Good Writing vs. Talented Writing and Other Demonic Infestations

Schongauer_AnthonyHere 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 HoweyJ.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?

Woelf Dietrich

11 thoughts on “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing and Other Demonic Infestations

  1. Despite what my college English professor may have taught, I don’t think it’s a question of picking one at the expense of the other. Dan Brown and E.L. James are great entertainers, perhaps, but not great writers. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” is great writing, no doubt, yet hardly something the average person takes to the beach for a fun little read. But I think it’s fair to say that Neil Gaiman, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Lloyd Alexander, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many more have succeeded at both. So it is possible, it just takes a little talent and a hell of a lot of work.

    1. You make excellent points and I agree with you. I would like to add that I don’t think a writer consciously decide to be great entertainer at the cost of great writing. I think we set out to try and do both. Whether we succeed depend on many things. What about this: if you write a great book, but it doesn’t entertain people, can it still be considered great writing?

      1. I suppose it depends on your definition of “entertained.” I find T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to be deliciously entertaining. Contrariwise, “Fifty Shades of Gray” is excruciatingly painful.

  2. I haven’t read Shades, but heard a lot of opinions about it. All I know is, it entertained billions of people. Not everyone will like the same thing; sometimes great groups of people will like something while a small group won’t, just as they will have different opinions on what could be considered great fiction. I suspect the concept of “great fiction” is too arbitrary these days. If I can manage to entertain with my writing, I’ll be happy with that. More than happy, really.

  3. As a reader, I can, have, and will back an author whose work I greatly enjoyed. I can tell you what liked about it and why. If I LOVED a particular book, I can tell you what I liked about it and why at great length. That’s great writing, in a nutshell, imo. When a book or story moves a person or many people to speak or write well of it at length, it’s a great book. The problem, though, is that it’s a matter of opinion. Great writing is subjective, in the eye of the beholder and all that. So, too, must be the rules of great writing. Why do you think there are so many varying opinions on the matters of talent and hard work with respect to writing?

    Those doling out the advice, experts in the field or not, are simply offering their opinion, and that’s all any of us can really do. What lends weight to their words is that they offer an opinion through a filter of experience, having gained knowledge in the field that those seeking such advice would very much like to tap into. But the real kicker is that they (we) can only grasp that advice as far as our own filter of experience will allow. I think that’s what Hemingway meant. It takes time to learn the craft, and to truly understand and be able to apply what you’ve learned at each point in your own experience. I can see how being a fast learner would be an advantage, but great writing takes more than just a firm grasp of the craft and the ability to perform each task well. Which is where Delany’s idea of enthusiasm as a necessity in great writing comes in and, in my opinion, makes perfect sense. When you write with genuine enthusiasm, it shows.

    As for talent, some folks are fast learners. Some are great researchers. Others are grammar nazis and still others have a knack for characterization or vibrant settings or emotional impact. None of those things alone are enough achieve great writing. You have to master a certain skill set to be a great writer. Each of us IS talented in some way. Talent, though, is only useful when you identify your weaknesses as well as your strengths and bring them all into balance.

    1. What a wonderfully well-thought-out comment, thank you, Jess. I agree with you. I think it is too complicated to try to pinpoint a formula. We all have different lenses and life hones those. Coupled with whatever talent you have and hard work, and you should be able to entertain readers. At the end of the day, as a writer, I’m not interested in being the world’s best writer. first prize for me would be readers loving my words enough so I can support my family. That is it. If people love my words I’ll be content.

  4. I think you conflate ‘greatness’ with ‘popularity’. Being popular doesn’t make something great, or even good. In fact, in my experience there is an inverse correlation between popularity and greatness. The more people like something, the worse it probably is by any objective standard.

    The reason things like ’50 Shades’ are popular is that people are stupid. Literally, and factually. To quote Carlin, “Think of how stupid the average person is, then realize 50% of all people are dumber than that guy”. Of course other things play in too – media bias, marketing, social media hype, sensationalism, social mores, etc.

    The differences between modern popularity and historic popularity are economic and communication based. It used to be that the enormous costs of any type of work made it impossible for bad work to be financially supportable. That’s no longer true. What’s more, it used to be that only the very best endured long enough for word to spread…that is also no longer true. What we have today is anyone being able to create anything for mass consumption and have it instantly available to everyone with no financial risk.

    This isn’t to say that hard work and practice won’t make someone better (at anything, not just writing). By all means hard work can turn a ‘D’ grade into a ‘B’. However, having made a fairly serious study of cognition, especially genius phenomenon, ‘A’s are born, not made. Granted they’re born as ‘C’s, and it’s hard work that perfects them into ‘A’s, but that doesn’t change the basic reality.

    To say it another way “Good things take time, great things happen all at once.” Or yet another, “hard workers keep the world plugging along as averages until geniuses propel the human condition forward”.

    1. Harry Potter sold over 450 million copies worldwide. Fifty Shades of Grey sold over a 100 million copies. That is an awful lot of stupid people, according to you. I am hesitant to call people stupid based on their choice of fiction. In fact, I have always loathed that hoity-toity attitude.

      The world has changed. People’s attitudes have changed, and so have their tastes.

      I’m one of those peasants who not only love Hemingway and Gaiman, I also love pulpish adventure and sword & Sandal fantasy. Serious lowbrow compared to the literary elite, but so what? I enjoy it.

      Sure there are those writers who are so talented, it takes them less effort than it would others, but my point is hard work gives everyone a fighting chance to write something decent that readers would enjoy.

      As for me conflating “greatness” with “popularity”, I think my statement still has merit, from my subjective point of view, of course, which is, if you entertain greatly, you are a great writer. And you are a great writer because you’ve managed to tap into a vein shared by many hearts.

      1. While I wouldn’t rate JK as a modern Shakespeare or Twain, I think in both technical ability and (albeit subjective) creative merits she rates world’s higher than James. Despite it’s shortcomings I can see the appeal of Potter from a literary standpoint. I can’t say that about Shades (not that I’m some sort of expert or anything). I can say that almost entirely without fail the people I interact with that liked Shades were simple, trendy, or sheltered, and while personal experience is a fallacious basis for argument, there it is just the same.

        Again, how many something sold means nothing. How many pairs of WalMart sweats exist? How many pet rocks were sold? How much Budweiser or boxed wine is consumed? These things have no objectively superior quality, but sell well because they’re cheap, popular, or prominent. That isn’t greatness, it’s mere popularity. Two entirely different things.

        I enjoy much ‘lowbrow’ entertainment, but I acknowledge it for what it is. It’s not objectively ‘great’, it’s subjectively enjoyable and/or popular. Let’s look at some examples:

        Sword of Shannara (which was my first fantasy book, and has a character my daughter is named after because it meant so much to me) had serious technical weaknesses, but it was enjoyable and popular. So much so that it grew a following which now enjoy the significantly matured technical achievements of Brooks’ more recent works. It was certainly a popular success that illustrates the possibilities of hard work and experience. Stephen R. Donaldson is quite possibly the most technically skilled writer in the field. His Gap Cycle represents a STUNNING display of literary prowess, though many found they couldn’t ‘get into it’, and it lacks the sort of following Shannara enjoys. When you ask me about either my response is the same: ” I LOVE THEM!” However, I then qualify my statement by explaining how I love each for entirely different reasons. The first is an enjoyable, popular series; the second is great literature. That’s why you’ll find Donaldson on the reading lists of serious academic writing classes, but not Brooks.

        I absolutely agree that hard work can increase your readership, and the quality of your work. I disagree that what results is the same as genius (talent), and also disagree that popularity/sales equates to greatness. However the latter is merely a subjective difference of warrant between us…what you see as greatness I acknowledge only as success. For me greatness is a descriptor of talent/genius. Neither of us is wrong within our own operational definitions, merely oppositional.

      2. I admit that you can write a technically superior novel, but a novel is so much more than its technical parts. But this is where we differ, and yes you are correct in saying neither of us are wrong based on our respective approaches.

        Thanks for commenting.

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