Is writing great fiction innate or learned?
January 6, 2013 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Writing fiction: is it the sort of thing where you either have "the gift," or you don't?

I'm curious, because so many of my favorite nonfiction authors (David Sedaris, Merrill Markoe and Chuck Klosterman among them) seem to produce uninteresting fiction. Uninteresting to me, at least. Conversely, there are authors such as Haruki Murakami who write amazing fiction, but his running memoir seems bland by comparison. (I still enjoyed it, because I like running and I like Murakami, but I certainly wouldn't have sought it out otherwise.)

I spent years writing for several hours a day, and never produced anything other than mildly humorous personal-experience essays. I was always very interested in writing fiction--anything from literary to horror short stories--but I would inevitably freeze up, unable to think of what could possibly happen next in the story, and finally abandon it in defeat.

Can writing great, readable fiction be learned? Is there a special elusive something that successful fiction writers have that is simply out of reach for others, even the best nonfiction writers? (and vice versa?)
posted by indognito to Writing & Language (38 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
I don't write fiction, but I suspect (based on my experience with other fields), yes, yes it can be learned. The freezing up, what comes next issue is something that I am struggling with myself, but I remember struggling with it in music until I came up with rules to follow. I suspect that you could do similar things with fiction. And now I ceed the floor to more qualified people than me.
posted by jonbro at 12:22 PM on January 6, 2013

I think they're different skills, and people who are great at one don't always develop the other to the same extent. A personal essay or memoir is structured differently than a novel or short story, and requires a different kind of imagination to build fictional characters.

I would guess that one of the things that makes jumping categories easier is reading a ton - if you want to write short stories, read many, many short stories, until you have a gut-level understanding of how a successful short story flows. I know a lot of people who only read fiction and no non-fiction - or vice versa - and I suspect people like that have more trouble jumping categories than people who read both.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:26 PM on January 6, 2013

I think part of the problem is that the reader has a preconceived notion of the writer when he delves into a genre outside of said writer's milieu. For example, I'm a long-time fan of Dave Barry's humor columns and books, but I just couldn't get into his Big Trouble novel for some reason. Probably because it didn't seem like the same Dave Barry I'd known for years. That's not to say that his novel wasn't good or bad; I've always thought that if an established writer in a particular genre decides to branch out in another, he/she might have more success by using a pseudonym so that he/she is not judged by their previous work.
posted by Oriole Adams at 12:26 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I spent several years getting paid for writing nonfiction and have dabbled in fiction (and also been paid for it), so dubious credentials established, away we go:

The major difference, I would say, is the qualities that make great nonfiction actually tend to be the things you don't want to do in fiction. For example, a lot of the nonfiction editorial process is cutting the story down to the bone, the bare minimum that will still tell the story but will also fit in the space allotted, whereas a lot of fiction is about fleshing out the story: What people are thinking, what they're feeling, what they're doing.

For example, a nonfiction story might be: Mr. Bartholomew went down to the store, where he saw a walrus sitting in the produce aisle. The manager informed him that a Greenpeace helicopter dropped the befuddled animal through the roof while it was being chased by the police.

A fiction story might be: Mr. Bartholomew went down to the store, where he saw a walrus sitting in the produce aisle. He wondered whether he was hallucinating or whether large mammals were a new feature at Shopco and he'd simply failed to notice while he was dealing with his dead mother and maiden aunt. He went to the manager--a surly fellow, but no surlier than he would be should he find a large marine mammal in his workplace--and inquired about the walrus.

"Oh, that," huffed the manager. "Goddamn Greenpeace."

See what I mean? It's striving for two different things. The biggest gearshift I have to make when flipping between the two is giving the fiction story space to breathe and characters to react rather than just dictating what happened and keeping my wordcount under control.

I don't buy into the "talent is inborn" thing, personally, so I'd tell you that you develop the skills you try to develop. There are a lot of books on storytelling and craftsmanship (and your first anything is liable to be terrible) for fiction and reading a lot of fiction certainly helps, but you have to read it like a craftsman rather than a reader.

For example, in the walrus narrative above, you'd need to be asking what I'm doing with that particular scene. Does it establish something--perhaps our hero is terrified by walruses? Is it telling us something about the character's state of mind--perhaps our hero is so tired from his dramatics that he's just like "Oh, great, a walrus" and it doesn't even seem bizarre? Is it establishing a plot point--We've established that Greenpeace is up to shenanigans so when he gets home and finds his home a flaming wreck, a helicopter tail boom sticking out of the rubble with GREENPEACE painted on it, and an enormous, empty net, it's not a surprise?

A lot of people think of "analysis" as that thing you did in high school English where the teacher told you the rose was a symbol for love and you memorized it so you could choose C. ROSE when you got the _____ is a symbol for love question, but it's so much more than that. Take the text apart and ask yourself why the events happened in the order they did, why the characters did what they did, etc.

I actually just finished reading a book on plotting and one of the exercises they suggested was asking "Why?" and "What next?" and questions of that sort a lot.

So, I've decided I wanted to write a very spooky book about a haunted house. Why would anyone be foolish enough to go live in a haunted house? Well, perhaps they inherited the family estate when they were down on their luck and don't have anyplace else to go and anyway, ghosts are stupid, who believes in them, anyway. We can break this down into character questions: Why were they down on their luck? Why don't they have any place to go? Why are they so skeptical? We can also ask "Okay, so what next?" Well, they go to the house and jeez, is it spooky. How does the character react? Well, they're a skeptic, so they go tromping around convincing themselves there's no such thing as ghosts and irritating the family spectres, which leads forth and so on.

Whereas for nonfiction, you don't want most of that, what you want is "What happened?" and "Why?" and "in 500 words".
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:34 PM on January 6, 2013 [22 favorites]

It can be learned to the point of knowing the "rules". You can probably learn to write technically good fiction and building up a story. What you can't learn is the "gut feeling" that makes a story new or inspired or have that special something. Compare it to a singer who may hit every note perfectly, but the song lacks emotion. There is a difference between being technically perfect and being creative.
posted by MinusCelsius at 12:36 PM on January 6, 2013

Oh weird, I just had a bit of a debate with my sister about this.

I wrote fiction in middle school, then autobiographical poetry for the better part of a decade. I received an MFA in poetry. I think I wrote a total of ten pieces that were in any way fictional during this time, and they were really more accurately semi-autobiographical "fiction."

Then, quite abruptly, I switch to writing fictional fiction. You know, with characters who weren't me, or vague stand-ins for me. I'm now doing so professionally.

Thinking fictionally is a skill, and one quite different from the obsessive self-reflection and rumination necessary to write autobiography. I'd say that the biggest skill necessary is empathy. Not only must you invent fictional settings and plot contrivances, but you must get in the head of a fake person and accurately envision what their responses to a given situation might be. Autobiography is different: you simply report what happened. You might delve into your own emotional state--you might even report on the apparent emotional states of others. But you don't need to understand these emotional states so thoroughly. In fiction, you're inventing responses rather than reporting them.

I think this can be learned, but it needs to be practiced. The hardest aspect is character, and more, real character who is more than simply a stand-in either for passive audience or for author. To make fiction that sings, you need characters who are as real and as complex in both background and behavior that you yourself are--and that you believe yourself to be, too. Fan fiction is actually great exercise for writing fiction. Pick your favorite fictional character, put them in a new setting, and tell me how they'd react. Eventually, you'll be well-practiced enough to create your own characters and do the same with them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:43 PM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

I know what you mean, because there are writers who I know and love for their nonfiction and whose fiction I'm almost afraid to read, lest I hate it.

As a writer of nonfiction and a reader of both, I believe that it's a little bit of natural talent and a lot of learned skill and practice.* I skim a lot of how-to articles about writing fiction, and (to my nonfiction-y mind, anyway) fiction seems to require a huge amount of attention to structure and other technical aspects that nonfiction usually doesn't. I feel like I could probably write a few pages of decent fiction, but sustaining it into a novel or even a short story would be very difficult. Whereas the only thing that stops me from writing whole nonfiction books is lack of a book deal;-)

I'd be interested to know, though, if people who primarily write fiction feel the opposite way, that the technical aspects of fiction writing come at least somewhat naturally to them, but that writing a personal essay or news article would be harder.

*I think this is almost always true for any art/craft/skill/creative discipline. I write, I used to act, I studied dance and singing, I'm the child of visual artists. All I've seen of all those worlds so far has made me think that there has to be some innate ability or "special elusive something" as you say, and also a good deal of learning and hard work.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 12:44 PM on January 6, 2013

Read On Writing by Stephen King. It's mostly all practice and dedication.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 12:56 PM on January 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

For someone to create successful ficion, I think a bunch of stuff has to come together, and that some of it's just serendipity. Some people have the magic combination only for a while, or only for one book.

I agree with PhoBWanKenobi that the ability to create characters is huge. But also, you have to be able to write with a fictional point of view. Which-- I hope this is not presumptuous, PhoB-- is a skill you were probably developing all along while writing poetry. This fictional point of view, to me, is something kind of ineffable. My feeling is that some people can develop it and some can't. An example of how subtle it can be, for me, is Raymond Carver's story "Errand." It's about Chekhov's death, and it's based on historical sources but it has that fictional voice.

I don't think anyone's born being able to write like that, but some people seem to come by it naturally, others with difficulty and others not at all.
posted by BibiRose at 1:02 PM on January 6, 2013

was just about to quote that book, OnTheLastCastle. King goes on about this topic; here's a choice excerpt:

"while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."

I feel pretty similarly. absolutely, with hard work, an open ear to critique, tons and tons of reading, and even more writing, you can become a wildly better writer. but I also feel that there exist writers on an entirely different stratum than the rest of us, who use their pens like superpowers; as with any art, really. I have no problem calling that a gift.
posted by changeling at 1:07 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

On Writing, being half memoir, is also proof that some people can write both fiction and non-fiction well.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:14 PM on January 6, 2013

There probably isn't such a thing as an inborn psychological faculty that causes your artistic output to be such that it's necessarily judged more creative by others. Art historian / philosopher Matthew Rampley has a nice essay about creativity that characterizes the typical trajectory of an artistic oeuvre as largely a matter of repetition with variation, harnessing no small amount of chance with lots and lots of practice.

And classic studies (search for Amabile in the PDF) show that actively trying to 'turn on' your hypothetical creative juices in anticipation of judgment is generally a killer for being judged creative. People who believe they're being judged on technical criteria alone (e.g. handwriting) and people who're not aware they will be judged at all typically produce work that's judged more creative than people who know they'll be judged for their creativity. In addition to the fear effect of knowing you'll be judged, I'd speculate that trying too hard to imagine your audience's reaction probably limits and levels out the mild randomness you'd have allowed yourself otherwise.

Anyway, concepts like "creative genius" or "natural writing talent" are probably humanist myths, and they're certainly not helpful, so what's the point in making assumptions like that?

But to answer your question about fiction vs. non-fiction, I'm with restless_nomad that they're different skills in most cases requiring independent practice. If you'll allow an analogy from a different domain, I've been amazed in the past by how much time, attention, and practice it takes to stay at the top of your game playing a single character type in a single online game. And, I mean, this is a situation that's designed to be manageable and to allow people to feel successful without much effort, and the other character types are not, objectively speaking, very different at all. But if you're good enough with one type--and I mean very, very good--then you know how much there is that differentiates these roles, and you have a sense for how sub-optimal your play is in a different role, even if you're above average in that other role compared to most people who do it.

From that point of view, the skills involved in writing fiction vs. non-fiction seem likely to be wildly difficult to maintain at peak, simultaneously or even in one person. Sure, there's a common basis for them, but when you're really, really good at one skill, you can see how far apart that is from a related but different-enough skill.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:26 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not a writer but a reader, and I don't think there's a gift for fiction needed. One just has to be practiced and a bit talented with words and people.

There are examples above about technique, but as a reader I think that matters less. MeFi's Own John Scalzi wrote a novel called Old Man's War, which starts with a typical first-person descriptive style so the reader can identify with the protagonist John Perry's goals and world. Later in the story, Scalzi relates certain events in a very passionless, journalistic style, but because I know Perry, I react with horror.

Scalzi spent much of his early professional life as a journalist, a technical writer and writer of other pay copy, and he has learned when to use those fields' particular techniques in his fiction. His early novel Agent to the Stars has a (to me) less effective example of showing story through newspaper clippings, which works well enough but doesn't seem to me to be particularly elegant.

On the other side, there are lots of longform journalists who tell completely true stories that read like gripping fiction. They use telling quotes gleaned from hours of interviews. They build the case for motivations and emotions in the reader's mind. Occasionally they speculate but are careful to label it is such.

I feel like if you can write non-fiction involving real people, you can write fiction. People who only have experience with technical writing or inter office memos may have some more hurdles to overcome.
posted by infinitewindow at 1:27 PM on January 6, 2013

I don't think the issue is so much inborn talent related, but more related to the demands of the market.

It's very easy for a publisher to approach someone like Sedaris and say, "We would really love to see a novel from you. Here's a huge advance. Now remember, we want to publish in September for Reasons. You can churn out a novel in four months, right? No pressure." And of course it's very easy for someone like Sedaris to say yes, regardless of whether he previously had any desire to write a novel, or any ideas for novels, or the time in his schedule to do a novel justice. Because money.
posted by Sara C. at 1:47 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

As someone shifting over from journalism and nonfiction book writing to fiction, I have learned from an unsparing storytelling mentor that it has to do with the humbling discovery of how little you may be able to apply your journalism/nonfiction/essayist skills to a completely different* system of writing. But it can be learned.

A light went on when I read what Aristotle's Poetics had to say about this. Aristotle says the newbie first learns to excel in word choice; but he says the master learns to listen for "what the story needs" instead of "what the author needs to say" (if I remember right.)

Another useful tip was from the playwriting teacher Will Dunne, who said that when your characters are standing around "brilliantly analyzing their situation" instead of pursuing strong goals, it's actually a bad thing. This to me is the opposite mindset of what we're taught, for example, as English majors. All those term papers trained us to put big ideas in plain sight, instead of buried the way they probably should be in good stories.

I think writers recognized first for their nonfiction may have a hard time letting go of that. If Paul Krugman wrote a novel, I can imagine that it would be full of people standing around "brilliantly analyzing their situation."

So the skillset that lets you write an amazing New York Times think piece may work against you when you are trying to write strong characters. For example, good journalism requires clear presentation of ideas, but a fiction story often pulls you in because the author withholds just the right amount of information from you.

And then suddenly you become aware of all this other machinery that has nothing to do with cool prose or English composition: the rules for inventing surprise, or suspense, or how to get the most mileage out of a conflict. I am slowly figuring this out after years of trial and error, and even though I am still a newbie, I'm a lot less terrible than I used to be. So I believe the skills can be taught.

(* Yeah, there was a New Journalism movement that brought more fiction techniques into journalism, but it still feels really really different.)
posted by steinsaltz at 1:51 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

Which-- I hope this is not presumptuous, PhoB-- is a skill you were probably developing all along while writing poetry.

I honestly don't know what you mean by "fictional point of view." Narrative voice, maybe? But many successful non-fiction writers have lovely voices.

Anyway, I generally think natural talent and gifts are wildly overrated by those who don't create art of any kind, and this is speaking for someone who was told she was good at certain creative things at a young age. I know many people likewise gifted who will never write a novel. I know many writers with negligible "natural talent" who have been able to see success through hard work. I think stories of gifted prodigies are comforting to people because it helps them console themselves--they don't have a gift, so they don't need to feel sad about not seeing their dreams through to fruition.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:53 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

p.s. Can't recommend strongly enough Lajos Egri's classic book The Art of Dramatic Writing. It might make you start seeing potential story ideas everywhere, even when you didn't think you had any. Sometimes it is a matter of just training and refining the sense of "what is a good story trying to be anyhow?"
posted by steinsaltz at 2:01 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

So Michael Chabon said something like, there are three components to a successful writer: luck, talent and discipline and you control only one: discipline. I think that's mostly true, but I think the one thing you will find is that most (all) successful writers are widely read. I think you can't write great fiction if you haven't read a lot of great fiction.

But I digress-- I think you are not yet at the point where you can determine if you can write a great book yet because you haven't put the hard work in, you've just given up. What's helped me immensely is signing up for online novel writing classes--one through Stanford and the rest through UCLA. There's also the gothom writer's workshop in NYC. It's been helpful for various reasons-- I know I have to turn in a writing assignment every week or every other, I get a published novelist to read my work, the comments of my classmates are usually thoughtful and helpful. They also give you writing exercises that can help if you are stuck.
I know what you mean about not knowing what comes next. What I've been doing lately is imagine how my characters would spend a particular holiday-- New year's Christmas, Halloween. As a result, a lot of my novel features holidays (lol), but it really helps me: okay, it's Halloween, what are they doing now? It's month later, it's Thanksgiving, what's changed? How are they spending the holiday? Alone? Are they fighting with family? Okay now it's December how have things changed? What's the weather like now? How are they holding up? You get the idea...I suppose it won't work if you're writing about futuristic dinosaurs or something, but I find if I have a real grasp of the characters and the problems they are facing, it's helpful to just follow them through a whole calendar, month by month, and see what happens.
posted by bananafish at 2:18 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't write fiction, but I do a lot of writing and have read a lot of fiction.

It seems to me that being able to write good fiction is a combination of having something worth saying that needs the format of fiction to say and the skills to say it. This isn't to say that those two qualities are either immutable or not immutable, there seem to be people born with either both or either quality, people who develop both or either quality, and people incapable of developing both or either quality.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:23 PM on January 6, 2013

PhoBWanKenobi, forgive me for attaching that comment to your post; it wasn't necessary and didn't add anything.

Point of view may be voice, but that's not all of it. For me, it's a sense of being able to create and sustain a fictional world. I heard the term-- in that sense, as opposed to first person point of view, etc.-- in a series of writing workshops by Molly Daniels. One of the main questions Daniels would ask ask about a piece submitted in class was, "Does it have a point of view?" Tim Gunn asks the same question, in what seems like a very similar sense, on Project Runway.

During Daniels' workshops, I felt as if you could see people develop an ability to exert a kind of perspective or creative leverage over their material, so that it would cease to become a retelling or enumeration and become an actual story. Perhaps storytelling is a better term for this. And yes, a lot of people who write nonfiction have this ability. After all, there you can get degrees in "creative nonfiction" now.
posted by BibiRose at 2:23 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are fascinating answers. Thanks, all!
posted by indognito at 2:54 PM on January 6, 2013

Ira Glass offers what I think is a perfect way of describing writing (or storytelling) talent: having good taste. A solid instinct for telling good writing from bad writing. Becoming a good writer, then, is a process of getting your writing skills up to par with your taste. So that part of it can certainly be learned, but good taste can also be acquired through regular and thoughtful exposure to writing.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 3:02 PM on January 6, 2013

I write fiction, and teach fiction writing. What Pho B says about empathy is key: writing fiction is more like acting than it's like being a journalist. It's also about being able to play imaginatively. Some people are better at playing imaginatively than others: they retain what they had in childhood, can tap into it. Those people tend to be -- not better writers, but writers with more potential, say? But that's because they're simply more open to being creative. Technique and discipline are learned, and can make a naturally creative person an excellent artist.

Here's the thing: some stories are meant to be put away. All writers fail. Good writers fail more often, because you have to slog through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. Don't beat yourself up about it. Take a writing course online if you'd like (Stanford is excellent). Read lots of fiction. Learn more technique. Learn about story structure, which will help you create stories with a finish-able arc. Really, the only way to get a story finished is to write more stories.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 3:06 PM on January 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

There was a point that Stephen King made in On Writing (pretty sure that's where it's from) that really stood out to me. It was basically that yes, you can teach skills to improve fiction writing. There are a lot of mechanics involved, and you can teach someone to write a technically sound story. However, writing a good story also requires some innate creativity. Getting the story idea, following the characters, fiddling with the technical points the write way, however you want to say it. Some people have this creativity and some don't.

I guess a better way to say this is that writing fiction is a creative art. If we compare it to oil painting -- someone can have a talent for painting, but with no training makes terrible paintings. He then learns the technical details of how to do it and makes fantastic paintings. Another person likes painting, learns the technical details, but doesn't have a talent for it. His paintings are technically sound but not good. The same thing is true in any creative pursuit; you need both factors to be present for the end result to be truly great, rather than just okay, or downright awful.
posted by DoubleLune at 3:30 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

And I guess to relate my point back to you -- I would recommend you either take a class on fiction writing or read a book. My fiction writing classes have been invaluable because they tend to focus on practicing skills, and that's half the battle. There are also a lot of good books that give prompts to help writers block, ways to get out of a hole with a story, etc. Sometimes, you just need to put a story away for a while and then go back to it with a fresh eye. So don't give up because you've had problems -- if it's something you really want to pursue, you have many options that will help you.
posted by DoubleLune at 3:33 PM on January 6, 2013

I actually do think that at least some people who super excel at nonfiction may not be able to do fiction well. (Sadly, primarily fiction writers usually can do nonfiction just as well. Dammit.) I say this because I have the same issue myself, and I realized a year or so ago that I should just give up fiction entirely.

People who are great at nonfiction seem to:
(a) have weird enough lives, are Weirdness Magnets, or generally attract strange enough things to happen to them that they can write about them.
(b) can describe these things in a humorous manner.
(c) can see parallels between Weird Thing A and Weird Thing B and Weird Thing C and can figure out how to tie those things together in interesting ways.

However.... folks like the authors you mentioned (I like them for the reasons you do too) don't spend their lives making up plots. They don't plot much of anything--plot happens to them and they recount it.

People who are great at fiction seem to:
(a) always have plots and characters blooming in their heads. They bubble over with plots. They have muses (god knows I do NOT). They're always thinking of tons of new stories. Whereas I think of about ONE fiction plot per year. For NaNo. And lord, it's not good after about the 10k point.
(b) be able to create whole personalities in their heads that are not just thinly veiled versions of the author themselves and/or their friends. I don't want to write that stuff, but I think I fail at fiction because everyone sounds like the way I talk, and they don't come off as original personalities despite their different backstories.
(c) they are excellent at plotting. Which I am not.

Just because you can write well doesn't mean you can do all writing well, sadly. I think it's easier to recount things you saw IRL than it is to make it up out of nothing. And I hear you on finding their fiction to be...not quite as good. Well, I like it when Sedaris's fiction gets really crazy (the Dunbar family story makes me laugh my ass off), but I wasn't into Big Trouble and other things like that, somehow. I don't know why, it just...doesn't feel as good.

Though yeah, this could also be because I have different expectations of what their work should sound like as well, and the fiction just isn't the same. But I tend to not even like it when an author writes a second series most of the time, because it either comes off as too different (for me, the Fury series by Jim Butcher just didn't entertain me in the way that Harry Dresden does) or too the same (I like Rob Thurman's Cal and Niko series, but everything else she writes kind of comes off as slightly different versions of brother stories too).

So I think it's part expectation, but mostly that nonfiction writing is just an easier skill set than fiction writing is, and not everybody was born with that skill. I took classes for years, went to writing groups, what have you, but I just don't have it in me and that's all there is to it. My brain doesn't think fictionally, it thinks, "Hey, everybody, look at this weird thing I just found!" instead. And there you go. Sad but true.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:46 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

I think this can be learned, but it needs to be practiced.

Just wanted to say right on to PhoBWanKenobi here.

The two things are not the same, but there's a lot of overlap. Writing a good English sentence is hard. Writing ten English sentences in a row which are good together, and in which something happens, is harder still. And this is what you have to do to write prose, whether fiction or nonfiction.

I've done both, and I think they're more alike than they are different. Each one has specialized skills that have to be learned separately, of course. Tennis isn't basketball, but someone who's developed their general athletic abilities throughly enough to be a pro tennis player is probably going to have an easier time geting good at basketball than you or me.

(And of course one could take every one of the examples you named and place against it the name of someone very well-liked as both essayist and novelist: Zadie Smith, Grace Paley, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, and so on and so on.)
posted by escabeche at 6:16 PM on January 6, 2013

(a) always have plots and characters blooming in their heads. They bubble over with plots.

Is this always true? Does story come easily to fiction writers, and the writing, the construction of it, is the hard part? Or is it often hard work just coming up with the "germ" in the first place? I've heard GRR Martin talk about how he's been a storyteller since he was a kid, how he just kind of overflows with story ideas, and I've wondered if this a true of all fiction writers.
posted by torticat at 6:52 PM on January 6, 2013

Is this always true? Does story come easily to fiction writers, and the writing, the construction of it, is the hard part?

It's certainly true for me. I dream in three acts. Coming up with plots is the easiest part by far.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:30 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems to be true for the people who have talked to me about it and the blogs of the authors I read online, at least. There really does seem to be a divide between the fiction writers who write well and often and are dedicated to doing it, and the likes of me. They have tons of ideas, some of them have a hard time keeping up with all of their ideas. They may have writer's block here and there, but not in the same way that I do when I have been trying to think of one lone sad story idea for one year.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:32 PM on January 6, 2013

True for me, too, but ymmv. At the same time, though, I'm not sure if it's because I've been making up stories since I was a kid--that's practicing story telling, too. Imagine if I listened to that girl in preschool who told me I had too much imagination? Shudder. Imagine how many people do listen to that girl.

Exercise your story muscle, is what I'm saying.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:33 PM on January 6, 2013

I've wondered if this a true of all fiction writers.

Not true for me at all, just so we have one dissenter on the page. I always found that it was very difficult to understand how the plot was going to work and who the characters were until I had some kind of understanding of what I wanted to write and what it was about. There were never a lot of free-floating stories wandering around in my head.
posted by escabeche at 8:11 PM on January 6, 2013

Is writing great fiction innate or learned?

yes. :)
posted by wildflower at 8:12 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nei Gaiman answered a similar question on his website:

"How do you finish them? You finish them.

There's no magic answer, I'm afraid. This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it's done. It's that easy, and that hard.

Read the stories over that you've left unfinished, pick out the one where you know what happens next, and write that down, and keep writing until the story's finished. Then finish the next one, or start a new one and finish that.

You may find that you need to have more of an ending in mind before you start.

I always used to know I was finishing something because instead of worrying about how it was going to end I was now worrying about how the next thing was going to start.

Most people can start a short story or a novel. If you're a writer, you can finish them. Finish enough of them, and you may be good enough to be publishable. Good luck."
posted by tangaroo at 8:45 PM on January 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

This has been such an interesting thread, and I've enjoyed everyone's answers. I also think reading is important, and I think the best summation of this is the comment above about taste. So true, I think.

The one other thing I might add is that fiction writing involves dozens of different micro-talents. There's the ability to describe (which itself branches out into the ability to describe different types of subjects), to use dialogue effectively, to create suspense, to arrange scenes, to be funny on paper, to express something serious or even profound without lapsing into silliness or sentimentality, to plot a sequence of actions, and on and on.

Most writers, even great ones, are much better at some of these than others. And I think it can be very instructive to read authors who are well-regarded or have a place in the canon, despite having very serious weaknesses. You can learn from what such writers failed to do well because it often stands in relief against what they do at an elite level.

So to answer the question about talent vs. work, I'd say it's a mix of both, and specifically I mean that most beginning writers are pretty good at one thing or another, and generally very inexperienced at every other element. Such a writer has "talent" but needs a lot of work to learn techniques that cover up those "innate" weaknesses.
posted by Philemon at 9:15 PM on January 6, 2013

What have you ever worked at that didn't get better with focused practice?

Of 100 items you have written, which 5 are the best? Why?

If you wrote 100 more, would more than 5 be that good? Are you getting better or worse with the practice?

What do you think is more important...writing something or editing what you wrote? If you edit something, does it get better generally? If you let it sit a day or two and edit it again, does it get better?

Have you given any thought to why you like the fiction you like? Have you given any thought to why you don't like the fiction you write?

If you are shooting at a target, where do you aim? What do you do if you miss?

How much importance do you place on being an economic success or famous versus creating something intentional that meets your personal standards for quality and form?

When the product and intent converge, do you consider that success or failure?
posted by FauxScot at 2:15 AM on January 7, 2013

changeling used the exact quote I was going to. So yes, improvement is possible--and I think this is true of any creative endeavor--but some people are indeed naturally talented.

Then again, I think talent also requires a modicum of discipline, which is a whole different story.
posted by xenization at 10:15 AM on January 7, 2013

Writing fiction can be learned, but it takes a lot of work and the willingness to read things with a writer's eyes.

The thing about fiction is that a lot of the elements that go into making it a good story are not elements that are completely visible. It may not always be obvious that the protagonist has learned something or changed - but they have. It may not be obvious that every word of dialogue is there for a reason, but if it's good fiction, it is.

Writing fiction, like many art forms, looks kind of easy, kind of effortless when it's done well. Since all you need is something to write with, a lot of people take this to mean that they can do it, too. NaNoWriMo is littered with people who don't understand the fundamental mistake of trying to write a book which follows the structure of an RPG; people who are concerned with the minutiae of scientific accuracy in their book about faster-than-light travel; people who don't understand the difference between realism and believability; people who take great pains in their worldbuilding and fret over the internal logic of their made-up world, but spend pretty much no time at all taking a critical look at their characters and asking why I should give a shit about them.

Those people have value, too.

I often refer to the movie Birdemic as a stealth class in filmmaking. I say this because the director is constantly making really obvious mistakes, and if you're paying attention, you can spot them and you get to see, in action, why they don't work. Essentially just do the opposite of whatever this guy did, and your movie will be in decent shape. When he wants to show the protagonist in a diner, he shows the guy pulling into the parking lot, getting out of his car, locking the door, walking to the diner, opening the door, and finally he sits down and he's at the diner. It is obvious to you right away what he should have done: Just cut to the guy in the diner and then we understand that he's in a diner and got there somehow. When he has two people walking along a beach and talking, they're talking into a boom mic and the ocean is RIGHT THERE, roaring away, and you can hear maybe every fourth word they're saying. So if you're interested in making movies, you maybe start to think a little about that and how you'd handle it.

Same deal with writing. Read everything. Everything. Read nonfiction. Read good fiction. Read God-awful fiction. Spot what works and what doesn't. Consider structure. Characterization. Ask yourself why I should give a shit about your story, your characters, your setting.

Basically, yes, it can be learned. It's a lot of work, but it can be learned, and some people will just have more of a knack for it than others.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:44 AM on January 11, 2013

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