Chapter Twelve: Do I Have Talent?

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Do I have talent?

Every writer -- even writers who have published several books -- ask themselves that question at one time or another. Most people would have trouble answering, "Yes," without some definitive feedback -- say, in the form of books sales or writing awards. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people who are worried about whether they have talent or not are those who haven't published a book. They're people who have no books sales to add up. They're people who keep on collecting rejection letter after rejection letter from publishers and agents.

Yet the answer to the question matters.

Should you keep writing in the face of constant rejection?

Is it worth your time and effort to work on a novel that probably no one will read outside of your family and friends?

From my experience, I understand how the answer to that question might change the course of someone's entire life. As I've said before, I lived through seven years of steady rejection. Many times I wanted to quit. Looking back, I have to wonder if I hadn't sold Slumber Party when I did if I would have thrown in the towel. Naturally, I like to think I would have kept on going but I'm not sure. Being rejected wears on a person's soul -- in all aspects of life. I know I doubted myself.

Yet I didn't quit and perhaps it will help someone out there if I'm able to explain why. My main reason for continuing to write came from what I considered an objective appraisal of my own writing skill. I felt, with each new novel I tried to write, that I was getting better. I could see the improvement with my own eyes. It was slow but it was steady. And I was not shy about showing my work to other people. I sought out the opinion of others -- friends and strangers alike -- that I respected.

That took guts. I know many writers are afraid to expose their work to scrutiny. They can't take criticism. Well, I can tell you right now if you can't take criticism you should forget about being a writer. A year ago this month I sold my latest novel, Strange Girl, to Simon & Schuster. The fact that they offered to buy it was wonderful. But a month later I got a letter from my editor telling me what she felt was wrong with the book. Parts I could improve upon. A page here and there she didn't like. For the most part her comments were accurate, and I made the changes she asked for. Actually, even after I sold the book, I rewrote it three more times, from the first page to the last. I am my own worst critic. You should be your own worst critic.

But back to the question -- how do you know if I have talent? My first response is that you should see yourself improving as you continue to write. My second answer is that others should see you as improving. But by others I don't mean people who want to stroke your ego. I mean serious readers who can tell the difference between quality fiction and garbage.

My third answer is -- after writing for many months or years -- you should start to get at least some positive response from professionals in the business. Who are these professionals? The first group would be literary agents.

Nowadays, to publish a book, you need an agent. A real agent that hopefully has an office in New York City -- although there are a few fine agents to be found in other parts of the country -- and who doesn't charge you money to sell your book. Real agents make money from authors who sell books. Real agents take a commission -- anywhere between ten and fifteen percent. Real agents do not ask for money upfront, nor do many of them take the time to help you edit your book, although they may offer an occasional editorial comment.

Book agents exist to sell books that are ready to be sold. If you can't get an agent to take an interest in your book, you're not going to be able to get an editor to make an offer on your book. It's that simple, that hard. In another post I'll explain how to get an agent but for now I'm saying that if you're able to attract the interest of an agent, it's a good sign that you have talent, and that you've developed your talent to the point where you might possibly sell a book.

Talent takes time to emerge. When it comes to writing it usually takes several years of hard work to emerge. Beginning writers suck -- all of them. Oh, I know what you're going to say. What about so and so who had a dream or a vision or a premonition and got up the next day and started writing a book and three months later gave it to an agent who sold it for a million dollars? Are you saying that writer sucked?

Yes, I am. Selling a million or ten million books doesn't necessarily mean you can write. In the last fifty years many trashy novels have gone on to become bestsellers. Besides, it's best to ignore such examples -- they are anomalies. Just know that when a legitimate agent tells you that your book is ready for the marketplace, then you're in the ballgame. You not only have talent, you've developed your talent. The latter is the real test. Many are born gifted. Few have the strength of will, the dogged determination, to use their gifts. Don't worry so much about the answer to the question I posed at the top of this post. Worry about how hard you're going to work on your writing this week. That should be your focus.

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