A very interesting post from author Zack Smedley questioning whether natural talent is all you need when writing a book and the work that went into this book.
For sixteen years, Nate was the perfect son—the product of a no-nonsense upbringing and deep spiritual faith. Then he met Cam, who pushed him to break rules, dream, and accept himself. Conflicted, Nate began to push back. With each push, the boys became more entangled in each others’ worlds…but they also spiraled closer to their breaking points. And now all of it has fallen apart after a fistfight-turned-near-fatal-incident—one that’s left Nate with a stab wound and Cam in jail.
Now Nate is being ordered to give a statement, under oath, that will send his best friend to prison. The problem is, the real story of what happened between them isn’t as simple as anyone thinks. With all eyes on him, Nate must make his confessions about what led up to that night with Cam…and in doing so, risk tearing both of their lives apart.
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On Writing: Is “Natural Talent” All You Need?
Let’s see if this rings a bell for anyone: you’re a student (high school, college, whatever) struggling in one of your classes. This isn’t okay with you, so you come up with a kickass strategy to get yourself back in the game. Maybe you write out a huge study calendar, or create an army of sticky notes, or enroll yourself in tutoring. And it works! You get the verdict one day, and: you passed. Your friends and family congratulate you, and they all go…
“See! I knew you were smart enough to do it!”
And on one hand, you feel great, because you did do it! (Plus you’re not going to be that snob who rejects a compliment). But on the other hand, you can’t help but think about all the late night study sessions you put in. The mornings you got up early and brewed an extra large pot of coffee while you studied from your flashcards, inches away from giving up. Suddenly, being told you were “smart enough” or “talented enough” almost feels dismissive. You didn’t get here because you’re bursting with gooey bits of golden blood from the education gods. You got here by busting your ass.
I—and, I suspect, almost every other person on this earth—have had my hard work confused for raw talent plenty of times. The question, then, is this: how much of each ingredient is required to succeed as a creative professional, and is one enough to make up for a deficiency in the other?
Let’s start with a point we can all agree on: nobody can write beautiful prose straight out of the womb. Stephen King, Angie Thomas, Rick Riordan, and whichever writers you personally think are brilliant…none of them were cranking out Shakespeare at the age of five, or ten, or even twenty. And yet, today, their stories are lauded as being some of the best around.
I believe everyone starts out terribly, and the degree to which we improve depends a great deal—if not entirely—on how hard we work at it. And, more to the point: I believe that we need to stop framing success as a referendum on someone’s “natural talent.”
Let’s use an example! Rick Riordan, who started writing when he was in eighth grade, took ten years to write and sell the first Percy Jackson, and that wasn’t until he was forty. And yet, I certainly wouldn’t complain if I ever got to where Rick Riordan stands now. His books have been translated into multiple languages, his net worth is $35 million, and his works have touched the lives of countless people across the globe.
But he took ten years to get his story good! J.K. Rowling only took three with hers. Stephen King took less than that. Many would argue they have more natural writing ability, and I’d probably agree with them. Riordan had to spend more time building up his toolbox, sure. But he did it, same as them.
And yet, when we look at him, we say to ourselves, “if only I was talented enough to get there one day.” We do the same thing to him that was done to us when we managed to pass that one class in school.
At the risk of devolving into cliched B.S. here: we all need to stop selling ourselves short. It’s not as simple as, “Am I good enough or not?” Think of it like this: we’re all driving on a highway towards the same magical destination. “Natural talent” might represent how efficient each person’s car is, and some will be inherently faster than others. Privilege is also certainly a factor—some people, such as cisgender white males like myself, benefitted from starting farther along the highway.
But at the end of the day, the thing that trumps all else is how long each of us is willing to keep our foot on the gas. And where a lot of people trip up, I think, is misinterpreting what that “stick with it” advice really entails.
Take, for example, little old me.
I started writing novels in eighth grade. I wrote between 10 and 15 different full-length manuscripts throughout high school, in fact.
And oh my God, were those the most rancid piles of garbage.
I revised my first one, tirelessly, in eleventh grade. I then queried it and was—of course—unanimously rejected. So I rewrote it senior year, and re-queried it a year later. Once again, it was rejected. I rewrote my query twice more. Re-queried twice more. Crossed every finger, toe and other bendable body part for good luck. All rejections.
To me, at the time, this is what keeping my foot on the gas meant. Keep rewriting. Keep re-querying. Never stop until it’s good enough!But this attitude needs to be bigger than just one project or one method. Ultimately, I shelved that project. And I wrote another one. This one got some partial and full requests! And R&R’s! This was it!
I had to shelve that one a few months later. Then I started a whole new project. This project, titled Deposing Nathan, will be released by Macmillan two weeks from the day I sit here typing this.
In the ten years since I started writing, I thought keeping my foot on the gas meant tirelessly rewriting and re-querying. But it didn’t. It meant having the bravery to send out my first two books, then later having the strength to know when to shelve them. It meant developing new approaches when I hit dead ends, instead of button-mashing to try and force my way past the roadblock. It meant being at this, in a million different ways,for nearly a decade.
And now here I am, a published author. Which is why I’m certain anyone can do this. Because I wasn’t bursting with talent for all or even any of those ten years. But one thing I will say—brag about, even—is that I was bursting with ambition. And while that didn’t cushion the impact of getting knocked down or reduce the number of times it happened, it gave me the willpower to get up and say, “Alright. Let’s go again.”
Your little car might not be as fast as others. It may feel like you’re pressing and pressing and no matter how far down the pedal is, it’s just not going to happen for you. And there are a million things I don’t know about your situation. You may have spent five years getting rejected and will be rejected for five more. Maybe you’ll get that magical “yes!” tomorrow. Maybe you’re sure it’s coming tomorrow but it won’t be for another year. Maybe you think you’re so wildly untalented that none of this advice even applies to you. But the one thing I can tell you, with absolute certainty, is that I did notget where I am by having natural talent that you don’t. I got here by being a below-average writer who forged his own talent until it was something passable. I kept my foot down on the gas and never dreamt of letting up, no matter how slow my car felt, and then—one magical day—I got to the place I’d always been going.
I wish you all the success in doing the same.
For those of you who live in the US there is a giveaway that you’ll want to take part in, so click the link below to be in with achance of winning…
Zack Smedley was born and raised in southern Maryland, in an endearing county almost no one has heard of. He has a degree in Chemical Engineering from UMBC and currently works within the field. As a member of the LGBT community, his goal is to give a voice to marginalized young adults through gritty, morally complex narratives. He spends his free time building furniture, baking, tinkering with electronics, and managing his obsession with the works of Aaron Sorkin. DEPOSING NATHAN is his first novel.