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Elsewhere, someone claimed they could judge a writer's potential from one page.

Well, not exactly. What you can judge is the manuscript. Does the story engage you? Do you care enough about the characters in their situation to turn the page? Does the prose work? (Or even, does the prose and the opening hook you so thoroughly and make your brain fizzle with reader delight?)

Or maybe the manuscript doesn't quite work, but you see its potential. As Kris Rusch put it, maybe the story (your idea) is great, but the manuscript (the way you actually wrote it) needs work. Maybe it needs polish, or tightening, or a few spots need clarification.

You can also tell the writer's current skill level—how well they string words together, how well they construct plot and characters and the story world. If they're making the story zing in this manuscript, they can in others. If their prose clunks, or their dialog is forced, or their plots make no sense, they haven't mastered the complete toolkit.

The real question is: will they ever master that toolkit?

Second real question: can you tell by this one manuscript?

Mostly, no.

There are the writers like Ted Chiang, who was born brilliant. They are rare.

And sure, if you come across something so dull and badly written, in prose that doesn't even faintly resemble the target language—you might say, "This person isn't gonna make it."

(And not everyone will "make it" and become writers who create interesting, readable stories. I know that's not a popular opinion, but just as there are people who can't run marathons, or who can't sing on key, there are others who can't string words together to make coherent sentences, paragraphs, and stories.)

But those are the outliers.

To get a better idea of someone's potential, you need more than a single data point. One story gives you a mark on the map: You Are Here. These are your skills. (Great prose! Vivid images!) These are your flaws. (Where's the plot?!)

To judge potential, you need to see how the writer approaches their craft.

Do they read a lot—inside and outside their genre? If they write YA, for example, do they study what's going on with YA these days? And I don't mean to study the market, but to see how other writers tackle the same kinds of issues and themes. And do they read other genres, memoirs, and nonfiction? All that reading fills the well with words and ideas.

Do they examine their work to look for flaws? Do they work on building up their skills? How they do this isn't the most important thing—whether they join a workshop, or exchange mss. with friends, or just work on their own. What's important is examining where you are, and where you want to go with your writing.

If they ask for feedback, do they listen? You know those writers in workshops. They ask for feedback, then shrug it all away with excuses. Not all feedback is the right feedback, of course, but if ten readers are telling you something, perhaps it's time to listen. The ones who listen are the ones who get better.

Are they complacent? Maybe the writer starts off learning and improving, but they get to a point where they're writing "okay" stories. They come up with great plots, but the prose clunks or the characters are just a wee bit flat. Or they excel at the sentence-level, but their stories are shapeless. But the writer has stopped examining their work, and so they get stuck at competent, when they could leap up to the next level.

There are no guarantees, but if you find a writer who works at their craft—listening, examining, reading—you'll find a writer who has potential.



( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 19th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
Are they complacent? Maybe the writer starts off learning and improving, but they get to a point where they're writing "okay" stories. They come up with great plots, but the prose clunks or the characters are just a wee bit flat. Or they excel at the sentence-level, but their stories are shapeless. But the writer has stopped examining their work, and so they get stuck at competent, when they could leap up to the next level.

I fear that's where I am. Guh. I need to get better at time management so I can actually find time to improve and shit. As it stands, between the job, the dancing, and the time I eke out to write, I feel exhausted. But I know people excel under much more challenging situations than mine, so I need to do some serious self-examination and figure out why I'm failing.
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
You are the last person I'd call complacent. You push yourself constantly, you try new things, you work hard at your craft. If you sometimes give more space to dancing, well, so what?

There are others who bitch about how their genius isn't recognized, but they aren't will to admit they might need improvement. Those are the ones I meant.
Sep. 21st, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC)
It's very difficult not to feel like I'm spinning my wheels. And lately, it's gotten very difficult for me to engage with the writing side of my mind, so it feels like I'm neglecting it horribly. It's hard to feel like I'm improving when no one wants my novel, and I can't break into top-tier short fiction markets.
Sep. 21st, 2009 01:53 pm (UTC)
Ah, wheel spinning. I know that feeling well. It's not complacency, because otherwise you'd shrug off any lack of progress (or sense thereof) with an excuse.

I think there are times we go through plateaus. Sometimes skill plateaus, where we feel stuck, but the hindbrain is assembling things for the next leap upward. And there are career plateaus, about which I can't say anything wise, because I have no idea why they come to us, and how to get past them. (Other than to keep writing.)

But so far, you are making progress. You have a good agent. You made the Nebula final ballot. You are getting anthology invitations. Your name is included in the list of Shiny New Writers. Maybe the first novel doesn't sell right away, but you have another one in the works.

And maybe the difficulty with engaging with the writing side of your mind is just bcause your writing mind needs a short break. If it bothers you, maybe try an extra short story in a style or genre that you don't usually write. Just to play?
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
Good stuff--I like the "you are here" image.
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Sherwood.

I complained once (okay, more than once) how I wanted both a "You Are Here" marker and an AAA Triptik for the road. :)
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:07 pm (UTC)
I was told by a college professor that the reason he wasn't accepting me into his class, was because he could tell by my submission that I would never make it as a writer.

I aim to prove him wrong.
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
And I look forward to you proving him wrong.
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
The hardest part about it, was the fact that part of my psyche believed him, and so I gave up on myself. I lost a good 11 years that I could have been honing my craft further. Instead, I allowed his voice to say: "See? I told you so." with every rejection letter I got until I just stopped.

I don't think it would have had the same effect, if he hadn't also been the professor who taught SF as literature. I didn't have the excuse that he didn't "get" genre fiction the way I had with other professors.

I think there's still that ghost of an ogre hanging over my head, it is a nasty thing kept alive now by my own fears, I know, but still a hard beast to put down.
Sep. 20th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
That's a damned shame. So many writers have problems with self-confidence already, we don't need a kick in the gut like that.

Sep. 21st, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
A MZB reject accomplished the same with me...10 years away to read and try to understand what she meant with "learn to tell a story".
Sep. 21st, 2009 11:03 pm (UTC)
For some reason, MZB's rejections made me laugh. (And yet, I thought they were often dead-on, even if they were form rejections.)
Sep. 21st, 2009 11:14 pm (UTC)
Mine was a light gren paper scribbled with a few comments and signed. I was young, then, but aged quickly...
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:56 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Sep. 21st, 2009 07:51 pm (UTC)
What a git! Sorry :(
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
Judging who is a writer
User sartorias referenced to your post from Judging who is a writer saying: [...] I really liked 's thoughts posted here. [...]
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:18 pm (UTC)

A WRITER stands on a road, map in hand, looking exasperated. SPOUSE trails behind and sighs heavily.

Writer: I can't understand it. According to this map, our destination should be right down there.

Spouse: That's what you say after every hill.

Writer: (holds up map) Here's where we should be, right? So our destination should be right down in that valley.

Spouse: But it's not there.

Writer: I know it's not there. Okay? I know. But according to the map, that's where it should be.

Spouse: Maybe you're reading the map wrong. Maybe we're really way back here.

(points to bottom of map)

Writer: (Glares)

Spouse: I'm just saying!

Writer: Come on. It must be just over the next hill.

Writer sets off down the hill. Spouse sighs again and follows.


At least, that was my experience; I always thought I was farther along in my journey than I really was.

Also, I do believe that everyone can learn to write well, given time. It's just that, for some writers, their language difficulties, unwillingness to be critical of their work, inability to accept responsibility for their rejections, and their eagerness to copy mass-media entertainment cliches, the time they'd need would be longer than the expected life of the universe.

Edited at 2009-09-19 05:24 pm (UTC)
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:27 pm (UTC)
I love your script!

And same here—I always misjudged where I was on the road. Still do, alas, though I'm getting better at catching myself.
Sep. 19th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
I always thought I was farther along in my journey than I really was

Probably not compared to where you had come from. It's just that when you're starting out, you see only the first stage of the road, and the horizon in the distance. And when you've mastered that and you can tell a coherent story without any clunkyness, you discover a whole new map unfolding in front of you, and the destination is *still* on the horizon: you don't just have to be ok at all those things, you need to be good. And oh look, there's a whole host of things you never thought about that you also need to master.
Sep. 19th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
Me, I'd read some piece of writing advice, assimilate it, and go off to put it in practice. Much later I'd return to that same advice and find depth and nuance to it that I hadn't noticed before.

Just like you said, a whole new map unfolds in front of you.
Sep. 20th, 2009 12:04 am (UTC)
Heh. Yes, this.
Sep. 25th, 2009 02:14 pm (UTC)
Just saw this and wow...yes. So very much yes.
Sep. 25th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
He sounds like a writer, doesn't he?
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:30 pm (UTC)
Willingness to work and learn is a good way to see it. I like the "you are here" image, too. You make some excellent points.

Honestly - judge someone's potential from one page only? You can't do that. Some people write wonderful beginnings - but then they fizzle out and/or don't know when to stop. Others have lousy/boring/clunky beginnings, but pick up and become engaging once they get properly started. The latter may actually be easier to fix than the former in my opinion.

And say you will never make it as a writer temporus, because of your submission? Sounds like ignorance to me, not worthy of a professor in literature (if that is what he was) given how many great writers, even of the nobel laureate kind, that had their first manuscript rejected or had weak first novels... You go prove him wrong!
Sep. 19th, 2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
I think it helps to be able to recognize where you are in regards to your writing skills. For example, my stories probably aren't publishable as is, but could be in time once I acquire the skills necessary to revise them into publishable form. Among other things, I realize that my prose is clunky at times and that I have trouble with telling too much and not showing enough. I'm working on it when I can. I've been trying to read more to help me learn what good writing is and to get more ideas flowing in my head.

I've been told by more than one person that I have potential, but sometimes I doubt it when I see the problems in my writing. I'm trying to ignore the demon on my shoulder telling me my writing sucks. I think your "you are here" statement puts it well. I'm here, and I need to work to get to where I want to be.
Sep. 20th, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
I haven't read your fiction, but I've read your posts on AW and I can see from those and from your attitude that you have potential.
Sep. 19th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
One story gives you a mark on the map: You Are Here. These are your skills. (Great prose! Vivid images!) These are your flaws. (Where's the plot?!)

To judge potential, you need to see how the writer approaches their craft.

I think you can see much more when you watch writers struggle with the things they cannot do _yet_ than if you try to evaluate their natural talent - because very few people were born with sufficient talent to write publishable books. And even those that were will come across that hurdle where they need to work for the next level of skill.

Also, I think you can extrapolate a lot from whether a writer wants to have a finished product (so they can get fame, fortune, whatever) or whether they enjoy engaging with the story. Not every writer loves every aspect of the craft; but if someone is _never_ enthusiastic about writing, I'm beginning to wonder why they want to be a writer.

Sep. 20th, 2009 02:03 pm (UTC)
...if someone is _never_ enthusiastic about writing, I'm beginning to wonder why they want to be a writer.

I've seen those people too--they want to be writers, not to have written. Or so it appears.

Edited at 2009-09-20 02:03 pm (UTC)
Sep. 19th, 2009 07:29 pm (UTC)
You misspelled Ted's last name. It's B-E-R-M-A-N. And he likes to be called Steve.
Sep. 20th, 2009 01:55 pm (UTC)
Sep. 20th, 2009 12:03 am (UTC)
Yes. I agree.
Sep. 20th, 2009 12:28 am (UTC)
Whoa, Kate Elliott! I'm a huge fan of your writing - I sent somebody off to buy King's Dragon literally yesterday.

*fangirls* :)
Sep. 20th, 2009 01:05 am (UTC)
People who send other people off to buy my books are clearly the most awesome people in the universe. Thanks!
Sep. 21st, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
I'll also add that you can't tell how much someone's committed by what they say at a workshop -- you're hearing their defenses at that moment in time. What matters is the long run.

There was a guy who never wanted to revise his stuff, he'd ask for feedback early, had a lot of really rough drafts, but never edited. I stopped reading his work (essentially considering his attitude a waste of my time), and several others eventually did.

He revised one of his pieces, sent it to one of the group members I was closest to, and, lo and behold, he apparently did have what it took once he got to the point where he was ready to edit.

Now, his stuff was always interesting and he definitely had a sense of plot. Like me, his characterization developed later on in the piece and in later drafts.

Sadly, there's a lot of family issues going on, so it's unlikely he'll see things through to getting published for some years, but it did teach me that one couldn't always judge even after knowing someone for a couple of years.
Sep. 21st, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
Oh absolutely. It's not what a person says, but what they *do* with the feedback they get.

For an opposite example, I know one woman who claims she listens to advice, and wants to improve, but in reality, she shrugs away everything. Then she wonders why she never makes a sale.

I hope things work out for your friend.
Sep. 21st, 2009 11:08 pm (UTC)
Well, he and I don't get along, but still, I wouldn't wish his fate on anyone: he and his wife had triplets. Last I heard, two of them had muscular dystrophy, and were diagnosed very young.

Under those circumstances, I wouldn't get much (if any) writing done either.

That said, I think we don't get along because we both have some of the same faults, and now that I know he's not just blowing everything off, I think we'd work together better writing-wise.

Edited at 2009-09-21 11:09 pm (UTC)
Sep. 21st, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
I vould have sworn I commented on this already - must have been a senior moment :(

Anyway. Excellent post! Thanks for sharing :)
Sep. 21st, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
You're welcome!
Sep. 25th, 2009 12:47 pm (UTC)
Interesting posts about writing – w/e September 25
User jongibbs referenced to your post from Interesting posts about writing – w/e September 25 saying: [...] 3: Developing a Voice a.k.a. Getting Stylish sboydtaylor Write the Next Story kmarkhoover You are here: reading the map of writer potential beth_bernobichWordplay writerjennBecause…[If this doesn’t put a smile on your ... [...]
Sep. 25th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
Great post! I enjoyed it.
Nov. 18th, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this post. I feel more hopeful now.
( 41 comments — Leave a comment )

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