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Can writers learn?

It’s a big question, isn’t it?

Are you just given a quotient of natural talent at birth or can you take whatever tools you have and just improve them by hard work, time and study? Are you born a Shakespeare or a dunce, without a chance to migrate from one to t’other? Or is it all about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of study?

These questions, obviously, matter a lot. If it’s just down to natural talent, then either you have it or you don’t, and that first agent rejection you received might just be code for:

YOU ARE S**T. GIVE UP NOW.

If you’re not yet published, I know for a fact that you have had that thought, or at least some close variant of it. And it’s a corrosive, life-sapping destroyer of creativity.

Good creativity needs a kind of boldness. A willingness to find and release that handbrake. Not just release it, ideally, but unbolt it. You want to tear the damn thing out of the vehicle completely, so you can go freewheeling down the highways of your mind, in pursuit of the spark that got you driving in the first place.

So here’s the answer.

Yes, talent matters. Of course it does.

You also, I think, need to be able to construct a simple English sentence without falling flat on your face. That sounds like a pretty simple hurdle to overcome, and it is, but there are nevertheless writers who struggle at that level, in which case (mostly, not always) publication is likely to elude them.

So: yes, talent makes a difference. And yes, you have to be able to handle the tools of your trade without poking a chisel through your foot.

But after that? Here’s what matters:

Passion

If you don’t have that passion, you’ll never write a book. You probably won’t even complete your first manuscript, but if you do, you won’t have what it takes to do everything else. Re-work and re-edit it. Scrap some part of the original idea and replace it with something better. Get critical feedback and respond to it constructively. Get your first rejection letters and think, “Screw you” and “We go again.”

Passion is essential. More important than talent. I’ve seen people succeed without the much innate talent, but I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever seen anyone succeed without passion.

Self-editing cojones

So yes, passion, but that passion needs to manifest in the right way. At Jericho Writers, we see a ton of manuscripts sent into us for editorial feedback. I don’t do that editorial work myself any more, but when I did, I can tell you that THE most frustrating manuscripts to receive were ones from capable but recalcitrant writers.

So we might get a manuscript that was really quite good. I’d write a report that said, in effect, “Yes, this is really quite good. But there are the following general problems (A, B, C, D, …) and here are some examples of where those problems are impacting your work: blah-blah, yadda, yadda.”

Then, the writer might send in the manuscript for a second read, and I’d get it, excited, thinking I might have something marketable in my hands. Only then, I’d read the damn thing, and I’d be genuinely puzzled. Was this the manuscript I’d already read? Had the writer, inadvertently, sent me the #1 version not the #2 one? I’d check in detail and would find that where I had explicitly mentioned an example of some manuscript problem, page number and all, there was in fact some amendment, normally positive, to that page. Everywhere else though, I’d find no changes at all, or nearly none. In effect, though the manuscript needed to travel just a few further yards to hit the finishing line, this whole editorial process had advanced it by a few quarter-inches.

Those clients, as far as I can recall, have never ever gone on to get published. (They’re often the ones who get most angry with us too. “I thought you told me this was close to marketable!” Well, yes, buddy, but …)

So editing matters. Being brutal with yourself and your text matters. An absolute desire for perfection, as near as you can get to it in this fallen world, that matters.

Keeping-going-ish-ness

(Yeah, OK, the English language probably has a word for that and I quite likely know what it is. But the hell with pedantry. My handbrake is lying somewhere in the dirt ten miles behind me and I have the winds of freedom in my hair. So ya-boo.)

Closely related to the first two elements of success: sheer bloody-mindedness.

I could give a zillion examples of this, but the two that stick are these:

Antonia Hodgson, a senior editor at Little Brown, wrote a book. It was a 250,000 word book about vampires (long, long after the Stephanie Meyer wave had collapsed and died.) And it was lousy. It didn’t work. The superbly connected Antonia H was able to get an agent to look at it and that agent just told her, politely and emphatically, that the book was beyond rescue.

So she ditched it.

And wrote another.

That one became a bestseller.

Another example, and this is the one that really sticks with me:

One of our editorial clients. I remember reading the first draft of his first book and I thought, nope, this guy doesn’t have what it takes. But that guy’s keeping-going-ish-ness was as strong as I’d ever seen. His first book, all three drafts of it, was a training exercise. He got serious with book #2. And blow me, two or three drafts into book #3, he absolutely nailed it. Got himself an agent. Got published.

And he proved me wrong. His raw, intuitive talent just wasn’t that high on the scale, but his everything else was set to max.

I was going to leave my list of things that matter to just three, except I realise I have to add one more:

Your idea

A competently executed book with a mediocre idea will never sell. It won’t sell to a trad publisher. It won’t sell as a self-published book, or not really.

You can amp that up a bit. If you write really quite well, but have a mediocre idea, it most likely won’t do anything.

I was lucky with my first book. Yes, my writing back then had a certain bright competence, but I was still quite immature as a writer. That first idea, though? Was golden. That idea vaulted me straight through onto the high ground of commercial publishing.

Dan Brown? Not a great writer, even by the not-too-taxing standards of commercial thriller writers. But his idea, the Da Vinci one, was a gloriously rich one for his target audience.

Stieg Larsson? A competent enough writer, but one who needed to shrink his voluminous, baggy prose by 25%. A writer who wasn’t taken on by any of the big UK publishers because of that volume, that bagginess. But the brilliance of his idea, plus Quercus’s marketing cleverness, turned his work into the sales sensation of his era.

And so on.

Ideas matter. They matter profoundly. (And it is, by the way, very common for your first novel, the one you’re slaving over so hard right now, to be your learning novel. The one where you acquire the technique, learn the graft, complete your ink-spattered apprenticeship. Then when you figure out that book #1 isn’t going anywhere, you toss it aside and write the big one. The one with the big, ambitious idea, confidently and energetically executed. That’s the book that sells.)


That’s it from me. I’m off to take the car into the garage. Apparently, it’s illegal to drive without a functioning handbrake. Oh well.

Tell me about your experience. What do you think matters? What have I missed out? Or am I just plain wrong? Is it all about talent and nothing so much about anything else? I'm all ears ...

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Comments (10)
  • Well there we are, possibly your most uplifting post yet. 

    Cheer up everyone, it’s not necessarily that your writing is shit, it could be your shit ideas standing in your way. Or else you haven’t tried hard enough and don’t listen.  😀 

    Seriously, I’m sure you’re right Harry. 

    And back on the LUCK...

    Reflect on quite how many submissions agents say they receive these days. In the thousands per year many now say and they will aim to take on a single digit number of new clients each year. That killer phrase “I didn’t warm to your work” is bound to be getting a lot of air-play in respect of some fine tunes and not just the miserable dirges.  (That’s what I like to think anyway, or what hope is there otherwise!)

    Have a good weekend.

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    • Luck is indeed the primary factor. If your not lucky you can have all the drive in the world and the drive to write hundreds of books. Then you find out you are in the middle of the amazon surrounded by fires and all your books will go up in smoke! Boom.

      I'll give an example closer to home.

      I have written two books, and contracted to self publish. 

      The publisher gave a lot of good advice, and did not give some other important advice. Plus it was rushed.

      Result: the first book looked great, but was pricey and difficult to read: small font and possible readability issues).

      The second book is in production. Ran the script through a readability tool, had it read to me and re-checked. 

      Result: Much better.

      Then, a publication error. Bad luck. I'm just hoping now that my luck will change and that the sequel will become popular. There are four more in planning, whether it is or not plus the short stories and another different story arch awaiting the results.

      So I have the ideas, drive ... and I've learnt my lessons, well some of them anyway. Here's hoping! 

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      • I’m going to tackle this question from the perspective of your initial ask: can writers learn, or is their talent innate?

        There are two ways this can be answered. One is very simple, which is that Gladwell is basically right: anyone can learn anything.  The other… ah, but how many caveats must we add to that first answer? There is context that must be given, subtle shading that manipulates it.

        And, if we wish to go beyond the question of just learning to write, to whether one can get published and make a career (of sorts) of writing – in effect, succeed – the additional details get more complex still.

        So, the basics.

        Anyone can learn anything. Except… Think of any skill, whether writing or running, flying a plane or engaging in social interaction, to be like a muscle. Muscles strengthen with use, with exercise. Left to languish, they atrophy. Each muscle has two basic qualities: an initial size and strength (innate skill/competence), and a propensity for development (constraints of DNA).

        The innate skill is not your baseline, it’s your starting point. Fail to develop the skill, fail to exercise, and it will weaken. It can weaken to the point where no matter how much you attempt to exercise it for yourself, you’ll never see improvement – not even making it back to your starting point. The only way to get back even to your personal zero is with external help. Think of this like suffering a severe injury whereby you need professional physiotherapy just to be able to move a limb again, let alone use it for something.

        The propensity for development affects the type of training you need, and how you can develop in that area. Taking a physical equivalent, I have a very high level of slow-twitch muscle; on par with marathon runners. I simply cannot develop bunked muscles. I could train for 100’000 hours (10 times Gladwell's requirement), with expert tutelage, but I would develop no visible musculature whatsoever. Not even a fraction of what some people have without effort. Instead, I have endurance.

        So, in effect, you can learn. But you need the right tutelage for your capabilities, and you need your exercises to be appropriate to how you are wired. The theoretical “best you can become” is personal to you. It serves no purpose to measure yourself and your competence against others in this area of art and skill.

        Now, to success.

        As others have mentioned, there is a significant element of luck here. But, I believe it’s indirect.

        Success comprises two parts: performance and recognition (watch Albert-László Barabási’s TED talk that touches on the subject). Success is, for the most part, measured through recognition. You can be better at the performance – more competent, in effect – but fail to get the recognition. Likewise, those who are less competent may get more recognition (did someone mention Dan Brown?). As Barabási puts it, “Your performance is about you, but your success is about all of us.”

        This is where the luck comes in. Not direct luck to land the deal, the sales, the paycheque, but being lucky to get recognition from a key catalyst: someone who has the reach and influence to kickstart the recognition avalanche. Because humans are herd animals: most will praise – and thereby boost the success of – the thing everyone else is praising, whether they know enough about the subject to have a meaningful opinion or not. In effect, “Success compounds off others’ perspective.”

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        • Yes: very interesting distinction between performance & recognition. There can be a huge gap between those two things when it comes to books. Neither the bookselling trade nor the media is that astute at distinguishing, alas.

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        • Harry,


          This is a really great column. Very inspirational for where I am right now.  Yes writers learn. I am learning from you and your peeps! Thank you very much!

          You also asked for personal stories (I think) on finding the balance between brake off and focused as we learn.   This is a daily struggle. for me.  But I think I have finally found an approach that works. It sort of ties in to Hemingway’s admonition to “always stop at a point where you can pick back up the next day”—or something like that.

          Here’s my routine:

          In the afternoon I will read a few good posts or read a chapter from the one million books I have on plot, character, dialogue etc. That is “afternoon reflection time.”  I also read novels.  A LOT OF THEM. 

          In the evening, before I go to bed, I will go on Scrivener, and plan my next day with 12-18 corkboard notecards for my next chapter—choice bits of dialogue, things that have to happen, plot points, things that must occur, etc.

          Then I sleep on it, let it stew.  I sometimes have dreams about my notecards!

          Then, I get up early and go to Scrivener, with my notecards on the right split screen, my current chapter on a yellow background in the middle, and my complete outline on the left binder.

          In a coffee-fueled early-morning frenzy, I take off the brake and do as you have described—BUT, I make sure I use the choice dialogue bits and plot points from the “logical evening” before. I am always keeping my eye on the right and left no matter how crazy I am getting down the middle.   In southern American parlance, we would call this “keeping it between the ditches.”

          Doing it this way, I usually end up with 1,500 to 2,000 usable words that need minor edits. Whereas before, if I was only crazy with no roadmap to drive crazy with, I ended up with a lot of stuff that had to go. A deadly wreck was certain.  Now it is a joyride.

          This did not dawn on me overnight.

          I have been following you people for a while and studying my you know what off.  But it is getting better—slowly but surely.

          I like what I am doing now, but it is HARD to get the hang of it all.

          LOTS to know.

          Thanks for all you do. I will let you know when I have something to reveal!


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          • That's a great routine. Love it! I'm not that organised, sadly ...

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          • Hi Harry, 

            That was a thought-provoking question. Can writers learn? I can only speak for myself. I am Swedish and I realised at the age of ten that I have a natural talent for writing. The teacher had me read my stories in front of the class in a Stockholm suburb, a privilege few other pupils were granted. Language then turned out to be my best subjects, i.e. Swedish, English, German and French. All that led me to become a foreign correspondent working nearly 40 years mainly for Reuters but also for AP and UPI in 20 countries on four continents. I can switch back and forth between British and American English and have even started to write in Swedish again late in life. A Swedish publisher released my memoirs in 2015.

            But English now remains my main language. Retired in England, I turned from journalism to becoming an author of fiction more than ten years ago. My first humble attempt, a vampire novel titled Behind the Blue Door, was where I cut my teeth in fiction writing. Your editor Michelle Lovric, when you were still known as the Writer's Workshop, edited the manuscript and was brutal and encouraging, all at the same time. She really helped me improve the story, but it was rejected by agents partly because I tried to sell a story about a mature female vampire at a time of this teenage vampire craze. The fact that I was a debutant did not help. I also attended three of your writing seminars which helped me understand concepts such as point of view and show don't tell.

            Can an old dog like me learn new tricks? The answer is yes.

            I have released all the metaphorical handbrakes and passion is my second name. Regarding capable but recalcitrant writers, I've since had three more manuscripts edited by your folks and I've gratefully accepted about 70 to 80 percent of the suggested edits. But there always comes a time when my independence as the author takes over and I defend the story to the hilt. But that must be true for most writers.

            Following the edits of Writer's Workshop/Jericho Writers I've self-published a novel and a novella. The novel sold in eight countries through Amazon, but volume was low. The novella, An Unsound Mind, is my best writing effort so far, with the help of your Janet Laurence. I've turned it into a screenplay hoping it will become a 90-minute film, which would prop up sales. 

            But I need a publisher to help me market a novel, which is why I am now really seeking to find an agent for my latest manuscript, The Lip Reader, which takes place at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. I had the talent from the beginning back in Sweden almost 60 years ago, but I believe I've matured as an author over the past several years. But, just like a few other contributors in this discussion thread, I could use some luck.

            Cheers,

            Rolf Soderlind

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            • Hi Rolf - get that book out to agents. Lots of em. Go to 20-25 if you need to. The subject sounds quite market-friendly, and I know you can write. So go for it. Don't hold back. Let us know how you get on. And the very best of luck to you!

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