Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
February 2017

Talent vs. Skill

I don’t like talking about talent most of the time because it’s not something that you can do anything about, and also because most people confuse talent with skill. Baking a perfect loaf of bread is a skill. Making a crocheted afghan is a skill. Changing the oil in your car is a skill. Skills are not talents and talents are not skills. In writing, skills are the concrete ability to tell a story and to communicate effectively. Everyone can learn skills, but people bandy around the word “talent” a lot when they’re frustrated because some skills take a long time to learn. Years.

I tell beginning writers that the writing apprenticeship is generally about five years. It takes five years of concerted writing and effort to get published. Some people take less time. A lot more people take more time, though this is often because they aren’t sending things out widely enough or because they’re not writing enough. Once you’re published, there’s another ten to fifteen years before you get paid real, regular money, and even that isn’t guaranteed. You can be dropped by a publisher in an instant, your editor can leave, your publisher can go under. And often, that real money isn’t enough to support a family, especially with the cost of medical insurance.

If there is such a thing as talent, it is inextricably connected to luck, Zeitgeist, and probably education. We may never understand what it is that makes some writers just good at writing about a certain thing, the way that Stephen King knows how to scare us. But just because you don’t have Stephen King’s talent doesn’t mean you don’t have any talent. You may or may not have less talent than he does. It’s awfully hard to tell.

Are there writers I’ve met who don’t seem very talented? Occasionally, yes. But my subjective view of their talent rarely has anything to do with their ability to get published if they’ve gained the skills they need to be successful storytellers. I really dislike the mystique that we have culturally thrown onto artists and creators, largely because it erases the skills part of the equation. Of course you’re not going to be a great storyteller if you don’t gain the skills first. You have to put in the time. And talking about great artists as if they were magical (or tragically destined to die young in this terrible world of ours, which is just as bad) isn’t helpful to anyone who is trying to become an artist.

Here are some things that I think are related to talent:

  1. The way your characters interact.

  2. The kinds of romance you are interested in writing about.

  3. The way you cross genre lines and remake things your own way.

  4. Your understanding of what readers instinctively want.

  5. Your facility with interesting ideas and putting them together in a pleasing way.

  6. Your ear for dialog that is zippy and character-perfect.

  7. Your capacity to write with pathos.

  8. Your descriptions and how evocative they are.

  9. Your natural ability to use symbolic and metaphoric language in your writing.

  10. A facility for poetry.

What I don’t think talent does is make writing easy. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to edit your work. It doesn’t mean that you publish the first thing you write or that you publish everything you write because it’s perfection.

Talent isn’t all that readily identifiable. The writer you think is brilliantly talented, another person thinks is fatally flawed, and another has never even heard of and shrugs when they read. A talented writer doesn’t necessarily have an inborn sense of what they should write. They grow and develop and change. They get better at certain things and hone other things, just like you will if you put real time into your writing. It almost sounds like “talent” is really just skills combined with who you are. That’s what I think, anyway.

Get talented by working hard at developing your skills. And then get talented by feeling free enough to really let your unique voice stand out.

So what about skills?

It takes a long time to develop writing skills. And when I say “skills,” I don’t mean just correcting typos and having proper grammar. If you have those skills to begin with, that’s great, but that’s doesn’t mean you’re going to be skipping a lot of time over other people. Sorry. And while I think copy editors are marvelous, imagining that you can just hire a copy editor to deal with your lack of skills is a misunderstanding of what skills you need to learn and also a misunderstanding of what copy editors do.

Here are some of the skills you need to learn as a writer:

  1. How to introduce a character.

  2. How to develop a character in a compelling way.

  3. The rules of your genre (every genre has different rules—break them once you know them, but only for a good reason).

  4. How to start a scene.

  5. How to set up the proper expectations for your book in chapter one.

  6. How to deliver on those expectations by the end of the book.

  7. How to write a love scene.

  8. How to create a series character that works.

  9. How to do worldbuilding for fantasy.

  10. How to explain science/magic in easily digestible bites.

I could go on and on. There are a lot of writing skills. Skills are things that you focus on and learn. They are NOT talents. They have very little to do with talent. You realize you need to learn them, you find other people who do them well, you practice, and then you get good at them.

There is no magic involved in learning skills. Some people learn certain skills faster than others. This is normal. I often tell people to read a lot because I think it helps with unconscious skill acquisition and also provides a wider variety of defaults to use when put to the test.

You need skills before you start sending out manuscripts, but skills do not guarantee you a publication. Lots of people have skills and don’t get published. Lots of published writers are rejected even if they have skills. Skills are the very basic building blocks for being a writer.

If you were a plumber, you’d need skills to get a plumbing job. This is also true for writing, except there’s also luck and taste involved in writing.

Most of the time, when writers talk to me about not having enough “talent” to be a writer, what they’re talking about is that they haven’t gained the skills they need. It can be frustrating not to understand the difference. A lot of aspiring writers want to be Writer X. I certainly had a handful of writers I wanted to be when I grew up. That’s not going to happen. Learning skills isn’t going to make you into Stephen King or Megan Whalen Turner. It’s going to make you capable of writing your own stories. This is sometimes a disappointment and I sometimes see writers quit who feel like after all the time they put into writing, they never got what they wanted out of it.

You can only tell the stories you have to tell. Sometimes people don’t want to buy them. That doesn’t mean that you’re not talented or that you didn’t have the skills. It’s just the breaks.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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