David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants—Talent vs. Skill
As authors, we’ve all read stories by authors that make us think, “Wow, I wish that I had his/her talent!”
We’re trained to believe that writing well is somehow . . . mystical. We’re taught that we have to be born with talent, or perhaps a muse must whisper into our ears.
But good writers don’t rely on inspiration. They don’t use "talent" as a crutch. They don’t need luck. Instead, they develop skills.
The truth is that to a certain degree, each of us has talent. I don’t know what yours are. I’ve tried a number of arts. I couldn’t play the mandolin worth a darn, but when I tried sculpting, clay naturally seemed to come alive in my hands.
In the same ways, many of us have some writing talents, little gifts that come to us pretty much by nature. You might have a way with metaphors, or perhaps your ear is great at picking up dialog. You might have a gift for tone, or perhaps you come up with amazing plot twists for your stories.
But for everything that you do easily, you’ll find that there are another ten skills that you struggle with.
For most people, writing at all is hard. Most people don’t even discover what natural talents they have until they’ve written for a million words or more.
So forget about talent for a bit. Too many people born with a specific talent for writing will lean on it so much, they never develop the rest of the skills that they need to become master storytellers. As a new writer, I looked around at the most talented beginners, and used to wonder which would be my biggest competition later in life. Guess what? They all gave up long ago. Many of them never wrote more than one award-winning novel.
You’ll go much further in writing if you learn writing skills. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” Learning a craft takes diligence, hard work, effort, and time.
When I was in my twenties, a researcher discovered that the average writer takes seven years to go from becoming a “novice” to the point where he’s published. I began looking at other writers and soon realized why: most of them spent far more time talking about writing in writing groups (or online) than they actually spent writing. If you want to be a writer but haven’t written anything in three months, you’re probably not making much progress. Yes, you can learn a certain amount of information by talking about writing and by study, but many of the toughest skills can only be learned by practice.
So I decided to “cram seven years of practice into six months.” I studied the craft diligently and wrote a great deal, composing poems, short stories, and novel chapters. Within six months I began to get rave reviews from fellow writers, and within a year I began to publish. I even won the grand prize in the Writers of the Future Contest. But mind you, for six months I spent 14 hours per day in practice. When my name made it on the cover of USA Today, a group in San Francisco, thought it would be funny to hold a similar contest—the “Writer with No Future Contest.”
To win, the author had to provide more rejection letters, by weight, than any other writer in the world—without ever having had a story published.
The winner of that contest provided hundreds of rejection letters. But he kept training, trying to develop writing skills. He was smart and determined. He went on to publish, to become a New York Times bestseller even. In fact, today he makes more money writing science fiction than perhaps any other writer alive. His name is Kevin J. Anderson, and with over a hundred novels published, he has had dozens of New York Times bestsellers.
I’d think that Kevin was some sort weird fluke if I hadn’t seen others do the same.
Skill is more valuable than talent, and more reliable.
Developing skills isn’t a glamorous process. You may have to read widely and study other writers. That keeps you up at night, and makes your eyes sore. It may help to read books on writing, or take classes, or join a writing group. That can take time and money, in a world where both seem in short supply.
As a young writer, I found that plotting was hard for me. I felt like a blind man fumbling in the dark, and I made more than a few mistakes. Writing for me has always been a struggle.
That’s okay. I like the struggle.
If you work at a task consistently, it tends to become easier. Your capacity to do it grows. Eventually, things that once seemed impossible can become effortless.
Mastery is better than mystery. Sweat is sweeter than inspiration.
Luck is more likely to strike you as a writer if you write ten novels instead of one.
So this year, here’s my writing goal: If the muse wants to visit me, the creep won’t have trouble finding me. I’ll be sitting with my writing chair, exercising my skills.
Note: My to my astonishment, my little book Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing has become a hit, getting rave reviews on the web and hitting #1 on the Amazon.com list for books on writing. I wanted to thank those of you who bought it, and those who have told your friends.
Also, I wanted to mention a few other books from Joshua Graham that have been very successful.
He has had great success with his legal thriller (with supernatural elements) Beyond Justice, which has received 271 reviews and has been a bestseller. He published it independently.
His YA fantasy novel Once We Were Kings has also been a bestseller on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and is currently up for free on Kindle.
His suspense novel Darkroom has won several awards and received some nice reviews and blurbs from The Washington Post,
Steve Berry, and Douglas Preston.
Finally, his supernatural suspense novel Terminus will release later this month.