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:
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.
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.
(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:
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 ...