Ever wondered if you’ve got any talent for writing fiction? Do you angst on that so much, it prevents you from writing? Is there a way to decide once and for all whether you have talent?
Wendy posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Who decides if you have talent?
I’m an avid reader and love to write, but I that means nothing if the people who are reading my short stories are just stroking my ego just so I’ll stroke theirs. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” I have read so many very bad to mediocre, and only a few truly talented, self-published authors. It causes me to wonder where do I fit inside the scale I mentioned above, and am I one of those who only thinkd they can write because their peers and critics are telling them they can. I’m quite serious, it’s not like I have no confidence, it’s more like… understanding there is a possibility I’m also egotistical to think I’m all that and a bag of chips, and should self-publish. Which now days seems to be the norm, and is fast becoming a trend, for anyone thinking they have something everyone has a need to hear. Thank you for your time.
Randy sez: This is a tough question and it’s one most writers deal with at some point in their lives. Early on in my writing career, I had a lot of angst over whether I was any good at writing fiction. That’s normal.
Does Talent Exist?
Some authors believe there’s no such thing as talent; they think all that exists is skill. For them, everybody starts out not knowing how to write. Then as a writer learns the craft, eventually she has enough skills to get published.
My own thinking is that talent seems to exist in every other field I can think of, so it probably exists in writing. There are people who have great genes for long-distance running, and people who don’t. There are people who have great genes for math, and people who don’t. Pick just about anything that requires skill and you’ll find that some people are genetically gifted to learn that skill, and some people aren’t.
I suspect that part of the genetic gift of writing fiction is having the desire to write. So if you want to write fiction, that’s some sort of evidence that you might have a talent for it. (It’s not proof, but it does carry some weight.)
Talent is Not Skill
But nobody, no matter how talented, is born skilled. They’re born with the ability to become skilled. They don’t actually become skilled until they work at it, and that takes time.
Even if you’re not amazingly talented, you can still develop skills by working at your writing.
So if you want my advice, I’d say to do the things you love doing. If you love writing, then write. If you love playing the guitar, play the guitar. If you love playing basketball, play basketball. You may or may not get obscenely rich from any of these things. The odds are long on that, but it can happen, and you might as well take a shot.
In any event, money isn’t everything, so if writing fiction makes you happy, then why wouldn’t you want to write fiction?
And anyway, writing talent might not actually be measurable.
But writing skill is.
Who Can Tell If You Have Writing Skill?
If you want to get your level of writing skill evaluated, that’s easy. Go to a writing conference and get your work critiqued by a few writers. Many conferences give you a chance to meet one-on-one with a professional writer for fifteen minutes or so. You may think fifteen minutes isn’t enough time for someone to judge your writing. Sure it is, if you don’t spend the whole time talking. If you just give the writer a few pages of your work.
Most professional writers (or editors or agents) can tell in about three paragraphs what your level of skill is. They may, out of politeness, keep reading for a whole five pages, but they know pretty quickly. Even if they don’t read your category of fiction or understand your category, they can still tell good writing from bad. And they can tell great writing from good.
It may be a bit of a trick to get them to tell you the unvarnished truth. Anyone who’s ever worked at a critique table knows how easily crushed a writer is, so they may be hesitant to say, “This piece of writing is awful.”
They will not be hesitant at all to say, “This piece of writing is amazing,” if it really is amazing.
Most writing is neither dreadful nor amazing. I’ve looked at hundreds of writing samples at conferences over the years, and most of it has been pretty average. (It would be kind of strange if most of it was far above average, right?)
How To Get a Truthful Evaluation
It might help to read my article on this web site titled, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” which talks about the journey all published authors go through. Everyone starts out as a “freshman,” with lots of enthusiam but no real skill. Writers who persist will eventually move up to being “sophomores,” and then after more work, they’ll become “juniors,” and if they continue learning the craft, eventually they’ll become “seniors.” And then, when they least expect it, they graduate. I don’t know of any exceptions to this writer’s journey.
So if you ask a professional writer or an agent or an editor for a critique, you might also ask them to tell you if they think you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior. Even if they haven’t read my article, they’ll instantly get what you’re asking. And when you phrase the question that way, it takes the pressure off them.
It’s easy for them to say, “You’re a freshman, but here are three things you could do to become a sophomore.” That’s way less painful than saying, “Your writing is terrible.” And it’s much more helpful to you.
Writing conferences cost money, and you don’t absolutely have to go to one to find somebody who can give you a critique. Conferences are the easiest place to do that, and they’ll typically have dozens of competent people who could tell you where you stand. And conferences are geared to doing that, so it’s an easy environment to ask. (Most writers and agents and editors are busy and can’t simply do evaluations on demand—otherwise, they’d never get anything done. But at conferences, that’s the reason they came—to spend a few days doing nothing but helping writers.)
In the meantime, focus on learning the skills of fiction writing, and don’t sweat too much the question of talent. If you look at my Randy Recommends page on this site, you’ll find links to a number of books that I believe are helpful to writers in learning the skill of fiction writing.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.