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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Is Talent Overrated? 8 Things that are More Important than Talent for Writing Success

by Anne R. Allen

I often run into new writers who want to be reassured they have talent. They sometimes ask me to read some fledgling work in hopes I'll pronounce them "talented."

I always decline. (A wise author never goes there.) It's not simply that I can't fit one more thing into my already jam-packed schedule—it's also that I have no way of telling if people have talent.

I can only tell if they have skills. And if they don't have skills—which they probably don't if they're newbies—their job is to acquire some, not rely on some stranger's opinion of what abilities they were born with.

In fact, sometimes I think the most insulting thing you can say to an author is, "you're so talented," although I know I've said it myself, intending to praise.

But when most of us say an artist is "talented," we actually mean "skilled".

Lots of people are born with creative gifts—but very few have the ambition and determination to use those gifts to create anything meaningful. Many talented people sit around in cafés and talk about the great art they're going to create someday.

But skilled people are more likely to be at home actually creating it.

I believe everybody comes into this world with certain talents, and the talents you're born with will probably determine the path you take in life (assuming you live in a society where you're allowed to choose.)

You find out what your talents are by what you're drawn to. Nobody else can tell you that.

But even if you do have loads of talent, that and five bucks will get you a Venti Caffe Mocha. What you need is talent plus skills.

And acquiring skills takes time.

I have known lots of wannabe writers who sabotaged themselves with magical thinking about their own talent. Usually some teacher or mentor told them early on that they were gifted in some way, and this made them feel special.

Feeling special is great, if it motivates you to work hard and acquire skills.

But unfortunately, for a lot of people, this "special" feeling either makes them feel entitled to a fast-track to success, or it paralyzes them with fear they can't live up to the promise.

This is because so many people believe talent alone is all that's required to be good at something.

It seems to be true of writers more than musicians, visual artists, or athletes. I suppose because there's a prevailing feeling that "anybody can write." But that's simply not true. Nobody's born knowing how to write strong, compelling prose. You need to study and practice.

What aspiring violinist wouldn't take violin lessons? What painter doesn't learn how to mix and apply paint to canvas? What golfer doesn't constantly work to perfect a golf swing?

But writers think we can hit a hole-in-one on our first day on the course without so much as a lesson.

Some seem to feel too entitled to bother to study the craft and business of writing at all, and others seem embarrassed to admit how much they don't know.

It's as if they think they're betraying that talent by going out and learning how to use it.

Agent Jo Unwin, talking to the Bookseller in October said something I don't think I've heard voiced before: "it seems to me that the people who find it easy to submit to agents aren’t necessarily the best writers." She added: "Some people feel more entitled to write than others."

I recognize the two types of writers she's talking about. And I fear I may have once been in the ranks of the "entitled." I queried way too soon and expected agents to recognize my talent even though I hadn't studied enough about the marketplace to know what today's readers are looking for.

I'd spent most of my life reading the classics and shunning the bestsellers my academic family considered "beneath" them. And yet I wanted agents to see my work as the next bestseller. 

 Obviously I still had a lot of skills to acquire. 

Mostly I learned them the hard way. But you don't have to—if you put the idea of your "special artistic talent" aside and work on other things that are more likely to steer you onto the road to success.

8 Attributes That are More Important than Talent for Writing Success

1) Drive

To become successful writers, we need the determination to overcome the obstacles our subconscious will erect for us. Sitting down and actually putting those first words on a page can be one of the toughest things you'll ever face.

Our fired-up NaNoWrimos out there are showing that determination. Good for you!

We all need the courage to put butt in chair (or if you're super-health-conscious, get behind one of those standing desks) and start typing words. And make sentences of those words. (Why sentences? Here's a hilarious piece from the New Yorker on how (not) to write a sentence: guaranteed to make you laugh.) 

After that, you have to make the sentences into stories. With characters. Who are not all idealized versions of you. Stories with scenes in which something happens. Something that propels the reader into the next scene.

Sounds easy. But many "talented" people never get there. I have known tons of talented sentence writers who never learned to write a story. On occasion they may write poetic, reflective vignettes. Usually about sitting in cafés. But anything more would take away from their sitting-in-cafés time.

They lack drive.

These days we also need the drive to build a social media presence and author platform while we're learning craft, or all those lovely stories won't reach readers.

2) Passion

You need to be in love with writing. You have to fall in love with the process itself: not just your characters and story and what's going on in your head. Not just the praise you get from your critique group or your readership. You need to adore the day-to-day work of putting the story on the page.

If you don't feel the passion, your reader won't either.

3) Listening Skills

This may be the most important ability of all. If you can't listen to other people—and work to truly understand them—your stories will be flat and repetitive.

If you only write about yourself and your own thoughts and experiences, you'll bore your readers silly. You also won't have much to say. As Nikki Giovanni said, "If you wrote [only] from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

You need to tell stories about other people. How do you find out about other people? By zipping your own lips and listening to them. And caring about what you hear.

This is true of listening to your fellow writers, too. Sometimes they can give you insanely stupid advice—more on that in a future post—but usually you can get some pretty solid tips.

4) The Desire to Learn

I'd say about 50% of wannabe writers don't actually want to learn to write. They want to BE writers, but they don't want to acquire the skills to do it effectively.

I've actually heard newbies say stuff like, "I don't need to read a book about how to write. I got A's in English all through high school and I'm a great speller."

There's a word for people who think they know everything already: ignorant.

Writing is like any other craft. You need to learn the rules. And then practice, practice, practice until they are second nature to you.

I love to quote Somerset Maugham's great observation about writing rules: "There are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

But actually we do know what some of the rules are—up to a point. We have rules for grammar, spelling and word use. (They're slightly different for fiction writing—more on that in another post.)

There are also some fairly firm rules about point of view, story arc, and character development. And the necessity of conflict. Not to mention believable dialogue and non-snooze-inducing inner monologue. We need to learn them.

We also need to learn to make the words flow on the page without sounding as if we're robots, illiterates, or pretentious asshats.

Plus we need to learn these rules tend to evolve according to changes in the marketplace and new technology.

Those aren't "talents" you're born with. They are skills you have to learn.

5) The Ability to be Alone

I suspect a lot of those café sitters are simply extroverts who have a tough time being alone.

I'm not saying you have to be an introvert to be a good writer. Many great novels have been written by extroverts. Many have even been written in cafés.

But these are people who are actually writing, not talking about it. And when they write, they're creating their own "alone" space. You can't write without it.

And no matter where your "room" is, you have to be able to tolerate your own company.

Columnist Michael Ventura wrote an iconic essay on the subject for The Sun literary magazine over two decades ago, called The Talent of the Room, and it is all still true:

"Writing is something you do alone in a room. Copy that sentence and put it on your wall because there’s no way to exaggerate or overemphasize this fact. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer. Writing is something you do alone in a room."...Michael Ventura

6) Understanding of the Marketplace

You wouldn't open a dress shop or a hardware store without visiting a lot of similar retail establishments. And you wouldn't open a restaurant without noticing what other restaurants are located nearby.

Publishing is a business, and if you want to sell a product, you need to know what's selling and what customers are buying.

This means reading the books on the bestseller list. Or at least knowing about them. You don't need to read a one-off viral phenomenon like 50 Shades of Grey as much as you need to read the writers who top the list consistently. Especially bestsellers in your genre. It's the only way to understand what readers are expecting right now in terms of style and content.

It's also important to read the classics, of course. If you don't know what has gone before, you're going to waste a lot of time re-inventing the wheel.

Mostly you need to read, period. As Stephen King said...and I keep repeating:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."...Stephen King

7) Gratitude

If you reject information that's offered to you, and stubbornly cling to bad writing habits—or take lessons as personal insults, you're in for a grim time.

It's good to remember that every failure—as well as every success—can be an opportunity for growth and a way to acquire the skills you need to succeed.

When some beta reader sends you back your ms. bleeding with comments about your misuse of commas, this is not the time to stage a temper tantrum. It's time to buy a grammar book and learn something about that pesky punctuation mark.

You should also be glad you now know why all those agents rejected your pages. Maybe your story is great, but they saw 20 misplaced commas in the first page and hit delete.

I'm not saying you should be grateful for every pointless, mean review, or the idiot critique that is only about the critiquer's agenda.

And I'm not saying a little wallowing in hurt and anger isn't therapeutic when we're in the stage of gathering rejections or getting those first one-star reviews. (Yes, everybody gets them.)

But after that, figure out what you've learned (sometimes, of course, what you've learned is that the world is full of asshats whose opinions are based on ignorance and/or malice, but that's important stuff to learn, too.)

Then be grateful, accept the lesson and move on to the next level.

8) Persistence

You knew I was going to say this, right? Yeah, there are thousands of Internet memes with inspirational messages like, "The difference between success and failure is persistence."

Things get to be clichés for a reason. People think they're worth repeating.

Here are some of the more popular ones:

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. Thomas Edison

A successful man is one who can build a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him.
David Brinkley

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. Confucius

Failure is just a resting place. It is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently. Henry Ford

It’s not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up. Unknown

Is Talent Important? 

Sure. Talent helps. But less talented people who are willing to work and learn are more likely to succeed than wildly talented people who aren't willing to put in the time to acquire skills.

In a 2008 essay titled The Myth of Talent, photographer Craig Tanner said,

"Conventional wisdom says that it is not enough to dream. You need talent. And definition of talent lifted straight from the dictionary describes talent as 'a natural ability of a superior quality'. In other words, you either have it or you don't. I call this cultural flaw in our self-awareness the Myth of Talent. And buying into this dead end myth about ourselves is where it goes wrong for many people – particularly people who have a dream of becoming an artist."

His essay argues that the real talent is indeed skill, which can be acquired, and is not not an accident of birth. "the truth about talent is this – talent is a set of skills you develop over time through desire."

What about you, Scriveners? Have you ever worried whether you have the "talent" to be a writer? Were you told you were talented and found it hard to live up to the title? Have you known wildly talented people who never produced anything meaningful?



by Shirley S. Allen  (my mom)

A woman who had such determination that she published a novel at age eighty-five and another at age eighty-nine. 

"Jane Austen meets Little House on the Prairie"

The true tale of a powerful woman who pioneered the American West: Anne's great-great grandmother,  Roxanna Britton, born in Western Reserve, Ohio in 1833. This gripping novel based on Roxanna's extraordinary life was written by Anne's mother, novelist and scholar, Shirley S. Allen.

Widowed as a young mother, Roxanna breaks through traditional barriers by finding a husband of her own choice, developing her own small business, and in 1865, becoming one of the first married women to own property. We follow her through the hard times of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a homestead in Nebraska to her final home in Elsinore, California. 

"This has become one of my all time favorite stories of "real" people. Ms. Allen's adept use of dialogue and her clear eye for drama and suspense kept me compulsively turning the pages. Her evocation of a bygone era, rich with descriptive details--the historical Chicago fire is one vivid example--is absolutely brilliant. I will never forget Sanny and her family, especially her struggle and her daughters' struggle to become individuals in a male dominated world. 

"But it is family that triumphs in the end; and the need for it to survive resonates most deeply in my mind and heart. An excellent novel that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading true stories about people who not only overcome adversity with grace and integrity but through strength of character also prevail. Well done, Ms. Shirley Allen!"...author Ann Carbine Best

Roxanna Britton is available as an ebook at  Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CAKobo, Nook, iTunes, Inktera, and Scribd.


Looking for an alternative to Goodreads? BookBzz is a brand new site where you can present your books in an attractive online format. And once listed, for bookbzz.com to promote them for you. Listing is quick and easy... and it's free (and always will be, they promise!). Despite being simple to use it has some sophisticated marketing tools built in. It comes with a "Tell a Friend" Book Marketing and Reviews Engine and audience management system and you can (optionally) gateway to other marketing services (reviews engine, price and discount management, newsletters, reward promotions and affiliate programs).

WALKER PERCY PRIZE IN SHORT FICTION $15 ENTRY FEE. Winner receives $1,000 and publication in New Orleans Review. All finalists considered for publication. Enter previously unpublished original stories up to 7,500 words. Deadline December 31st

Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Contest $24 entry fee. Prizes of $1600, $800, $400 and $80. A further ten Highly Commended entrants will receive a free entry in the next round. Professional feedback provided for all entries! Any genre: up to 3000 words. Deadline December 31st.

First Crime Novel Competition: Sponsored by Minotaur Books (St. Martins) and Mystery Writers of America. Prize: $10,000 advance. Open to any author who has not published a novel (self-published novels OK). Must have a murder or other major crime at the center of the novel's plot. Deadline December 15th, 2014

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

MUSEUM OF WORDS MICRO FICTION CONTESTNO ENTRY FEE. The competition is for very short fiction pieces of up to a maximum of 100 words. The winner will receive a prize of $20,000, with three runners-up each receiving $2,000. This contest is open to writers from all countries and entries are accepted in four languages: English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. All stories entered must be original and unpublished. The last Museum of Words contest attracted 22,571 entries from writers in 119 countries. Deadline November 23, 2014.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Gratitude - great point to include.
Write from empathy, Another good one. We can't just write what we know, we have to write what we want to explore.
Talent alone won't matter if there is no effort. There are many gifted athletes who are good but never become great because they don't apply themselves.

November 9, 2014 at 10:12 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Love this savvy and sensible post! Couldn't agree more about the importance of listening and would add to that the ability to refrain from gossiping. If you get a reputation as a gossip, no one will tell you anything worth listening to!

Resilience matters, too. The ability to bounce back from criticism and rejection is crucial because, no matter what a VIP you think you are, you will get plenty of both. Don't forget that Stephen King was told by his own publisher that he wasn't as important to them as their Really Big Star, Tom Clancy. (I kid you not.)

Ditto the ability to know the difference between smart and dumb criticism. Use the former; ignore the latter.

November 9, 2014 at 10:35 AM  
Blogger Melodie Campbell said...

Another hard-hitting and wonderful post, Anne. I'll be sending my novel writing students to your blog, once again, smile.

November 9, 2014 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex--Love this: "We can't just write what we know, we have to write what we want to explore." So true! I've always had trouble with the "write what you know" rule.

November 9, 2014 at 10:40 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Ruth--Great additions! I agree about the gossip. That kind of stuff is great on the page, but a big problem in real life.

I had never heard that story about Stephen King! Even the biggies get dissed in this business. We gotta wear a lot of psychic armor.

And yes, learning to cherry-pick useful criticism from all the dumb negativity we get is a skill in itself.

November 9, 2014 at 10:44 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Melodie--Teaching writing at the university level you must run into more of the "talent-entitled" group than most of us do. So many young people think that all the lovely adverbs and flowery prose that got them A's in high school constituted great writing, when really the teacher was just overjoyed they knew what an adverb was.

November 9, 2014 at 10:49 AM  
Blogger CS Perryess said...

Hi Anne - I'm doing pretty well in many of your categories, though I sure could use some improvements when it comes to #1 & #6. Thanks for the food for thought.

November 9, 2014 at 11:02 AM  
Blogger Linda Maye Adams said...

On #7, you also need a healthy skepticism and be willing to disagree and not necessarily go with the crowd. Yes, do thank anyone who critiques your book, even if they bleed all over it, and walk away. You are not under an obligation to agree with every comment. If you find yourself saying, "They don't know everything!" in a huff, that's a problem. On the other hand, if you get the comments back and you're scratching your head and thinking, "Huh?" then maybe set the comments aside for a lot later.

Case in point: When I was cowriting, we gave the story to a beta who was a romance writer. It was a thriller, which I was concerned about, but she was a friend of cowriter, so away it went. She read 70 pages and sent it back with the most scathing comments I'd seen. It was like she had outright hated it and was trying to justify why by picking at it. I went "Huh?" because the emotion didn't make any sense, and the only conclusion I could come up was that she hated the book.

A month or so later, we discovered the reason why: She was vehemently anti-gun. She was reading a thriller. Set during the Civil War. With North and South soldiers. She'd stopped reading at the point where the main character had drawn a gun.

Yet, a year or so when my cowriter got locked up in fear of finishing, he returned to this critique and determined it was a call for action. Clearly we needed to remove all the guns to make it marketable because this writer had said so.

Be willing to change if you think the story will be improved. But be willing to stick to your guns if you think it's going to hurt the story. It's still your story, and not theirs.

November 9, 2014 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

CS--I guess we could all learn more about the marketplace, but it would probably take all our writing time. L-) Joining professional groups like SCBWI, as you have, should help a lot. Going to conferences can give us a window on the industry, too. And just reading the bestseller list every week helps.

November 9, 2014 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Linda--What an awful experience! A perfect example of the "idiot critique that's all about the critiquer's agenda."

As Ruth mentioned, part of our skill set has to be to tell good criticism from bad. And a lot of it is bad. This is why I tend to prefer a critique group to a beta reader, so you get more of a diversity of opinion. Not that groups can't be totally wrong, too.

Your writing partner was paying way too much attention to a worthless critique. A wartime thriller with no weapons would be like a romance with no sexual tension. Snoozerific. And dumb. :-) I hope you could "stick to your guns" literally and figuratively.

November 9, 2014 at 11:21 AM  
Blogger Wm. L. Hahn said...

Anne, I think this is the most pointed and candidly opinionated post of yours that I've read. Bravo! There's no backing down in here and I admire the stance. Being such a dedicated day-job dilettante and professional egoist, I can't fully agree. But you're right not to draw too sharp a distinction between writing excellence and business success (as I so fondly want to). They are indeed connected. Maybe over the long-term my experience will balance out, but I'm fully focused on the first half of the equation for now.
One further word, and a shout-out to a terrific idea from a fellow indie. Check out Immerse or Die! If anyone thinks they've written a good tale and are willing to face the music, you can lob your book into the queue over there and see if it meets the 40-minute challenge of engagement. It's only one man's opinion, sure, but just hitting the Upload button will tell you a lot about where you are in your praxis of writing. http://creativityhacker.ca/immerse-or-die/

November 9, 2014 at 11:38 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Wm--I didn't mean this to sound strident or opinionated. Maybe I'm channelling my mom--a woman who had strong opinions--since I featured her book this week. :-)

I think you may have read more judgement into what I wrote than I intended. What I'm trying to say is aspiring writers shouldn't worry about whether or not they have talent. They should just do it. They will acquire the skills they need by writing and studying writing, not by worrying whether or not they were born with a certain set of gifts.

I'm saying nobody can judge your talent but you. So I'm not going to ask this guy judge my books, although it might be fun for some people, so thanks for the link. But whenever somebody judges our work, I think we always have to consider the source.

November 9, 2014 at 12:14 PM  
Blogger Collette Cameron said...

Anne, I wish I'd seen this before I started writing!
Fabulous points, as usual and I will be reblogging.
I've directed several aspiring writers to your site.

November 9, 2014 at 12:41 PM  
OpenID paulfahey said...

Anne, one thing I recall is being in an online workshop with four or five other writers along with a terrific instructor. I think the topic was layering theme into your novels and short stories page by page. I learned a lot from the other writers and the instructor but not from one woman who refused to take any constructive criticism from any of us and always prefaced her remarks with, "My instructor at UCLA gave me an A on this." Your post really hit home for lots of other reasons as well but this resistance to listening to others rang a bell the size of the one in Philly. I kept wondering why this woman took the class. Now I know. I kind of entitlement and inability to hear what would truly make her book so much better. I got lots of As in college lit classes, but I wouldn't want any of my essays published. Would anyone here? Yikes! Great post as always.

November 9, 2014 at 1:07 PM  
Blogger Prue Batten said...

There is always a need, in my case anyway, to be kept 'on track'. I often refresh with a coach in different arenas of my life. It keeps me fresh and reminds me of the skill base and method when things could potentially become loose. This is exactly what this post does. I especially like the 'listening/empathy' point and 'the ability to learn' point. For a historical fiction writer, every day is a learning day as one researches, researches and then researches again. Anne, thank you. www.pruebatten.com

November 9, 2014 at 1:39 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Colette--Thanks! I always appreciate a mention on your great blog.

November 9, 2014 at 1:40 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--That woman is exactly the kind of writer I'm talking about. They feel entitled, so they feel they don't actually have to learn anything. Sometimes they don't even write anything. They just sit around being "talented."

Great point about those college papers! I've just been going through my short story file looking for pieces for a collection and I found so many--even published pieces--that I do not want in circulation now. We learn by doing, thank goodness, and I've been doing a lot of writing since then.

November 9, 2014 at 1:45 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Prue--Great to see you here! I guess the Blogger elves decided you're okay now. Thank goodness.

I'm glad you weighed in on this. Since you're one of the bestselling historical fiction authors on Amazon, it's powerful to hear that even you have to keep honing your skills and refreshing your knowledge. It's true of us all!

November 9, 2014 at 1:47 PM  
Blogger Dean K Miller said...

Great life lessons here, explained for those of us who pursue the writerly craft. How different the world would be if all professions took this advice (even half of it) to heart. Wonderfully done. Thanks, Anne.

November 9, 2014 at 3:42 PM  
Blogger G. B. Miller said...

Great post and a great reality check for those wannabes. Also a great reminder for those of us who seemed to be spinning their wheels just little bit too often for comfort these days.

The Inner Sibling

November 9, 2014 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger Kait said...

This really hit home. You have verbalized a number of my thoughts, and to be honest, fears. It's a great reality check.This post should be circulated to every would be/wanna be/hopeful/newbie/first time/second time... writer as the perfect litmus test.

November 9, 2014 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Dean--Thanks! I guess you're right that all professions need to pay attention to this stuff. If we forget that life is about learning and fail to be grateful for our lessons, we can get bitter and cynical. (And useless.)

November 9, 2014 at 4:13 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

G.B. I won't pretend I don't do some wheel-spinning myself. There are times when social media seems to eat up our whole lives and we don't have time to do the stuff that really matters. Writing about writing can be easier than actually writing.

November 9, 2014 at 4:16 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Kait--Thanks! I didn't mean this to be a negative post, so I apologize if it stirred any anxieties.

I meant rather to encourage people who haven't been deemed "talented"--and tell them all these other things are more important. In fact, I think being told you have talent may be kind of a curse. I was, and I think it kept me from learning the skills I needed until I'd wasted a whole lot of time writing in a vacuum.

November 9, 2014 at 4:23 PM  
Blogger Maia Sepp said...

Love this, especially the point about empathy.

November 9, 2014 at 5:40 PM  
Blogger florence cronin said...

Oh yes, Anne ... it's like telling a kid that they are not living up to their potential. They spend years trying to fit in and end up failing. You can't fit in, can't ever truly live up to potential. What you can do is write one sentence at a time and then another ... like that road trip ... put one foot in front of the other and don't stop until you get there.

"There" of course, is different for each of us. So point your nose in a direction and see what happens :)

November 9, 2014 at 6:37 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Maia--Thanks. I love that quote from Nikki Giovanni

November 9, 2014 at 7:47 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Florence--Yes! Thanks for getting what I'm saying. Telling a kid they have talent can be a curse. They feel they have to "live up to their potential". Thing is--everybody has potential for something. Living up to it really means following your bliss--not somebody else's--and learning to do it right. You say it so well: point your nose in the direction of your bliss and keep walking.

November 9, 2014 at 7:49 PM  
Blogger Julie Musil said...

Anne, this post is brilliant. And it hit close to home. I'm participating in NaNo right now, and each day that I pound out those 2k words, I feel more and more like a wanna be. But I'm not a wanna be. I'm a writer who is committed to writing a story and then editing the heck out of it because I love to do it. And with each craft book I study, and each blog post I read, and each writing exercise I perform, I'm learning more about the craft. I will always be learning, and I find that comforting. I don't feel stressed out about knowing it all right now, because there's no such thing as knowing it all.

This whole journey has taught me so much about myself, and how determined I can be. And you know what? I love the example I've set for my three teen sons--that if you love something enough, and you're passionate about it, don't give up.

November 9, 2014 at 8:27 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Julie--Good for you for taking the NaNo challenge. But even if you don't "win" you're doing everything right. You're studying, learning and practicing and keeping on toward your goal. You're a great example for those boys!

November 9, 2014 at 8:49 PM  
Blogger Murees Dupé said...

Fantastic post. I always worry that I don't have enough talent for writing, but now I'll rather focus on my other qualities like my persistence and perseverance.

November 10, 2014 at 4:56 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Murees--I hope I've helped you fight those "talent" worries. Talent is as talent does, to paraphrase the old saw. Persistence and perseverance are much more important, IMO. Keep going!

November 10, 2014 at 10:20 AM  
Blogger Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I like your list. I'm certainly not one of the 'entitled' writers. And I am very good at being alone in a room. It's much more difficult to keep others out.

November 10, 2014 at 10:37 AM  
Blogger Crybbe666 said...

"This means reading the books on the bestseller list. Or at least knowing about them."

I don't think you need that second sentence - especially when you include that Stephen King quote at the end. Just knowing about James Patterson doesn't help a wannabe-writer understand what makes him successful - in the same way that knowing about Charles Dickens doesn't help improve our understanding of why he is still relevant today.

Other than that, I really did like this post!


November 10, 2014 at 11:12 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Susan--I hear you about keeping the others out! Even though I live alone in a little writer cottage by the beach, there is the phone. When people know you're home all day, they figure you're available for a chat any time. I hate letting the phone ring, but I have to do it when I'm on a roll.

November 10, 2014 at 11:22 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Paul--You're probably right. I added that phrase because a couple of weeks ago I held a contest that involved identifying sentences from some of the top 20 bestselling novels. I only got one entry. And most people said they had never heard of any of the books or authors. So I recommend finding out who the bestsellers ARE as a first step. But I agree that actually reading them is infinitely more useful.

November 10, 2014 at 11:26 AM  
Blogger Diana Stevan said...

I love this post, Anne, as it shows what it takes for writing success. As you point out so skillfully, talent isn't enough. I agree, it's not the most talented that get their books published, but they do have the chutzpah to get it done.

They have the courage to go after what they want and what they believe they're capable of. They found out what they needed to do (like writing workshops, perseverance, critique groups, reading great books, etc. etc.) and then did it.

Congratulations to your mother for publishing at her age. What a wonderful model for us all!

November 10, 2014 at 11:45 AM  
Blogger J.M. Ney-Grimm said...

I remember that back in my early writing days I wanted to know if I had talent. I never pressed anyone for an answer to my question, because even then there seemed something unhealthy about that pre-occupation. Honestly, what a burden to anyone you ask! Also, that's giving far too much power to just one person's opinion.

Looking back, I can see that my worry really stemmed from a sense that I was missing certain writing skills - that certain elements weren't quite right with my writing. ;) Fortunately, what I did was take some writing workshops.

I continue to learn about the craft of writing, but I no longer worry about talent. I've filled those early gaps in my skill set, and I'm continuing to fill as many remaining gaps as I go. Great post, Anne!

November 10, 2014 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Diana--You're right about the education a writer needs to seek out: workshops, critique groups, reading etc. But I forgot to caution that it's also important to know when to move on. I think a lot of writers get stuck in one or two learning modes--like going to a writer's conference every year--but they don't really progress. Hmmm. Maybe that's another blogpost.

Thanks for the kind words about my mom. We lost her last year, but she showed us that you can still learn and grow even into your eighties and nineties!

November 10, 2014 at 12:18 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

J.M. I think we all go through that stage. I remember asking a college professor that embarrassing question. I can't remember how he weaseled out of it, but weaseling is about the only thing to do, because it's so hard to separate talent from skill, and I sure didn't have much skill at the time. And you're right that it's giving away your power.

I think every writer has strengths and weaknesses, and getting help in the places where you might have less "talent" is very wise. If you're a good storyteller, you may have gaps in grammar and word use. If you're a whiz at grammar, you may need help with story structure, etc.

November 10, 2014 at 12:24 PM  
Blogger Greg Strandberg said...

Wow, I was about ready to give up on this site. Why to sock it to em!

November 10, 2014 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger Tanya Freedman Writing as Gloria Silk said...

Once again, Anne, you keep the reality and magic in balance. Because we all need to remember and be reminded sometimes, that writing is a passion, but has to include all the p's: practice, persistence and most importantly perspective of one's own writing and others' critiques of your writing. The issue is of course, that fellow writers, critique partners or groups, no matter how well intentioned do have their own strong and sometimes right or wrong (for your work) opinions. Listening, learning and growing our empathy would bring so much more peace and joy to us on the creative and realistic level. Thank you again for such a wonderful, sometimes hard-hitting blog which is always from your heart. Tanya Freedman w/a Gloria Silk: Author of First and Only Destiny & Second Destiny

November 10, 2014 at 12:44 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Greg--I'm glad you liked this one. We try to have a balance of how-to and opinion posts.

November 10, 2014 at 1:47 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Tanya--I like your three "p's" practice, persistence and perspective. Great advice.

You touch on probably the toughest lesson of all: learning to tell useful criticism from the stuff that's just about the critic. Which is probably 90% of it. We go from thinking they're all a bunch of meanies to thinking our work totally sux and back again many times in our careers. It's that last "p"--perspective--that's most important for learning to weed out that 90% and find the good stuff.

November 10, 2014 at 1:51 PM  
Blogger Anna Soliveres said...

Hi Anne,
It's been a while since I've been on the blogging scene and great to be back to read this amazing post. I've been focusing pretty hard on finishing my novel and with that comes a lot of rebalancing with blogging, writing, work, and life.

In reading your post, I fall into to the less talent but wildly stubborn category. I started seriously writing novels when I was twenty-two and thought that I was ready to be a successful debut author within the year! Boy, was I ever humbled by the rejections. I saw my writing in a new light. Instead of giving up, I had a new appreciation for the craft and devoted myself to keep learning and to keep studying. :) It feels wonderful to read your post and remind myself of the years of work I've put in to getting better with each work. Humility - you can never have enough of it.

November 10, 2014 at 4:30 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anna--Good for you for keeping your nose to the grindstone and working on getting that novel finished!

I think we all have that fantasy at first--of writing a novel in a few months and having a brilliant writing career within the year. That's because the media perpetuates it. Every author who makes it after a 20 year struggle is portrayed as an "overnight success" because it makes better copy. But very, very few authors do that. And if they do, it tends to be a fluke and they burn out soon after.

November 10, 2014 at 5:02 PM  
Blogger Lexa Cain said...

I love this article and wish more people would take craft seriously. It's hard for them to do it when there are published novelists who never take the time to develop skill - and they're selling just fine. I recently read an interview with a successful romance author who admitted she never knew "head-hopping" was bad, but she learned it was and doesn't do it anymore. After she wrote 40 books.

November 10, 2014 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Lexa--That story makes me sad. 40 books. But there's so much more competition now. I think you have to be really good to stand out these days. And not confuse the reader. Head hopping is confusing. People want to read faster now, and not have to keep flipping back to find out who the POV character is.

November 10, 2014 at 9:58 PM  
OpenID spirithawkstudio said...

After 20 hours of practice a week, I won my first marital arts trophy - First Place. I've never forgotten what my Sensei said to me... "See how lucky you are when you work hard?"
Thanks for the excellent post, Anne!
Indy Quillen

November 11, 2014 at 12:31 AM  
Blogger Claude Forthomme said...

Gratitude, fear of failure and above all persistence...These I see as major movers (they have been so in my life!) and for a while, for example, I was afraid to show my true feathers. That is, I was afraid to use my maiden name which has been my name all my life at work, especially in the UN, and it is the name you now see - not Nougat!! I was afraid that my pen name (Nougat) was my brand...But now, I'm less afraid, and I dare come out with my real name!

So yes, much of what drives us as writers (and causes us to make mistakes) is fear. To overcome that fear is crucial...and damn hard to do!

November 11, 2014 at 7:39 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

spirithawk--"See how lucky you are when you work hard." Exactly. What a great quote! Thanks.

November 11, 2014 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Claude--Congratulations on "coming out" as yourself! And yes, the fear is what keeps us from reaching our full potential. So many of us live in cages we have built ourselves.

November 11, 2014 at 10:29 AM  
Blogger Claude Forthomme said...

Thanks Anne, I love the way you put it! And you know, you're practically the first one I'm telling this too. Today, I changed the name of my blog, my name on Google Plus (it determines the name on gmail too!) Big job, and I bet there are tons of other places where I'll have to say it! We'll see how it goes...

November 11, 2014 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger Anthony V. Toscano said...

"Sounds easy. But many "talented" people never get there. I have known tons of talented sentence writers who never learned to write a story. On occasion they may write poetic, reflective vignettes. Usually about sitting in cafés. But anything more would take away from their sitting-in-cafés time."

Dear Anne, I read your column with great interest. I agree with the main points you make, especially regarding drive. Still, sometimes you write things that, although most likely written with a smile of humor inherent, unintentionally hurt those of us who are talented writers -- even talented cafe writers -- who never learn to write a story, because we just aren't story writers. Yes, most of what we write is about ourselves and our reflections on the world in which we live. I needn't remind you of writers such as May Sarton or Alice James. There are, of course, many other diarists. Talented diarists.

And by the way, the fact that you read the classics shows up in your own work. Many of today's writers never read those same classics, and so they produce hack work.

Meant and sent with love,


November 11, 2014 at 12:42 PM  
Blogger Barry Knister said...

As is invariably the case, your post today is well worth anyone's time--not just a writers' time, but anyone's. That's because the attributes you name are needed by all those who want to succeed, in or out of the writeosphere, all those who want their talent and five bucks to get them more than a Venti Caffe Mocha (great line).
That said, I think a real-world caution is worth adding. New technologies have made it very easy to publish, and this fact means that a great many less-than-savory "entrepreneurs" and guidance counselors have joined legitimate experts, offering to shepherd writers to success. It is in their interest to dismiss talent, to insist anyone and everyone can learn the skills that will lead to success. This being the case, I would add the following to your list. #9: when seeking help or guidance, exercise caution, and whenever possible, do business with those you've learned about through persons you know.

November 11, 2014 at 2:58 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Anthony--I certainly didn't write this to offend anybody. This stuff doesn't just apply to novelists. It's true for poets, essayists, memoirists, humorists and journalists. Many of them write wildly popular books. But a magical fairy doesn't make those books popular. They have to do the work.

But whether you're talking about David Sedaris, May Sarton, T. S. Elliott or Billy Collins, they are all telling stories in one way or another. Story is hardwired to the human brain.

And they all had to put butt in chair and do the work. I think you'll find that's what you do too. :-)

November 11, 2014 at 3:17 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Barry--You're absolutely right that there are swarms of predators out there, waiting to pounce on new writers who don't educate themselves in this business. More all the time. There's probably more money being made scamming newbie writers than there is in publishing itself.

I will be talking about your "#9" in next week's post. With more the following week. You make a very good point.

November 11, 2014 at 3:22 PM  
Blogger Terry Tyler said...

What a terrific piece - I agree that you need all those things! One of the best writers I know has only just produced his first novella, because he found the 'butt on chair' bit hard!!! I do think you need talent, too, though. There are WAY too many indie published books by people who have none, those who want to 'be a writer' more than they want 'to write'. You see them all over Twitter: 'wannabe writer' in the bio - I want to say, well, do it, then!!!!

A few months ago I wrote a piece entitled 'How to write a romcom in one easy lesson'. It is satire, based on the predictability of the genre. Several people thanked me for the tips.... too many people, these days, think that ALL you need is the 'formula'.

I agree most profoundly with the willingness to learn. I am soon to publish my 10th book on Amazon and am learning all the time; I hope this is reflected in the quality of the books I produce. As for understanding the marketplace - yes, so much, but I've seen so many people produce what they thought would be a sure fire success by doing this - and got nowhere.

To sum up - yes yes yes - and talent too!

November 12, 2014 at 2:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Terry--Your "how to write a rom-com" sounds hilarious. I'll Google it.

I think when you're talking about the wannabes and bad indie books you're talking about people without SKILLS, not necessarily people without talent. If they don't write and don't learn skills, we'll never know if they have any talent in there or not.

And as for formula: yes, genre books follow a formula. But so does a sonnet. Simply following the formula doesn't guarantee good product. :-)

November 12, 2014 at 9:46 AM  
Blogger Nina Badzin said...

I love this post and really believe that you're right! Sharing it now.

November 13, 2014 at 3:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Nina--Thanks! And thanks for the share.

November 13, 2014 at 9:56 AM  
Blogger allison goh said...

Great post! I find that a long-term perspective is really helpful to persevere in this business :)

November 13, 2014 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Allison--You're right. In fact, "sense of perspective" might have made a good #9. Thanks!

November 13, 2014 at 7:39 PM  
OpenID zeesouthcombe.com said...

As many other people have commented, this is a hard-hitting post. Perhaps more rings true for me than I would like to admit!

While I certainly don't consider myself so talented that the perfect words just fall onto the page without effort, there hasn't been much creative writing in my life recently. I do have legit reasons for this (I'm working in a wordless book and have 2 novellas in final editing stage, my creative writing muscles are getting stiff.

On another note, validation can be an ass. It's interesting that you point out you have some *published* works you want out of circulation. I think it's a good reminder that we all have different opinions, and being told your work is good - or not - is less a reflection of talent and more that the reader's taste aligns with yours.

November 14, 2014 at 12:14 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

zeesouthcome--A wordless book! I assume that's a graphic novel. So it sounds as if you may be multi-talented (or multi-skilled.) I find that I can't be as creative when I'm in the editing stage. My new work slows down if I'm editing something. I think the brain doesn't like to switch back and forth from left to right as fast as we'd like to make it.

But if you're editing, that means you've written, so you have all these skills already. I'm not saying you must write new stuff every day to be a good writer. Every creative person creates in his/her own way. I'm talking about the people who don't create finished work because of unrealistic ideas of what "talent" can do.

Readers tastes change with fashion, that's for sure. And fashions change rapidly these days. The kind of books that were bestsellers in the 80s have a hard time getting readers now. And there are genres that have huge sales for a while and then fade, like chick lit and vampire romance. That's the marketplace, and has very little to do with talent *or* skill, alas.

Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

November 14, 2014 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger Christian Galacar said...

This is great post -- I loved it.

I had to shake my head in shame a few times, admitting that I was, at one point, one of those who felt special or born to write. And I have a feeling I am not alone. But let's face it, we all need a little unearned praise in the begining. It might just be the little push that keeps us going, especially after we realize -- and sooner or later every writer does -- how much hard work and rejection truly lies ahead.

I have always thought that "talent" is less about what your natural abilities are, and more about how far you're willing to go to foster the skills when you recognize them. For me, the ideao of "talent" is the hard work, the shed tears, the willingness to put in the hours and show up to the job everyday. Talent is the thing that is greater than the sum of all its parts but would be nothing without each and every one of them.

Thanks for another great post.

November 17, 2014 at 8:37 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Christian--I was one of those, for sure. Because I had good verbal skills and a top-notch education, I was sure my fledgling works were up there with the greats. Talk about rude awakenings! :-)

You're right that "talent" is really the sum of all those parts. Natural gifts for creativity plus hard work and perseverance. Good insight.

November 17, 2014 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger Gail Gauthier said...

"Some people feel more entitled to write than others." Ouch. Very true, but ouch.

November 21, 2014 at 12:36 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Gail--That one stung for me, too. I always did so well in English, I thought I had a special leg up. But I didn't have a clue about genre or the publishing business. I sent many cringe-worthy queries.

November 21, 2014 at 2:13 PM  
Blogger Tsara Shelton said...

You mean I can't just send my screenplay to Lionsgate and wait for the phone calls and interview invites from The Daily Show???? Or post a video of me singing a song I wrote to YouTube and wait for Ellen DeGeneres to ask me about my happy songwriting "process"?? Bummer!! tee hee!

I've been wildly gathering skills over the last few years, finally shedding my struggle with talent--a desperate need for mine to be recognized by others and a considerable fear of never having it--and have found that in honing and learning skills, my talents are maturing and making their (slow) way to the surface.

It's surprising and delicious! I'm learning things, skill-wise, that I'm able to use in so many areas of my life, and I've grown confident because many of the skills are concrete and tangible. Plus, comfortably learning from and seeking out mentors has put me in places I never would have been able to discover on my own.

Wandering around singing to myself and telling stories to strangers was fun, but it didn't really get me anywhere I wanted to be!

Thank-you for this brilliant and insightful post!

Secret Admission: I have to admit though, my favorite feedback about my own work is always a nod to my talent, rather than my skill....

December 2, 2014 at 8:10 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Tsara--It sounds as if you have a talent for having fun while learning--which is probably the most important talent of all. Thanks for the wonderful comment!

December 2, 2014 at 9:05 PM  

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