Saturday, March 31, 2007


As I do more and more critiquing of beginning or intermediate writers' manuscripts, I get one question over and over again: "Do I have what it takes to be a published writer?" There's nothing wrong with the question--it's the natural question from anyone who plans fiction writing as a career. But as an instructor or critiquer, your answer has to be evasive--in the sense that no one really knows. Beginners who seem tone deaf have gone on to be great writers and those with more potential have bombed out.

So, my general answer to the question, altered from an actual response to someone, is as follows...


The answer to your question isn't something I can really provide--not in the way that you are expecting or want the answer. I like to deal in what a book or story is doing well and what needs work. Specific and general comments. If a particular story is dead-in-the-water, I'll tell you that, but that does not mean you as a writer are dead-in-the-water.

The point is, it's up to you to then put in the work to make it to the next level. In other words, you are so new to writing that you don't yet even know what all of the tools are at your disposal (that just has to do with experience). Until you do, until you learn more technique, it's hard to say exactly how talented you will turn out to be ultimately. (And I say "new" because an average writing career could last 50 years!)

What separates a writer who is successful from one who is not is a willingness to practice, to put in the time and effort to improve, etc. I stress this because a spark of talent is only part of what a writer needs. So it depends on why you write. Some people start writing because they want to be famous or they want to be rich. These can be things that happen as a result of being a writer, but they are not good reasons to write. These kinds of writers rarely write for long once they realize that it's hard work. The ones who continue are those who first and foremost love to tell a story. Who genuinely love the act of creation.

I can't tell you the number of times I asked myself "Am I really a writer?" "Am I cut out for this?" "Do I have what it takes?" "Am I any good?" These are things you ask yourself throughout your career. Self-doubt is just part of being a writer. But at the end of the day, I like to tell stories, I like the process of discovering things about characters, and I actually enjoy the process of pushing myself, of practicing, of taking comments about my work and using them to make myself stronger as a writer. And at some point I stopped needing people to tell me I had what it took. It just wasn't important anymore.

At the same time, there are no guarantees when it comes to writing. A lot depends on what you do with comments, for example. My advice is usually for the writer to absorb and think about constructive criticism, make a list of areas for improvement, note what seems to be working, and then apply all of that to the next novel or story. And then only later go back to the original work. You'll be amazed how much clearer things can be after a little time away from it.

I've worked with writers for almost 20 years. Everybody always wants validation, which I understand, since I once wanted it, too, and sometimes still need it. But the fact is, the only true validation is getting enjoyment out of writing. Once you understand that--which can take a long, long time--you begin to relax about some of these questions that don't really have an answer. Like, "Do you really think I have what it takes to be a published writer?" What I think doesn't really matter in the end. It's very much up to you. To some extent, you can be as successful as you like if you put in the work.

I know this is a round-about way of answering your question, but fiction writing just isn't about yes-or-no and black-or-white. It's about all the gray areas. I've seen people much more naturally talented than me fall by the wayside. I've seen people much less naturally talented do much better than me. You never really know how it's going to turn out.

This is really the only answer to your question: that there usually is no definitive answer, at any point in your career.


At 4:43 PM, Blogger jonnyskov said...

Thank you, Jeff. Thank you.

That is precisely the sort of answer I was looking for.

-"New" writer

At 7:29 PM, Blogger Niteowl said...

Damn good post, thanks!

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