Diana Gabaldon, author of the very famous – and lucrative – Outlander series of historical romance novels, said in a recent interview with Kirkus Reviews that she sold her first book before she was even finished writing it. Gabaldon said she sent her unfinished manuscript, through her agent, to five publishers, and her agent ended up negotiating with three of them. So was it her talent that got her this first publication? Or was it luck?
I don’t believe in luck. There’s no such thing.
Obi-Wan Kenobi: In my opinion, there’s no such thing as luck.
So if it wasn’t luck, was it talent? Or just good old fashioned hard work? Or maybe it was her ability to engage in “smart practice” – specific self-evaluation while doing her writing.
Over and over, I hear people say that you have to work hard, do the time, write-write-write. It’s the 10,000 hours thing, right? Well, not entirely. Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the 10,000 hours concept, says in a recent Reddit AMA:
practice isn’t a SUFFICIENT condition for success. I could play chess for 100 years and I’ll never be a grandmaster. The point is simply that natural ability requires a huge investment of time in order to be made manifest.
Note the conjunction of “natural ability” and a “huge investment of time.”
What about this “Natural Ability” Thing?
A recent article in The Atlantic, titled “Can Creativity Be Learned?” looks at some recent studies of creativity. On the one hand, it concludes, some individuals have “inherent neurological and personality traits” that make them creative. One study
found that highly creative individuals have more activity in the part of the brain containing the ability to make original associations, to blend information from various scenarios and experiences (known as “conceptual integration”), and to understand complex metaphors and comparisons.
This study concluded that the personality trait of “openness to experience” might make some individuals more creative. Another similar study concluded that
people who have brains that process information faster can also make more diverse connections and original associations, a hallmark of creativity
But, says the article, creativity can be learned or encouraged. You can actively build your tolerance to new experiences, as I’m doing with my trips abroad in the past few years.
What need to be “talented”? The Atlantic article suggests some factors contributing to creativity:
1.Time – maybe not 10,000 hours, but some time
2. Experience – of life? of hardship? of love?
3. Raw talent (the quick brain processing ability mentioned above), and
4. Openness to new experience.
5. To that I would add self-control, the ability to focus on a task.
Deep Work/Deliberate Practice
Cal Newport says that deep work is
cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.
How to work deliberately
The best place to start on your way to deliberate practice/deep work is to consider this article by Geoff Colvin, called “Talent is Overrated” (PDF version). I’ve done a detailed analysis of this article, and I’d like to suggest you do your own analysis, to think about how you can work more deliberately, to drive the process of “smart practice” in setting up your plan for writing success. His article is for all creative professionals, and it’s very important for writers.
Colvin provides details about how to make your practice smarter and more deliberate, before you do the work, while you are doing the work, and after you’ve done the work. At each level, it’s about understanding what you are doing and why, and being very specific about your goals and whether you’ve met them. Sure, it sounds like the familiar feedback loop, but it’s more detailed, more, well, deliberate.
The “price of top-level achievement is extraordinarily high,” Colvin concludes, which is why few make it. The most important take-away from this article, for me was the two questions Colvin asks at the end:
- What do you really want?
- What do you really believe? (About yourself and your potential)
Good questions to ponder for all writers. Even Diana Gabaldon. No matter how creative, how talented a writer you are, you’re going to have to work smart to achieve your goals. Every day.
Back to writing…