Here is another piece from Brain Pickings on the difference between good writing and talented writing that I want to discuss. I’m fairly new to having my work read by the public and though I’ve been writing for many years, I think it would be arrogant of me to start handing out writing advice. There are many other authors out there, prolific ones who are better suited for this, like Hugh Howey, J.A. Konrath, and Dean Wesley Smith.
I can only speak from my own experience, limited as it is. I don’t know what makes my writing work, all I know is people seem to like it. It could be that years of reading other authors somehow created a sense or a feeling for what works, whether a sentence sounds lumpy or detracts from the story and breaks the tone, pace, or tension.
When I write I use that same lens to scrutinize my work. I don’t know all the rules and I’m not saying I’m talented–far from it–but when I write the story, I try my best to use the right words to describe the imagery in my head and then, when I’m finished and have combed through it enough times for my eyes to seize-up, I send it to someone who does know all the rules–or most of them– to make sure I didn’t break any, and if I did, whether it serves the story.
Yes, I do write on instinct, at least for the first draft. The subsequent drafts are all about coloring and finding balance. The thing is, I know the more I write the better I’ll get at it, and the more I read, the more refined my lens becomes.
I decided to mention the article below because it’s a question that has fueled my demons for years. The tools and knowledge I’ve picked up over the years, especially with writing The Seals of Abgal and the current book, The Worthless One, have enabled me to face my demons, to do battle with them, and to win. Not the war, for the war is never over, but to take them on–one battle at a time. It adds up after a while. And they are demons, pesky little things with hairy butts and razor-sharp talons that ride your shoulder and whisper unkind things in your ear that can kill inspiration and maim confidence. They’re particularly hard on Confidence and use it for dodgeball practice.
If you put your emotional fears aside for a moment and look at your writing pragmatically, you’ll realize being talented, just like being technically proficient, isn’t enough. Both require hard work for sustainability. And hard work gives anyone a fighting chance. It levels the playing field, irrespective of what Samuel Delany says below:
“If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one.
The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull.
Now old stories can always be told with new language. You can even add new characters to them; you can use them to dramatize new ideas. But eventually even the new language, characters, and ideas lose their ability to invigorate.
Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition. However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.
Talented writing is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.
Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.”
You can read the rest here: Good Writing vs. Talented Writing | Brain Pickings.
You may agree with the statement above, I don’t think I do. I understand what Delaney is saying and I understand his logic, but where do you draw the line between sheer talent and the fruits of hard and determined labor? My problem with his statement is the portrayal of talent as this exclusive club and that it alone can create great fiction. It’s not and it doesn’t. Not really. Hard work and determination, my friends, are equalizers. I truly believe this because writers far, far greater than me have said so, like here, here and here. I believe this because I bear against my demons daily by writing and reading and experimenting. I keep at it and by doing so I improve the optical performance of my lens, allowing me to feel and sense what serves my story best. It’s not an error-free system, but at least it keeps me on the road and it keeps me moving. And if I move it means I improve.
On the other hand, what is great fiction? Must you be a talented writer to write great fiction? Is Fifty Shades of Grey great fiction? Isn’t the purpose of writing fiction to entertain? If it is, then E.L. James is one of the greatest fiction writers alive today–she entertained the hell out of millions of readers globally in 2012, and is apparently still doing it. And yet Salman Rushdie commented: “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made ‘Twilight’ look like ‘War and Peace.’”
So what gives? It would seem readers are the ones who decide what is great fiction, unless great entertainment isn’t necessarily great fiction. Let’s keep it simple: if you write to entertain and you succeed in doing that and you do it greatly, then surely you must be a talented writer, irrespective of what anyone may say about your writing ability or your storytelling ability, measured against accepted norms and standards. The proof is in the pudding, is it not? Unless there truly are just different shades of greatness.
I’m nobody famous. No great achievements yet and no great experiences to brag about, which cumulatively taints my opinion. So, I’ll resort to citing the masters I usually rely on for inspiration to provide some clarity.
See, before Delaney there was Ernest Hemingway and he had the following to say about the difference between a good and a great writer, and this makes more sense to me:
“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave. Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from.”
And coming from the same era, John Steinbeck‘s words, and this is a wonderful point of view:
“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”
Or maybe from our own era, using Neil Gaiman’s unique voice and wise words:
“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
I like Gaiman’s rule of writing. It comes the closest to answering this question: what is the difference between good writing and talented writing? And the answer is… Do you know?
Please leave a comment below and tell me what you think is the difference. What do you define as great writing? Can only a talented writer write great fiction? What is more important to you as a writer: to entertain greatly or to write greatly?