Saturday, January 19, 2008


My SF writing class has resumed in Rochester at Writers & Books, and they look like an interesting bunch. I'm looking forward to the class. I hope, however, that no one asks me The Question.

The last time I got The Question was when I taught Clarion West last year. I got it twice. No writer likes to be asked The Question, which is always heart-felt and intense: "Do you think I have what it takes to succeed as an SF writer?"

The only honest answer to this, which satisfies nobody, is "Damned if I know." In 30 years of teaching, which includes ten Clarion classes, I have had students that I thought had a lot of talent, but who didn't succeed as SF writers because they became more interested in writing mysteries, or computer books, or in computers, or racing cars, or any number of other things. I've had students I thought had only average talent who have gone on to be successes due to hard work and the persistence of a bulldog with a burglar in its teeth. I've had students who turned in God-awful stories but they were very early stories and the writers had a very steep learning curve; within a year they were publishing. I've had students with much raw talent but a total resistance to changing anything ever from their first drafts, who therefore never improved the technical aspects of their craft and never sold.

If you ask me The Question, and I've seen only one or two samples of your work, there's no way I can assess your persistence, ability and/or willingness to learn, stores of imagination you haven't yet transferred to the page, and toughness to absorb the often massive doses of rejection that accompany the start of most writing careers. That's my answer right there, and it satisfies nobody.

So don't ask. The answer lies inside you, not me.


Steven Francis Murphy said...

I wonder if talent is the only metric one should use for success in today's market? Granted, your entry is valid as concerns just the matter of talent. But there are so many other intangibles that are hard to measure.

It almost seems (to me) to hinge upon hitting the Right Editor at the Right Time with the Right Story. Someone like Jack Skillingstead, who I think is an outstanding SF writer, fought for fifteen years to finally get a story into a major short fiction venue. Other writers, like Joe Haldeman, punch through literally on the first try.

Is talent a factor? Sure. Personality (in terms of being stubborn) certainly is a factor as well.

But how much of the issue is really in the hands of individual writers?

How much of it is simply plain old fashion luck?

S. F. Murphy

bluesman miike Lindner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bluesman miike Lindner said...

Blast my meteor-scarred hide, Nancy, but I would have bet honied coin THE QUESTION wuz, "Where do yez get yez ah-deers?"

And any honest writer--fictioneer, poet or lyricist--would have to answer, "Get 'em wholesale from Homer and Shakespeare."

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Murphy, a =lot= of it is luck. Me pal John Keel, professional writer since he was 16, and I were discussing this one day at one of the cheap, good restaurants he knows in Manhattan. "John," I asked, "what does it take to make a living as a writer? Or any kind of creative? What's the secret?" "No secret, Lindner. You need a minimal talent, of course. And then be at the right place, the right time, old cliche. When I was starting, I knew people who could write =rings= around me. But they didn't stick to it. That's important too. Keep at it. Doesn't matter if you get a hundred rejection slips. Sooner or later, if you stick with it, you =will= get lucky. And that's your start. Once you have your first taste of success, that's all you need to keep at it. Get yourself a good rep with editors as a writer who can be relied on to keep deadline. And that's it. But luck is a big factor too." "Good words, John!" "Lindner, it also helps if you're incredibly handsome, like we are. But that's up to God. Though many editors confuse themselves with God."

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Murphy, another sf hombre who punched through on his first try: the Master of Masters, Robert Heinlein, with LIFELINE. One of the regrets of my life, I never got to meet him. But I'm confident I'll shake his mitt in Heaven.

Or somewhere.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Saw Nick DiChario's photo in the latest LOCUS.

Luke said...

Does perseverance matter more than raw talent? Is it more a matter of bludgeoning your head through the editorial wall than actually offering a quality story? Is it almost entirely a matter of the editor's subjective opinion?

Think of all the quality work we're missing out on if that's the case.

none said...

We probably are missing out on quality work, yes. But look on the bright side--there's never been a time in human history when so many people had the chance to get published as now.