Thursday, April 11, 2013

Talent, Discipline and the Lure of the Crazy Success Story

While I might sometimes be at odds with what makes "good writing", I do think there's such a thing as talent.  Raw, pure talent, an instinct for craft that gives an artist an edge over their peers.  I know my son has it.  He's been drawing since he picked up a pencil, and he has skill that astounds me.  I don't know where it comes from, because I can't draw worth a damn.  Do I have talent?  I'll let others be the judge.

Because here's the thing about talent: it needs to be tempered with discipline.  Discipline wins over talent, in my book: someone who does fantastic work but can't be bothered to deliver on time is not someone I'd call on; the solid, dependable work that's ready and on time will always win with me. 

This is where the Crazy Success Story creates difficulty, because it's usually about the triumph of talent.  Talent being plucked out and held up high despite discipline.  Or at least despite apparent discipline.

Take, for example, Stephanie Meyers.  Now, I've got no issue with the Twilight books.  I've not read them, and I won't comment on their quality one way or the other.  But it's got fans, so on that level, she's done something right.  So: good on her.  What I do take issue with is Meyers's own narrative of writing and publishing the first book, as I heard her describe on NPR some time ago.  She more or less described the process as some sort of wacky accident:  she was just scribbling stuff down, and someone told her she wrote a novel and she should get it published, and so she did!  Just like that!  She wasn't even trying!  It just happened!

This sort of story undermines what it takes to actually write a novel.  It probably undermines what Meyers actually did to write and publish Twilight in the first place. 

Another one to think about is Douglas Adams.  Now: I am a huge Douglas Adams fan.  HUGE.  But if we're being honest, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy probably wouldn't have been published in today's environment.  It's a Crazy Success Story that is very much the product of its time: Adams was working in BBC Television and Radio at a time when it was a grind job*, and wrote a sci-fi/comedy radio program that was a huge success despite being done on the cheap and shuffled away on Radio 4. This is Adams's talent shining out, pure as sunlight.  The radio show was such a hit that a novel version was demanded by the publisher.  So Adams, despite having no history with writing a novel, was given a contract to write the book.  Then he missed one deadline.  Then another.  Then the "no, really, THIS is the deadline" deadline passed.  Eventually the publisher called and said, "Where are you with it?"  "I'm at this scene." "Well, finish that up, because we're sending a courier on a motorbike to pick up the manuscript, and that's gonna be the book.  Write the rest in the sequel."**

Can you imagine that today?  Let alone George R. R. Martin taking a long time with the next Game of Thrones-- imagine the idea of an unknown, untested writer being allowed to do that?  Wouldn't happen.

But that appeals to the people who believe in talent over discipline.  It appeals to the idea of, "I have an idea for a book, so give me a contract and I'll write it."  Because despite completely failing in terms of discipline-- he didn't even finish the book, and they published it anyway!-- it was a huge hit and launched his writing career.  Because he was insanely talented. 

However, that's a-billion-in-one longshot.  You can't plan a career on that.

*- Consider this: Adams was a producer on Doctor Who.  In the Tom Baker years. Because at the time it was considered something of a crap job no one wanted.  Can you imagine that being the case in the TV world today.  Especially on Doctor Who?
**- If you can, pick up Neil Gaiman's biography of Adams, Don't Panic.  It's quite a fun read.

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