Thursday, June 11, 2009

Skill Versus Talent

One thing you're going to hear me say a lot during this discussion about writing is that there is more than one way to do to [fill in the blank.] My way is only what works for me, and might turn out to be total anathema to how you write best. Use my methods, etc., only if you wish. Also, writing is, for me, one of life's Great Mysteries. No matter how often I teach in-person classes, take them, or read books about writing, a lot of how it actually WORKS remains opaque to me. I think this is one of the reasons most people tend to think that you can't actually TEACH writing, but that writing is a talent you have to be born with.

I believe you can teach anyone to write better. Not everyone will write at the same skill level by the time they die, but, I believe everyone gets better with practice. I know this for a fact. Not only have I seen students improve exponentially, but I've also noticed growth in my own work over time (and I can always see room for improvements).

Practice really does make perfect.

And, IMHO, writing really is a skill, like any other, that can be learned. I think, in the end, what REALLY separates the writers from the non-writers isn't "talent" so much as persistence and determination and discipline. If you have those three things they will carry you much farther than if all you have is so-called talent (which to me is better labeled "proficiency" or "skill.")

I'm not saying, however, that people all start out in the same place. But when I noticed one of my students at the Loft who seemed very polished and professional right out of the gate, I asked her a simple question: "Do you read a lot?" Are you surprised that the answer she gave was a resounding: "Yes, of course!"? And it wasn't just that she read, but that she read a lot in the genre and type she was trying to emulate, ie fantasy novels.

I think that people who get labeled as talented writers are often people who have developed a strong ear for storytelling through reading. Even though they may have never put paper to pencil (or pencil to paper as the case may be), they are folks who have been practicing their art unintentionally by absorbing the ideas of structure, plot, dialogue, etc. Of course, there are still plenty of avid readers who struggle when they write their first story... or second or third.... But I think the more you read what you want to write, the more you might (perhaps at first, perhaps eventually) have the jump on your colleagues.

Or maybe not. The important thing to remember is that you can learn to write professional quality stories. I believe anyone who wants to be published, can be given enough time, energy, and luck. And if I could only have one of those three, I'd go with energy. Energy to keep at it. Energy not to quit when the going... goes. Energy to look at a malformed piece of writing and willingly tear it apart and recreate it. Energy to dump parts that aren't working, and milk the ones that are. Energy to say: I will try again tomorrow, when all you want to do is sob in frustration or escape into hours of "Bejeweled" (guilty!)

That's the real talent, if you ask me. The talent to keep pushing, like Sisyphus, even when it all just seems to crumble at the summit, as it were. And you have to start over. And over.

But you know what? The hope here, IMHO, is that you can do it, if you work at it. I believe in you.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ways to Critique, More on Writers' Groups

One of the other things you need to decide once you have a writers group, is how often to meet and how you're going to do the critiques.

The group I'm currently in meets every other week (or, at least twice a month.) I've been in workshops that meet monthly, but one thing we discovered is that if, for some reason you have to cancel, it's a LONG time until the next meeting. This can be especially bad if you have novelists in your group. The memory can be quite strained by trying to remember who, what, and where with such long gaps between sessions.

In fact, I once had an argument about whether or not you could effectively critique longer works, like a novel, in a group. Wyrdsmiths is mostly novelists, and we do very well. I think, though, that one key component is how often we meet. We started out of a weekly class and almost decided to meet weekly, but thought that might be impossible for those of us with full-time jobs (which was all of us at the beginning.) Twice a month works really well for us, and when we have to cancel or when people have to miss, it's not so terribly overwhelming to try to catch up.

But monthly can work, and may be the only option for people with supremely busy lives.

There are many ways to run a workshop/critique session. I attended one where you showed up with something to read, read it out loud, and people gave you instant, verbal feedback. I found this to be somewhat problematic, because, IMHO, it tended to favor good readers. Thanks to a background in theatre, I can read out loud pretty well. And the listeners noticed that, rather than the flaws in my text. However, you can get a good sense of first impressions this way. Also, if the group membership fluctuates wildly (this was billed as an open house style group), it can work just fine. There are also genres, I think, where this could be the preferred method, like poetry, for instance.

The way we do critique in Wyrdsmiths is that we come with a copy of a hand-out for every member. They take it home to review it next session. With paper in hand, critiquers tend to give a more detailed response. They correct typos, grammar, etc., (though my group doesn't dwell on that, unless the typo is particularly funny, as in the one I once wrote about "quacking aspens.") Since our group came out of a fiction writing class, everyone is very skilled at the art of critique and many of us still follow a structure set up by the instructor wherein we write our first impressions, strengths, weaknesses and then final impressions. (Note: starting with strengths is a good way to keep the author listening, and feeling good about what's to come.)

If people in your group are unfamiliar with how to critique, I offer this great site: How to Critique Fiction by Victory Crayne.

Groups often have other rules, like: "no cross talk" or "the gag rule." The first means that each critiquer gets the floor, no interruptions. The second means the author is not allowed to defend her work (or ask questions, except for clarification,) until everyone is finished critiquing her piece. At Wyrdsmiths we've been together so long that we no longer strictly enforce either of these, but they can be helpful when you're first starting out.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

A New Review of DIID

I'm sorry I keep interrupting myself, but, honestly, it's so much easier to post about the nice things people have said about me than... uh, think. Here's a great review of Dead If I DO by the kind folks over at Enchanting Reviews. "Dead If I Do: 5 Enchantments!"

Monday, June 08, 2009

Top o' The List to Ya!

Google Alerts found this for me this morning, and I have to smile. At least I make a best seller's list somewhere! Top 10 Metaphysical Books at Eye of Horus

Tomorrow I hope to continue the writers group/new-to-writing blogs, but I have to confess the cold, gray rainy day is calling me to sit inside with a warm cat on my lap, have some tea, and write like a demon from hell. :-)