Writing a novel… talent or skill?

Yesterday’s discussion on misconceptions about writing and publishing reminded me of something… This winter, on my way down to the US for a writers conference, I almost got into a fight with the US immigration officer who interviewed me at the Toronto airport….

Okay, no fight. I’m not that stupid (but maybe sometime if you get me really drunk I will tell you about a past run in with another US immigration officer… not a pretty story) But what this particular officer said was so typical of what so many non-writers think about writing a novel.

Officer: Why are you visiting the US?
Me: To attend a writers conference.
Officer: What do you do at a writers conference? Learn about writing?
Me: Yes, and meet agents and editors, other writers.
Officer: What’s to learn? Either you can write or you can’t.
Me: (Getting agitated but really not wanting to be strip searched or sent off to Guantanamo Bay) Well, there’s more to know about writing than many people think.
Officer: When I did my masters degree I was just good at writing. It’s easy for me. If I had time, I’d write a novel.
Me: I smile and nod, while thinking…. Officer, you ignorant slut! Do you tell a doctor there’s nothing to learn in medicine because you once put on your own bandaid? And what kind of masters degree do you have, anyway, that you ended up interviewing tourists flying to the US at the Toronto airport? (Okay, that was mean, and probably uncalled for, but I was angry.)
Angry or not, I smiled again, implying agreement and she handed me back my passport and let me enter the US.

Even given all the naivete and ignorance I was guilty of regarding the publishing business when I started — particularly ignorant about the romance genre — I always knew it would be hard to write a novel. (In fact, when pages turned into scenes, scenes into chapters, chapters into a story… it was all quite miraculous to me. Made me feel super powerful… Like I’d unleashed some kind of magic.)

I suppose I’d always wanted to try to write a novel, but secretly feared the idea. What if I failed? What if it wasn’t good enough? How did one even start?

That last question was how I, a non-reader of romance at the time, ended up in a class called “How to write the romance novel”. It was the only novel writing course I’d come across that didn’t require a work in progress or some kind of pre-admission review of my work. (Also, the course description mentioned some of those lovely RWA statistics about how big the market for romance is … The non-risk-taker accountant in me LOVED that part…)

Back on topic… Yes, I’ll buy that it takes talent to write a novel and that writing or storytelling or both come more naturally to some of us than to others… but there is so much skill involved, too. And the craft of writing well, like any other skill, can be learned. Stephen King has a great line in “On Writing“. He said (I’m paraphrasing because I’m too lazy to dig up the book and find the quote) that learning and practice can turn a bad writer into a good writer, but great writers are born.

Still, I’ll bet those great writers had some learning to do, too…

  3 comments for “Writing a novel… talent or skill?

  1. June 29, 2006 at 12:05 pm

    Oh my goodness, Maureen – how did you hold your tongue?

    I believe we’re born with certain gifts but those gifts need to be cultivated. And once they are, then people will say, “Wow, she was born that way.”

    Many people think writing a novel is easy – just as engineers think if they have a Word template, they can also write the documentation. :)

  2. June 29, 2006 at 2:27 pm

    LOL, Kathy.

  3. June 30, 2006 at 6:11 am

    “What ifs” is usually a way of stalling. Stop asking “what if” and get in motion.

    Writing takes commitment.

    I’ve never published a novel, nor have I ever been able to finish more than a short story. IMHO-Great writers have a love for the story their telling.

    Why am I giving you advise? I’m an artist! LOL

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