For years and years, I’ve been pointing out to people that talent is one of the least important things a writer needs – because you don’t actually need very much to go on with, and it’s actually pretty common to have that much. In fact, “talent” is as common as mud; what’s rare is the motivation to sit down and actually do something with one’s talent, the discipline to do it regularly, and the persistence to stick with it until it’s finished.
What isn’t quite so obvious is that having too much talent can be a drawback. I’ve seen far too many new and would-be writers who’ve written amazing first novels or parts of novels…and then died on the vine when writing suddenly got hard. They were used to being able to produce words easily, words that were better – a lot better – than the words being produced by their fellow first-novelists. What they didn’t know was what to do when the words stopped coming, or when they stopped improving.
Basically, these writers were coasting before they even got started. Their first book (or a significant part of it) came easily to them, without a lot of the flaws that are usual in a first novel, and they expected that to keep on happening. They never had to work at getting better, so they don’t try (some of them appear not to know how). When writing starts to get hard, they either wait for the solution to come to them, or they give up. Either way, their competition starts out-producing them pretty quickly…and since those other writers are used to working at getting better (because they’ve had to do so all along), they get better faster, and go on getting better while Mr. Talented Writer stagnates.
The prose and the techniques that look so great in that first novel (because Mr. Talent was doing things no other first-novelist was doing) don’t look nearly so impressive in the fifth novel. Editors and readers expect writers to improve, regardless of where the writer started, and if the writer doesn’t, folks start to lose interest.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that nobody, not even Mr. Talent, is good at everything that goes into a story…which means that even those early, surprising books that were so much better than the other first novels still had some flaws. Maybe even serious flaws. People will overlook that in a first novel, but they start getting impatient if a writer is still having the same problems with plotting or characters or whatever in their fifth book.
All too often, though, the writers who’ve been admired early on for their talent do not recognize any flaws in their work, and thus see no reason to try to get better…at least until they’ve been whopped upside the head by reality a couple of times. I recall one young gentleman whom I met on a visit to a high school; his English teachers raved to me about how great his writing was, how imaginative, how creative. They’d obviously been raving to him along the same lines, because he clearly expected me to refer his short story to the nearest professional editor I knew, and he was quite put out by the amount of red ink on the manuscript when I handed him back his great, imaginative, creative…and ungrammatical, plotless, poorly thought-out…story.
In my experience, people like that make one of three choices. 1) Most of them quit writing fairly quickly when their stuff starts coming back from the professional markets, because what got them to try for publication was the fact that so many other people thought they’d be good at it. Faced with the evidence that they’re not going to be able to just toss a manuscript on an editor’s desk and listen to the praise roll in, they give up (often with some grumbles about the Big Bad Publishing Industry and how it isn’t open to great, imaginative, creative work like theirs.
2) The next-largest group submits their story a couple of times, then decides that since the Evil Publishing Industry obviously doesn’t appreciate their work, they’ll self-publish. This used to be a fairly small group, because pre-Internet, most of this category went to vanity presses that required up-front payments of several thousand dollars, so you had to have quite a bit of money to go this route. These days, Amazon and the Internet and print-on-demand have made it easy, so this group is growing rapidly.
And 3) one way or another, the author realizes that he or she still has a lot to learn, talent or not, decides they really do want to learn it, and buckles down to the learning part. The realization can come in a variety of ways: sometimes, it’s getting a couple of stories ripped apart in a good workshop or class; sometimes, it’s a series of rejection letters; sometimes, it’s an uncomplimentary review of their self-published masterpiece that hits home. Whatever it is, it provides them with the motivation to really start working on the discipline and persistence parts. They’re the ones who eventually make themselves careers in writing.
Mind you, every writer needs to have a certain amount of confidence and belief in his/her work, or we’d never send anything out. There’s a difference, however, between thinking that a particular story is as good as one can presently make it, and thinking that anything and everything one writes is brilliant and not to be improved upon.