Talent is a Myth

Sat Aug 18 2018

If you've been around writers you've probably heard somebody say, in a particularly pep-talky tone of voice, "oh, anybody can write a novel." Or, "If I can do it, so can you."

It's true, but rarely does anyone talk about why. Followers of this blog will know that I'm all about the why of writing, so let's dig in to why anybody really can write a novel.

Skill versus talent

The older I get, the less I find myself believing in natural-born talent. And conversely, the more I find myself believing in learnable skills. This applies to everything from tying your shoes to writing novels.

I wish I had understood this 35 years ago, but that's life.

When I was in high school, I tried to write. I could manage short stories (though on the short-end of those, even) before I would have exhausted whatever epic sci-fi or fantasy idea my teenaged brain had come up with.

Try as I might, I just couldn't break out of that mold. I wanted to write novels. You know, real stories. But every time, I would simultaneously hit that two or three page mark and the end of the story. I couldn't understand how the real writers sustained a story, not for just two or three pages, but for three hundred.

After a while, I decided it must just be a knack. A talent you were either born with or weren't, and evidently I wasn't. So I stopped writing.

Twenty years passed before I tried it again. In the meantime I had heard about this whole show, don't tell idea. And this time, I did not run out of story until--miracle of miracles!--just about 300 pages.

That manuscript was still many learnable skills away from being good, but by my teen-self's metrics, it was a real story.

What happened?

Learnable skills

What I discovered was length is not a function of talent, but was a byproduct of applying "show, don't tell," which was learnable.

Later, I found that every part of writing a novel is learnable. Story structure is learnable. Scene crafting is learnable. Dialogue is learnable, as are dozens and dozens of other skills, tricks, and tips in the world of writing novels.

Maybe you're just starting out in writing. Maybe you've been writing for years but feel like you can't quite break through to where you want to be. Wherever you are today, everything in the gap between where you are and where you want to be is a learnable skill.

None of it is pure, natural-born talent.

I know this from the many novels I have critiqued for my clients.

Along the way, I've seen that everybody has strengths and weaknesses. This person is good at descriptions, but has trouble with believable character motivations. That person's plot is really tight, but boy do they write run-on sentences.

The issues abound. Weak verbs. Passive protagonists. Overuse of "and" as a go-to conjunction. I've seen those and many dozens of other issues in people's writing.

Whenever I hit such an issue for the first time, my job is to explain what the issue is, why it's a problem, how to identify it, and how to fix it. My job is to figure out the pattern behind that particular bit of writing craft so my client can learn it.

That is, I have to turn what looks like talent into a learnable skill.

So far, after nearly ten years of developmentally editing, I have never encountered a writing craft issue that wasn't learnable.

Which means talent is a myth, and that believing the writers you admire are naturally talented is a self-defeating proposition.

Talent is nothing. Dedication is everything.

Anybody really can write a novel. I will even go so far as to say that anybody can write a good novel.

I don't promise it will be easy, only that there's no magic talent to it. Because if everything in novel writing is learnable, then the only thing standing between you and writing a good novel is the work necessary to learn those skills, and the dedication to doing that work.

You have to study the craft. You have to recognize that you will be stronger in some areas and weaker in others. You have to discover what your specific weaknesses are so you can address them. The world is full of resources to help you do that.

But if you dedicate yourself to those things, you can learn to write a novel. You can learn what your writing voice sounds like, and develop your style to a level every bit as good (or in many cases better) than other published writers.

Don't believe in talent. Believe instead in learnable skills and dedication. I wish I'd understood that before losing twenty years to a myth.