- Talent comes naturally, craft needs to be learned.
- All writers have some talent but very few have enough to manage without craft.
- Critiquing helps to identify the gaps in our talent.
- Develop craft by writing stories that emphasise areas where you can’t get by on talent alone.
- Don’t be fooled by people who think all achievement is down to talent.
When we read a story by a master storyteller, how much of what we read is the product of their innate ability and how much of learned skill? We can never know for sure, and they probably couldn’t break it down themselves. It’s likely to vary a lot from one writer to another. Hemingway spent much of his career developing the pared-down style he’s famous for. Philip K Dick would shut himself up in a shed with a typewriter and a packet of amphetamine pills and simply write, presumably at high speed. He can’t have spent much time on reflection.
The limits of talent
For those of us who are not master storytellers but would like to be, how much of what we put on the page is the product of our innate ability and how much is learned? It’s not something that can be audited into percentages, but I’ve found it helpful to think about how far my talents go and where I need to supplement them. I’m referring to talent as those things that seem to come naturally. Talent is a product of the subconscious, which works much like a roomful of monkeys bashing away at typewriters. If the conscious mind oversees the subconscious with a light touch, keeping the monkeys supplied with bananas and assessing which of the reams of paper they throw back contains ideas worth running with, talent takes care of itself.
While the talent monkeys may produce ideas of genius, they won’t come up with anything as complex as a story. The conscious mind has to apply craft to knock them into anything that a reader will make sense of. Talent comes naturally, while craft is a skill that we need to learn.
I have never met anyone with an interest in writing who has no talent at all. On the other hand, I have never met anyone who can produce a really good story on the basis of talent alone. There may be such people out there, and I suspect Philip K Dick was one, but I’d be willing to bet that they are very rare beasts indeed. If you are such a person, you are wasting your time reading this or anything else about writing. Off you go and make your fortune, this is for the rest of us poor journeymen who are trying to find our way.
Storytelling is a multifaceted skill. We start by coming up with ideas for characters and situations that would make an interesting story, we push them into the structure of a story and then we launch into the minutiae of writing compelling prose and dialogue. If we didn’t have a talent for at least some of those elements, we wouldn’t be interested in writing in the first place. As we can’t rely on talent for every element, so we have to learn the skills to fill the gaps our talent leaves.
Filling the gaps
Talent can take care of itself, but craft requires thought. The first step it to identify the gaps in our talent. The natural tendency is to shy away from the things we’re not good at, often without being aware we’re doing it. A writer who struggles to conceive characters will tend to write stories that focus on events. A writer who finds it hard to write dialogue will tend to write stories with very little of it. Not that there’s anything wrong with stories that focus on events or that every story needs to crackle with authentic dialogue, but these are significant gaps in a writer’s toolkit that will limit the types of story they can tell.
A little honest reflection can go a long way in identifying what we find difficult. Critiquing will go further, as it often takes someone else’s perspective to see the things that just aren’t going well. Once we’ve identified something that doesn’t come naturally, we have a choice. We can shy away and stick to stories that don’t use that element, or we can apply ourselves to learning how to make that element work for us.
When I identify a weakness in my writing, I apply a two-tiered approach to addressing it. I make that element central to my next story, and then I study authors who do whatever it is really well to see how they do it. For example, Steel in the Morning was as much an exercise in writing fast-moving action as anything else. Based on critiques of earlier stories, I’d come to realise I wasn’t very good at it. I’d just read Richard Cohen’s By the Sword at the time, so the idea of a story revolving around swordplay appealed. I spent some time reading other authors’ action scenes, looking for the overlap between what worked for me as a reader and what I thought I could incorporate into my writing style. It will never come naturally to me, but I was able to add it to my toolkit. It’s up to you to decide how successful I was.
Another example was when I realised I wasn’t very good at complex plots, which was limiting the sort of stories I could tell. I set out to write a mystery story because it demands a complex plot, and spent some time breaking down the stories of the masters of the genre like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I picked on those two because their stories are completely plot driven and because they set the structure that’s been used for that particular type of story ever since. Then I sat down to write the story. I was a tough one and needed more rewriting than usual before I was really happy with it, but I did get a decent story out of it and more importantly, I learned something that has been useful in everything I’ve written since.
For the curious, I’d love to be able to link the story in question but it’s under contract but not yet published so I can’t. I applied the same approach to Newgate Jig, which I wrote later but was published some time ago. Such are the vagaries of the business.
While I’m being honest, it’s as good a time as any to admit that most of what I’ve written about in this blog are the elements I haven’t been able to rely on talent for. I’ve been able to pontificate about them because I’ve had to think about them. I haven’t written anything on generation of ideas because the monkeys keep me overwhelmed with more ideas than I’ll ever get round to using. They won’t tell me how they do it. Similarly, when I’m editing a manuscript, I find I rewrite most of the prose but very little of the dialogue. Consequently I’ve given very little thought to writing dialogue, so I can’t really explain how to do it.
Is talent over-rated?
You may of course think I’m flattering myself and my dialogue is awful. If so, please tell me so I don’t go on fooling myself. The deeper confession here is rooted in how many elements of writing I have written about, which is an illustration of how limited my talents are. It may be my lack of talent that has led me to believe that talent tends to be over-rated.
There seems to be an assumption that people who succeed in whatever walk of life are successful because they are somehow innately clever or gifted rather than because they worked hard and learned their skills. I strongly suspect that a lot of the people who are so lauded play up to the perception, so it’s refreshing when successful authors like the late Iain Banks (pictured below) admit to spending 16 years writing ‘a million words of crap‘ before becoming an overnight success. Matthew Syed, sportsman and journalist, discusses the dangers of valuing talent over effort in a 15min podcast, which is worth a listen over the washing up.
This elevation of talent over learning is dangerous, as it persuades people that they can be wildly successful on the basis of talent alone. Worse, it discourages people from learning skills and gives the impression that if something doesn’t come easily, it won’t come at all. I see this in all walks of life, but I’ve seen it very often among writers. Some writers get quite indignant at the idea that there may be more to writing a good story than simply allowing their natural gifts to shine forth on to the page.
If we’re serious about becoming master storytellers, we can’t think of ourselves as sunflowers that contain everything we need in our seeds. We won’t will grow, bloom and be admired if we just add water. We are craftsmen who need to invest the thought and effort to learn our trade. Is it hard? Of course. Is it worth it? That’s up to you.