What Counts Most And It Aint Talent

We are all something else besides novelists, but if you are not a novelist in your heart, at your core, you are a dilettante and should not bother trying to be a novelist. Being a novelist is not just a matter of reading a book of technique and fiddling around at your typewriter putting little blotches of ink on paper. If you were to list the qualities a person needs to become a novelist, what would you put first? A college education? Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and Daniel Defoe never attended college. Neither did many modern writers of note: Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Dashiell Hammett, Ambrose Bierce, and Willa Cather, to name just a few.

What about talent? If you attend writers' conferences and writing workshops around the country, you will soon see that there is no shortage of talent in America. Most anyone who puts his or her mind to it can write a cogent sentence and find fresh metaphors. Many can invent interesting characters and dazzle you with snappy dialogue. Some can even tell a crackling good story without ever reading a book on how it's done. When you look at their work, raw and unpolished, your heart will beat fast and you'll think you've discovered a genuine talent.

But most of these folks with so much raw talent will not make it as novelists. Why? Because they lack what's truly necessary: self-discipline, dogged determination, and stick-to-itiveness. Talent just gets in the way, because if you have talent you expect writing a novel to be easy and it isn't, no matter how much talent you have.

The writing of a novel takes a great deal of time and the expenditure of a great deal of emotional and mental energy. Time normally spent with friends and loved ones will have to be sacrificed. Few novelists play golf, go bowling, or watch much television. Novel writing is like heroin addiction; it takes all you've got.

In The Craft of Fiction, William C. Knott asks the rhetorical question, "How much of a commitment is required?" His answer:

You must make the kind of commitment that will effectively subordinate almost every effort and interest (in your life) to the mastering of the craft.

Here is what happens to the vast majority of people who want to write novels:

They start out having a vague dream. They read about the writer's life: Hemingway fishing in the Gulf, Faulkner drinking his way through Hollywood, the wild parties, the sex orgies, the drugs, consorting with the rich and famous on Broadway. Most of this stuff is dreamed up by publishers' publicity departments and embellished by academic biographers who hope to make their books more salable by romanticizing the subjects' lives. If you want to read some really creative literature, read the biographies that deal with the sex life of Emily Dickinson. No kidding, there are people around writing books like that.

The truth of the matter is, most writers lead rather dull lives. They spend most of their time squirreled away in a basement or an attic with a word processor writing and rewriting, paranoid that the public might find their finished product silly, trite, or stupid. Some writers occasionally go to parties, but at the parties they're thinking about their writing. Knowing everyone expects them to be witty and profound, they usually keep their mouths shut, unless they are tanked to their blowholes, because anything they say will be weighed, judged, and misquoted.

The message is this: writing itself is not glamorous, exciting, or romantic. It's hard work. Rewarding, yes. But damn hard.

It is also a lonely process. It's a struggle with your own creative powers and self-doubts. Sometimes the writing flows out of you, gushing like rapids down a mountain gorge. Other times your head feels like a block of concrete and you can't squeeze anything out of it. Sometimes you reread what you've written and you think you could train your dog to do better. Other times you know what you've done is brilliant beyond your wildest expectations; you show it to your agent and he suggests you maybe should try a nurse romance.

No wonder the suicide rate among writers is high.


Any writer who is any kind of writer at all writes on some kind of schedule. The numbers are with you. Say you have a job, eight miserable hours a day, five days a week. An hour and a half each way commuting, one hour off for lunch. You make goddamn widgets all day. When you get home you're tired. You've got to give a little time to the spouse, you've got to sleep eight hours a night, you've got to go shopping, you've got to go to the dry cleaner, the bank, the dentist twice a year, and that leaves what? It leaves forty hours a week for the average American to watch television. Say you're a hardship case and only watch twenty hours a week. Okay, if you cut out the TV watching— which isn't doing you a bit of good anyway—you can write a novel, complete, ready to go to the publisher, in one year. Between the ages of thirty and seventy you can write thirty-nine novels and be one of the most prolific writers who has ever lived. Name five authors in the history of the world who have written thirty-nine novels. Not that many, are there? Hemingway wrote, what? Ten? Tolstoy, four or five?

Thirty-nine novels? Naw, you say, can't be done. Listen: if you plug away at it conscientiously, you will write at least two pages of rough draft an hour. A caterpillar can write two pages an hour. Some writers write rough draft at ten to twelve pages an hour. But let's say you are slow and two pages an hour is the best you can do. Okay, it takes one month at forty pages a week to write 172 pages of biography and stepsheet (2 pages per hour X 20 hours per week X 4.3 weeks = 172). Now you begin your first draft. Say it's going to be a four hundred-page book. A first draft will take ten weeks (2 pages per hour x 20 hours per week

X 10 weeks = 400). You have completed the biographies, stepsheet, and first draft in 14.3 weeks. Now you have to do a second draft: ten more weeks. Then a third draft: ten more weeks. At 34.3 weeks into the year you are ready to start polishing. You want to make it perfect, so you polish for two months, or 8.6 weeks. The total time is 34.3 weeks for biographies, stepsheet, and three drafts, plus 8.6 weeks for polishing for a total of 42.9 weeks. You now have 9.1 weeks left over in the year to take a vacation to Hawaii.

Of course not all writers write rough drafts. There are perfectionists who ponder every syllable as they compose. A perfectionist may only be able to complete one page every two or three hours, but what a page! In a week, ten to twelve pages is their maximum. The perfectionist's work won't need much rewriting, maybe just a little polishing. This adds up to over five hundred pages a year. In a year and a half the perfectionist can turn out a masterpiece even if half of what he writes ends up in the waste basket. In fifteen years, ten masterpieces. Even a perfectionist can be as prolific as Dickens.

The next time someone tells you they'd like to write but don't have time, ask them how much television they watch.

The secret of finishing a novel is regularity. Do it at the same time each day. You must say nyet to everything and anything that interferes with that time. No phone calls, no neighbors stopping by, no nothing. You can't work in the middle of a floating cocktail party. If somebody calls, let your answering machine get it. If a good movie is on television, sorry, you'll have to see it some other time. If your goldfish dies, you won't have time to attend the funeral. Even a hangover is not an excuse. The assembly line must keep rolling.

Some writers do not work well on a schedule. They simply set production goals. They write, say, twelve hundred words a day, period. Either way, it doesn't matter as long as you work your plan and it gets the pages done.


Writer's block is real. It happens. Some days you sit down at the old typewriter, put your fingers on the keys, and nothing pops into your head. Blanko. Nada. El nothingissimo. What you do when this happens is what separates you from the one-of-these-days-I'm-gonna-write-a-book crowd.

When you find you can't get going, don't panic. The fainthearted will panic and run to the nearest bar, hoping to lubricate the creative pathways. That will work, but the loss of motor control adversely affects the product. You'll have to throw out almost everything you write while inebriated. The same goes for weed and nose candy and speed. Sure, Edgar Allen Poe wrote when he was schnockered to the gills, but he died at forty, incoherent and wetting on himself. Besides, he was the exception. James A. Michener does it sober. He's still cranking out damn good novels and he's past eighty.

If you do get blocked, the most important thing to remember is that writer's block happens to everyone and it is nothing to worry about. What you have to do is get the adrenaline going. Start retyping what you've already done to get warmed up. Play hot music; that might help. Read aloud what you've already written; that sometimes helps. Whatever you do, don't put the writing off. Keep pounding on that keyboard even if all you're producing is gobbledygook. You will work through a writer's block if you keep at it! You will never work through it if you walk away from your typewriter. That will only make it easier to walk away next time.

Do not confuse writer's block with other emotional states that interfere with your writing such as anger, grief, illness, laziness, horniness, and so on. True writer's block has four primary causes: not knowing your characters well enough, trying to edit and write at the same time, fear of failure, and fear of success.

Once you begin drafting your novel, the characters will come to life and have a will of their own. A character you don't understand well enough may rebel when you try to have him do something it is not in his nature to do. Say you've planned in your stepsheet to have a character steal some money at one point in the story. You start to write the scene, but the character refuses to walk into the bank with a gun in his hand. If you have created characters different from the ones you thought you were creating, you will have a difficult time getting them to do what you want them to. Your characters simply will not move. You can't make them say anything. It feels like your mind is constipated. You panic. This is a class-one writer's block.

The first thing to do when you hit a class-one writer's block is to interview your characters and find out whether they refuse to move because you're trying to make them do things it just isn't in them to do. You may have to give them stronger motivation or you may have to change your stepsheet. Either way, as soon as you've dug a little into the character the solution will be obvious and you'll be back in business. Your writer's block will vanish.

Trying to write and edit at the same time creates class-two writer's block. When you write, you have to first draft your novel without worrying whether every i is dotted and every t is crossed. The manuscript isn't going to be perfect; it's only a draft.

Later, during the rewriting phase, you will be a perfectionist, questioning every syllable and continually asking yourself whether you suspect it's lousy. When you're drafting, you're obviously going to see things wrong as soon as the ink hits the paper. This drives some writers bonkers. They immediately start to make corrections. Result: nothing satisfies them. Progress stops. Soon they can't put anything down on paper without cogitating about it. Then they immediately begin to correct their corrections. They develop a fear that they will never write anything beautiful and flawless again; they end up not being able to write a word.

The cure for this is to write with your monitor off, if you have a word processor, or with the lights off if you write longhand or type. Simply refuse to look at anything you have written until the last page is done. Period. If you try this method, your class-two writer's block will disappear.

Fear of failure will create a class-three writer's block. This usually happens close to the end of the manuscript when the writer looks into the future and sees a rejection slip awaiting him. The writer so hates getting rejected or ignored, at least subconsciously, that the writing just stops somewhere around the middle of the last chapter.

A class-three writer's block can be unblocked by shouting. Shout at the top of your lungs that nothing is going to stop you no matter how many damn rejections you get. Act as if your typewriter or computer is at fault. Scream at it. Things will start moving again.

Fear of success is more difficult. Why the hell would anyone fear success, you want to know. Sounds stupid.

Strange things happen to you when you become successful. Your spouse will treat you funny. Your unsuccessful friends will envy you. Strangers will want to get you into arguments. Everyone will ask questions about where you get your ideas. About how much money you make. About what you're working on now. They'll ask you about their favorite authors, and when you say you haven't read them they'll act as if you're stupid because their favorite author is ten times better than you. And how come you didn't get on Johnny Carson? How come Time or The New York Times didn't review your book? You'll be the center of attention, so what's wrong with that?

Some psychologists claim that standing up in front of a group to speak is the number one fear in America. People dread it more than death. Why is that? People fear being noticed, being the center of attention in a room full of people. A successful author is noticed. A successful author is often the center of attention in a room full of people. The not-yet-successful author looks ahead to that with dread. This is what fuels a class-four writer's block.

If you're afraid of success, go back to page one and put someone else's name on the manuscript. Write under a pseudonym. Many writers do. You could be living next door to the number one writer on The New York Times bestseller list right now and not even know it. There is no reason to fear being a celebrity. You can be a writer and pass that all up.

A class-five writer's block is caused by a combination of two or more of the above. You'll have to keep trying solutions until you find the right combination. Maybe even get a shrink.

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  • tomi
    What counts as a talent?
    8 months ago

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