The Great Talent Hunt

 So I won’t be misunderstood let me make clear at the outset that yes, I believe individuals are born with different capacities for different things. Let alone the capacities one sees in oneself which might or might not be observed objectively, it’s impossible to watch a kid growing upand not to know some things come more easily to people than others.

Take words, for instance. I rarely, if ever, struggle for words. Oh, on some days when I’m ill or insufficiently caffeinated, I’m capable of saying a sentence the wrong way around, but just a glance at it will show me my error. I find it almost alien to imagine fighting for each word as you write, having to work at translating thoughts/images/feelings into words. And yet, people I have reason to trust, like my husband, who has nothing to gain by lying, tell me that this is possible – that it is in fact a condition of vast swaths of humanity.

So, we’ll establish that people are wired differently, whether due to genetics, epigenetics or environment at a very early age.

That’s fine.

What this means is that you have a “gift” you get for free. So far as it applies to fiction writing I’ve identified the following gifts: a gift for language (arguably the least useful except in limited and specialized circumstances); a gift for characters; a gift for plotting; a gift for theme.

Usually a person will get one of these almost at an instinctive level. Sometimes, they’ll get two or more. It could be argued I got two: language (though I made things difficult for myself there by being a non-native speaker, which added some years to my journey) and characters. Is this enough to publish saleable (let alone good) fiction. I wish.

Take my friend, Dave Freer, who tells me started with only plot. Was this enough to produce saleable fiction? Well, he sold earlier than I, but that was influenced by so many factors that it might or might not mean anything.

Writing draws on all the talents above, plus some other, unspecified. To make it, in addition to all that, you need keen business acumen, an ability to spot trends, a thick skin that allows you to persevere in face of rejection, enough mental health to be able to withstand one of the most uncertain careers you can embark on, and enough insanity to want to do it. Talent, as such, is not there anywhere.

And yet, over and over again, newbies showing me their work ask “do I have talent?” Or “have I got it?” with the it being the mysterious force that allows creation.

Part of this is the myth of talent and genius our society has spun. We read about DaVinci and Einstein and Mozart with a sort of mystical awe. There is genius, we think. There is talent. And we imagine these people plunging into their field of endeavor effortlessly and fully formed.

Do I need to tell you it’s not true? I doubt DaVinci walked up to a canvas and effortlessly drew a Madonna. In fact, we know he didn’t – we have bits we believe were done by him as an apprentice and – whatever Dan Brown thinks (rolls eyes) – most of his notebooks were taken up with practice sketches and notes to himself on this and that. We know Mozart’s story as well and though I’m not as familiar with Einstein I would wager that though he might have been a mediocre student, he probably explored math and physics extensively on his own to the limits of availability. (I’m “gifted” with a child of the same stamp, and trust me, sometimes I’m amazed at how hard he works on his own time, provided it’s something that interests him. Which often has nothing to do with what the school thinks he should be studying.)

Even the language we use on this is wrong. We talk of “gifted” children and of having a “gift” for this or that. Other than at an almost elemental level (it could for instance be argued I have a gift for language. This is not true as I have to work harder than most at learning foreign languages. I did have an easier time of English than almost anything else, but I still worked very hard the first year. Much harder than my classmates. BUT I am a verbal learner, which means once I conquered the language, words come easy.) This is not true. Scratch a “gifted” child and you almost always find a kid who is working twice as hard as the others. The fact that this work is often “play” for the kid doesn’t change that. The gift the child has might be something completely different – i.e. what he got for free is probably something more elementary – like the capacity to concentrate earlier and more intensely than other children, or the capacity to visualize his adult ambitions and use them as a driver to his motivation.

Add to that that writing is an uncertain and odd career. When you start, you often know nothing of how the field operates or how one gets even one toe in. (Okay, that’s getting easier with the internet.) By the time you figure out how difficult it is you’re often fully committed… And your friends, relatives and strangers on the street think you SHOULD BE committed. They don’t hesitate to tell you so, either. (If you write science fiction and fantasy you add another layer of weirdness, as a lot of people can’t understand why you’re writing about spaceships or fairies. “But this stuff doesn’t exist!”) You find yourself coming home from a day job, or stealing time away from familial duties to work relentlessly at an avocation that might or might not ever bring you even the barest level of recognition (defined as a couple hundred people reading it and liking it) let alone monetary reward.

Of course people setting out on this uncertain sea – the pen is a harsh mistress. Eh! – will want to know they’re destined to do this, that there is a reason they’re so oddly afflicted, that there is a chance they’ll make it.

I understand all this, but unfortunately I can’t tell anyone they’ll make it. There are so many factors going into making a success of your writing endeavors, that unless I know you personally and have seen you in action throughout the years, I do not know how far and how fast you’ll go. I’ve been known to be wrong, too. Some people I dismissed as “pot boilers” who would stick at a certain level the rest of their lives, suddenly shot way up. Other people who to my eyes had it all together have spent the last twenty years working at one or two books and never selling.

I don’t know your religious or metaphysical beliefs, nor are they any of my business. However, for the purpose of writing, it helps if you start off believing there is no destiny.

If you want to write, if it truly is what you want, you’re no more guaranteed success than if you want to make shoes or to make and sell neat medieval toggery at cons. (You probably have less chance of succeeding at writing, in fact, since what I’ve found is that it takes an inhuman amount of work, concentration and planning.) Would you think it was your destiny to make shoes? Or to sell neat stuff at cons? No. Of course not. (And yet it might be, as much as to write books.)

So, start from there. There is no destiny. I don’t care what your momma told you, you don’t have to do this. If you can, walk away now and save yourself.

Those of you who remain, now, examine your assets. What’s the part of writing that’s easiest and most pleasurable? The part that people tell you “wow, I really like” – right, that’s your gift. Stop fussing with it, and start learning the other parts of a story. Read a few books you really like and try to separate all the elements that go into it. Be warned that if your gift is “language” people will routinely over estimate you.

They’ll tell you things like “you’re such a great writer” – but they won’t finish the story, because there is no story beneath the great words. You have to be alert to that sort of thing. Absent an ambition to write poetry; the sort of recherche short-shorts that get published in college magazines; or plotless and acclaimed novels no one ever reads, language is well nigh useless. It helps you write faster, I think, but you also have to stay on top of it. If I give my language full rein, I can easily smother the story-tlling under a blanket of prose. People who stop to admire my vocabulary will get popped out of the story as easily as if I’d made a crude grammatical mistake.

Suppose you examined your “gifts” and realize you don’t have any. Can you still be a writer? Of course you can. Again, other writers get one or two elements for free and those might frankly be an hindrance, as they then think everything else should come that easily.

If you still want to set out on this uncertain route, with no guarantee of success ever, then start learning. Your best textbooks are the successful novels out there. No, they won’t contaminate your style (don’t make me come out there and hit you with a dead fish.) If only it were that easy to acquire the style of the masters. They will simply point out a “route” for you to follow. In the same way “how to” books can be useful. I found a very few truly useful, Dwight Swain foremost among them.

The caveat here is you must find the books that are useful to YOU. Even from Swain, my husband found the character book useful, while I could never finish it because it annoyed me and interfered with my character creation, which I do at an instinctive level. Conversely, even though most new agey writing books (just bought one by accident) drive me to screaming fits, at a particularly dispirited and low time in my life when I thought I’d never get published, one of these books that regarded writing as a “practice” like praying or meditating, allowed me to write again.

The reason this is important, is that some people feel an almost pathological need to write – I’m one of those – and if they’re not doing it, they get very unhappy. I’ve known people – not me, thank heavens – who get suicidal during prolonged writing withdrawal.

If you’re one of those, and if you feel a need to write, even though you know you might never get published, even if you don’t have a single of those gifts for “free”, work on acquiring them. If you’re going to be writing, you might as well make it saleable and give enjoyment to others.

But don’t worry about talent. Chasing “talent” is an endless snipe hunt that has ruined more potentially great writers than anything else.

Start by assuming you don’t have any talent. Now, do you have courage, determination, a thick skin and just a touch of divine madness?

Work it, baby, work it.

6 responses to “The Great Talent Hunt

  1. Whenever this subject arises, I always point people to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”. Gladwell says it takes about 10 years, or 10,000 hours, of practice to attain true expertise at ANYTHING irrespective of however much talent you may have started with.

    “The people at the very top don’t just work harder or even much harder than everyone else,” Gladwell writes. “They work much, much harder.” Achievement, he says, is talent plus preparation. Preparation seems to play a bigger role.

    Whenever this subject arises, two examples come to mind. The first is two famous Jascha Heifetz quotes: “If I don’t practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.” and “There is no top. There are always further heights to reach.”

    The second is that this subject has been blogged on by my favorite cartoonist and SF guy Howard Taylor. You can see his talk on the subject linked off his blog here: but really, the difference between talent and practice can be summed up by looking at just two cartoons from the utterly fabulous Schlock Mercenary.

    This is a link to his first Sunday panel, June 18, 2000,

    This is a link to a Sunday panel ten years later, after producing a strip every day, without a gap, no excuses needed, for ten years.

    Does Howard have talent? Sure. He was funny and worth reading from day one. If he had chosen to write BOOKS instead of draw comics, or be a stand up comedian, he would have been funny. He’s a great story teller. But his STORIES are better, more layered more involving, and it takes about a tenth of a second to see how ten years of practice has changed his art.

    Arthur Clarke used to complain that people said that “Nightfall” was the best thing he ever wrote. He profoundly hoped that they were wrong and that decades of work had improved his art. God knows that decades of work have improved mine.

    Read “Outliers.” Gladwell says this all far better than I can, or watch Howard’s talk linked above. He tells it better than I can.

    -_Rick

  2. The madness is a key componet, I think. Heh heh. Without the determination nothing can be accomplished, and I let that and my own doubts hold me back for far too long. I am pursuing writing avidly now, thanks in large part to your advice and encouragement. Thanks Sarah!

  3. Talent is a built-in aptitude for something. Skill comes from practice. And sometimes – not often, because it take more than just Gladwell’s 10,000 hours (which is, incidentally, quite correct) – talent and skill can fuse into something that really shouldn’t be called “gifted” – or even “genius” – because there’s a lot of work to get there.

    It’s a hell of a thing to explain in words, but I can give a couple of examples. Two of the Three Tenors, Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Both men at their prime were magnificent tenors. Both were superstars of the opera world. Both worked their butts off getting there. BUT – when Domingo sings, he feels the music in a way Pavarotti doesn’t. Domingo is what musicians call a “natural” musician – he doesn’t need to be taught to speed up a little here, ease back a bit there, get a little more intense in this bit… it just happens. That ability can’t be trained in. If it could, Pavarotti would have it.

    It’s outside simple talent. If anything is a gift, that is – and the writing equivalent is probably just as obvious and just as indefinable.

  4. IIRC, Thomas Edison is credited with coining the adage: Genius is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration.

    Part of the problem at the core of this post is that we live in an age which disparages skill and craftsmanship, attributes which can be acquired through application of discipline and perseverance — traits which our modern socio-political culture disdains as inimical. As this is a writing blog and not a political or cultural one, I will not expand upon that theme. The important principle here is to remember that a “gift” or “talent” is merely a starting point.

    Something too often overlooked is the idea that a gift may well be a hindrance. Having a “gift” in one aspect – such as characters — might keep the writer from developing other, more important elements (as Hoyt said; we’ve likely all read – or seen, as this is particularly prevalent in film – something with interesting characters but gaping plot holes.) Or it may cause the writer to rely on their “gift” and never properly learn the nuts and bolts of characterization, so that when their “gift” fails they are left adrift.

    One gift I found that got me through two Baccalaureate degrees: the gift of being able to make myself interested, indeed: fascinated, in learning that which I was required to learn for my degree. It takes the drudgery out of keeping up, and keeping up is always the first requirement in this life.

  5. Rick’s right, but it doesn’t hurt to be a little crazy too. Or at least what others consider a touch eccentric when able to come up with characters that just amaze others with the stories they are involved in. Chicken before egg? Well, I know (from my POV) the Egg came first and then the zygote underwent a few more mutations and when it hatched was a chicken finally…well the proto-chicken. I’m writing and do get uneasy when health and life won’t let me write and create. My happiest times do involve telling stories and running gaming sessions in RPG’s of all sorts. That helped hone the ability to come up with characters at the drop of a dime (used to be a penny, but you know what they say about inflation.) Like you I speak several languages – born to them though. English, Spanish and Portuguese (Brazilian), though at one time my family claims I spoke Swedish, A French/Beligian/Dutch mix and Japansese as a child too due to the friends I grew up with and spent time with.
    I also was witness to some of the most bloody and horrid (of the times) military and dicatorships, coups and counter coups in the late 60’s and early 70’s in South America during that period too. I found solace in the encyclopedias and testing knowledge I gave myself from them in ways that would have an Alphabet Soup at my Doorstep these days in the US. And yes that’s the time I got my hands on the Sirens of Venus, Have Spacesuit Will Travel and I was hooked for life. I had read all the greats in the Enclopedia Britanica series of Great Stories including the Iliad before I was nine. –
    Jump some years and the few I hate to mention during my time in the Army as a way to pay for college- yes I wrote Historical Romances for a Publisher in Cincinnati as a ghost writer I found out then via friends in the Genie Network that surprisingly a lot of the Women’s authors out there were actually men earning a paycheck while honing skills in what they really wanted to write. Fiction, Fantasy, Thrillers and Sci-fi the grandmaster of them all (argue which is best and hardest some other time, this is my order of things alone.) 😛
    In the end it matters not, whether you’re gifted or not, just that you have some control over your imagination and can whip it into the direction you need it to do. That is Discipline, no matter what the other voices scream for, you hold to your plot or idea and write. But occasionally listening to the voices doesn’t hurt, just don’t get caught talking back to them by your kids or family. They’ll give you really odd looks that are hard to live down. Best to find a corner and make it all your own and let the demons out through your fingertips and once it’s out, let the avenger in you in the form of the editor, have at them. Somewhere in the whole process a story and even a novel will be born and the voices quieted for a while until they ask you before even your fans do, “What’s next?”
    Smarter, gifted? Nope I’m lazy and smart. I find what’s the best and simplest way for me to do the writing tasks before me. Others are either confused or find my ways too elaborate and cerebral. Frankly I think in somewhat of a twisted convoluted way sometimes. But with technical stuff, I’m logical, but can make warp leaps with very little information, because I am an Imagineer and a Story Teller.
    Seeing with the Mind’s eye and translating that to the page does require a gift of language, to twist, hammer, and forge it into a new whole in a way that others will be entranced by the final product and crave more and more thereafter.

    Dick

  6. Great post, Sarah.

    I especially love this bit: “We talk of ‘gifted’ children and of having a ‘gift’ for this or that…. Scratch a ‘gifted’ child and you almost always find a kid who is working twice as hard as the others.” I’ve tried to dispel the “Gifted and Talented” myth for years — nearly 2 decades now — and I’m always glad to find others who understand that we all have gifts, just not the same ones.