How do you measure your talent as a writer? And by that, I mean in the sense of 'measuring and coming up with the right amount?' Two things happened in my life this week that made me think about this conundrum.
Thing Number One was a conversation I had with someone I met in my local library and, for various reasons involving backstory too dull to go into here, ended up having quite a discussion with about writers and writing.
When the lady in question found out I was a writer (I was brave for a change and actually called myself that - for real! But then again, she was a stranger so maybe not that brave really...) she proceeded to tell me about her cousin, who she said had also been "trying to be a writer for years." And yeah, she said it like that, complete with the statutory sighs and eye-rolling. "She's got no talent for it whatsoever" she added. "Everyone in the family's been forced to read her stuff at some point, and it really is dreadful. We've all tried to tell her - tactfully of course - that she should give up on the idea of ever getting anything published. But she just won't listen! She keeps on writing all this terrible dross and kidding herself she's got the talent - when anyone can see she just hasn't..."
I asked her if her cousin had actually tried to get anything published yet. "No, fortunately" she said. "Once any of us tell her what she's written is rubbish, she just hides it away somewhere and starts on something new instead. And then we all have to suffer that... for God's sake, how many books is the woman going to write before she gets the message that she just doesn't have any talent?"
I'll be perfectly honest here; that was enough information to make me pick a side - and I wasn't rooting for the lady I was talking to. In fact, I began to feel this elusive cousin was pretty damn awesome. To complete even one novel when you have the support and encouragement of loved ones to spur you on is an achievement in itself. To complete many novels with that same support and encouragement is inspiring. But when every novel you finish gets nothing but derision and negativity from your loved ones.. and your response, every single time, is to just pick yourself up and start on the next one? That's bordering on superhuman.
Obviously I don't know if she really is as talentless as the people around her are apparently telling her she is; without actually reading anything she's written there's no way of knowing. But as long as she keeps on doing it, in spite of the naysayers, she can only get better. Damn, if she ever finds a way to bottle that stick-at-it spirit I'd be first in line to get me some! In fact, I wish I could actually meet her - if only to suggest that maybe she gives her stuff to non-family members to read for a change. (Not saying there's any kind of unconscious agenda at work here or anything, but... well, sometimes the ones closest to you can want 'what's best for you' for the wrong reasons, if you catch my drift...)
And then, on what could be described as the flipside, is Thing Number Two.
Through a series of events - again too backstory-ish to be interesting here - I found myself clicking on a link to a self-published book for sale on Amazon. I'm not about to name and shame it here, but it was a 200-page fantasy novel and, like the majority of books on the Amazon site, there was a chance to "look inside!" So that's what I did...
And I have to confess, it was very badly written. By that I mean it was riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, words used in the wrong context and/or the wrong tense, random switches between present and past tense - often within the same sentence - and all sorts of other, glaringly obvious, bloopers. Now, this does not necessarily equate to the writer lacking ability. These are the sort of mistakes even the best writers make - in a draft one of their manuscript. Some of them even linger into the rewrite stage for a while, until some eagle-eyed beta reader or editor points them out. But that's the point. The writers that get success and respect for their work do so because they take pains to root out every single mistake - and enlist the help of others for finding those that elude their own eyes - before they will even think of publishing their work. This author clearly did not do this. This author pretty much went 'write it, upload it, hit Publish, baby!'
This is not an uncommon occurrence in the age of one-click-self-publishing, of course. This author is one of a legion who birth their Draft Ones onto Amazon and the like with nary a care in the world - happens all the time these days... But this one stood out for another reason. Because this particular work - a 200-page fantasy novel from a pretty much unknown self-pubbed author - could be yours for the princely sum of... thirty-five dollars.
Yes, you read that right. Thirty-five dollars.
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think even a Stephen King novel has ever had a price like that. And he's - oooh, fairly famous now. So I am utterly intrigued as to the thought process behind the author of this thirty-five-dollar-book deciding "Heck yeah, people will totally pay that for my work." Lordy, there's confidence for you! If only she could siphon just a little bit of that off and send it to that lady in the library's cousin... I can't help feeling it would go some small way to restoring the balance of the writing universe somehow.
So that's the conundrum for me this week; is there a magic formula for determining whether a writer's confidence in their ability is justified or misplaced? How do you apply it if there is? And what makes some give up without ever being bold enough to test those icy waters, while others are happy to jump in without even learning the Rules of the Pool first?