When I was first trying to establish myself as an author, I came upon a quotation from the theatrical agent, Peggy Ramsay, which I copied out and stuck on my study wall. She said that talent was not at all unusual; what was unusual was having the character to develop it.
I was really struck by that, because the biggest struggles of my early career were not in developing my writing skills – I had been writing about pretty much everything that happened in my life since I was six – diaries, poems, stories – and my voice and style were already quite well-developed.
But the process of moving from being someone who loved writing to someone who could earn their living from it was very character-building for me. Here are five qualities I had to develop in myself.
1 – Self-belief, aka a thick skin
You won’t last five minutes in this business if you’re sensitive to criticism or can’t take rejection. Way back when I was starting out, one of the agents I approached with a sample of my writing replied, ‘I regret to inform you that we only accept clients who either have some writing ability or something interesting to say.’ See what I mean?
2 – Patience
The wheels of publishing move exceeding slow. Nuff said.
3 – Flexibility
If you can’t sell an idea in one form, you may be able to sell it in another. Most of the ideas I couldn’t sell have turned out to be recyclable in the fulness of time (patience again!)
4 – Trust
Lots of writers have to learn to trust their creative process, but that’s never been an issue for me. Tapping into dreams every night makes you aware of the abundance of stories going on all the time beneath the surface, which can never dry up. However, I have found it challenging to trust I’ll stay solvent on such a haphazard and sporadic income.
5 – Luck
You might say, what’s luck got to do with character? It’s random, right? But you make your own luck, to some extent. You have to be able to create and spot opportunities, and willing to consider any door that opens up, even if it’s not one you might have considered before.
I know from my workshops that talent is not unusual. Everybody has a unique voice, and an interesting story to tell. I feel really humbled by some of the writing people produce in half an hour, round my kitchen table.
Trying to make a career of it is different. Not everyone who loves writing will want to embark on that path. If you have done so, what qualities did you have to find in yourself? If you are trying to, what qualities do you think you will need?
19 thoughts on “‘Talent is not at all unusual, my dear…’”
Bloody-mindedness? I’m not sure it’s something to be proud of, but I do think writers need a certain cussedness to hang on in there through all the blank-page days.
You’re so right Jenny – what a comprehensive list. I definitely think that self-belief is crucial, and the ability to take cricism constructively. Flexibility, too, is really important isn’t it? Like you, I often re-use ideas, re-write stories, mix things around – if I have confidence in the seed of the idea, I am determined to use it in some way… which leads to one of your other qualities – patience! In addition to your list, I’d probably add professionalism and research, having found how important it is to look at publishers’ websites, their author lists, submission details etc. Misjudging any of these aspects can lead to rejections that may not have happened otherwise.
Professionalism and research – yes, that’s really important, Abi, and often overlooked. I always feel slightly insulted when people who want to get their book published say things like ‘It’s for age 2-15’, with no effort at all to research the market, as if being an author doesn’t require any professionalism at all! I knew you other authors would come up with the qualities I’d forgotten. Thank you 🙂
You’re so right, Jo! I’m famously stubborn – or as I prefer to put it, determined – and you really do have to hang in there, both creatively when faced with the blank page, and in the business of getting your work published and promoted.
Perhaps another essential when one’s income doesn’t depend upon writing is the discipline to make time for it, inspite of every other demand or inclination in one’s life!
Hi Tessa – I was thinking of writing as a full-time career, but of course lots of people these days are published writers who have other jobs as well. Then I can see that finding time might be a real issue. For me, the problem is forcing myself to stop and do other things such as go on holiday etc!
Definitely persistence! It took me 18 years from realising I wanted to be a writer to my debut novel selling, and if I’d known it was going to take that long… well, let’s just say it’s probably a good thing I didn’t! However, I wouldn’t change the fact that it took so long, because another thing that’s vital is practise – getting into the habit of writing regularly in order to improve and find your voice. Even if you have tons of talent, you’re unlikely to get anywhere if you don’t do the hard graft.
Graft and persistence – that’s a winning formula! Oddly enough, I’ve just discovered that I first sent a proposal for my dream book, in an earlier form, 18 years ago.
For anyone who’d like Emma’s full take on this, she’s coincidentally blogged about it today as well. Not surprising – today I’m writing about synchronicity! http://emmapass.blogspot.com/
Thank you for adding the link, Jenny! 🙂
And thank you for doing the same! How delightful we blogged the same topic today 🙂
I write, but have never written a book. I have a file of ideas, however. I have a friend who just published her first Children’s book after about 20 years. It’s been a process! Anything worth having is. As far as the critics – I find that even editors have differing ideas of what’s good (and what’s good to publish). Good post. Angie
Hi Angie – that’s a really good point about editors having different ideas about what’s good enough to publish. I wrote a YA novel a while back that my agent sent to a dozen publishers. Two said they found the voice of the narrator particularly authentic, one that she wasn’t convinced by the voice; one said the the writing was brilliant, another that she felt the quality of the writing let the book down… and so on. You really have to hold onto your self-belief and write what pleases you, as a reader. Well done to your friend, btw – it can take a long time to launch, but then, with any luck, you’re flying 🙂
Stroppiness! Don’t let publishers push you around. Take valid criticism on board, but if you think a requested change is not valid, explain why. And if you object to something, always have a solution to offer instead.
And, although this sounds like the opposite, a bit of humility. Don’t denigrate some markets/genres/publishers as beneath you: you can learn a lot from writing as widely as possible.
Yes, yes – hooray to that, Stroppy Author! You do have to learn how to stand your ground, but still get on with your publisher. I think that’s about focusing on the book, and the fact that you both want it to be the best it can possibly be. And I wholeheartedly agree you can learn a lot from embracing as many writing opportunities as possible. I learnt so much, for example, working with a Black Lace author on an Arvon course years ago!
I’ll need determination, dedication and sacrifice. There are so many things I want to do in life but I just can’t do it all. I need to harness my energy for all things, focus that energy towards one thing and remind myself that success typically involves some measure of sacrifice. My experience has been that the sweetness of reaching a goal is worth the sacrifice. Thanks for post Jenny 🙂
Thank you for making this overlooked point, Dreaming Rambler – you’re so right. I meet lots of people who expect to write a best seller in their spare time without any sacrifice at all. I miss out on sleep when I’m wired with writing, social events, holidays… but for me the sweetness of the journey makes it worth the sacrifice. I’m really enjoying your blog, btw 🙂
I am extremely impressed with your writing skills as
well as with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid
theme or did you customize it yourself? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing,
it’s rare to see a nice blog like this one nowadays.
Thankyou! Several people have remarked on the layout and design – it’s just a standard wordpress theme that I’ve developed myself. I really enjoy blogging 🙂