The Great Talent Hunt — A Blast From The Past Post 4/2011

*Yes, I’m rolling on a theme.  Indulge me. – SAH*

 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 up and 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 salable (let alone good) fiction. I wish.

Take my friend, Dave Freer, who tells me started with only plot. Was this enough to produce salable 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-telling 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 salable 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.

165 responses to “The Great Talent Hunt — A Blast From The Past Post 4/2011

  1. Quoting the old Sensei (PBUH/a”h):

    There is an old song which asserts that “the best things in life are free”… I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion.

    • I don’t know. Being my Mother’s son is a pretty good part of my life, and I don’t remember really working for it. The laughter I will have later today when someone posts a ‘carp-tastic’ comment does require my effort of clicking the mouse, but the incremental cost of a single click on the mechanical mouse, while technically not free, doesn’t cost a lot.

      I will not say that someone totally talent-less can aspire. My Father can not carry a tune in a bucket; however, I have perfect pitch. The only use I have ever made with this talent is being able to answer a fax machine by whistling the exact tone necessary to start it. On the down side, when out at the mall at Christmas, with a local high school band playing, can be quite distressing. But! The ability to learn to play an instrument on pitch with the rest of the band doesn’t require perfect pitch, it requires practice and training. The local band playing can be painful to a trained musician as well.

      Language, characters, plot, theme; as Sarah identifies them, indeed, I suspect a good novel has all four well polished and presented. A wonderful verbose characterization of the interactions of a group of valley girls at the mall shopping would probably be a no-brainer for Sarah; however, who would want to read it? A great plot, with wooden cardboard characters… Weren’t we discussing the Star Wars prequels just the other day? Gifts are what you make of them. Talent can make something easier, but any good effort requires hard work.

      • An absolutely great plot, with rather one-dimensional characters, can give you… The Foundation Trilogy.

        • I forgotten about that one, but another fine example. He also had a reasonable theme.

        • Actually if you don’t know that the characters are flat you can really enjoy the story.

          • I knew the characters were flat, but frankly I expected that from old-school sci-fi, and I enjoyed it immensely. Well, until about the third plot twist in the last half of Second Foundation, at which point I was laughing my head off at how over-the-top it was getting.

          • Exactly — Asimov was such a great plotter in his heyday that people just overlooked the weaknesses in other areas. Conversely, if somebody has great characterization skills it may make up for pedestrian plotting. And a combination of great plotting and characters may make up for somewhat workmanlike language.
            Come to think of it, it takes practice to distinguish workmanlike language from deliberate economy of style. Herman Wouk (who will be a centenarian in less than two weeks — may he live to 120!) is a classic example.
            The fourth component — call it research, fact-finding, or world-building — depends in importance on the genre — it can lift a merely good story up to greatness though. Think of “The Day of the Jackal” — what was a good yarn became possibly the greatest assassination thriller ever written.

      • George Martin soon gave up trying to get his new rock and roll band to tune their instruments properly. The Beatles could play a lovely tune, but the instruments were always a little off, or they had their own maddening way of tuning.

        • Randy Wilde

          I seem to recall reading, years ago, that George Harrison had the least musical talent of all four Beatles… meaning he just had to work harder.

          • Dunno. When they met, he was the only one who could play guitar well enough to actually do little solos. Lennon & McCartney deservedly entered the pantheon of the great songwriters of all time, but Harrison was no slouch at that either — except that several of his best-known tunes were written for others. Lennon never had much technique on any instrument; McCartney started out as a guitar player and switched to bass of necessity (when the original ‘fifth Beatle’ Stu Sutcliffe was taken out by a brain tumor). On bass, Paul became something of an innovator (at least in a pop music context) by injecting some melody in his playing.
            Don’t really have much to say about Ringo.

        • thewerewife

          The legend of Irving Berlin (which is true) is that he learned to play on an out-of-tune piano, and ever after could only compose his songs on a piano deliberately untuned to the same extent. Didn’t hurt “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” one bit.

          • Mark Steyn has interesting things to say about this, having interviewed Berlin’s daughter and seen the piano. He also tells of a particular Berlin show, As Thousands Cheer in 1933, which broke the color line on Broadway and starred Helen Broderick, Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb and Ethel Waters.

            [Waters’] casting in As Thousands Cheer helped her career enormously. It transformed her into the highest-paid woman on Broadway, and her appearance broke down a racial barrier that had existed on broadway for years.

            According to theatre historian Max Wilk in Broadway: The American Musical, “the tradition was that black performers should stay in vaudeville or they should stay in minstrel shows but they don’t mix the two races.” Even so, Ethel was not allowed to appear on stage with her white costars in any sketches or songs. As a black artiste she was carefully segregated in an integrated show. She was also subjected to racism from her white costars before the show opened on broadway, an incident Berlin took very seriously.

            His daughter, Mary, was seven years old when he took her to see As Thousands Cheer in Decvember 1933. She reveals in Irving Berliin: A Daughter’s memoir that Ethel was her favorite member of the cast and that, iin Philadelphia, “Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, and helen Broderick refused to take a bow with Ethel Waters, she being black and they white. He would respect their feelings, of course, my father had said, only in that case there would be no bows at all. The next night, Mr. Webb, Miss Miller and Miss Broderick took their bows with Miss Waters.

            Transcribed from:
            Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather – Page 41

            One of the two songs introduced by Miss Waters remains a familiar standard to this day, performed by Vera Ellen (in the film White Christmas) and Marilyn Monroe (in There’s No Business Like Show Business), Ella Fitzgerald and Miss Piggy.

          • What I do know is that when he got rich enough, he had a “transposing piano” built so he could, with a single lever, transpose songs to different keys (generally to accommodate singers’ vocal ranges) while always playing in the same. Nowadays, of course, any electronic keyboard instrument can do this — but it took a lot of doing in those days.
            (Many professional accompanists of an older generation could transpose on sight.)

      • Birthday girl

        Your mother paid the price for you. Sometimes any of us pay the price for other peoples’ benefit/enjoyment, for our own reasons.

        • Ah, but ‘the best things in life are free’ to me. That she was willing to pay the price was her decision. Indeed, she probably had a motivation, although she always claimed that she “Took seriously what your Father poked at me with fun.” I also like to think that I repaid the costs, but that is a different subject.

          • Birthday girl

            I don’t think we can repay our mothers, unless they are very bad mothers indeed, which I’m not going there … but if one raises children oneself, well, perhaps that puts the cosmos back in balance …

      • Technically, perfect pitch is a matter of training too. Did you know you can train up other senses as well? Smell’s particularly fun to do; all it takes is starting to pay attention to what you’re smelling and learning to identify it. I once stopped dead in an apartment courtyard because I hadn’t realized how specific a cucumber plant smells. (Second-floor balcony, in fact, once I’d located it.)

        • I amaze my co-workers with the smell thing, except with me it’s food. I have been known to identify someone’s lunch sight-unseen from two rows over. A couple of the more evilly inclined have taken to bringing weird smelling stuff in to confuse me.

        • Everything I know about training the senses I learned from Doc Savage.

          Funny how nobody ever seems to cosplay him.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Most men’s chests don’t look that good with a torn shirt? [Wink]

          • sabrinachase

            It is totally oppression and a microagression that no good-looking guys cosplay Doc Savage. Maybe it’s the crewcut?

            • I think it’s the dimple in the chin.

              Hard to cosplay such a detail.

              BTW: has there ever been a proper appreciation expressed of the superb art of certain paperback series covers? Bama’s Doc Savage, Frazetta’s Conan, Neal Adams’ Tarzan … there are probably a hundred such series, waiting to be printed in a coffee table collection with appropriate commentary.

              Apparently Bama’s work merited him a nice web page of the covers (and in some cases the original art) at thegoldenagesite[DOT]

              • Doubtful. Because everyone *cough* knows that the old pulp covers only featured scantily-clad women. And even if they might have featured a scantily clad beefcake male in some obscure corner of the artwork (which they didn’t, because they only featured scantily clad women, duh!), it would have been inconsequential, because everyone *cough* knows that people don’t objective scantily-clad men like they do scantily-clad women.

                So there was no reason for it to ever happen. Because economics says so.


              • Perhaps we could convince one or more nubile young female cosplayers to do a genderbend cosplay of him?


                • There is always Patricia Savage:

                  That ought gratify the feminist SJWs demanding strong female characters. Especially if she is put in a chadoor (as of her own volition, of course, to deny objectification by the male gaze.)

                  • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                    The sad thing about Patricia is that she was always getting knocked out and captured. [Evil Grin]

            • If the crew is a problem, they could always go for the pulp look. See Torn shirt is optional!

              • The problem with that is how, without the torn shirt, anyone will recognize who is meant.

              • Outstanding!

                Perhaps the answer on lack of Doc Savage cosplayers is that guys who are built like that aren’t inclined to spend their time at nerd conventions cosplaying?

                • Yes, and no.

                  You do get women who (more or less) look like the people they’re cosplaying as. But such women are typically either doing so for work-related reasons. They might be getting paid to appear as the character. Or they are using the opportunity to pad their modeling portfolio and get their name out in wider circulation by appearing in costume.

                  You could, in theory, get properly built men to do the same. But it doesn’t seem to happen.

          • I would cosplay him but I can’t see the buckle of the heavy leather belt to make sure it’s properly centered.

            Hey, I have the same measurements I had in the Army; They’re just not in the same order.

          • Jerry Boyd

            Couldn’t cosplay Doc, might could manage Monk, if somebody wanted to get the whole crew going.

        • Perfect pitch is an interesting one, and not something that can be trained at any point. It involves physical structural differences in the brain. (Berkeley did a ton of research on musicians–I think they’ve got the brain scans on this one as well as the musicians processing music in the language center.) You can tell by the shape of the brain if a person has perfect pitch, and it has to be obtained while the brain is still pretty young.
          And it can be as much a curse as a gift. My son who has it is into percussion, and his percussion teacher is delighted because of tympani scales. So it will be more use than a parlor trick for him. For me, it means when I go to play solo I don’t need a tuner, out of tune music gives me headaches (including keyboards, because I am orchestral and where pitches are depends on what key you’re in) and I can’t tune any equal tempered instrument like an autoharp or piano. And I hate conductors who want to be all sophisticated and tune the whole orchestra out of tune.

          • I have read that in regions using tonal languages perfect pitch is universal, which would seem to refute the idea it cannot be learned. Possibly such cultures tend to eliminate genetic lines lacking the mechanisms?

            • Right, but you have to learn those languages while your brain is still very young. (Or, y’know, have perfect pitch for other reasons in order to be able to learn them later. I’ve often thought that translator would be a desperation gig if I really needed one.)

              I think my wording was perhaps not precise enough: perfect pitch can be trained. It cannot be trained at any point in life, only before a certain point. I’m not sure what the cut-off age is: I haven’t followed the research.

              • A bit chicken and eggy, ennit? Most of those who speak Chinese (for example) fluently learn it in the womb; few of those who learn it later (and haven’t already learned perfect pitch) ever learn it fluently.

          • Perfect absolute pitch, or perfect relative pitch? If you grow up singing Sacred Harp, or using the Kodaly system of learning music, or speaking an inflected language, anyone can develop perfect relative pitch, or very close to it. Perfect absolute pitch is different, and while I know a goodly number of people with perfect or near perfect relative pitch (including self), I only know four with perfect absolute pitch, one of whom is not a musician and can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

            • Most of my early life, I thought it was relative pitch. I was in the band grades 5-12. But then the thing came along that I always knew the pitch of of the receive tone modems and faxes use. Finally, my Step-Uncle-By-Marriage, an old fisherman who indeed had perfect pitch commented that I always whistled the songs in the original key. Once he made the observation, I found it to be true.

              • It’s bad enough that if, say, the pianist at Church is using the electric keyboard’s transpose feature or the guitarists have put on their capos, and I’m looking at the original key in the hymnal, I can’t sing the hymn because I can’t sight-read and transpose at the same time.
                I can transpose perfectly well if I have the song memorized. But I can’t read a C and sing a B-flat. I’ve compared it to being handed a book written in English and being told to read it aloud in French: not exactly a precise comparison but the best I can come up with.

          • Sort of like this:

            • William O. B'Livion

              Blink Blink.


            • That’s mean.

              It took me three weeks to get used to the wall outside the room my cubicle is in, after they redid it with these multi-color and multi-texture tiles that are painfully common these days, that caused the lines to look uneven and wavy (shudder).

          • I have absolute pitch (I prefer this term to “perfect” pitch since it doesn’t imply relative pitch is imperfect) — my wife, a professional musician, has exquisite relative pitch.
            It’s a blessing and a curse to me. A curse as you describe (baroque tuning used to literally drive me insane), a blessing in that one hears aspects of music that pass those with relative pitch by. Every key has its own unique “flavor” to me — whether this is from objective characteristics or association with certain compositions I don’t know.
            Did Beethoven (anecdotally known to have had absolute pitch) write the 5th symphony and the Pathétique in C minor because of its “Sturm ind Drang” character or does it have that flavor to me because of those pieces? Do I think of D minor as the most cerebral/pensive of all keys because of The Art of Fugue — or did Bach choose it for that reason?

      • The local band playing can be painful to a trained musician as well.

        It has been noted by somebody cleverer than I that one of the drawbacks of our age is the wide easy availability of excellent performers of all sorts. As a consequence of this availability many novices are intimidated by their lack of skill, mistaking that as lack of talent, and never invest the time and effort required to attain a professional level of skill.

        Back when what we had was Vaudeville and local amateurs it was much easier to believe you could do as well as them and people learned the skills necessary to hold an audience’s attention.

        • Not to mention the “winner-take-all” means there is trivial graduation between the top of the line and the amateurs.

    • William O. B'Livion

      We’ve suffered for our art.

      Now it’s your turn.

    • Yet another in a long line of popular lyrics/saying that cause me to think of the speaker “You have completely taken leave of your senses.”

      “What if they gave a war and nobody came?”

      What if the only one to turn up was Stalin?

      “A mind is like a parachute, it only functions when open”

      A perpetually open parachute will kill you just as surely as one that won’t open at all. Timing is everything.

      As a rule, no great idea that really stands up to scrutiny is going to fit well into a lyric or on a bumper sticker.

      • I’ve been meaning to get a bumper sticker reading “Humans Are Flawed – Societies Are Human – Work With That.” I think that’s reasonable.

      • Randy Wilde

        “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”

  2. 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.

    Can’t help but think of R.A. Salvatore here. Everyone really loved Drizzt’s internal conflict, so now every bleeding character of his is needlessly and endlessly tortured inside. And the thing is, he also had a tremendous gift for writing backstabby intrigue, and that’s fallen by the wayside. Grr.

  3. ” 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 can contaminate your style without giving you theirs. As anyone who’s fallen into the First Terrible Fate That Befalleth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy can tell you . . . (Ursula K. LeGuin’s name for reading Lord Dunsany and trying to write like that. Mind you, it can teach you a lot about making words jump through hoops in the process of escape.)

  4. Totally off topic (I’m reading about the intellectual foundations of the Reformation for work. Pity me), but would a JAG attorney be a cannon lawyer?

    • owww!

    • The Other Sean

      On if representing/prosecuting artilllerymen.

    • Stephen J.

      You’re gunning for a carp here, aren’t you?

    • My understand of JAG is joint military justice code, and a cannon lawyer would serve an ecclesiastical sourced justice code. Knights Templar, or the Swiss Guard at the Vatican would probably pass muster, but say our UCMJ is promulgated by a secular authority would not be.

      • an ecclesiastical sourced justice code is a Canon lawyer.

        • I get the point. Since the spell checker is OK with cannon the gun, I didn’t realize we were discussing artillery but Canon law.
          Now, with that, I understand why T O Sean’s is funny, but I always considered that if you have to explain the joke, the point is moot.
          Perhaps when Alma gets clear of the carp and the subsequent horde of hungry kittens it draws, she can enlighten us. I took the ‘Reformation’ to be Martin Luther nailing comments on the Church door, but perhaps a signed cannon ball would have brought more interest?

          • Yup, I’m reading about the late Medieval arguments (even within the Church) about secular supremacy and whether the Pope or Emperor (or *gasp* the body of believers) has the final legal authority here on Earth. Luther and Wycliff among others picked up the discussion and took it even farther. Lots of Canon Law that led (when combined with politics and other things) to cannon law (which might well be what you call Groetius’s ideas about international laws that came out of the Thirty Years War, but my digression is digressing).

          • William O. B'Livion

            No, the Army shoots Nikon. Air Force uses Canon.

            At least IME.

          • snelson134

            Something about the “Ultimate argument of the King of Kings”?

        • Historicially more people have been killed by canon than cannon. Respect both.

          • Forgive me, but for a moment there I was seeing “death of a thousand papercuts” and thinking, “those monks had it tough…”

  5. I suspect that talent is in the eyes of the beholder. It would be fair to say that, for me, discovering The Hobbit in 1970 when I was 10 was a life-changing experience. Tolkien’s writings affected me to a profound degree. I would long have said he had immense talent. My sister, a lovely person BTW, couldn’t get 5 pages into The Hobbit and certainly doesn’t consider Tolkien anything special.

    The talent comes in finding your audience.

    • Many people have told me Atlas Shrugged was an equally life-changing experience for them. I just couldn’t get into the book (though I loved her short story Anthem) but especially the first movie I enjoyed.

      That said, while Tolkien isn’t my cup of tea (nor is fantasy in general), I have no trouble recognizing the exquisite artistry that went into the books. All too many people confuse “this doesn’t speak to MEEEEEEE” with “no talent”.

      • Contrariwise, even more people confuse “It pleases me” with “It is good.”

      • I have a weird, vogonish defense mechanism where Atlas Shrugged is concerned. I have never been able to get more than 200 pages into the damned book because I lose every copy I buy around that point. I think my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

        NCT– Oddly, I liked the movies. Especially the track scenes in the first one which seem to really convey a sense of the joy of material creation.

    • My problem was after reading “War and Peace” as required reading in high school and hating every moment, that put me off reading large tomes for awhile, so never got to read Tolkein.

  6. Stephen J.

    “I’ve known people – not me, thank heavens – who get suicidal during prolonged writing withdrawal.”

    Not quite there yet, but God did this ring a bell. My problem is simply that between being the day-job breadwinner of the house and having both a wife and a son with health issues, by the time of day I have the time to write I seldom have the energy for anything beyond couch-potato TV absorption. The effect on my mood when I do actually get a chance to write and advance a work-in-progress to any measurable degree is phenomenal.

    No real solution is in the offing, unfortunately, but like the kitten on the branch, one must simply keep hangin’ on. (Or was that Kim Wilde?)

    • Actually, originally the Supremes (another Holland/Dozier/Holland classic). The first version I ever heard was actually Vanilla Fudge’s 😉

      Best of luck with your situation.

      • Have you considered keeping a notepad in the bathroom?

        • I advise against it. While the manufacturer may assure you the case is properly sealed there is just too much humidity in most bathrooms to be confident the electronics won’t take some in and develop problems.

          Besides, the amount of plumbing pipes (in older homes; modern pvc plumbing doesn’t run into this) most bathrooms have tends to block wireless connections.

        • Stephen J.

          Thanks for the thought; it’s a good idea and one my wife uses all the time, but I can’t really work that way — I’m an 80+ wpm touch typist and handwriting is simply too darn slow.

          Plus we only have one bathroom in the apartment, so even if I took my writing mini-laptop in with me I’d probably get interrupted by wife or son too soon to make the effort.

          • William O. B'Livion

            If you’re in there long enough for it to boot up you need more fiber in your diet.

    • Yeah, there’s what ya gotta do and what you need to do, and too damn often the twain meet…

      • Stephen J.

        You remind me of an old story I once heard:

        A foolish young man decided he wanted to raise songbirds, but the only thing he knew about encouraging things to rise and mature was that you put yeast in them (so the village baker had told him) and kept them warm. Well, the household had no animals, but the neighbouring blacksmith had an old horse, so the young man swiped a bird’s nest out of a nearby tree, grabbed some yeast from the baker, filled the former with the latter and tied it into the mane of the horse so the horse’s body would keep it warm. Day after day he waited for the eggs to hatch, and when his mother at last caught him he confessed tearfully, “I just wanted to hear all the pretty tweets from the birds!”

        To which his mother sighed and said, “Oh, my foolish boy, don’t you know the saying? Yeast is yeast and nest is nest, and never the mane shall tweet.”

        • Randy Wilde

          Where did you hear that, Callahan’s?

          • Actually from a friend in university . . . I think she may have told it somewhat differently, but I always remembered that punchline. I love elaborate shaggy dog puns. (I used to like the Callahan series better, but I’ve gotten too curmudgeonly to glide over Robinson’s politics as easily as I used to. )

            • Perhaps the problem is less your curmudgeonliness and more Robinson doing a poorer job of submerging his politics within the story?

              I recently (thanks Audible!) re-read the first Callahan’s Omnibus (extracting the Callahan stories from the first three anthologies, culminating in Callahan’s Secret) and found the politics more generic and less grating.

              I’ve had the impression that since his move North Robinson has acquired one of the more obnoxious viral strains of Canuck Chauvinism and added a bad case of BDS on top of that. As a result, the sandy shoals of his politics have become gravel bottoms that rip the hull from a story in no time.

              • Stephen J.

                Actually, I went off Robinson well before that… The thing that torpedoed me was a gag he trotted out in one of his “Lady Slings the Booze” stories, where he recast two of my favourite comic characters — Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves — as a broken-up old gay couple where “Jeeves” had gone to work for Lady Sally and left poor “Bertie” utterly helpless and devastated without him; the scene involved “Bertie” begging “Jeeves” to come back and “Jeeves” regretfully but unflinchiningly refusing, asserting his need to be free and his own man at long last.

                I have a low opinion of most “slash” revisionist fiction to start with — most of it suggests rather strongly that its authors either simply don’t understand close male friendships or find them boring without putting sex in the picture — and the fact that Jeeves and Wooster are two of my favourite characters only made it worse; somebody who looks at those characters and thinks it’s both funny and plausible to suggest they were lovers either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care what makes the original so great, or both, and I was never able to forgive Robinson for that.

  7. My writing gift is poetry…which is actually a knack for words combined with a knack for music. Most prose is too easy. Fiction is a challenge every time I write. It works the brain, which is my other knack… and forces me to go back to the elements again and again so I can understand and write. If I don’t write, then I get nightmares. Poetry bursts out of my skin. Once I learned some of the forms, that muse just won’t leave me alone. 😉 (or like Athena, out of the center of my forehead)

    • oh and if we are also talking about highly tuned senses… I have been borderline of blind most of my life (until laser surgery). I had terrific hearing… which is a curse and a blessing. After laser surgery I still had better than average hearing, but I didn’t need it quite as much.

      • Good hearing can indeed be a curse- there are things I *wish* I’d never overheard! And having to prove, several times over, that I can hear the sound (not the “click”) of a television turning on a room away with my back turned got old, too.

        Also, working with heavy machinery on a construction site without earplugs in *all* the time. I discommend this.

        • I refuse to prove… not my problem. lol

          • I don’t have perfect pitch, but I can hear higher notes. There was a cleaning cart or something in the Science building in college that somehow produced a really high whiney note that drove me nuts when it went by the Physics lounge. No one else seemed bothered by it. One day, that cart went by when there was another guy who apparently had not been in the lounge at the same time I was on prior occasions, and we saw each other wince. He asked if I could hear that sound, too, and we were both relieved that we weren’t going crazy.

            • Clark E Myers

              That’s a known practical argument for mixed engineering teams – or at least more early testing – on much product development.

              As I recall there was an all male team developing something, a monitor maybe, that went well into prototyping before the team was told the high pitched hum would seriously annoy people who used it.

              • A good reason to have some young kids in the alpha phase somewhere. Children can hear higher pitches easier, in general, than adults I read somewhere. Unfortunately, some never lose that. And it often seems to me a lot of those who don’t, well, they turn out Odd.

                Not that the latter is a bad thing, mind. *grin* Just the design needs a little tweaking to work the bugs out.

                • Children can hear higher pitches easier, in general, than adults I read somewhere.

                  They do. I read an article a couple of years ago that some teenagers were setting ringtones that were in the 17kHz range, where most adults wouldn’t be able to hear them.

                  • I can still hear in that range (17-17.5kHz), but my tinnitus tends to wash out anything higher, I think. If I’d have known of that trick in my younger days (and had a cell phone back in ye olden tymes), I’d probably have tried that trick too. *chuckle*

  8. Sarah, it appears you left out one of your writing talents – the gift of the gab! I’m amazed at the length of your practically daily blog posts – it seems so effortless. I often don’t have time to read the entire post, never mind the comments! Hope it’s not getting in the way of your paying work, I’m looking forward to the next release.

  9. Clark E Myers

    Rumor says that Einstein was by no means a mediocre student. Apparently a conscientious American biographer looked at his school grades and saw drastic changes. In fact the young Einstein’s school had changed systems between a one to six system and a six to one system. He had respectable grades through out but his low numerical was mischaracterized and popularized. People hear what makes the better story.

    Second, Einstein definitely did not fail at high school. …. At the age of 7, he started school in Munich. At the age of 9, he entered the Luitpold-Gymnasium. By the age of 12 he was studying calculus…..In fact, it was his mother, not his school, who encouraged him to study the violin – and he did quite well at that as well.
    So the next year, he finally started studying at the Federal Polytechnic in Zurich (even though he was now one year younger than most of his fellow students). Also in the year 1896, even though he was only 16 years old, he wrote a brilliant essay that led directly to his later work in relativity.

    So he definitely did not fail his high school, and definitely was not a poor student.


    Bright students tend to push themselves in a particular area of interest but tend to satisfice by being just a bit better than anybody else in the class in other areas. When I knew something about it this meant an Idaho student who was intrinsically Ivy League material would be as good as anybody in the area of focus and a couple years behind the prep school/ magnet school student in everything else.

  10. Until November of 2014 – when I had a heart attack followed in swift order by a triple bypass (which is why Sarah and Charlie haven’t been getting any book plugs from us: I am still struggling to edit Gerv, let alone write, myself) – I suffered (and that is the mot juste. You remember Mo Juste, Irving Juste’s cousin: he’s a dentist in Hoboken) – I suffered from facility. Like GKC or Bob Benchley, I could churn out prose on anything: and, unfortunately, did. It was, I think, usually fun and sometimes insightful, it was enjoyed by many, but it wasn’t, actually, a Good Thing for me.

    I think Sarah is right to say that a gifted kid (note this well) who goes far is a kid who works twice as hard without letting on that he is. I never was and never had to be. There’s the old joke that lawyers (which I used to be) went to law school so they’d never have to do math or science ever again; it’s partly true. Law and writing are among the trades – I won’t call them professions – that attract (NB: in addition to all you good people) those of us whose gift is the ability to BS their way through and treat life as one long essay question. (There’s an old Oxford story, which I most commonly hear with C. S. Lewis as the don and John Betjeman as the pupil, in which the student hasn’t done his essay to read at the tutorial. So he comes in with a sheaf of blank paper and extemporizes brilliantly. At the end, his professor nods, puffs his pipe, and says, “Quite interesting. Read it again.”)

    We all, I think, need that sort of kick in the arse on occasion. The great temptation even of writers who are churning it out by the yard is, actually, sloth; and the easier we have it the worse we do and the lazier we get. At least that’s been my experience, and I doubt I’m at all extraordinary (least of all in having thought for too long that I was). There’s a passage in Gissing’s Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Spring. I.) about the author as tradesman I wish we all had tattooed on us.

    Discipline is unfashionable; it remains necessary. I wish a tithe of it in the amount that, say, Our Gracious Hostess has; and I must work, in a disciplined fashion, to attain discipline.

    • sabrinachase

      Your Oxford anecdote happened to me, in slightly different circumstances. I was entertaining the three-year-old daughter of a friend while said friend took a very needed nap. For some reason we were discussing the lunch habits of bears and I wound up inventing a just-so story involving baby bears waking up from hibernation and wanting snacks. Lots of pattern repetition and call-response and suchlike. Child drank it all up.

      And then I heard the dread words, “Read it again!” ….

      • I’ll get to it eventually….

        I jest. I read it. And, YES. That is just it. (HS AP English: I and my pals entertained ourselves. Wrote a parody bodice-ripper, too: Writhing Orchids. The hero’s name was Lance deFlower. No, we didn’t hand it to the teacher for a grade, we weren’t that crazy.) But McArdle, as usual, is Right On.

        • *chuckle* That’s a good one. Almost every paper I did well on was *actually* done in a night. One. As in, almost-but-not-quite after it was due. I boned up on my running skills getting them to the office in college at the last possible moment.*

          The thing is, the only teacher I had who called me out on my B.S. was the one that taught me the most. For her, I spent a month researching and turned in what was possibly the worst thing I ever wrote. And learned the most from it on what *not* to do in the process.

          I’ll get back to writing, really I will. Let’s just jot down this other plotline *here* and that phrase *there* and the butler thing over *there* and where did I put the cheese? *wanders off, rebounding from walls that jump out in front of him*

          • Oh, yes. In law school, I had a professor who was also a literary critic. So I did my final in mock heroic couplets, and got a 4.0.

            Bad training for the real world.

            In undergrad, I once did a paper after a lengthy and vinous dinner. Told a friend to come and carry me to the drop-off at a certain time, told him, yes, I can do it by then, did, and got, yes, a 4.0: a story which that friend insisted on retailing when he introduced me when I was in Darien to talk to the Historical Society about the then-new Titanic centenary history we’d just published.

            And what’s going through my mind as Jon tells this story and everyone looks Suitably Impressed, is, Yeah, and then I hit the real world, and it punched back twice as hard (copyright Glenn Reynolds), and why are you nice people applauding my cocky dumbass 20-year-old self?

            • I do wonder if they weren’t retroactively applying standards they experienced. I know folks older than me did have their educations handled with the kid gloves I had in most of high school and college. Put on that scale, I was a C student at *best,* but probably deserved more a C- or a D.

              In college one of my composition finals was quite literally written in a drunken stupor *about* being in a drunken stupor- it received an unsurprising standing ovation from the Freshmen and a completely stupefying 4.0 for the course. Cut to two years later, I’m more proud of the vehicles I’ve fixed than the words I’ve used. Yet the one seems to get more praise from folks. *chuckle*

              At least Real Life is always there to make sure I never get a big head!

              • I almost wish that had been the case. But this was W&L (and W&L Law) in the 80s, and the professors were Milton Colvin and Tom Shaffer. So, unfortunately, I hadn’t even that excuse; no, I had, too early and too easy, actual talent … to waste; and I wasted it. Result? Of course that precise result set out in the Proverbs of Solomon, the sixteenth chapter, beginning at the eighteenth verse. Pride and haughty spirit get exceptionally puffed up, meet reality after leaving school, fall down and go BOOM.

  11. Witty remark consumed by WP error. Cursing and blasphemery in response. Belated idea to claim much greater satirical insight than actual comment could possibly have had.

    Gratuitous Youtube link:

    Punchline: Are you crazy? If I could write i wouldn’t have had to steal this bit.

  12. “If I give my language full rein, I can easily smother the story-telling 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.”

    That happened to me in the first couple of pages of Witchfinder – I saw what I thought was a grammatical error (Sarah was right and my education was lacking – no surprise there). It kicked me out for a minute and caused me to re-read the sentence. But I set it aside, knowing that I could ask her about it later, and dove right back into the story. And honestly, if it had happened a couple of pages further in, I don’t think it would have kicked me out. Witchfinder evoked stronger, more vibrant visuals for me than any book I’ve ever read.

    • Thank you. I’ve actually been working — in my copious spare time — on the YA sequel which is NOT called The Haunted Air but Witch’s Daughter — and it hopefully will go up early June.

  13. I’d like to allude to what you wrote yesterday, Your Space Highness, on the subject of “higher education” and its interaction with “talent” (all scare quotes for the obvious reasons). How colleges are seen – and can see themselves – as the place where talent, which is supposedly natural and untaught, is CERTIFIED rather than developed, and cannot be inculcated. My daughter is an actress (you want a headache of a talent in your family’s life, it’s that one) and had an interesting experience when looking for a program for after high school. We inquired into the theater departments of our state university system, one of which is nationally prestigious (SUNY Purchase, if you were curious). All of them required a prospective student to pass auditions and to have multiple performance credits in community theater or other programs (outside of school plays) just to elect the major, over and above being accepted to the university. She would have had to demonstrate she was “talented” enough to be worth a spot in their program. Her reaction: “If I have to be a good actress already, just what the **** are they going to teach me?” But she learned that The Neighborhood Playhouse, the conservatory founded by Sanford Meisner, accepted its students solely on the basis of an interview; she only had to convince them that she was serious and not a dilettante. In fact, they preferred students who hadn’t already been trained and directed to a fare-thee-well, as their instructors didn’t like to waste time and energy breaking bad habits and helping to un-learn incompatible techniques. She had a wonderful experience there actually being taught rather than rubber-stamped.

    • Two comments:
      One – many schools have so many people applying for admission to their theatre program that they can afford to screen for those who’ve already demonstrated a commitment to and appropriate preparation for, the trade. In the same way, they do not accept into their math program anybody who has not already achieved a preliminary understanding of that science.

      Two –

      For those who don’t know, this is a famous story that has repeatedly been told around acting circles. The story is that when Dustin Hoffman was involved with the movie Marathon Man, his character was depicted as looking like he had stayed awake for three nights. Dustin, being a method actor, decided to stay up for three nights in real life in order for it to look more realistic. When he came to the set, Laurence Olivier (An actor some consider one of the greatest in the world) asked him why he looked so tired and Dustin told him. Then Olivier pauses for a moment, then makes the famous statement, “Try acting, dear boy…it’s much easier.”

      In fairness, the story (like so many of the best) appears to be a misreading od context

      Dustin. Hoffman, for his part, says Olivier uttered the line as a laugh between the two of them, when Dustin staggered onto the set after a night of partying, weakly joking to “his lordship” that it had been his way of preparing for the part.

      but it bespeaks a deeper truth, one sometimes conveyed in the story about (IIRC) Sarah Bernhardt ripping a stage-hand a new one for some error while daintily extending her hand from the wings in such manner as to bring the audience to tears.

      Technique matters.

      Oh, a Third point: for many aspiring actors such schools are the equivalent of Baseball’s minor leagues (or, perhaps more suitably, college football and basketball programs) — a place to ply one’s trade and be noticed by the Majors, where the real money is. For such people acting school is less a place to learn than it is a springboard.

  14. wanderingmuses

    I have to agree. I don’t believe in the concept of “talent” either. I think humans have a tendency to migrate to certain things they find fun. As a child, I was training to be a classical musician. That’s all I ever thought about and did. I was in band in school, of course. I always (except once) sat in the First Chair position because, frankly, I was far and away the best flutist in there. My own cousin was one who hated me because I always beat her out. She sat somewhere in the middle. She said to me once, “Must be nice to have come so easy!” Easy?!? Are you freaking kidding me? I practiced SIX HOURS a day, every day. More on weekends. I took two different music classes twice a week. One for technique and one on music theory. Easy, my ass! While she was out at the mall chasing boys and buying clothes, I was home practicing until my lips went numb. Talent had nothing to do with it. It was all hard work and dedication.

    No, I never did become a musician but that’s a long, sad story that I won’t bore y’all with.

    • The myth of talent, the idea that it “Must be nice to have come so easy!” serves a purpose: it allows those unwilling to pay the price of excellence an easy excuse not to.

      The story is told of teenage Michael Jordan attending Basketball camps and seeing numerous players with more talent than he possessed. What he possessed that they lacked was the will to win, the dedication to getting every last erg of his talent to work for him on the court. So he practiced while they enjoyed the attention of girls and the benefits of staying out late partying.

      The world is full of people wanting the benefits of hard work without actually, y’know, working hard.

    • Right now, there’s a very likeable high school band anime called Hibike! Euphonium (or Sound! Euphonium in English) which pretty much has that moral – you have to work hard to sound good. All the band geeks I know really love the detail put into portraying instrument care, etc.