Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Success: Talent 99%, Persistence 99%, Craft 99%, Other 99%

What's that make, 396%?

Emma Darwin touches on the topic of persistence (and the fact that it isn't enough) in a recent post. (Her post is a bit more profound than the old issue of talent versus persistence, however: its real focus is the need to confront the void.)

But that set me to pondering on the matter of who succeeds in this odd racket of ours.

The public at large seems divided into two major camps: those who think it's all about talent, and those who think that any fool can write a good novel. (Most of those in the latter group tell you that they plan on writing one themselves once they get a little spare time.)

Writers, teachers, editors, and agents are quick to point out that persistence usually trumps talent; everyone in the business has seen too many talented people who never lived up to their gifts, and everyone has also seen people of seemingly modest talents become important writers. Ralph Keyes quotes editor Edward Chase: "If they really stick at it, eventually--like salmon swimming upstream--they are going to make it."

I've lived in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, so I've had plenty of time to observe salmon runs. I have some unfortunate news: many salmon, maybe the majority of salmon, never make it to the spawning grounds. They get gobbled by seals at the mouths of rivers, get tangled in garbage-strewn creeks, get smacked out of the water by hungry bears, or simply tire and die before they complete their journeys. I can hardly think of a less-encouraging simile. (Not to mention that when they finally get to their destination and spawn, they promptly roll over, die, and float rotting downstream.)

Talent is necessary, but luckily talent is common. Often deeply buried, perhaps, but common.

Persistence is less common than talent, but persistence is also widespread. The main problem with persistence is that it is often directed to the wrong end. There are writers who persist, year after year, in trying to get the same bad novels published. There are writers who persist in bad writing habits no matter how often they are given feedback that tells them to fix their approach.

Persistence that allows a writer to improve is useful. Persistence in something wrongheaded isn't an asset at all.

One of the outgrowths of persistence can be a command of craft. It's hard to tell, looking at a well-written manuscript, whether one is seeing the result of 'native talent,' or whether the book is the product of persistent work that has made the writer a master of the craft. (What's more, readers don't really give a damn how the book was produced; they only care about the product itself.)

But even if a writer has the right combination of talent and persistence and craft, this doesn't guarantee success in the marketplace. There's also another amorphous, indescribable element, which we'll call 'other factors.' Other factors are what is variously labeled 'timing,' 'fate,' 'destiny,' or 'randomness.'

Melville's Billy Budd lay unpublished for decades, Lampedusa's The Leopard was pronounced unpublishable by publishers, Toole's Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published until a dozen years after his suicide. The fact that these books were eventually published long after the deaths of their authors could be used by true believers as evidence that all good books eventually find their audience, but I'm more confident in the existence of the Easter Bunny. To me, when we have widely acclaimed books that nearly never saw the light of day, it suggests there are probably at least as many great books that are now lost, and a huge substratum of merely good books we'll never know about.

Although plenty of people claim in retrospect that Harry Potter, or something like that series, was inevitable, I'm not convinced. I don't think it was at all obvious in the mid-90s that children around the globe were hungering for thick books about magic school. It wasn't clear to me or anyone else I spoke to at the time that children were hungering for books at all. And Rowling was rejected by a bunch of agents, and then a slew of publishers turned down the book, and when they bought it they did so for a rather small advance. The initial print run was 500 copies. If the book had been first published in America, or had been published two years earlier or two years later, or if JK Rowling had selected the wrong agent...

Some degree of talent is necessary for success, but I can point to certain writers who demonstrate that the minimum amount can carry you far. Craft is needed, too, but here once again we can find plenty of examples of successful writers whose craft is on the primitive side even after an editor has put their hand in.

But persistence is needed by the truckload. Banging out even the world's most inept novel is a time commitment most people can't face up to (hence the legions of people who plan to write a book 'some day'). In binary terms, many writers put the Persistence/Talent ratio for success at 80/20 or even 90/10.

Where does that leave other factors, though? Persistence/Talent/Other at 70/20/10? Or at 40/10/50? Maybe 10/1/89? (Looks like a birthdate, doesn't it?)

And what the heck do we mean by 'success,' anyway?

[Notice the clever use of the editorial 'we' there, implicating all of you in my question. Of course, on a blog, where readers can toss in their comments, using 'we' makes good sense.]

7 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

I'm surprised and delighted to find that I have a memory span longer than a year, and that a post I wrote in 2007 touched my ideas of 'the winning formula'. Here's what I said then:

1.Natural facility
There is a school of thought that anyone can be taught to write. If by "write", in this context we refer to the ability to compose prose fiction to a professional standard, I disagree. Anyone can be taught to write better, but without a degree of innate talent, you ain't going anywhere. And how do you know if you've got it? That's the fun bit: you don't. You just have to take a punt on it.

2. Vanity
See 1. Do you believe you have talent? Even when your novel has been turned down several times? Even when your second and third novels have suffered the same fate? Maybe you do. And maybe you're right. But to keep plugging away, in the absence of any external validation, for years, decades if necessary, presupposes a colossal vanity. I'm going to sit down and write 130,000 words. And at at the end of it, I'm going to think my work is so compelling that other people will pay money to read it. I am right: the industry professionals are wrong. Such pig-headed certainty may not be an admirable characteristic—but without it, your novel will languish on your hard disk.

3. Persistence
You've got talent; you even believe in it. Now you have to sit down and write. Today. Tomorrow. The day after. You can have the day after that off—if it's Christmas Day. Eventually you will have a story. And—this is the bad news—it will be crap. But—this is the good news—the next time you try, it will better. The more you write, the better you'll get.

4. Omnivorousness
This is a metaphorical omnivorousness: I'm not suggesting vegetarians will never make it into print (who better to write A Universal History of Tofu?). I've suggested that the best way to learn to write is to write, but I think the next best way is to read—omnivorously. If you are a genre writer, read outside your field. So you want to write horror? Read crime novels—if nothing else, they'll teach you the importance of rigorous plotting. Read romances—you'll learn about character dynamics. I've argued that writers are born and not made, but the kind of writer you are depends on what you read. Why not read a bit of everything?

Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

Truly, along with persistence, luck is a massive part of getting anywhere in this business. The odds of being discovered by Pan Macmillan during that C4 writing competition were one in 40,000, regardless of talent. And the odds of me entering the competition in the first place were crazily low too: a writing competition for a day-time TV show that I never even watched. It was down to a colleague and self-confessed day-time telly-addict to give me the heads-up, suggesting I should enter it. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude, especially as persistence was ebbing away following a series of crap replies from agents/publishers and being taken for a ride by one agent in particular (I came to the conclusion it’s more fun to write for your self than publication). The C4 writing competition would have been my last attempt at getting published, for some time.

Hi, David

Truly, along with persistence, luck is a massive part of getting anywhere in this business. The odds of being discovered by Pan Macmillan during that C4 writing competition were one in 40,000, regardless of talent. And the odds of me entering the competition in the first place were crazily low too: a writing competition for a day-time TV show that I never even watched. It was down to a colleague and self-confessed day-time telly-addict to give me the heads-up, suggesting I should enter it. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude, especially as persistence was ebbing away following a series of crap replies from agents/publishers and being taken for a ride by one agent in particular (I came to the conclusion it’s more fun to write for your self than publication). The C4 writing competition would have been my last attempt at getting published, for some time.

Even after your first and second books are published, success is not always guaranteed or sustained. The book industry is fickle, which is why JK Rowling’s success is a phenomenon of modern times. But as you say, what is 'success'? When I was 18 my ambition was to be a published novelist by the time I was 30. I achieved it when I was 32, so I wasn't too far away. For me, that's a success.

Matt Curran said...

Erm... Not sure what happened to the above post. Blogger just did something very weird... Gremlins, Mr Isaak... gremlins on your blog!

Creative A said...

Aw, David, I'm so glad your posting regularly again. I didn't realize how much I missed your articulate, well thought of manner of tackling a subject.

I like what Tim said about vanity. I don't think a writer has to be prideful, per se, but I do think that there has to be a somewhat blind self-confidence. I know sometimes I'll get excited about a triumph, tell a friend, and they'll look at me like I'm the worst braggart in the universe. But really I'm just telling myself "see? you can do this. you did."

I wonder what percentage is "humility." That's the core of editing...I don't think anyone could get published without it.

-CA

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Nice list. I'm especially fond of 'omnivorousness.' Reading voraciously is often mentioned as a precondition for success in writing, but reading widely isn't often stressed. I think that's the Achilles heel of most MFA programs--narrow reading.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Matt--

A close-run thing! Though you seem to be driven enough by the writing bug that in retrospect it might seem inevitable to outsiders.

I'm not sure what's up with Blogger lately. It posted one of my replies twice yesterday, and it seems to have removed the little trashcan that lets us delete comments...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

Yes indeed, outrageous vanity plus vast humility. There's a whole slew of polar oppositions in producing a decent novel.

And then people wonder why we're weird.