≡ Menu

Build-a-Writer

When it comes to talent, nobody has it all. Whether it’s an athlete, artist, or author, no one excels at everything. In fact, excelling at anything may carry its own cost.

Last night, we attended a fantastic jazz concert. Jamie Cullum is a phenomenal pianist with oodles of energy and stage presence. He performed for a couple of hours and had the crowd dancing in the aisles and on its feet more than once. Really a talented guy. And, oh, he’s also very small. Probably about 5’2″. Looks like a kid up there next to the other musicians. In fact, he even joked about his size on stage.

So I asked this question on the drive back: Does God compensate talent by giving us a weakness, shortage or deficiency? You know, maybe He knew it wasn’t fair to bless someone with all that talent so He… balanced the scales. I mean, God gave the apostle Paul a “thorn in the flesh” (II Cor. 12:7-10), so why not swap out height or brains or good looks for other talents?

Which means the cost of being good at something might mean being bad at something else; the price for being strong in one area, could be shortage in another area.

Think of it this way: Video games often allow players to construct their own characters. Certain attributes, skills, or talents are available in limited quantities for the choosing. For instance, imagine you could build a virtual baseball player. 100 points were available and you could choose from a pool of baseball “talents” — hitting, power, fielding, stamina, speed, good arm, etc. Let’s say you decide to create the ultimate power hitter — 100 points of pure hitting. This guy never strikes out, bats 1000.00, and clears the bases at will. Sounds good, huh? But your Ultimate Hitter has a problem: He is SLOW, he makes a LOT of errors, he has NO arm, and he is injured half the time. Sure, when he gets to the plate he’s money. But with all his other deficiencies, he may never get to the plate.

But is it better to spread the talent around? You know, create a character that is 25 points hitting, speed, power, and fielding? The problem with that scenario is — he’s not really great at anything. However, the baseball player who is just “okay” at everything rarely gets noticed. So maybe it IS better to “stack the deck,” build an Ultimate Hitter or Ultimate Pitcher and just live with the downside. I’m not sure.

Whatever your answer, this “distribution of talent” is not unique to building video characters. Just think about it in relation to writers. No one author has the same skill set. Hemingway is unique in his strengths… and his weaknesses. The same could be said of Joyce, Crichton, Rowlings, Rice or Dr. Seuss.

So here’s some different elements of storytelling, a “pool of talents” that authors can possess:

  • Building tension / drama / conflict
  • Great dialog
  • Rich detail and description
  • Establishing atmosphere / setting
  • Wordsmith / strong prose / lyrical and literate
  • Memorable characters / characterization
  • Strong scenes / story structure / plot and pacing
  • World building / conceptual depth
  • Narrative voice

Of course, all these elements are necessary to a good story and some of them overlap. Nevertheless, if my assertion is legit — nobody has all the talent– then no writer will be great at all of these. The writer who creates memorable characters and great dialog often sacrifices rich atmosphere or description. The writer who builds new worlds or unpacks florid concepts sometimes sacrifices strong prose or great dialog.

Which leads me to ask: If you could build a writer, what talents would you give her? 100 percent “great dialog”? 50 / 50 “memorable characters” and “atmosphere”? Or would you evenly spread your points elsewhere? Whatever you decide, remember: For every strength you give your writer, you eliminate or lessen another.

So what would your ideal writer look like? Do you think certain strengths or elements of storytelling are more important than others for writers? Or is it more important for a writer to concentrate on her strengths, rather than worry about her weaknesses?

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on Reddit
{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Eddy July 21, 2010, 9:33 AM

    Great thoughts here. In my own writing I find that I often lament that I don’t have enough of skills a, b, or c and will get bogged down or dismayed because certain aspects aren’t as good as others. This is certainly a cool way to reconcile some of that while still working to approve those attributes and “leveling up” in other areas, so to speak. Makes perfect sense to me, too, as I’m an avid video gamer.

    Nice post. This has become one of my new favorite blogs in the last few weeks. Keep up the good work.

    • Mike Duran July 21, 2010, 7:20 PM

      Hey Eddy, I appreciate your readership! And I agree that rather than “lament” our lack of skills in certain areas, it’s probably better to concentrate on existing strengths. The rest will probably follow.

  • Dan T. Davis July 21, 2010, 11:46 AM

    Interesting thoughts. One might argue for a team approach to writing based on these assertions – i.e. incorporate each participant’s strengths to improve the writing. Strangely enough, when I’ve observed group writing, it is usually the weaknesses that tend to prevail.

  • Cy July 21, 2010, 5:32 PM

    Writers should expend more energy learning what their strengths are than worrying over their weaknesses. Everyone can’t be good at every aspect of storytelling. As long as we’re not breaking a lot of rules, we should concentrate on what we’re good at whether it’s voice, action, dialog, etc.

  • Nicole July 21, 2010, 9:18 PM

    I agree with your premise, Mike. It’s your multiple questions which are a little more difficult to definitively answer . . .

    “So what would your ideal writer look like? Do you think certain strengths or elements of storytelling are more important than others for writers? Or is it more important for a writer to concentrate on her strengths, rather than worry about her weaknesses?”

    Ideal writer? I like too many different styles. However, two must-haves: good character development and authentic dialogue

    Importance of elements of storytelling? I think the elements must be cohesive to the story–they have to work together for the genre and style.

    Concentrate on strengths instead of worry about weaknesses? Definitely concentrate on strengths, but if the weaknesses are glaring, somehow you gotta fix ’em. If they’re just the lesser end of the talent, make the strengths so powerful the reader won’t notice the weaker areas.

  • David James July 21, 2010, 11:31 PM

    Here’s how I look at it:

    Whenever I’ve built a character in a game, I’ve usually evened things out for the most part with certain things being a little bit higher than the average, and conversely some things being lower than the average.

    The reason for this is because usually in a game (and for that matter, in real life) you can always improve on a skill set. So as I play, I find out which ones deplete more regularly than others, and when I have the ability to “refuel”, I add extra points to what I lose on more often to counteract the loss in battle as well as further strengthen the areas where I remain strong to become as impenetrable as possible in those areas.

    In life, there are always ways we can improve on ourselves. Whether through personal counseling with a pastor, a psychologist, or a guru, or by exercising and losing those extra pounds around the waist, and many other ways, we always can improve on ourselves.

    Even if we can’t control our height (yet), the example you gave of the man at the piano is that he developed a sense of humor which he used to offset the fact his height was so different from the others. The skill of humor helped level out the deficiency of height.

    So, if I were to build the character of a writer, I’d keep things pretty even, I’d concentrate on having the more “important” things that all writers need to succeed being stronger than the rest, and the least important things to still have a significant go, but not at the average level. As time would move on and it is determined what needs to be improved upon, then I’d add to those areas.

    This post actually reminded me of a quote from J. Paul Getty:

    “I’d rather have 100 people giving me 1% of their effort than 1 person giving me 100% of his effort.”

    There are several lessons in that:

    One is strength in numbers. The more people you have, the faster and greater things can happen and be.

    Another is the potential to grow. If you have one person giving their all, then when that person is done, they are wiped out. But if you have more people doing significantly less, then you always have room for improvement with any of them. And you still get the task accomplished, because 100% is being used. Yet, each person operating at 1% only has to increase their efforts by another 1% and suddenly productivity has doubled! Another 1% and it’s tripled!

    By having things spread out and low, there is greater chance for improvement in all areas. If you’re so strong in just one area, you are just asking for a burn out. So don’t be afraid to be mediocre at first. Your present doesn’t determine your future. Joseph was in jail at one time because of false accusation by Potipher’s wife, at the time of imprisonment that was his present, yet his future was by the side of Pharoah, in charge of the wealth of the land.

    And if you know you have a strength, emphasize it, and concentrate on improving in the other areas.

    Life is a continual growth cycle. One day we’re strong in one area, the next day we are weak, yet strong in an area we used to be weak at.

    Just continue to work on improving what you can, and if it’s an impossibility, then praise God for your impossibility, since with God all things are possible, and His strength is made perfect in our weaknesses.

    Hope this helps someone.

  • Ane Mulligan July 22, 2010, 7:37 AM

    That’s why we have crit partners! 🙂 Gina, Jessica, and I all have different strengths and weaknesses. We complement each other by offering our strengths and getting help with our weaknesses. 🙂 I couldn’t do it without them, and they tell me they feel the same. I just hope I can give as much as I get!

  • Michael Ehret July 23, 2010, 5:21 AM

    I’m uncomfortable with the concept that God compensates talent in one area with weakness or deficiency in another. I’m comfortable that God gave me all I have and am, including my lesser qualities.

    We’re human, which means imperfect. It’s all part of who we are and were created to be. But I have this thorn in my side BECAUSE I’m able to write snappy dialogue? Or play cool jazz piano? No. I have this thorn in my side because it will help me bring glory to God.

Leave a Comment