Chapter 12: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: The Myth of Talent


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The word “talent” has been used for a very long time to destroy writers.

I have always believed that the word is the worst myth of them all in publishing, so here goes a chapter I’m sure will be annoying to some people, and should cause some interesting discussions if nothing else.

Okay, first to my trusty and well-worn Oxford American Dictionary for a standard definition.

Talent: Special or very great ability, people who have this.

That’s about it. Pretty straightforward. Notice the word “ability” and notice it says nothing about being “born with.” Just notice.

Okay, when it comes to writing, let me put my definition right out front here.

Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.

As I have said before in a number of places, when I started writing, I was so untalented, it scared anyone who even tried to read something I wrote.

In school I hated writing because I was so bad at it. If I had listened to all the people who told me I had no talent for writing, I would have quit four decades ago. No, make that five decades ago, because all my early report cards said I had no talent for writing.

Now, after millions and millions of words practiced, many books and stories published, I get comments all the time like, “You are a talented writer, of course you can do it.”

Or one I got the other day. “You have the talent to write fast.”

Well, when I started to get serious about fiction writing, it took me hours and hours to do one 250 word page. Then that page would be so poorly written and riddled with mistakes that it got tossed away more often than not. (Remember, I was working on a typewriter.) Yup, I was a “naturally talented” fast writer. NOT!

Thank heavens for me I came to the realization early on in my life that talent was only a measure of craft at a certain point in time and nothing more.

Yet, frighteningly, parents, teachers, and so many family and friends think that talent is FIXED. If you are talented when you are young in something, you should be for your entire life. Well, sadly, as many have discovered, it doesn’t work that way.

Yet parents and teachers early on are determined to saddle kids with the “talented” label or worse yet, push them away from things they don’t do very well at first because they have no “talent” for that. Just makes me angry every time I hear of it.

The Problem of the Label

If you call a student talented, it’s an excuse for them to not work as hard. “It’s easy for them.”

If you say they don’t have talent, you allow them to not try at all, or think something is impossible to do and then quit.

In my opinion, talent is a deadly word to attach or even mention in front of any child.

Now, let’s look at writing. James Lee Burke, Stephen King, Nora Roberts and others at the top of the lists are the most talented writers we have working. Many readers don’t have a taste for a certain writer’s work, but doesn’t matter. The bestsellers are talented storytellers who sell millions of copies every time they put out a new book. The evidence is in the sales.

I’ll take myself at this moment as an example. Compared to a beginning writer, I have a vast talent for writing. Compared to King or Nora, not so much.

My talent AT THE MOMENT is a measure of my ability and craft. Right now.

And it depends on who I am being compared to.

But the key is that I am not permanently FIXED at this talent level. I can keep learning, practicing, working hard, and get better.

I can become more “talented.”

And, of course, that measurement of my talent is also completely subjective to who is doing the looking. One new writer might think I’m talented, some other writer might wonder why I even get published at all, let alone make my living at it.

So how did I become so “talented?” And how do I hope to become as talented as King and Nora someday?

Again, from an earlier chapter, practice and focused study. And then more practice, with the constant drive to learn and become a better writer with every story I write. As I improve my craft, sell more books, I will become more talented.

Factors of Being Talented

A proclamation of TALENT on a person depends on a number of factors.

1…Age of the person being judged.

Tiger Woods. As a kid, his father had him hitting golf balls. And his father was training him how to think like a golfer as a kid.

So he goes onto the Mike Douglas Show as a very young kid and manages to hit a golf ball into the air about fifty feet. WOW, he was talented. (For a kid his age.)

But compared to me at that time, if you just look at simple golf skills, no age factor at all, he was awful. He sucked, totally sucked and had no talent.

At that moment in time when Tiger Woods was that kid on the Mike Douglas Show, I was a full-time professional golfer playing qualifying stops for the tour. I could fly a ball 300 plus yards and seldom was over par on any course. Compared to me in strict golf standards, Tiger Woods at that time had no talent at all. I could hit a ball backhanded, standing on one leg, blindfolded farther than he could hit one at that same moment in time.

Age of the person observed was the major factor in calling Tiger talented at that time.

So what made Tiger Woods into the most “talented” golfer on the planet from that kid who could barely hit a ball fifty paces? Practice and focused study and years and years of more practice. He learned how to hit a ball farther than I could in my prime, he learned how to win, how to control his mind and his ability. He hit millions and millions of golf balls and played millions of holes of golf over a lot of years.

In other words, his craft improved as he got older.

As a kid, people called him talented, as an adult, they still call him talented. He managed to continue to increase his talent, his craft, his ability. He never once let the “talented” label go to his head, at least until the last few years with his famous problems.

2…What scale are you comparing the talented person to?

For example, I hope to run/walk a marathon in my 60th year. If I had gotten out about two weeks before my 60th birthday, my age class would have been 50-59 and I would have sucked compared to others. I will not be considered talented at all. But now that I am closer to 61, a marathon two weeks before my 61st birthday, my age class is 60-65 or 60-70, and you know, in that age class, my pounding and huffing along might be considered pretty darn good, even talented though I will have the same time either way.

A kid in high school English class might be able to write a paper better than his classmates because he’s spent time at home writing in a journal for five years. He has better craft because he has practiced and the others around him haven’t. So he gets called talented compared to the other people in his class. But now someone like me comes in, sits in that same class, with my years of experience writing and I write a paper. I would be called the talented student now and the previous talented student would just fade into the pack.

Talent is relative to who you are comparing the person to.

The Most Destructive Myth in Publishing

So why do I consider the talented label as one of the worst myths in all of publishing, and the most destructive? Simply because I’ve seen it kill writer’s dreams so many times over the years.

Both sides of the coin are destructive. Talented or Untalented.

Both judgments kill writers’ careers if the writer lets the judgment go in deep.

In my Clarion six week workshop, I was one of the least talented of the twenty-three writers who were there.  And I got toasted every critique and rightfully so. Plus I was still learning to type.

All the negative feedback just made me slightly angry because I knew they were right, and it made me want to work even harder. Remember, I had been very, very good at two national sports before Clarion. And I had been accepted and made it through years of law school when no one thought I could do it.

I knew that practice and hard work were the key. And when you want to play at a national level, you have to work harder and longer than everyone else in the country. I knew that. I was willing to do that.

So what happened to the most talented person at my Clarion? When I was the publisher at Pulphouse ten years later, I bought his only short story sale, a story he had written at Clarion. He got so much acclaim in that workshop and from friends, he clearly thought writing was too easy and went on to other things that challenged him while some of us also-rans are still hanging around and writing.

I’ve had “talented” friends get angry at me and become bitter. They think because they are talented they don’t have to work. Yet there I am, working my butt off and making sales and getting better, but because they think talent is a “fixed” thing, and since I had no talent, but am now selling, the system has to be broken in some way.

Or worse yet, I would get the comments, “He was lucky.”

As Kevin J. Anderson once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Yup. And the harder I work, the more I practice, the more I want to learn, the more talented I become.

Comments like “He was lucky” often come from nothing more than thinking that talent is a fixed measure of a person.

My old friends who saw some of those early stories would never think of me as talented. I’m fixed in their minds as hopeless and it’s head-shaking to them how I have gotten so lucky.

Tiger Woods for the first ten years on the tour was known for being the first one on the practice range in the morning and the last one to leave at night. He worked with golf coaches, pumped weights, and did everything he could to improve his game. Wonder why he became for a time the most talented golfer on the planet? He worked harder than anyone else. And he taught other kids they had to do the same thing and now this new generation of golfers coming in are working machines.

Why am I here still selling and writing after decades and decades of this business?

Because I worked harder than most people. Simply but truthful answer.

In fact, I got angry once at a workshop of students who just shrugged off my success as nothing more than luck and me being me. (Sort of how I get angry at people who say, “Oh, you’re Dean Wesley Smith, you can sell anything.”

I challenged everyone in that workshop that I could write more books in one year than all of them combined. That’s right, combined. Six young professional writers against me. And I beat them. I did more work, wrote more books, in one year than all of them combined. None of them ever questioned again why I was more successful. And now they are all successful and going like crazy.

So it might also be safe to say that talent is a measure of how hard a person works at their craft and learning and practicing. The harder a writer works, the more talented a writer they become.

As I do with every chapter, I want to talk about solutions, but in this case, there aren’t many I’m afraid. At least not easy ones.

You have been labeled “talented.” And you believe it. Now what?

That’s the worst thing that can happen to you, actually, in writing, if that little voice in your head that drives you actually took that word in and believed it.

The symptoms will be some or all of the following if that has happened.

—Your work ethic has slowed down.

—You will be getting angry at rejections.

—You will believe that no one understands your work.

—Your ego will be so huge, you might think there is no point in going traditional publishing routes because that takes time and is rigged.

—You will start looking for shortcuts to becoming rich as someone with your “talent” should be.

You might even sell a couple of things, but alas, ten years from now we will be looking back asking that awful question: “What ever happened to…?”

How to fix this problem? Not a clue, actually, because I can’t help you with the ego.

Chances are that if you have been given this label and believe it, deeply believe it, you are doomed.

And that is the truth. Once you stop working, stop trying to get better, you stop, fix your talent right there, and then stand and watch the rest of the world go past.

For example, if you think you are a talented writer, chances are my chapter about writing faster made you angry. You don’t need to work as hard or write as fast because you’re talented.

And my posts upcoming chapters about agents will make you angry because you’re talented and you don’t need to learn all that stuff. Someone will take care of you. That’s your right because you are “talented.”

If your little voice really thinks you are talented, if you think every story you write should be bought first time out, and are angry it isn’t, if you think that famous is only for the lucky and bestsellers are bad writers, you are doomed. You have to kill that voice somehow, some way, as quickly as you can.

The belief that you are talented locks you in and closes doors.

But killing that voice, letting go of that belief that you are talented and dropping back to the belief that you must work harder and harder to attain what you want is difficult at best. Why?

Because of fear.

Inside, deep inside, you understand the truth, but fear uses the talented label as a shield.

Remember that talent is a measure of your craft at the moment which depends on who you are being compared to and your age.

Best thing I can suggest is figure out where that “talented” label went in. And then kill that moment.

For example, your workshop kept telling you that you are talented, but no one in there was published, and yet you believed them and it went in. Oh, oh… Get away from that workshop, join a workshop (and keep your mouth shut) that has professional selling writers in it. If your “talented belief system” can survive being torn down and you can go back to wanting to learn and get better, you might have a hope.

Find the source and clean it out of your mind as quickly as you can. If you can. Get professional help if you need it, which with this problem, you more than likely will.

How do you really know if you have this problem?

Here is the way you tell…

You think that all you need to do is sit down and write that great idea you have and polish it until it’s perfect and your talent will be shown to the world. Problem is, you just can’t seem to find the time to write it.

Which is your deep mind saying, “Don’t try, you might fail. Better to believe you are talented than try to write and prove you are not.

Truth: Thinking you are talented is an excuse to not work, to not write, to not drive forward.

Thinking you are talented is a reason to be lazy.

What happens when you really believe you have No Talent?

Almost as bad as the flip side, actually. Having a label of being bad at something gives us all an excuse to not do it, even though we want to. Back to the fear issues.

You think “If I am so bad at this and it’s impossible for me to learn because I have no ‘talent’ for it, why should I even bother?”

Fear wins and you stop and never really try.

When I started into writing, all the pounding I took because of my poor craft just motivated me to learn and get better. I was told over and over, by everyone from my family to teachers that I had no talent for writing. “It just wasn’t me.”

I was talented at skiing, or golf, or math, or architecture. (Never was talented at the law.) Why didn’t I just stay with those?

But interestingly enough, I had the strength to stand up and say (in my own mind) “Only I know what’s right for me.”

In writing, only sales are the judge of quality writing, no matter what anyone says or how loudly some failed writer/reviewer proclaims themselves to be the judge.

Readers purchasing your books and enjoying the read are all that matter.

And the only way to get more sales and to find more readers is to practice and learn and keep working harder than everyone around you.

So if you have been given the “untalented” label, (and you believe it) you have to somehow climb over the fear, tell everyone to go take a flying leap, and just keep pushing forward. Most won’t. Writing is hard enough just learning for the lucky ones that weren’t saddled with either side of this myth early on.

I have never believed I have talent. I have never believed I am untalented.

I have believed in my own ability to work hard, practice, and learn something I set my mind to learning.

And so far, that’s got me past a lot of proclamations by observers telling me that I have no talent or now that I am talented. And these days, I hate to admit, those hit me in about equal measure all the time.

And that just makes me laugh.

The real bottom line is that to get past this myth, you have to believe in yourself and ignore everyone else’s belief system about you. Learn from others, but ignore what they say about your “talent.” Because the moment you take that alien belief system into your own mind and believe it, either good or bad, you are doomed.

Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.

In other words…

Talent Can Be Learned.

It’s up to you to work hard, practice hard, learn everything you can learn, so that you also become a “talented” (meaning skilled) writer.

The myth of talent kills more writers careers than any myth in the business.

Don’t let yourself fall to this one.

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Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
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Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

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