More It’s Just Business

May 28, 2008 | Karin's Blog | 20 comments

Holly asked: How do you know if you have talent or are just wasting your time?

My knee jerk reaction to this question was this: So long as you love what you’re doing it’s never a waste of time. But, I’m sure Holly meant waste of time to get published.

This is one of those gray area topics. IMHO there are two schools of thought on; do you have what it takes to sell. The first thought and most people believe this, and it does have serious merit, is that you must have some talent. Like on American Idol those people who came in and auditioned who were tone deaf? Sorry, no can sing, never will either. Sayonara.

However, those who made it to Hollywood? (and I don’t mean the top 12, I mean all of those who got the gold ticket) The ones who needed a voice coach and someone to guide them and work hard with them? Some of them are recording.

So does the same apply with writing? Lot’s of people think so. Me? Not so sure. I truly believe you can learn to be a good writer. A spectacular writer? Not so much. Why? Because to be spectacular, you need god given talent. But how many actual spectacular writers are there? As opposed to how many good writers? I do think you need one of two things to ultimately be successful. Either voice or the ability to tell a story. The writing? You can suck the big one and learn and hone that aspect. I’m a perfect example. I still have a long way to go, but by sheer will and practice, practice and more practice (as in writing nearly 2 million words in the last five or six years) you do tend to catch on. Pacing is hard to master, plot and characterization? Again imho an evolution.

I also think it’s important to write what you know, and I’m not necessarily talking about writing what you do for a living or studied in college, I’m talking about what you know inside your heart, your soul, who you are. I write passionate characters. I live with a passionate husband, my children are passionate, it’s who we are. We live, love and play hard. But I digress.

So how do you find out if you suck the big one and should read books instead of write them? Put it out to the universe for feedback. And I suggest the universe you chose be top heavy with industry professionals. If you win a read or a crit from an agent, editor or multi published author they have the experience and the eye to be brutally honest. But always keep in mind this business is extremely subjective. While an agent may think you stink, an editor may see gems in your writing. I had a contest judge tell me my entry gave her a migraine and she could not read past the third page. I could read between the lines, she was telling me not to quit my day job. And I didn’t. Then. What I did was, I hunkered down and practiced some more. I found a couple of CP’s, I worked harder. Had I been told by numerous people I was wasting my time, I would have flipped them off and kept writing. I kept writing because I love to write. I kept writing because I knew in the back of my mind if I kept at it long enough, I would get good enough to sell. But I’m stubborn that way.

So, imho, I think, to know if you have what it takes to get published, you need to get your work under the nose of people who know raw talent when they see it, and go from there. But my caveat to that is; don’t let anyone dissuade you. This kind of brings me around to a question that is often asked on the blogs: If you knew you would never sell would you still write? I think, for writers who are just starting out that is an unfair question. We all write for different reasons, so I think one must really step back and ask why they write, and secondly, if its for publication ask yourself, are you prepared to work your ass off and face regular rejection until you achieve your goal?

I hope that answers your question, Holly. If anyone has anything to add, feel free to chime in!

And I am very happy to report the questions are pouring in. So as long as they do, I’ll keep blathering!
Oh, and I won’t be around much today, I’m off with my two daughters to look at wedding gowns! Not for me, for number two daughter! But chat away. I’ll be back.



  1. Edie

    Good answer, Karin. Lately a few writers on the Pro-Org loop have sold to New York pubs after writing for years. They all say the same thing: Don’t give up. I gave up once, but was drawn back to it. I won’t give up again. I found that with all the frustrations, it’s what I really want to do.

    Have fun shopping!

  2. Karin

    Edie, you are so very very very close!

  3. Allison Brennan

    To paraphrase Stephen King in his book ON WRITING:

    There are bad writers and there are brilliant writers. Most of us fall in between. Bad writers can not become good writers no matter what they do. They just can’t do it. Good writers (which is most published authors) can’t become brilliant writers. Brilliant writers have a special gift. BUT mediocre writers can learn to be be good writers and get published.

    Most people who want to write toward publication are mediocre. If you have the basic talent, the perseverance, and a little luck, you can learn to become a good writer.

    I’m one of those who asks the question Karin thinks is unfair 🙂 I ask people all the time if you knew you would not sell, would you still write? I actually think that’s an important question to know. Because I know the answer for me: hell yes. I wrote stories since I could hold a pencil. It’s something that I have to do. It did take growing up, growing a tad wiser, and being more disciplined before I could commit myself to writing toward publication, but if I never ended up with the internal commitment to write, I would still be writing. It would still be mediocre.

  4. Elisabeth Naughton

    Okay, I wrote out a whole long response and then my browser bailed on me. But Allison said what I was thinking way more eloquently than I could. 😉

    I will add that probably 98% of published authors out there look back at their first manuscript and shudder. I sure do. The difference is they sent that work out, or had peers read it, realized what they did wrong and worked hard to get better. They weren’t satisfied with mediocre (as Allison put it) and strived to improve because publication was their driving goal. I know some truly gifted writers who won’t ever be published because they don’t have the thick skin or stick-to-it-iveness to be in this industry for the long haul. And that’s sad, but it just means they don’t want it as bad as some of the rest of us.

    Would I still be writing if I knew I wouldn’t sell? My answer would be yes too. I didn’t start writing because I thought I’d be the next Nora. I started writing because I had stories in me that wanted out. The goal of publication came long after I’d been writing when I realized this might be something I could do for the rest of my life and be truly happy. And that realization is what propelled me to start submitting and look toward publication.

    I don’t think you have to be gifted to be published (Lord knows I’m not). But I think you have to want it bad enough to stick with it through the ups and downs and never give up, all the while working hard to improve your craft.

  5. J. Carson Black

    Karin, I think your question is the perfect one to ask, because everything hinges on it. Most of the published authors I know wrote whole books, sometimes several of them, before getting published. I also know lots of authors who sold their first book, BUT didn’t sell the next one or the next one. (That would be me. And I did eventually sell them, years later.) The thing about this game, a publisher can stop buying your books any time, so you just go on to the next one and try to make that better, or find a different niche. How many professionals have had to dump a series and jump into paranormal?

    In many ways, it’s a crapshoot, but you can always improve your odds and improve yourself. Challenge yourself to write better and better, and keep learning.

    Not write? Can’t fathom it—even if I never got paid again. I don’t expect that will be the case, but it sure wouldn’t stop me.

  6. Karin

    so my daughter has a sore throat and fever. 🙁 I’ll be around to chat after all, but I have got to write!

    I don’t buy into Stephen King’s theory. Maybe I still have rose colored glasses on, but my daddy taut me anything is possible with the will, the passion, and the hard work to go along with it. Obviously some things are impossible, but I do believe a bad writer can become a good writer. Can they sustain a career? I don’t know.

    But here’s another question: Who determines what talent or mediocre writing is? Example: I read a contest entry a few years ago that was so god awful I wanted to tell the writer it gave me a migraine, and don’t quit your day job! But damn if that chick didn’t get that sucker published. I was shocked when I read about the sale, hopped on over to her web site and sure enough it was the same title, same characters, same basic set up, but oh my god, the writing was a complete turn around. She took the time to learn her craft, and she sold. What a difference two years and the desire to achieve publication made. She went not from a mediocre writer but from a butt ugly writer to a damn good one who sold. Will she ever be a spectacular writer who hits the lists with every book? Probably not, but I wouldn’t count her out.

    And speaking of lists, congrats, Allison on hitting #33 on the USA Today, today!!!!

  7. Holly D

    Thanks Karin and everyone else. I guess in a way I have answered Karin’s question for myself. I do continue to write even though I know the odds of my work being published are slim. I love to write and it gives me immense pleasure when those blank pages get filled with my work. I hope that pleasure never goes away.

  8. Karin

    Holly, you have to ask yourself why you think your chances are slim then set out to turn the odds in your favor.

  9. Amy Ruttan

    I write because I breathe. I write because something since I was very young made me create worlds. I write because it’s a part of my life and it’s something I can’t imagine not doing.

    I write therefore I am.


  10. Kathy Calarco

    As a published yet unreleased author, I found more joy in writing without looking toward publication. In other words, writing something that entertained me first led the way to publication. If writing starts to become a chore to me, then I’ll take it as the Universe telling me it’s time to quit.

    But that’s just me. Everyones path is so very different.

    As far as talent, raw or learned, no matter how you come by it, I strongly feel that being at the right place at the right time will always be the key to success, a/k/a, sheer luck. But, it’s good to have the talent on hand for when the lucky moment comes.

  11. LaDonna

    Hey Karin, great blog! I’m one of those gals that would definitely write, even if I knew I’d never be published. I did it for years without knowing the outcome. And now, I just want to keep getting better and better! 🙂

    Hope your baby girl gets better too!

  12. Karin

    Kathy, agreed, a project with legs will stand the good luck test.

    LaDonna, I’m with you. I’ll write ’til they bury me.

    Amy, write on.

  13. B.E. Sanderson

    Awesome question, Holly, and great answers, Karin.

    I’m another one who’ll stop writing when I’m dead. I hone my craft and learn the biz and do all the things necessary for eventual publication, but meanwhile, I’m still writing. And my manta on the road to publication has become: If not this one, then the next one. *shrug*

  14. Erica Orloff

    I think this is one of the most intelligent responses to this question that I’ve seen. I think the Stephen King response is very true, also. I have edited enough writers to know that there are some who are never, ever, ever going to “get” it. I have one writer who keeps trying and three books later is still one of the worst writers I have ever read. I keep suggesting that he take classes, that he consider different genres, but the fact is, on some level he just doesn’t grasp it and never will, I’m afraid. I know another with a blog who has self-published DOZENS of books, and I can open any of the “sample” chapters she offers and go, “THIS is why she can’t sell” even 12 and 13 and 14 books later.

    I have met two or three writers over the years whose writing made me get goosebumps, with this recognition that, “My God, this is brilliant.” One of them is so brilliant he’s had a nervous breakdown and lives as a recluse.

    And there there is the cast majority in between, who, if they stick with it, start to “get” it. They tell less and show more, that stop POV hopping, they move away from cliche. Those that stick with it . . . . hopefully eventually find a publishing home. But to do that, you can’t give up.

  15. KJ

    I write. I’ve been seriously writing with an eye to get published for probably 4 or 5 years. And I’m just about there. So close I can taste it.

    Now, I will agree that my first books were crap. More along the lines of the plot/character stuff. But my writing could have used a good edit, too. But over the course of writing those books, getting feedback, trying to find agents, I learned how to hone my skills.

    I think there are bad writers who will never get it. Their minds just don’t latch on to the essence of what makes a good book. They are living in their own heads and writing separate from the real world.

    But there are those of us mediocre writers with potential who build upon each book we write. And then your mind opens up a little more each time. You start to see how to build your story. Your writing tightens. You lose the amateurish stuff you started with and get better and better.

    I am stubborn, too. I *know* I can do this. Writing is the one thing in my life I keep coming back to. Storytelling pleases me and makes me feel like myself. Not that I would *die* if I never wrote another word, but my life would be really bleak without words and stories to fill it.

  16. Amie Stuart

    >>Will she ever be a spectacular writer who hits the lists with every book? Probably not, but I wouldn’t count her out.

    I think “Spectacular” is subjective and not necessarily mutually exclusive to being a NYT bestselling author. I’ve read books by bestselling authors that I was very Meh about–and more than once shocked they’d even made the list because their writing didn’t impress me.

  17. Amie Stuart

    >>and I can open any of the “sample” chapters she offers and go, “THIS is why she can’t sell” even 12 and 13 and 14 books later.

    Erica I still remember your blog on quality vs quantity (I think it was you anyway). It doesn’t matter how many manuscripts/books you write, if you do nothing to improve your skills, you’re just blowing bubbles baby.

  18. Karin

    Grrrr, you ladies are making me think too early this morning. I had a crit partner years ago who wrote the same exact book over and over. Just different characters. She made the same mistakes in book one that she made in book five. She refused to open her damn eyes. She refused to learn, and because of it, I can say with reasonable sureness she will never sell. I don’t know why she continued to write the same way making the same mistakes. Was it arrogance? Ignorance? Stubbornness? She was prolific, prolifically boring, but maybe she was a afraid to sell? I don’t know, but I do know had she taken to heart what her CP’s were telling her and really studied the craft of writing, her chances of selling would had quadrupled.

    So, basically, I just said in a very long winded way what Ames said.

    Part of talent is being able to realize where you need to improve then taking the steps to improve. Butcha’ gotta do the freakin’ homework.

  19. Kimber Chin

    I don’t know much about the writing biz
    (though I am learning more every day)
    but I do know that
    Stephen King’s theory holds true
    in the business world.

    There are folks who are good businesspeople
    and then there are folks who are brilliant businesspeople.
    The good businesspeople can become great businesspeople
    but they will never be brilliant.
    The brilliant folks were born with something special.

    And the bad businesspeople?
    They usually become customers or employees.
    Still important roles
    (maybe even more important).

  20. Karin

    Hey, Kimber, glad you stopped by. I think it’s a foregone conclusion talent is talent, but the fact remains we can all still be successful in most endeavors that require talent by developing however much or lack thereof we have, through hard work and dedication. And that comes back to a question I asked yesterday, who determines who has talent? I cast that question out as far as writing goes, because I think it’s more obvious in other venues i.e. singing or painting, but then again, maybe not. There is some butt ugly art out there. When talent isn’t obvious, what may be talent to me may be dribble to another. It’s so very subjective.

    For me the bottom line is this: If you want it, be open to learn, work your ass off and it will come to you.


  1. Magical Musings » Blog Archive » Thursday’s Links - [...] Karin Tabke has started a Tuesday blog on the business of publishing. This Tuesday’s question was about what it…

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