Two: Talent and Craft

Welcome back to this series of writing tips. In case you missed them, here are the links to the Introduction, and to Part One: A Good Idea.

This time we’re thinking about Talent and Craft.

We all like to think we’re talented writers. I’m here to say this isn’t something we should worry about. That’s not to say talent isn’t important. It is. It’s crucial. I’m saying we shouldn’t worry about talent, because it’s something we can’t do much about.

Some are born as geniuses, and we might envy them. Can we learn or train to be a genius? Sadly, I think not.

Far more common is the fear of having zero talent. Is that your fear? If so, then let me reassure you. You have at least some writing talent. I say this because you’re here. If you were really zero-talented, then you wouldn’t be reading a blog post with writing tips. You’re here because you wish to learn, to improve your writing. That’s a sign of a talented writer: you realise there’s stuff you need to know, and that your work can be improved.

How talented are we? There’s no objective scale to measure it. But are we naturally self-confident? Then we might overestimate our talent. Or are we naturally shy, modest, self-doubting or self-critical? Then we probably underestimate it. Again, I think the self-confident are less likely to be here to learn. The self-doubting want all the help they can get. So please take it from me: I’m guessing you probably underestimate your writing talent.

Can we improve our level of talent? There’s debate about that. It’s brilliant to have a natural way with words, to be original in the way we express things, and to come up with lots of great ideas, but these may be gifts beyond the scope of any training. So I say: accept the level of talent you’ve been born with, and nurture it by working on what we can improve, namely our Writing Craft.

Craft Toolkit

If Talent is what we’re born with, then Craft is what we learn. The good news is that we can develop our writing skills, our competence and technique, our ability to plot and structure, our voice and style.

You may have heard the saying: “Everyone has a novel inside them.” Perhaps, but few make the effort to write it down. I used to think that most people could tell a good story, or have a passable skill at writing a novel. I don’t think that any more. I realise now how much there is to learn in writing a good novel, and that not many will apply themselves enough to learn it. I hope and pray that you’re one of the persistent, hard-working, teachable novelists.

I sat down and wrote the first draft of my debut novel, Destiny’s Rebel, during a couple of months in autumn 2009. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had some natural instinct for what works and what doesn’t, a talent (if you like) for what makes a good story. I guess that came through books and films while growing up, learning what we enjoy and what we don’t. So I turned an initial good idea into a passably compelling story.

But there was plenty wrong with it. I don’t have space here to explore all I’ve learned since writing that first draft, because that’s a whole long series of blog posts in itself. But I’ll list the main things here, and come back to some of them later in this series of writing tips.

1. Structure and Story Arc. Many good stories have three acts, with turning points and a narrative shape, from an inciting incident, to a build up, a climax, reversal and resolution.

2. Characters and Their Stories. The people of our book need to be “real”: compelling, motivated, active and engaging. Our main characters (and others) need to change, learn, grow and develop through the story.

3. Plotting, Conflict and Pace. There needs to be tension, external and/or internal, that drives the story forward in a logical sequence of events, based on the characters, situation and world.

4. Viewpoint. We need to know whose story this is, to tell it from one or more clear and consistent points of view.

5. World-building. The setting of our novel needs to be clear, focused, consistent and well-described.

6. Tone and Voice. We develop our unique story-telling and narrative style.

7. Description, Dialogue and Action. We become competent at all different components of prose writing.

8. Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation. We learn the basic rules of sentence construction, conditionals, split infinitives, etc.

9. Clarity and Conciseness. We say what we mean and mean what we say, telling our story in as few words as possible to do it justice.

10. Good Writing Style. We avoid adverbs, use active rather than passive verbs, vary sentence length, etc.

Is this enough to be going on with? Yes, of course. We’re engaged in a noble and difficult task, otherwise everyone would do it well. Novel-writing is a high calling, and worth spending a lifetime to learn.

We could try to learn all this before we start. But it would be a dry, academic exercise without our own story to which to apply it. So maybe I got it the correct way around with Destiny’s Rebel. I wrote it first, and then worked on it as I learned the craft. With each writing lesson, I returned to my story and applied it. Little by little my first draft improved, but that process took four years. And that was even before it started on the various stages of publisher’s edits. Are we willing for it to take that long, to learn our craft, and improve one story for publication?

I lost count of how many drafts I did. But that doesn’t matter now. The key thing for me was to get there in the end. Is that the priority for you, or are we all in too much of a hurry?

Thank you for reading, and next time we’ll look at Characters.

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