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Thursday, June 16, 2011

James N. Frey writes about talent and hard work

I just finished reading a book called How to Write a Damn Good Mystery , By James N. Frey. It's a damn good How-to book. It's very practical, and has just the right mixture of content tips and creative process tips.

It's always a little funny (and also a little frustrating) to read my own "Art of Art" advice in a book about a field I'm not very familiar with. I keep thinking, "when would people finally realize it's always the same advice?".

Here's a quote from the book:

A published friend of mine was recently invited to be on a panel at a writers conference. One of the other writers on the panel was a famous mainstream-mystery writer who was getting $600,000 advances and hit the New York Times best­seller list every time out. My friend, who gets $30,000 advances, was in awe. They hit it off and went to lunch, and soon the conversation drifted onto the subject of rewriting. My friend is always struggling through what she thinks are endless rewrites, sometimes four or five complete drafts with major plot revisions. The famous writer said he was impressed. He often has to go through fifteen or twenty, and then he goes through what he calls a polish, trying to punch up the prose, find better lines of dialogue, and so on, thirty or forty more times.

My friend just about fell off her chair. She had always thought of this guy as a major talent, and somebody so talented, why ought to be easy. His writing was so smooth, his stories so seamless...

You, too, can have that smooth, polished feel to your work. Keep rewriting and polishing. You rewrite until it's right. If it comes out right on the second draft, or the tenth draft, fine. But if it still is not right, then rewrite some more. Being willing to go back again and again and rework your material is the hallmark of a professional mystery writer.

Obviously he's talking about what we call working in passes; but more interestingly, he's trying to teach us that hard work, not talent, is responsible for successful artwork. Here's a parallel paragraph from "The Art of Art":

[From "The Art of Art": The art of the Process >Process Awareness]

For most people - including quite a few artists - great art is a kind of magic: the talented artist (gifted by genes, the gods, or luck) experiences a supernatural moment of inspiration, and his pen (or CGI software, or word processor) starts pouring out pure gold. Believing that this is what the work of a "real" artist should look like, no wonder a mere mortal artist would feel frustrated that he alone, talentless and uninspired as he is, must work hard to achieve results. Such an artist would do well to remember the following quote from Michelangelo (also known as "the divine"): "if people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."


  1. Great post, method and hard work are the keys!

  2. hard work is a necessity but genes are required as well. Usually people who are not talented have such a hard time getting a result and improve comparatively slowly that they eventually five up.

  3. Hey Shahar,

    You're right, talent is definitely a factor. However, we need to remember that talent is not a thing you either have or don't have. There are many shades of gray. More importantly, every art form requires a set of skills, and no one is equally talented in all of them. After working for many years and teaching hundreds of students, my conclusion is that talent is as elusive as rainbow, while passion and persistence (and of course a good creative process) are much more tangible keys for success.

    Thanks for commenting, it's an important topic and I think I should write a separate post about it.