Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Potential

I have a writing friend who shall remain nameless, and we once had an agonizingly long discussion about potential.

I believe that if you set your mind to it, the sky is the limit. Success isn't about intelligence or talent---it's about a refusal to give up. Recent studies have given my hypothesis some support:
http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/magazine/daily/13689320.htm

My friend believes that your own potential is capped by your own personal limitations. A man with no legs will never win the world record for the long jump. A man with below average intelligence will never tie together Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics. No matter how hard they try. To coincide with that, if you're born into a privileged environment, you can become President even if you have below-average intelligence.

We reached a compromise of sorts. All a person can do is try to live up to their limitations. That might be enough to succeed in some things, and might not be enough to succeed in others. Luck always plays a part, but you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

So where does this leave writers? Is this a call to throw away your pens and stop trying? Or is it a call to work to your potential, because it may be enough to succeed? And how do you actually know what your potential is, and if it's enough to make it in this business?

Here's what I know:

  1. Talent is inborn and unchangeable. But craft can be improved.
  2. There are many paths to success.
  3. You can improve your luck by working hard.
  4. You'll sell more by getting out there than by staying at home.
  5. Editors and agents consider talent and a book's merits, but they also consider craft and an author's merits.
  6. You need to learn your limitations, and the only way to do that is by going past them.
  7. Comparing yourself to others doesn't do anybody any good.

Can everyone who writes a book sell that book? Statistics tell us no. Will every book published become a hit? Again, no. Is it possible to become a number one bestselling author? Yes, but you have better odds becoming an Olympic medal winner.

Daunted? Don't be.

All huge goals are simply a series of smaller goals. The pyramids were built one stone at a time. A mountain is climbed one step at a time. A bestseller is sold one book at a time.

No matter your physical condition, if you want to run a marathon, there are things you can do to improve your chances of finishing. You can train every day. Buy the right equipment. Eat the right foods. Work out. Devote a lot of time to this pursuit. Recruit others to help you. Dedicate your life to it.

A lot of writers refuse to dedicate their life to pursuing success. Which is fine. They feel that many writers attain success without dedicating their life to it (see #7) so why should they?

No one is forcing you to work 80 hours a week. You don't have to learn to speak in public. You don't have to learn how to pitch. You don't have to visit bookstores and conventions. You don't have to get an agent. You don't have to improve your craft. You don't have to have a website or a blog. You don't have to do anything at all but write a book. And you might attain success by simply doing that.

But your chances improve if you do other things to reinforce that.

Fate is a future you didn't try to change. The people we admire in our society are the ones who succeeded despite the odds. The ones who faced adversity and won. The ones who picked themselves up by the bootstraps and went on to fame and fortune and glory.

Only you can decide what you must do in order to be a writer.

History will tell you whether you were right or wrong.

25 comments:

Devon Ellington said...

I agree with you. Too often "I can't" is used, when it's really "didn't try hard enough."

In my writing workshops, I ask the students, "How badly do you want this?"

The minute someone in writing group comes up with excuses, I ask, "How badly do you want this?"

Everyone has a personal definition of the kind of writer they want to be -- does success mean the bestseller list and lots of personal appearances, or simply making enough money to be comfortable and write one's quiet books, going out to promote as needed, but putting the bulk of the work into solitude? And, of course, the many other choices of types of writing and writers that exist.

It's personal choice, and each type of writing requires different steps to make it happen.

If you want it badly enough, you stop the excuses and you stay the course.

Adam Hurtubise said...

Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous post, Joe.

Adam

Martel said...

Joe -

Your comments are spot on. I love it when I finish reading your blog and feel inspired.

Some days I wonder why I bother trying and then I remember it's because I have to. And when I'm really feeling down, I remember the notebook full of rejections it took before you broke through.

If you could stick with it through days when I'm sure you wondered why you bothered, then I know I can too.

Anders said...

I have to disagree with you about talent being inborn and unchangeable. I think that some people have more natural aptitude for writing than others, but anyone with sufficient dedication can hone both craft and talent.

Brett Battles said...

Excellent post. It's what I tell myself every morning at 5:30 when the alarm goes off so I can get a few hours writing in before the day job begins..."If this is what you want, you have to make it happen. Get your butt out of bed!"

Thanks, Joe. As always, you inspire and energize us.

Bethany said...

Very relevant and inspiring (as one who can't find her own words this morning)...

When I was a closet writer, I often blamed my half-hearted novel starts un-successful due to lack of time or non-inspired ideas. Now, I have changed my tune. Acting much in the way that you describe-- working hard to MAKE my success happen. Talent or not, if you work hard, it will eventually pay off.

Mark Terry said...

Hmmm, great minds think alike, or something like that. I wrote something somewhat similar on my blog today under "young and foolish."

That is to say, you don't really have control over things like winning awards or hitting the bestseller lists, but you do have control over things like how hard you work, how hard you market that work, once it's published, how hard to market it and although there are undoubtedly limitations on time and money and energy, etc., you have a certain amount of control over it.

I'm not sure I agree that the amount of talent is ingrained. Or perhaps, a little more nuanced, I can't actually tell in myself or anybody else, what the quantity or quality of their talent (at least in terms of writing) may be. But if they work their ass off, even a relatively small amount of talent can be devastatingly effective.

Or, to use a metaphor I stole from Stephen King, who stole it from somebody else, talent is a knife. Big, small, whatever. You sharpen it. Even a sharpened small knife or scalpel can cut through the toughest meat and gristle. Some people with freakin' big knives can cut through tough meat and gristle without sharpening it--just not as well. I think it works as a metaphor for talent, anyway.

Best,
Mark Terry
www.journalscape.com/markterry/

JA Konrath said...

"I think that some people have more natural aptitude for writing than others, but anyone with sufficient dedication can hone both craft and talent."

I used to agree. But if you believe that talent is innate, like height, no matter how hard you try, you aren't going to get taller.

I could never write Lonesome Dove, or The Great Gatsby. I'm just not that talented, and even with constant practice, I'll never get there.

Music is a better example. There's Solieri, and then there's Mozart. They both had talent. Mozart had more, even though Solieri worked just as hard.

I think that talent is your ultimate potential, and learning craft enables you to reach that potential.

But I also think that talent isn't required to be a bestseller.

Mark Terry said...

Is Joe really using a classical music metaphor?

William G. said...

Excellent advice as always.

Capt said...

I agree with everything you say, what I am curious about are the things that aren't part of writing but make it harder. For example, you have a wife and kids and need to support them and are barely making it financially, no matter how bad you want something and try for it, limitations occurr. Yes they're always limitations, but when it comes to the poor house, bankruptcy and being destitute, how do fight that?

JA Konrath said...

"but when it comes to the poor house, bankruptcy and being destitute, how do fight that?"

We live off of credit cards.

jamie ford said...

I'm on the fence with this one.

I graduated from art school and unlike another university programs where the sum of a collegiate experience is measured in a piece of paper and a GPA; we also had portfolios in tow.

To Joe's point, it was blatantly obvious that those with a greater passion and work ethic had stronger bodies of work. There were graduates who sacrificed everything for their work, and it showed.

But, now in my current gig, I work with scores of writers, designers, illustrators and photographers--all creative crafts. And there are some people that just seem to be lacking a conceptual spark. They are great technicians of their craft, but something else is lacking.

This sounds like a terribly unfair thing to say but in my current experience, to use a music metaphor, some seem capable of playing music and others just play the notes.

Jude Hardin said...

Great post, Joe.

Jamie,

I know what you mean. I'm currently reading two novels, both by authors who have been best sellers for some time. I'll call them #1 and #2.

#1 drew me into his universe starting with the first sentence. His prose and storytelling ability are so fabulous it makes me wonder if I should even bother. I know I'll never be able to write that good.

#2, while still a bestseller, lacks that "spark" you mentioned. His prose is flat, the story not very original, much of the dialogue forced. I'm pretty sure I can do better.

So, I'll keep on trying and, like Joe said, push myself beyond what I consider my limitations.

If #2 can do it, I can do it better.

I'm going to be a bestselling author some day, and I'm pretty sure I can do more than just play the notes.

Steve said...

"Talent isn't required to be a bestseller."

True dat. Look at the lists and sample some of the prose. Makes you wonder...

Keep on speaking that truth Brother Joe.

Amen.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

"it's about a refusal to give up."

Those words strike a chord.

It amazes me how many people are willing to give up before they've really tried.

I meet people all the time who, say, want to learn to play the guitar. Then they sit down and realize that it's hard to get sound out of the strings with your fingers pressed against them and when you're done, you're fingerstips feel like they've been through a meat grinder.

So they give up. Too hard. Too much trouble.

But those who slog on and suffer the pain and those first awful sounding notes, eventually learn to play guitar. They may not be the next Clapton or Van Halen, but they can play.

Because they worked at it.

Before I broke into screenwriting, I was told that my chances of selling were akin to winning the lottery. But I beat the "odds."

When I decided to write a novel, I was told the same thing. Fiction doesn't sell anymore. You'll spend months writing a book and what will it get you?

I beat those odds, too.

Why? Not because I'm particularly talented or smart. But because -- as Joe says -- I refused to give up. I wouldn't take no for an answer.

Wise words, Joe. And very true.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

I gave up once, for several years. Oh, I kept writing little things here and there, but I allowed the sting of rejection to stop me with the novels. The plus side was that I went back to school.

I don't regret stopping, for the most part, because I grew up and learned a lot that I needed to know anyway. Maybe I wasn't ready back then. If I'd sold a novel, I may have had 2nd book syndrome and been even worse off. Now, I believe I understand what I must do. I look at it as an apprenticeship.

I don't think you ever stop growing as a writer. I may not write as well as bestseller #1 today, but I don't discount the possiblity that I may do so tomorrow. :)

Limitations, hell. I refuse to consider them. That's how I cope with doubt. No one pops out of the womb writing beautiful prose. Some who write better than I do will never get published because they will give up before it happens. I don't intend to give up again.

Allison Brennan said...

Amen.

Jeri said...

Great post, Joe, as always. You're like a kick in the butt with a velvet boot.

I'd love to see you address #7 in another post someday: We're always told not to compare ourselves to other writers, and at the same time we're told 'Study the market.' It's very hard to heed both pieces of advice.

How do we resist the temptation to compare ourselves to other writers, especially once we're published? I don't mean pithy affirmations like, "Only I can write the books I write," I mean practical tips. Anyone?

Jude Hardin said...

jeri,

I think it's okay to make comparisons like "Fans of Harper Lee and Flannery O'Conner will enjoy my southern novel DEAD AS FRIED CHICKEN."

What you want to avoid is getting into a self-induced pissing contest regarding sales, film options etc. If you're working twice as hard as Author X, but Author X is making twice as much money as you are, it can make you feel lousy if you let it.

Better to just ignore Author X and concentrate on your own work.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Great post Joe. This is another one that gets printed and hung beside my desk...the wall is getting full of Konrath quotes! You are truly inspirational!

Mike H said...

Thanks for the inspiring words, Joe. My own writing schedule allows for two and a half hours of writing per day. What I usually end up with is about one hour of writing and an hour and a half of excuses.

Time to stop making excuses.

Wesley Smith said...

Am I the only one who heard "Climb Every Mountain" playing in the background when I read this?

Lori G. Armstrong said...

Excellent post, Joe. It hit me especially hard since this new book is kicking my ass. Now I realize I need to kick it back. An editor I know once said to me, "If I reject your book and you quit writing, I've done my job. But if I reject your book and you keep writing and getting better, I've also done my job." Talent is subjective; hard work is not.

PJ Parrish said...

Good post, Joe. Needs to be said and repeated and repeated.

So many writers get distracted by the first wind that sweeps through their life -- the dog needs walking, the laundry needs folding, the kids need to be driven to soccer. You have to CHOSE to write, and some things might have to be sacrificed (like sleep in Brett's case!) We all make excuses --I'm lurking on your blog instead of working on chapter 18 because this is more fun than trying to figure out where I screwed up my plot.)

And boy, the talent vs craft thing, that's a great bar room debate: I come down on the side of talent is innate but craft can be learned. Anyone can be taught to hit a golf ball; only a few of us can be Tiger Woods. I also have come to think that you can get published without great talent, but you CAN'T get published without craft -- especially as it applies to genre fiction.

As in any art, you need to master your technique, and you can't be truly creative until you know its "rules" (POV, dramatic structure, dialog, etc). Picasso had realism down pat before he became a Cubist.

I like how the great acting coach Stella Adler put it: "Technique makes talent possible."

Slinking back to Wordperfect now...