Friday, March 24, 2006

Talent and Craft, Luck and Persistence

Talent is something innate, and can't be taught. It's what makes you want to write, and gives you an advantage when learning craft. Those children I lectured to yesterday had talent, but unhoned talent won't get you published. It needs to be focused, refined, and directed. Talent alone won't make you successful.

Craft can be taught. Structure, format, conflict, hooks, characterization, style, tone, the machinations of the publishing business---this is all learned. And it can be learned, regardless of your aptitude or level of innate talent. Mastery of craft alone won't make you successful.

Luck is simply being in the right place at the right time, and actually is the most important factor not only in writing, but in life. Every important event in your life can be traced to something beyond your control. Your birth. Your friendships. Your family. Your jobs. Other people and things had to happen for you to exist, for you to be who you are. Luck alone will not make you successful.

Persistence, like craft, can be learned. While you can't control luck, you can improve your chances at success by continuing to write, learn, and submit. Persistence alone will not make you successful.

In my experience, writers place too much value on talent, not enough value on craft, give luck too little weight, and often use persistence as an excuse not to improve craft.

While you can't control talent or luck, you can keep improving as a writer, keep writing, and keep submitting.

It's still no guarantee you'll succeed, but it is the way that most writers have succeeded.

31 comments:

Blake Crouch said...

I agree with this to an extent, Joe. In the sense that writing talent is something you’re born with. I think as long as your Narrative IQ falls in a certain range, you can control your writing destiny with the things you mentioned--persistence, dedication to craft, knowledge of the business, very tough skin. Like your height or the color of your eyes, it’s useless to pay it too much credence. But, below a certain level or above a certain level, it’s out of your hands. With zero talent, you just don’t have the hardwiring, and it isn’t going to go anywhere. With an abundance of talent, you’re a genius, and it just pours out of you. Cormac McCarthy. The great Russians. Hemingway. These guys had no choice in the matter. Their talent chose them. God flowing through their fingers, whatever you want to call it. But the vast majority of us fall in that middle range where (luckily) our determination, and a bit of luck, will decide our fate as writers. Of course, the way luck plays into the equation is a very scary thing...I think every writer (aspiring, published, or frustrated) has a secret opinion of what their Narrative IQ is.

Stacey Cochran said...

It's like trying to unify the four fundamental forces -- strong and weak nuclear, gravity, and electromagnetic -- to bring these four together.

Let's see if I've got this right. 1) Talent; 2) Craft; 3) Luck; 4) Persistence.

The last three I can totally get my mind around. I'm not sure what Talent is, though. Would you say that's just like confidence/charisma?

Great post, Joe. That helps.

Stacey

Jude Hardin said...

"Craft...can be learned, regardless of your aptitude or level of innate talent."

This is where we disagree, Joe.

It's like saying someone who is tone deaf can be taught to sing. Sure, they can learn the lyrics, but the sounds coming from their vocal chords would in no way be described as music.

Can someone with no spatial reasoning ability be taught to paint landscapes? I don't think so.

Writing is natural for you (and me), but I think it's a mistake to think that just because we can do it anybody can.

Yes, craft can be taught, but I have to agree with King's premise that you can't make a competent writer out of an incompetent one. You have to have something to start with, and that "something" is what we commonly refer to as talent.

Jude Hardin said...

"With zero talent, you just don't have the hardwiring, and it isn't going to go anywhere."

Well said, Blake. That's my whole argument in a nutshell.

Mark Terry said...

In my experience, writers place too much value on talent, not enough value on craft, give luck too little weight, and often use persistence as an excuse not to improve craft

I agree.

Now, back to "talent." Here's a puzzle.

Stephen King once defined "talent" as "eventual success."

So as far as writers go, how do we compare these talents?

William Shakespeare.
Jacquelyn Suzanne
James Frey
Dan Brown

Are they all, then, talented?

Yes.

Equally?

How do you judge? By their success? By their "eventual success?"

By their commercial success?

Oh, and one more comment:

"With zero talent, you just don't have the hardwiring, and it isn't going to go anywhere."

Folks, even with talent, hard work and persistence, your writing may not go anywhere. Does that mean you're not talented?

And by the way, I love that "I know it when I see it," comment. Right up there with a conservative senator's definition of "obscenity," or, no doubt, President Bush's definition of "terrorist."

Stacey Cochran said...

I think I'd call Talent, the ability to be likeable -- or at least interesting -- to other people.

Talent is inherent in an individual. You can't teach talent. It is just a simple factor of who you are. It's like your personality.

The hard thing for editors to figure out, though, is what "likeable" is.

Sometimes it's humility. Sometimes it's WWF cockiness. Sometimes it's sincerity, integrity, savvy. Sometimes it's persistence. Sometimes being likeable is actually being ditzy or even dumb. Sometimes being likeable is being cutt-throat. Sometimes it's being fair. Sometimes it's being wise.

What people like and don't like changes all the time, and these things are like cultural tides.

One thing likeable rarely is though is bitter or angry or resentful or know-it-all.

Talent, if we take it to be defined as an innate quality or characteristic that makes one likeable or interesting, usually dwells in the positive range of human emotions and personality types.

My two cents worth.

Stacey

Jude Hardin said...

Mark:

Ask any agent or acquisition editor or, for that matter, any high school English teacher if they recognize talent when they see it.

Most of them will say the same thing I said: It's intangible, but you know it when you see it.

These are people who plow through dogshit all day long, searching for a single gem.

"Folks, even with talent, hard work and persistence, your writing may not go anywhere. Does that mean you're not talented?"

In response to Blake's comment, this is simply perverted and inane logic.

Blake Crouch said...

"Folks, even with talent, hard work and persistence, your writing may not go anywhere. Does that mean you're not talented?"

I don't believe that talent + peristence + hard work = unpublished obscurity.

Perhaps an author whose writing isn't going anywhere has an inflated/skewed perception of their own talent. Superb writing will ultimately find a home and an audience. I strongly believe that.

Stacey Cochran said...

In a world where Ghandi and Johnny Knoxville can both be popular, the range for what people will like and buy into is pretty much wide open.

I'm sure you can fit in there somewhere.

Mark Terry said...

So in all human endeavors, including writing, persistence, hard work and talent wins out, eh?

I would posit that there is no other approach to life and your writing.

But that doesn't mean that it's a guarantee of success, whatever "success" is.

Mary Stella said...

Amen.

Stacey Cochran said...

How do you become a successful writer?

Answer

SAND STORM said...

Of course bribery and the pictures you have of your publisher and a goat can add to your luck:)

J. Carson Black said...

I agree with Blake that good writing will out...eventually, if not sooner. I just don't see someone passing on Michael Connelly. Not happening. He put together talent and craft and it's unbeatable.

I know it took James Lee Burke forever to get published (or republished) but as brilliant as he is, he did write in a different way, shall we say. But he did get published, and he did much better than that!

Luck is tough---if you have zero luck, it's going to be tough, even if you have the other three. But somewhere along the line, with persistence, the best writers will get a forum. And usually, a good one. Maybe they won't shoot to the bestseller lists and stay there, but they will have a following.

LA Burton said...

You told me once that I was a born storyteller. Where does that fall? Joe is a great motivational person and has given me a couple of pep talks over the last year. Huge thanks Joe.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Luck is also a bit subjective. I mean, we say we're "lucky" if we're in the right place at the right time, but really, if you go to a convention where you know the agents you're interested in will be and you make a point of seeking them out or going to their panels and asking questions afterwards, is it luck?

Sometimes, we make our own luck.

And of course, there are times we do really just get lucky by fluke of nature or act of God or whatever.

But if you do like you say, and you work hard to improve your craft and you learn the business and do the right things and meet people in the industry and persevere, then sooner or later that "lucky break" kicks in.

I think too many people make the mistake of discounting luck as something "pie in the sky" that they have no influence over and think that the gods of fate just haven't smiled on them.

It's a bit like trying to sign a country music album deal without going to Nashville, and saying you just never got lucky. Well, duh.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Love the post Joe! You know how to get right to the crux of an issue. I agree with you, but I also agree with a point that Sandra made...the God having something to do with it point! :-)

Anonymous said...

i agree completely.

<3frncs
www.mai-ling.net

JA Konrath said...

if you go to a convention where you know the agents you're interested in will be and you make a point of seeking them out or going to their panels and asking questions afterwards, is it luck?

You're inferring that just because you wrote something publishable, it will get published.

Anyone can call themself an agent. There are good ones and bad ones. Many more people have agents than have book deals. I'd say the ratio is at least ten to one, probably higher.

Every agent has passed up on a project that went on to become a huge hit. Every agent has had bad days. Everyone agent thinks they know the industry, but they all rep a lot more projects than they actually sell.

And what if an agent does love your project, but can't find an editor that agrees? Happened to me dozens of times. What if the publisher likes the book, but boks on that topic aren't currently selling well? What if the editor who was perfect for your project just died, and no one has taken her place?

Yes, even if you do everything right, luck is a huge factor. Right project, right person, right time. That's lightning striking.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"You're inferring that just because you wrote something publishable, it will get published."

So, your mantra - "there's a word for a writer that never gives up: published" - are you retracting that?

Because that line doesn't even include publishable as a qualifier in it. If you took it literally, it means anyone writing the worst shit ever will eventually get published because they didn't quit.

Which also, BTW, has nothing to do with luck - just sheer determination. Or stupidity, in the case where the writing really is garbage.

Not everything that is publishable gets published. I'm just saying that many people go to conventions and meet someone who introduces them to someone and that leads to getting to know someone else who links them with said agent or publisher to get a book deal and they say they got lucky.

Yeah, okay, partially. But if you hadn't gotten off your arse and networked to begin with, luck alone wasn't going to get you that deal. Complete luck is the skydiver that gets caught in a wind and lands on your roof is the agent of your dreams and feels indebted to you for your rescue from the chimney and generosity with your supply of alcohol so they take a look and sign you in five minutes.

Now that would be luck. And believe me, I wouldn't be holding my breath.

JA Konrath said...

it means anyone writing the worst shit ever will eventually get published because they didn't quit.

Haven't you read any shitty books?

Let's look at life for a minute.

Every significant (and insignificant) moment in your life had to do with being at the right place atthe right time. Some call this fate, or destiny, or coincidence. It's luck.

You can't predict luck, but you can improve your odds---through sheer determination. The more lottery tickets you buy, the better your chances.

Let's get philosophical. Everything that has happened in life had to happen, because it did. Which means that published writers had it in their future to someday be published.

If that is the case, why weren't they published immediately? I don't know anyone who sold their first book without a single rejection. If they were truly good enough, or destined to be published, why didn't every agent and editor automatically know that?

Because they got lucky and found someone who did know it. Someone who took a chance.

If I didn't land my current deal, would I ever have been published? Consider all of the things that could have gone wrong.

I can trace selling WHISKEY SOUR directly to getting a word processor for my birthday when I was 15. There's a direct chain of events that lead up to it, a chain of dozens, and if any of them didn't happen, I wouldn't have my current publishing deal.

Yes, you can influence this chain by working your ass off, but life is largely out of your control.

Determinism posits that we control our fate. Determinism is flawed, because it invents recognizable connections but fails to take into account that ant any gien time, something is going to happen. Most of the time, what happens doesn't affect us directly. Because there are no parallel alternate universes, we can only guess what would have happened if we didn't eat that burrito, didn't call that person a jerk, didn't take the bus that day.

Our lives are the consequences of our actions, but also of our environment, which is beyond our ability to control.

Think about the hundreds of variables that had to align in order for us to have this debate.

Are you replying to my blog because you knew you'd eventually be here, through hard work and determination? Or because we both chose to be writers from an early age on, and someone invented the internet, and someone invented blogs, and we each chose to do one, and our paths crossed. Sounds like a lot of luck. Getting published requires even more.

But I do believe that luck favors the prepared.

Google "rats in the slush pile" and it will open your eyes to the value of luck.

Julia said...

While I agree with your post, I think you've over simplified the luck thing:

Luck is simply being in the right place at the right time, and actually is the most important factor not only in writing, but in life.

Luck is more than just "being" in the right place at the right time.

It is finding out what the right place is. Finding out what the right time is. And being prepared.

Mike H said...

I just read "Rats in the Slush Pile" Interesting, but I think you can get too caught up in this Talent/Luck/Persistance thing.

Crappy books are published all the time, and brillient books are left to languish. That's surely something to think about if you decide to get into this business, but having decided to get into this business, the best thing you can do is just get on with it.

The best advice about writing I ever read was this (I don't recall who said it, and I'm paraphrasing): "If someone asks me if they should write, I tell them, 'No.' The ones who aren't real writers will heed it, the ones who are will ignore it.")

SAND STORM said...

The two prime movers in the Universe are Time and Luck.
--Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Bernita said...

"Luck" is a factor in most things.

JA Konrath said...

It is finding out what the right place is. Finding out what the right time is. And being prepared.

But you only know it was the 'right' place and time after the fact.

If you truly knew the right place and time, you would succeed on your first shot.

Which is why you have to always be prepared.

Just because you have a good book and you know a good agent doesn't mean you'll get a good deal. But you have a much better chance than someone who doesn't have a good book or who doesn't know a good agent.

Mark Terry said...

Here's the thing about writing for a living--especially novels and screenplays and teleplays, nonfiction magazine writing being a different animal from my personal experience (I make a living from writing nonfiction magazine, newspaper & online pieces, but I also have published novels):

If you work hard, apply to law school, work hard and get a law degree, chances are you will work as a lawyer.

If you work hard, apply to business school, work hard and get an MBA, chances are you will get a good job in business.

If you work hard, apply to medical/dental/veterinary school, work hard and get your MD/DDS/DVM, chances are you will get a good job as a doctor, dentist or veterinarian.

If you work hard, write a novel/screenplay/teleplay, whether you get an MFA or not (which will guarantee you almost nothing except a piece of paper with MFA and your name on it), the chances are still against you getting published.

And if you do get published, the chances are still against you making a living at it.

Do you persist anyway?

Perhaps.

Should you? Gee, I can't make that decision for you. You want to tilt at windmills, it's your life. Knock yourself out.

But go in with your eyes open. You may find yourself on your 8th or 9th or 10th or 11th novel manuscript (right Joe? I've been there, too) and know that it's good, but still aren't able to get published. And you tell yourself, "If I persist, this will happen, so I'm going to persist. Winners never quit and quitters never win, etc. The only thing I'm guaranteed by quitting is it won't happen. So I'm going to persist."

Good for you. But if you also NEVER think: "What if it doesn't? Maybe I should quit and find something I CAN be successful at," then you're probably delusional.

So quit.

If you can't, then maybe you'll be successful (whatever that is). At least try to enjoy the trip, because life ain't no dress rehearsal and if this writing gig is only making you depressed and unhappy, for God sakes, find something that makes you happy.

Best,
Mark Terry
www.mark-terry.com

Sandra Ruttan said...

it means anyone writing the worst shit ever will eventually get published because they didn't quit.

Haven't you read any shitty books?


Yeah. The Bridges of Madison County. Make me fucking gag. Since then I've been far more discerning, and anything that screams pretentious shit from the beginning doesn't get on my bookshelf. I'm a very discriminating reader.

So, what you're saying is that none of the people who've gotten published had any talent involved. They just rolled the dice until they beat the odds.

I don't disagree with your initial post completely. I agree luck factors in. I just see it being mitigated by doing all the right things to improve your chances of getting lucky, if you want to call it that. I mean, the guy who works in a pig farm all day and goes straight to a dance club vs the guy who went home, showered, put on deodorant, dressed decently yaddi yadda...which one you think would get lucky? Mr. Show Up And Try or Mr. Show Up Ready And Try?

Ah, it's been too long since we bantered. Thanks for the blood pressure check.

Julia said...

But you only know it was the 'right' place and time after the fact.

True, but with a little effort, we can better the odds. Next week, there if a writer's conference 5 miles from my house.

Will that be the "right place/time" for me? I don't know, but I'll be there. Because the odds are better there than the alternative (sitting home, watching TV).

It's like playing poker. If you're lucky, you get a good hand. But you can lose with a good hand if you play it poorly.

Jude Hardin said...

Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I just made that up. Pretty good, huh?

I agree with Joe, that life is a series of bizarre coincidences that lead us to where we are right now. That's why most peoples' lives wouldn't make good novels. Luck, good and bad, is too much of a factor.

Maybe that's one of the reasons we write fiction in the first place. Unlike real life, we are the gods of our little fictional worlds.

Fiction has to make sense.

Life often does not.

Naomi said...

When I started my university course in (English Lit and Creative Writing) we were all told that for every one person accepted on the Writing course, ten people were rejected. There were a lot of people on that course who had no grasp of proper grammar, or who never spell-checked anything they submitted, or never bothered showing up for lectures.

If those people were chosen, what were the people who were rejected like? I think luck definitely plays a part in any writing career, whether it's being published or getting accepted on a course. But I think you have to factor in a willingness to take risks too. Talent matters, obviously, but unless you take chances and submit work to publishers/agents/editors/whoever, not many people will know you're talented.