Thursday, 16 March 2017


I had an interesting discussion with some writing friends the other day. It started when one of us posed the question "How do you get to be a 'great' writer?"

We'd been (re)reading Stephen King's book On Writing, and specifically the part where King states that, with enough time, determination and years of practice, mediocre writers can learn to become competent writers and competent writers can learn to become good writers. But that's as far you can ever get up the pyramid with persistence and hard graft alone. Great writers, he argues - the ones with a god-given talent that puts them head and shoulders above the rest in a class of their own - are born, not made. If you didn't have that magic fairy-dust sprinkled on you from the day of your birth, you will never be admitted into that exclusive Great Writers' Club, no matter how long and hard you try.

It's not a new claim by any means. Great Writers Are Born Not Made has been argued for centuries, with people defending their favoured camp with passion and fury. On the opposing side to Stephen King and chums are those who claim great writing is a learnable skill just like carpentry, bricklaying or plumbing, and that with enough repeated practice even the most cack-brained pen-wrangler can become an accomplished writer. Might take some of them a very long time, but if they never give up eventually they'll get there...

Who do I think is right? Well, if you're interested (and I'll assume you are if you're still reading this, otherwise you'd already be looking at cat videos on YouTube instead...)

I think both camps are at least a little bit right. Yes, if you have the drive and the desire to write, no matter how terrible you are at it to start with, or lacking in the 'proper education' - or even 'not of the right social class, old bean' - you can learn all the necessary skills for being a writer. And then, if you practice those learned skills for a long enough time that they become ingrained into you, you can produce work that people will want to read. You can get to that standard, no matter how swampy and bottom-dwelling your starting-point in literary gene pool was. So - hurray!

Buuuut.... you wanna be an actual Stephen King? Or Hemingway? Or on a par with any of the other 'great' writers who have achieved worldwide fame, enduring success and ridiculous amounts of money? You want the world to say your name with the same kind of reverence they reserve for the likes of 'Charles Dickens' or 'Mark Twain?' Because that's what we're talking about when it comes to attaining the title of 'Great Writer.' So what are, say, your odds of achieving that?

Statistically? Not that brilliant, if you want the truth.

Don't worry, mine aren't either. In fact, most writers who produce and publish stuff for others to read have more chance of being struck by lightning than getting a pass to the Great Writers' Hall of Fame. It's the same reason everyone who takes up running doesn't eventually become Usain Bolt, or everyone who sings every day of their life doesn't acquire a voice like a young Pavarotti. When it comes to sorting the Greats from the Try Really Really Hards, life just doesn't buy into that kind of Equal Opportunities malarkey.

Talent - pure, natural talent that burns like a mystical internal flame - exists. Skills can be honed and perfected, experience and knowledge can be accumulated, but natural talent is that something extra - the mutant superpower that only the select band of spandex-clad heroes have. This has to be true, because otherwise the whole concept of 'great' writers - or 'great' anything, for that matter - would be meaningless. After all, people don't attempt to climb to the summit of Mount Everest because anyone can do it - they do it because it's recognised as being a badass-hard task that only a small percentage of the population are capable of doing. That's what makes the achievement 'great.'

So this is where we've got to. Yes, to truly be a 'great' writer you do have to have that elusive McGuffin they call 'natural talent,' and if you don't have that spliced into your DNA your chances of ever wearing that Great Writer Badge are eye-wateringly small in the grand scheme of things.

Now for the really important question with regards to the rest of your writing life. How do you feel about that?

I suppose the answer to that depends on your answer to 'why do you write?' Is it because you saw J.K. Rowling's or E.L. James' phenomenal rise to fame and fortune and thought "I'd like me some of that?" Is it because the idea of working in a dead-end desk job or life as a sales rep sounds like Hell on Earth, and you'd much rather make a living doing Something Creative instead? They're not bad reasons, and there's certainly nothing illogical about them. But if they're the only reasons you have... well, they're not going to sustain you for the long haul as a writer. And it is a long haul.

The best reason for wanting to be a writer - and the one that will carry you through anything and everything the road to being one throws at you - is that you couldn't stop being one even if you tried. Even if you never make a penny from writing, even if you never become well-known for your work, if you'd still carry on writing anyway, you've got a fighting chance of staying the distance. By all means dream of literary fame and fortune, because dreams are great. Dreams are like the carrot you wave in front of you to spur you on. But just remember they're not real carrots, as in, you can't actually eat them and stave off real-life starvation. So don't make them your only plan for survival.

If one person on the planet loves your book, you'll be a Great Writer to them. If lots of people do, you earn even more Great Writer Points. But those points are pretty meaningless when it comes right down to it, because the best way to be a Great Writer is to be the best writer you can be.

Never stop aiming to reach the top of your own mountain - and don't worry about how high your mountain is compared to everyone else's. It's great to be you.