Telling stories and feeling the not-knowing
Showing up for the genie

Ask your talent

An aspiring writer who's hovering somewhere between Reasons They're Rejecting You numbers 12 and 13 of Slushkiller's classic list (scroll down a bit), poor thing, has reached that banging-her-head-against-the-wall-and-howling stage. 'What more do I have to do?' she cries. She's written the best book she's capable of, and then made it better still. It's beautifully written, thoughtful, compelling, the voices are great and the plot excellent. Everyone who sees it loves it enough to bother to write a personal rejection, but reject it they do: somehow, it didn't quite grab them enough, in a climate where a book has to rival the grip of the Boston Strangler to be taken on. Some of the rejections mentioned that it falls between 'literary' and 'commercial' which makes it extra-hard to sell. Oh, I've been there (specially on the literary-commercial thing), and there's probably still a dent in the wall of the house I used to live in, where I took those feelings out on it some years ago. I've even offered the afflicted soul the very large, sharp-cornered nursing textbook I used then, because I know it does the job so very satisfyingly.

How does a writer, doing something so well, do it better, just to get over the bar from what my agent calls high competence, into being taken on? No one's saying it's the ideas (if it were you could change it), nor the prose (if it were you could improve it), nor the plot (by thinking movies, just for now), to use Mark Lawson's anatomy of fiction. And for any good writer, books take time to write, and demand that you commit yourself in all sorts of ways, from choosing period and voice, to giving up going to the pub with your partner. Even if she gives up on this novel for now and tries to write something new, how can she begin to know whether it'll be any better, when she doesn't really know what it is that isn't working? And somewhere-between-literary-and-commercial is what she does and is: she's tried pushing her work one way, and the other, and it always comes out worse than when she stays on the ground which is right for her. What I found myself replying was this:

"What I'm wondering, (and it really is just wondering, so try it on for size and discard) is whether it's not that you should move more literary or more commercial, but whether it's more that you haven't yet found the perfect fit of subject for what your strengths are as a writer. Somewhere there is the story/ideas/form which will bring out the absolute best in what you're best at. It's not just a matter of a good idea that you don't think's been done before, or a character that you really fancy, more about something that taps into the absolute core of what you are as a writer, which is probably the absolute core of what you are. I don't just mean that, say, you're good at writing sex, so a novel set in a monastery might not bring out the best in you (though come to think of it...), but something more fundamental. We're so used to having an idea, then bringing our craft and talent to bear on it, but sometimes we need to think that we have our talent, and then craft the idea to suit it."

We're so used to having an idea, then bringing our craft and talent to bear on it, but sometimes we need to think that we have our talent, and then craft the idea to suit it.

Maybe because I'm tired and this post was well overdue, I can't tell if this is This Week's Great Thought, or just a fancy way of suggesting that someone play to their strengths, but I do think there's something interesting behind it. We worry like mad about whether we have any talent, or enough of it - it's the elephant in the room, the sine qua non, the thing we can do nothing about. But we don't often try to understand what that talent, in ourselves, is made up of. And yet we all know, of a favourite author, that some of their books work better than others (which is different from which of their books appeal more to us personally). We recognise the feeling in ourselves or someone else, of a story you/they were born to write, and in set of short stories, for instance, we recognise that we pull some off better than others. But which are they, and why? So much writing and writing-learning works by finding or stumbling over or dredging for ideas (feelings, images), letting the duff ones fall away, and then developing the one that's left, that has some mileage, that intrigues us. By the time you've been working on a story - let alone a novel - for a while, unless it goes horribly and obviously wrong, you're intrigued and involved so deeply that you don't easily step back and ask whether it was, after all, the right thing to be working on. We assume that the role of talent is to make those ideas happen, and then steer our craftsmanly hands in working it as best we can. But maybe one of the ways we develop our writerly selves should be to listen more closely, as we work, to what our talent is saying. No, I don't know what its voice sounds like either, which is perhaps revealing in itself. Singers know what I mean: they work to stretch their expressive and vocal capacity, but they also know what their voice will never do, and what it's perfect for. When my talent says, 'That sentence is wrong', I listen, as I do when it says the ending needs to be different, or that word is right, and even more when it suddenly presents my mind with an idea or a vision I had no idea was there. But what I don't do is ask it what it thinks of what I'm planning to do. Maybe I should.