I am starting a series of posts on writing myths and debunking them one by one. So, the kick things off...
1. Good writers have raw talent that can’t be taught.
Let’s stop right here and address the important myth: There are “good” writers and “bad” writers.
Nope. I don’t believe this.
There is certainly skill level, natural talent, and extraordinarily amazing writers. But that doesn’t make everyone else a “bad” writer. There are less experienced writers, stubborn writers, and half-hearted writers, sure. But I refuse to believe that a person who sets a goal of writing and really works on learning the craft can be classified as a “bad” writer.
We’re all learning. All the time.
I am going to show you a “before and after” of my own work. I wrote a YA novel in college and submitted it straight to publishing houses (because I didn’t know any better.) Here is a scene from the middle of the book:
Class ended and I tore out of the room without looking behind me. I thought maybe I heard Leon calling my name, but I figured it was my imagination. I sucked in my breath to hold in my mortification. I made it all the way to Texas History without exhaling. No one else was in the room yet, and Mrs. Plummer was setting up the Mexican soldiers in a miniature model of the battle of the Alamo. She looked up from behind her thick, librarian glasses.
“Ah! Kate! You’re an early bird today!”
“Yeah, I ran all the way here.” I muttered, falling into my desk and putting my head down. I wrapped my arms around my head and let the darkness take me. A moment later the scent of lilacs hit me like a toxic cloud. Lifting my head, I saw Mrs. Plummer standing right in front of me, bending her head down with a concerned look on her face.
“Why, Katherine? Whatever is the matter?”
“Nothing, Mrs. Plummer.” I muttered. I was getting a headache.
The dialogue is stilted, the imagery is weak, the sentence structures aren’t dynamic, and it lacks voice. I wrote this in my early twenties, and it was my second attempt at a full-length novel. This was a YA story about a girl in 8th grade, who is writing a musical with her friends. Lots of drama. Now, I’ll attempt to revise it as a more “mature” writer.
The second hand dragged and stalled again and again on the ancient clock face above the door. And then, the shrill ringing of the bell sent me out the door at a pace that would have impressed Coach Brown.
Behind me, the sound of my name fell into the muddied, chaotic noise of the busy hallway. It was easy enough to pretend I hadn’t heard Leon calling after me above the clanging of lockers, the shrieks of laughter and outrage, and pulsing of my heartbeat in my ears.
I sucked in my breath as though I could hold in the sheer mortification consuming my very soul.
At the door to Texas History, I let out an exhale that left me empty.
The rows of empty desk stood ready for the apathetic occupants on their way. Mrs. Plummer stood, stooped over an elaborate model of the Alamo. She pinched tiny Mexican soldiers between her red acrylic nails and set each one in a predetermined place with just a little trembling from her arthritic fingers. She looked up at me from behind her thick, librarian glasses.
“Ah! Kate! You’re an early bird today!”
“I guess so,” I muttered, dropping my bag to the floor, falling into my seat and putting my head down on the cold desk. I wrapped my arms around my head and let the darkness take me.
But then, as soon as I alone in my own head, the scene began to replay over and over again. The look of disgust on Maggie’s face, the surprise on Leon’s. I would never live this down. Never.
A moment later, the scent of lilacs hit me like a toxic cloud. I didn’t have to look up to know Mrs. Plummer was hovering above me with concern etched into the fine lines around her watery, gray eyes. I lifted my head to confirm it.
“Katherine? You okay?” She peered down, still clutching Santa Anna and in her right hand.
“I’m fine.” I muttered. The florescent lights above were shooting lightning bolts through my skull and I rubbed my temples with a melodramatic sigh. “Just have a headache.”
I used the little flashes of Kate’s personality from the original to flesh out more characterization in the revision. For example, I kept: I wrapped my arms around my head and let the darkness take me.
I could have easily just taken this out as “bad writing,” but it jumped out to me as very melodramatic, which is what Kate, as a thirteen-year-old is. So, I built on that, creating more voice for her, making it clearer who she is and how she perceives the world. I gave her a few more overly dramatic quips and, most importantly, gave her more internal dialogue, which the first was missing.
I also added little details in that create a better sense of place and supporting characters. With a couple of little details like, arthritic fingers, stooped, fine lines around her watery eyes, the reader now knows Mrs. Plummer is older without me having to outright state: Mrs. Plummer was old. In other words, there’s far more showing than telling, unlike before.
I added more white space, because no one likes big chunks of text.
But mainly, I had fun with it. I let it flow and then went back and cleaned it up a little. Is this now publishable? No. But, it’s far better than before.
Don’t get me wrong. The answer isn’t always to add to a scene. Sometimes, often times, the answer is to cut something completely.
So? Here’s my purpose in showing you the original and revised—I got better. I would say, a lot better.
First, I wrote… I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.
I got feedback. First from friends, and then I joined critique groups and got feedback from a wide variety of people and experiences.
I attended conferences and took classes.
And then, I learned to revise.
In other words, I worked hard, not on a single manuscript, but on myself and my skills. I learned what worked for me and what didn’t.
I take far more risks now and I write what makes me feel things on an entire spectrum of emotions.
I can only speak for myself, but twenty-something-old Lauren was told she had “talent,” but that wasn’t enough to break through. I got form rejections and rightly so. I just reread my query letter and it’s abominable. (It might get its own blog entry one of these days.)
And the cool part is, I’m just getting started. I have faith that my next novel will be better than the first because I am still learning and still honing my craft.
So, do good writers have talent that can’t be taught?
While not dismissing that raw talent exists, I believe this is a myth. I believe many have writing talent in the rough, that needs to be carved out and polished. Sure, ultimately, you can’t “teach talent,” but you certainly can refine talent, bring talent to the surface, enhance talent.
The thing is, I can almost guarantee that if you are writing, you have a spark of talent somewhere deep inside, even if you can’t see it. I would argue that most people who genuinely have no talent for writing aren’t interested in writing in the first place. Their brains don’t work that way. And that’s totally fine. We all have different strengths. But the fact that you make the attempt, that ideas come to you and you have to get them down in writing, that speaks to an ability inside, no matter what stage it happens to be at currently.