Talent is a myth

A mid winter walk through the woods.

A mid winter walk through the woods.

Late last week, an article on The Stranger made the rounds on Twitter, shared among furious writers of all kinds. The article, “Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One” purported to have advice for aspiring writers, by a former professor who had seen it all.

It wasn’t great advice. The very first tip said that writers are born with talent, and the odds were that you don’t have it. It went on to say that if you didn’t start writing as a teenager, it was too late now. If you don’t read the hardest, densest prose you can get your hands on, you’re a failure, and—in a very weird paragraph—if you write a shitty memoir about being abused as a child, the author wishes you’d been abused even worse as punishment for your crimes against language. No, seriously, he says that.

Chuck Wendig responded to the article with a couple posts. The first, “An Open Letter to that Ex-MFA Creative Writing Teacher Dude“, dissected the article point by point and is a good read. His second, “The Toxicity of Talent (Or: Did You Roll a Natural 20 At Birth?)” focused on that first point in the article, and that’s what I’d like to talk about right now.

When I was in school, I was a quick learner. I happened to be the kind of person who did very well in structured learning environments. That, paired with a terror of getting in trouble, meant that I did all my homework and read all the assigned textbooks and got straight As. I was good at school, and I got a reputation for being the smart kid.

Because of that, whenever I did something well, like write a short story I was proud of, kids would roll their eyes and say “Yeah but that’s just because you’re talented.” All that hard work I’d done on it? Yeah, no one cared. When they called me talented, even though they meant well, it was an insult. ‘Talent’ meant that the story was worth nothing, because I could have mashed my face against the keyboard and it would have been good.

So I’m going to call bullshit on the whole idea of talent right here. People do well at things because they work at them. I think the author of the original article had the wrong idea when he faced his students. He thought writers were born with talent, and the best writers he saw were ones who had started in their teens, yet he never made the connection that the ones who started writing in their teens had worked at their craft longer than the ones that started later.

Maybe you’re better at grammar because you read a lot as a child. Maybe you have a talent for dialogue because you watch a lot of movies. Maybe you’re a great artist because you enjoy sketching and people learn better when they’re having fun doing it. Those strengths didn’t spring from a vacuum. You have them because you worked for them, and the exciting thing about that is that you can develop any skill you want if you keep trying. ‘Talent’ is a myth. Start appreciating the hard work behind it.

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Nanowrimo prep: Setting

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A lot of story planning can start with setting. Depending on the genre, you could come up with a whole series worth of plots, just from making a map and figuring out what kind of people live in the world you’ve created. The setting can (and should!) be a character in itself. It can help or hinder the events of the story and provide major plot points. There should be a good reason that the story is set where it is. The tv show Dexter wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t set in Miami. Buffy the Vampire Slayer wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t in California. Imagine Portal without Aperture Science. Imagine Batman without Gotham City.

Holly Lisle has a lot of good writing advice on her website, and one of the posts that I’ve found useful is her article on developing the fictional world through mapping. In it, she talks about how to make a map and how to use that to figure out a story. This is great for fantasy or science fiction stories that are set in places other than Earth, but even more local stories could benefit from mapping out a city or town.

Obviously only a tiny fraction of your research is going to make it into your story, because you don’t want to deluge your reader with information. One of the fastest ways to get someone to put down your book is to hammer them with paragraph upon paragraph of detailed description about your country’s history and system of currency and notable citizens. Those are things you can sprinkle in the story when (and if!) they become relevant. It’s okay if you come up with an elaborate system of laws and then it never comes up in the novel. Don’t try to force it in just so you don’t feel like you wasted your time.

On the other hand, you don’t want to suffer white room syndrome. That’s when your characters talk to each other and occasionally do things, all while moving around in featureless white rooms. Your reader is going to need something to anchor the scene. Visual descriptions are good, but using the other senses can be better. What does the place smell like? Sound like? What’s the temperature? The great thing is that this leads right back to character. What does your character think of the smell/sound/temperature? Are they the kind of person who bundles up in the slightest breeze? Does the smell remind them of their grandmother’s cooking? Is it always too loud for your character?

Your characters are going to be physically interacting with this setting, and it’s going to effect them directly in ways they might not even be aware of. They could have adopted the social mores and local dialect without realizing it. Alternately, they could be an outsider to the setting and come up against hostility or uncomfortable misunderstandings at every turn.

One thing I like to do in novels is consider the season and the weather. It’s a cliche to start your novel with a description of the weather, but occasionally referencing what’s going on outside can help set the scene and anchor the story in time. Is there a heat wave? Is there a blizzard forecast for later in the week? Have there been weeks of endless rain? Is it perfect spring weather outside? Mira Grant’s book Deadline, book two in the Newsflesh trilogy, has a major plot point centered around a hurricane that was honestly chilling when it was introduced.

There’s a lot more you can explore when building your setting, including time period, technology, religion, fashion, music, economy, politics, and so on. Just remember two things: try to give just enough detail to be interesting, and make sure not to get so involved in worldbuilding that you never get around to writing the story.

Next time: Themes