Thursday, August 25, 2016

Talent—Innate or Learned?

In his Tuesday entry, below, Rick pondered the question of how much one actually needs to know in order to successfully write a novel. He concludes that howsoever much one studies the craft, a basic talent for storytelling has to be present in order to begin a novel.

I, Donis, find this a fascinating concept. I do believe that one can learn the basic precepts of writing and with practice become very competent at it, even successful. But it does seem to me that some people just have it—the natural ability to craft a tale that rises above the rest. A few years ago, I wrote an entry about talent on this site that addressed this very concept, which I reproduce below with a few modifications:

Do you believe in predestination?  Are we born to write, to act, to paint, to be mommies or accountants?  Or is it Karma?  Is this our reward, our fulfillment?  Perhaps our punishment.  In his wonderful little book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield says that basically every human being is born with God-given, unique talents, and if you don’t use them, then you are a wastrel and an ingrate. (I paraphrase.)

Therefore, if you are driven to write (paint/parent/account), you must write, or fly in the very face of God.

How’s that for motivation?

Like most authors I know, I began writing when I was a child.  In fact, I can’t remember when I didn’t write little stories.  The earliest piece I remember clearly was called “The Black Cat”.  The protagonist was a little girl who turned into a cat every night.  I don’t remember what she did.  I don’t think she used her powers to save kittens from storm drains, or any other catly heroics.  I only remember her drinking cream from a saucer on the floor.  Apparently she didn’t retain her human moral values when she transformed.

I loved to make up stories mostly because I loved to read stories.  When I was a girl, the world in fiction was as real to me as my actual life, if not more so.  Before I could read, I adored being read to - and here’s the key - I was read to, continually.  I was given picture books when I was more interested in chewing on them than looking at  them.  I therefore learned to read very early, and consequently began writing very early.  Bless you, Mama and Daddy.  You gave me a gift that influenced and enriched my entire life.

Now, being an avid reader doesn’t necessarily make one want to be a writer, but I think it is a prerequisite.   I do think a healthy self-regard is extremely helpful.  Listen, learn, be guided, and practice, and never think you can’t improve, but never let anybody write your book for you, either.  There is something each of us has to say or do that nobody else in the long history of this wide world can say or do, and if you don’t give it a try, you deprive the rest of us of your singular talent.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Born to be

Barbara here. Rick has invited us all to put in our two cents on the question of talent and storytelling. Canada abolished its one cent coin a few years ago, so here's my plug nickels's worth. I have no idea whether the talent for storytelling is born into us or not, bit I do believe that most of us, if not all, are born with a creative urge and the path through which it is expressed. This path may be guided by early exposure, as in musicians or artists who follow in their parents' footsteps, but sometimes it has nothing to do with the culture and interests of our families.

I was born into a family of musicians and painters. They did other things with their lives, but my grandfather, as a surgeon in France during World War I, painted scenes of rural France as an outlet and counterpoint to the horrific demands of his job. His talent for painting predated the war; I have a painting of his hanging in my house, done when he was 16 years old. My mother was a high school science teacher but inherited that painter's passion, and many of the other walls in my house hold paintings done by her, inspired by the sight of a child playing or a spectacular play of light on mountains or sea.

I, however have never had the slightest urge to pick up a sketchpad or capture a scene on canvas. I have absolutely zero talent for drawing, painting, or otherwise interpreting the world in visual form. But from the age of six, when I first learned how to spell, I have been inventing stories. Story ideas spin in my head all the time. The question is not where do I get my ideas (for they are in the line at the coffee shop and in the sidebars of the newspaper), but how do I know whether an idea has the legs for a 300-page novel, or whether it deserves to be a scene or a subplot in a larger story. Experience and practice have taught me that.

Writing, particularly fiction writing, occupied no part of my family tree. I am the first in my whole extended family to be obsessed with creating stories. However, some of the prerequisites to good storytelling were present in my family home. My parents were avid readers and our home was filled with books. Filled. Every kind of book from biography to history to great literature and poetry. I had free rein of the shelves and picked up books at random, reading William Faulkner and Alexander Solzhenitzyn at whim From them I learned the secrets of great drama and absorbed, without lectures or lessons, the techniques of story arc, characterization, and imagery.

I wrote all through my childhood and throughout adulthood, mostly dreadful sap that fortunately did not see the light of day but that helped me to learn my craft. My late husband, however, was a painter. He saw the world not in terms of story bites like me but in terms of images and framed scenes to be captured on canvas. Not in terms of characters and conflicts but in terms of colour, shapes. shadows, and contrasting light. Yet our children, with their DNA packed on both sides with a painter's genes and on one side with a storyteller's, followed neither path. Like me, they show no talent or inclination for visual art. One has some interest in writing song lyrics and another in writing scripts, so some of that has past on through the DNA. But their creativity has found its primary outlet in other forms -- in music and acting.

It is a strange, human beast, this creative urge. Who knows where it comes from, but I believe we all have it. Perhaps we are all born with our own primary outlet, whether it's writing, art, acting, music, dance, crafts, woodworking, photography, or even software design. It may be the random re-alligning of the DNA but it comes from the core of who who are. The rest -- the talent, training, and practice it takes to do it well -- are secondary, because if it's not your passion, you won't put yourself at the artist's easel or the writer's desk long enough to get anything done.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How much do you need to know to successfully write a novel?

by Rick Blechta

This past week, I had a very interesting (and stimulating) conversation with a young person about novel writing. Basically, it revolved around creating characters and how they seem to take on a life of their own. (I’ve blogged about this several times, as have others, right here on Type M.)

This conversation led me down another path over the next few days eventually leading me to question how much one actually needs to know in order to successfully write a novel. I have an idea this post is only going to serve to start the conversations since the topic is a big one — and will probably draw in others as it goes along.

So what is the most important thing/skill/idea to possess before you start down what will be a long and grueling path?

After a lot of cogitation, I tend to think it’s that you have to understand what a novel is and isn’t.

As others have said in the past, a novel tells a story, but the plot can’t be static (this happened then that happened, then this third thing happened). During the course of the story, something has to change. Usually, it’s one or more of the characters, although it can be a situation. It has to arrive at its conclusion with at least some sort of finality. Otherwise it’s not satisfying to the reader.

Over the years, I have read mss where it's clear the writer didn’t understand this very important fact. Bad grammar, sketchy character writing, dialogue, description can all be taught, slaved over and improved because, while requiring a certain amount of talent to excel at, these items are all mechanical sorts of things. I’ve a writer has a bit of flair and the will to work to improve, improvement will happen. If the writer didn’t understand this basic tenet of fiction writing, then more than likely, the ms will have to be completely rewritten — or scrapped altogether.

But if that basic storytelling flair isn’t present, I’m not sure how much any kind of tutelage will make someone a novelist.

Then there’s the idea for the story. It requires an initial interesting idea. What exactly is that? I can’t really tell you. It’s just something I seem to know when I begin writing a novel. This idea is interesting while the other thirty I considered while I was searching for the basic kernel of the next novel weren’t interesting. So far (eleven novels in), I haven't been wrong.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a basic talent has to be present in order to begin. Certain abilities that can’t be taught have to be present, or the writer is not going to be all that successful. The rest can be worked on — if the writer is willing.

More on this topic next week. Please feel free to weigh in!

Friday, August 19, 2016


Last week when I was in Barnes and Noble at Goodland there was a table set up with a whole display of my new non-fiction academic book, surrounded by all of my mysteries. Not only was I delighted, I was so surprised.

This boondoggle occurred with no effort on my part. It was a gift. Out of the blue. Generating publicity is such an elusive part of publishing that it's easy to forget that sometimes good things simply happen.

The full title of the Nicodemus book is Nicodemus: Post-Reconstruction Politics and Racial Justice in Western Kansas. It's about 19th century African American Politicians and their contribution to the settlement of the West. Specifically, it's about the philosophies of three men in Nicodemus, who affected local, state, and national politics.

Not much connection to my mysteries. I can come up with one. Sort of. The Lottie Albright mysteries are set in Western Kansas and all have some sort of history worked in somewhere. But still. Who would have thought that B & N would have a display linking the two genres.

Through the years I have become very open to the delights of appearances and events. Even the ones that are disastrous have comical aspects. I started to go into some of the specifics then erased the copy. Because I'm well aware of the effort involved for booksellers and organizations to put signings together and would hate for followers of this blog to think I'm making fun of their time and efforts.

I'm deeply grateful for all the breaks I've had and very conscious that writers far more talented than I have not been so lucky. I'm very much aware of how far I have to go in learning the craft and polishing what little skill I have.

There's never a time when I attend a conference that I don't go home sobered by the knowledge that the writers at the top of the bestseller lists are the most disciplined hard-working people I know. Without exception.

Thursday, August 18, 2016


I'm writing this from Old Orchard Beach, Maine, during my week off. My break comes on the heels of a wild summer -- I served as assistant director and academic dean of the Northfield Mount Hermon Summer School (eight weeks at 10 to 12 hours a day), I just finished a 7,000-word outline for a novel (even I can't believe I just wrote that -- plotting has never been my forte), and the lone signing on this vacation sold out.

I vowed to get away from the keyboard this week, so here are some pics from the vacation.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Writing Under Any Conditions

As I'm writing this, a jackhammer is going off in the background. This is the second day of that particular noise on my block. Yesterday, we heard it almost continuously from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Today it appears to be gracing us with its presence again.

This is not unusual in the city I live in. We seem to be "enjoying" a construction boom. You can't walk more than two blocks without finding some house being torn down or under construction or being remodeled. I'm happy for the construction industry, having all those jobs created, but it can be annoying.

Some writers can write no matter what's going on around them. I know a number of them who regularly write at Starbucks or some other coffee shop. I'm not one of those. I don't even like writing in a relatively quiet library. I want to be at home with my things surrounding me.

But, with all this construction going on, I'm learning to write despite all the distractions. A house next door to ours took almost 5 years to finish before they moved in. Yep, 5 years. That's 5 years of jackhammering, pounding, sawing, Mariachi music... And you have to realize this was all within a few feet of our house, which shook when they were driving in giant metal posts and digging out the basement. Once the construction moved inside, things got better, but there was still plenty of noise.

The noise bothers me more when I'm in the first draft writing phase, less when I'm plotting or doing later edits. How much noise bothers me also depends on how I'm feeling. If I'm a bit under the weather, it bothers me a lot more. But if you have deadlines, you have to learn how to deal with it. I wrote some construction issues into my second book, PAINT THE TOWN DEAD, and I have a short story outlined, which I have yet to write, that involves conflict over construction. And I have other ideas: bodies found in porta potties, bodies falling off of roofs, bodies found in poured concrete...the possibilities are endless

I also invested in some noise-canceling headphones and play my own music to counteract what’s coming in from outside. The construction is still annoying, but I’m learning to deal with it.

What about you all? Are you sensitive to what’s going on around you? Can you do your work (whatever it is) with lots of noise?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


by Rick Blechta

The internet, much like anything else, has a good side and a bad side. Actually, please allow me to restate that. The internet has some very good sides and some very bad sides. It has changed the way we interact, receive information (a lot of information), even the way we think. It is both an extremely useful tool and a curse.

All that said, this post is not about the pluses and minuses of this ubiquitous thing in our modern lives, but the way those of us “ink-stained wretches” interact with it.

Here’s the thing: in the “dark ages” (pre-internet), we’d have to trudge down to the local library if we needed research information, look through a card catalog (remember those?) and then have to search a book for the information needed. We’re talking anywhere from an hour or two to several days to get what we needed.

The point is that research took a lot of time and we all know that skimping on research is a quick way to risk condemnation by reviewers or readers who actually know what you’re talking about.

Now, fire up your favourite browser program, type in a few key words and you’re off to the races. You can get the information in minutes, if not seconds. Great, right?

But like everything in life, this ease of access comes with a price: you can find anything on the World Wide Web, and the thing that can come back to bite you is stopping browsing the internet. It can be like thumbing through a dictionary in search of a particular word. If you’re like me, you can’t help but stop and look at other words, and all of a sudden you’ve spent a half hour (or more) looking up interesting things, perhaps increasing your vocabulary in the process, but no further along in your work-in-progress.

The internet is way worse.

Case in point, I needed to look up the median temperature in fall in Cold Spring, NY. An hour later, I’d checked my email, looked at the headlines (and read a few articles) in 2 online newspapers, checked the weather back in Toronto (for the next week), looked at my email again, peeked at Facebook, read an article on plagiarism, and then, finally got around to looking up what I’d gone after in the first place.

Am I an dolt who can’t control what he’s doing? Not really. Was I trying to avoid working on my novel? Hell no! What I am is naturally curious, and I feel very secure in saying that I am not out of the ordinary in the writing world. Writers have to be naturally curious to be any good. Our plots would have far fewer interesting twists and turns if we weren’t that way.

Thing is, you have to be disciplined about it. Somehow, curiosity has to be kept in check at certain times — like those few precious hours you’ve set aside for actually moving your manuscript along.

I guess I’m not very good at that.