack of talent is a syndrome which affects all creatives regardless of their discipline. In my opinion, the definition of talent is the ability to express the intangible and abstract, emotion, into a tangible form, art. Which others understand and find relatable.

    I will posit what sets the true artist apart from hacks is the level at which they are willing to dig down deep and give of themselves. The saying “you write what you know” will forever be true. How can we create something meaningful if we don’t know ourselves, both the good and bad? Ultimately, it was the desire to express newfound, and wondrous emotions, which drove the first human to put a handprint on their cave wall. Shortly after that, they learned to draw and graduated to stories around the campfire. Ultimately, those who wish to move beyond technical prowess in a craft must be willing to expose themselves in their work. To create something sublime, you can’t be afraid to live, feel and fail. There is a vast difference in “skill” between Grandma Moses and Leonardo DaVinci, yet they are both masters, because they knew how to evoke their viewers’ emotions. (Or puzzle the heck out of them in Leo’s case.) It’s not as simple as people not wanting to do the work, though it is a large part of it too. The downside of the digital age is our growing inability to empathize and relate to each other on a personal level. Not to mention the belief life should always be easy with no adversity whatsoever.

    I started a novel in my early twenties and eventually put it aside to raise 2 daughters. Almost 6 months ago, I got a wild hair. Dusted it off and took another crack at it. I no longer had any of my original work. Could I remember most of it after a 20 yr. hiatus? Ha, ha, ha, ha…. Heck no. Wasn’t a bad thing though. This time I have a full book (still in revisions and I’m OK with that). Is it the same book I attempted to write in my 20s-early 30s? No. Because there is a lot of water under the bridge now, along with snow on the roof. While writing, I discovered many little nuggets from my experiences and interests are scattered all over the place, including dealing with loss and overcoming adversity. I had no idea I was so interesting! (At least inside my mind.) In fact, I’m planning a game for my Patreon fans called “Find the Author”. They will receive a series of quotes from the book. For each, they have 3 answers to choose – author, research or imagination. (Yes, SpongeBob is my spirit animal.) Those with the most correct answers will win a prize.

    Kristen, here is my reply to your one sentence challenge. “Sometimes, a destiny written in the stars is not a match made in heaven.”

  1. […] We all go into writing with ideas on how writing “should” be. Rachelle Gardner challenges our assumptions, Anthony Doerr throws out all the rules for writing a short story, Denise Webb examines self-belief vs. self-delusion, and Kristen Lamb asks: do some people lack the talent to become a successful author? […]

  2. […] raised its ugly head before, so I’m sure I’ll get rid of it soon. Now, granted, I might lack the talent to be a successful author, but I’ll keep writing and learning and publishing more slowly until death! […]

  3. […] Do Some People Lack the Talent to be a Successful Author? […]

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