I honestly don’t believe in talent, in some God-given gift, or stuff like that. I, in fact, believe that talent is something people have invented. It’s just a lazy way of thinking.
You tell someone, “You’re talented.” And you think that he’s so good at what he does just because he was born that way. There’s nothing you can do about it, nothing that other person did to acquire this “talent.”
So I told my friend that great writers don’t stress too much about what they can’t do. They know what they’re good at and they stick to that. In a way, it might even seem like being lazy, but if you don’t have a certain skill to writing dialogue (which is not as much related to writing itself, but more to the way you observe the way people interact), odds are that you’ll never be able to write brilliant dialogue.
Let me give you an example. Cormac McCarthy. Stylistically speaking, comparing him to, let’s say G.G. Marquez, it’s like comparing a five year old’s finger paintings with a Degas. But what McCarthy excels at, at least in my opinion, is dialogue. And he’s usually fantastic at exploiting this.
I mean, when you see the movie adaptation use the same lines, the same dialogue as the novel, that’s when you know you’ve got a master of dialogue.
I guess that this is where experience really makes the difference. I’d like to ask any writer who’s reading this to think of one scene or paragraph they really struggled with. And try to figure out why did they struggle with it. I’d bet that it was because they were trying to do something they couldn’t.
Let’s just overly simplify fiction writing and say that all fiction tries to convey a message. Well, the message’s got to reach the reader in a certain way. The way you choose to transmit your message makes the difference.
There’s this really great short story by Kurt Vonnegut, “Humbugs.” It’s the story of two painters, one who painted realistic landscapes and sold them to tourists and another one who received a lot of praise from critics for his abstract art. What I liked most about the story is that neither one of them could paint in the style of the other.
That’s where most people get it wrong. They think that style is a choice. It’s rarely the case. But like my previous example, I think it’s quite difficult to pick a winner between McCarthy and G.G. Marquez. They’re both masters at their craft, but in their own different way. They both wrote fantastic novels, and they both exploited their strengths in a great way.
If you struggle with writing description, by all means, don’t write page long descriptions. If you struggle with dialogue, make it so that there’s very little dialogue in your story. The alternative is much, much worse.
The key is figuring out what you’re good at.
I can’t think of a writer who was/is brilliant at every aspect of writing. There are only writers who are mediocre at all aspects of writing.
I think that I’m not very good at descriptive writing — which is something that for whatever reason people keep praising in my stories. Also, I understand why and I don’t try to be good at it. Because English is not my native language, my command of the language is not as developed as that of a native speaker. Also, I don’t think I can write powerful dialogue.
Like I said, the idea is to figure out what you’re good at and exploit it to the maximum.
If you’ve read Jazz, you might remember the scene in the opening chapter when the main character, Chris Sommers, tells Amber that he’s yet to find his voice. He says he’s just writing like a bunch of other people.
Finding your voice is a tricky thing indeed, because you have to know for sure what you’re good at. And I believe that this has to come from the inside more than the outside. No matter who tells you that you write great dialogue, you also have to believe wholeheartedly in your ability to write brilliant dialogue.
The more I think about it, the more I try to analyze the work of great writers, the more “ingredients” I find.
Like the fact that great writers usually don’t give a damn about the usual conventions of fiction writing. They break the rules, because that’s how they feel that story should be written.
Writing is like playing an instrument by ear. You don’t know why it sounds good, you don’t know how you’re capable of making it sound good, you just do.