Natasha Kern Talks About Talent vs. Perseverance

Thursday, March 10, 2011


I am thrilled to have my awesome agent Natasha Kern as a guest blogger on The Borrowed Book today. I know you will benefit from her words of wisdom and will find encouragement in what she has to say about the journey that writers take to the goal of publication. Welcome, Natasha.

In talking with Sandra about this blog, we agreed that it would be good to write about the necessity for talent vs. perseverance in having a publishing career. Is success a matter of expressing a gift or working hard to achieve your goal? I have been in this business a long time and have sold over 1,000 books so I have had an opportunity to come to some conclusions about what leads to success.

There really is such a thing as a gift. As the late great editor Kate Duffy used to say: Life isn't a level playing field. Some people have perfect pitch. I don’t. Some people ‘got rhythm.’ I don’t have that either! The talents of writers vary widely. I represented a writer who was a fantastic storyteller, but had not conquered grammar or spelling. Because his readers were spellbound, his editor and publisher didn’t care whether he paid attention to structural nitty gritty and were glad he got film sales. Other writers, especially literary writers are wordsmiths who create beautiful metaphoric language and imagery. Readers may be so enthralled by the writing itself that they forget there isn’t much of a plot. Yet other writers have a gift for deeply understanding people and what makes them tick. Their characters are unforgettable and can be the basis of a series.

The craft of writing can be taught and this is where perseverance comes in since absolutely no one, even someone very talented, is born knowing how to write a novel. And usually the author has to have enough life experience to write a novel so it is rarer to be a success as a novelist in one’s twenties. There is so much to learn about plotting, chapter or scene structure, pacing, point of view, motivation, conflict and much more. I think it can be helpful to pick out one aspect of the craft to master in each book.

The art of storytelling is an innate gift, although often writers do find certain ideas or themes that capture their imagination and which they excel in writing about. Sometimes it can take a while to figure out what they are. It is not uncommon for writers to first try a genre that doesn’t work for them like Stephen King having to give up writing thrillers and tossing those he had written when he finally sold Carrie. I don’t agree with the idea that everyone can write a novel if they just work at it any more than I think I’m going to be a ballet dancer one day or anyone can compose a sonata. Some people really aren’t very good at it and practicing won't help. I think we've all learned this from American Idol.

The question is: How do we know who the talented are? I used to tell writers that anything worth doing is worth doing badly at first. You do have to start somewhere. And if you have a burning desire to write, chances are you do have a talent that can be developed. And that is where the hard work part will come in. I can look at a submission and know in a few lines if it is going to work, certainly in a paragraph or two. Am I pulled into the story? Does the writing work? Everyone can do this as a matter of taste-¬pick up a novel and read the jacket blurb or the opening and know if it is something you are likely to enjoy reading. It is also easy to tell as a matter of craft and I do this often at writing conferences by having a writer read from her work for a few paragraphs and then tell her what the problems are with the entire structure of the novel.

Getting back to how we know who the talented are. We really don’t! I can tell if a particular opening or synopsis or chapter work. Does this writer have a real gift that might be developed? I can’t know that for sure. There is a well known list which I will reprise here defining Who Are the Gifted that substantiates how rarely gifts are seen and acknowledged. I can't know until I see that submission that simply WOWs me and I can't put it down! So go ahead and persevere assuming that you will discover more about your gifts as you continue to write.

Creative and imaginative people are often not recognized by their contemporaries. History is full of examples. Consider these:

Einstein was four years old before he could speak and seven before he could read. He was turned down for a number of jobs in physics. His brilliant wife Mileva was rejected even more often and more thoroughly yet she helped him discover E=MC2

Beethoven's music teacher said of him, "As a composer, he is hopeless."

As a boy, Thomas Edison was told by his teachers he was too stupid to learn anything.

F. W. Woolworth got a job in a dry goods store when he was 21, but his employers would not let him wait on a customer because he, "Didn't have enough sense."

A newspaper editor fired Walt Disney because he, "had no good ideas¬just not creative."

Caruso's music teacher told him, "You can't sing, you have no voice at all."

Leo Tolstoy flunked out of college, Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade, Isaac Newton did poorly in grade school, and Wernher von Braun flunked 9th grade algebra.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd had been retired from the Navy, as "unfit for service" until he flew over both poles.

Louis Pasteur was rated mediocre in chemistry when he attended the Royal College.

Louisa May Alcott was told by an editor she could never write anything that had popular appeal.

Fred Waring was rejected from high school chorus.

Abraham Lincoln, our nation's greatest leader, knew defeat throughout his life. His path to success looked like this: 1831 Failed in Business. 1832 Defeated for legislature. 1833 Second business failure. 1836 Suffered nervous breakdown. 1838 Defeated for speaker. 1840 Defeated for elector. 1843 Defeated for Congress. 1848 Defeated for Congress. 1855 Defeated for Senate. 1856 Defeated for vice president. 1858 Defeated for Senate. 1860 ELECTED PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES

There are hundreds of similar stories from all walks of life and certainly about writers and their path to success in publishing. Don’t give up on achieving your goals. Accept the gifts God has given you and make the most of them.

Natasha

Thank you, Natasha, for taking time to stop by our blog today. I know our readers feel encouraged by your stirring words.

All of us who write deal with rejections all the time. What keeps you persevering toward your goal of becoming a published writer?

20 comments:

Glynna Kaye said...

Good morning Sandra and Natasha! I always love an opportunity to get Natasha's "take" on things. I learned so much from her even before I became one of her clients. The wonderful thing about being a writer is there's always room for growth--for learning and applying what you learn to your writing. It's a very rewarding, ongoing adventure!

Julie Lessman said...

WOW!!! WHAT A POST, NATASHA AND SANDRA -- THAT LITANY ABOVE OF INCREDIBLE SUCCESS STORIES BLOWS MY MIND. But then, so do you, Natasha -- over and over again!! Sandra and I are blessed to be your clients.

Hugs,
Julie

Sandra Robbins said...

Thanks for stopping by, Glynna and Julie. You are so right. I learn something from Natasha every time I talk with her or receive an email from her.

Sandra Robbins

Mary Connealy said...

I've always believed that there are two main skills to being a writer.
1) Writing skills
2) Writing mentality

The writing skills you can learn.
The mentality, the personality type that can sit alone for long hours makin' stuff up, I think you're either born with it or you're not. It's not exactly NORMAL.

Patti Lacy said...

Natasha, thanks for an inspiring reminder of living out Colossians 3:23! People should remember that old E.F. Hutton commercial and pay attention:)

Blessings,
Patti

Missy Tippens said...

Great post, Natasha and Sandra! I think that even though publication may take a long time, God will give us encouragement along the way, directing us to keep trying. I know I had lots to learn, and hit lots of bumps along the way. But God kept me going.

Mary, you're not normal?? ;)

Margaret Brownley said...

Wonderful post. I'm so, very, very fortunate to have Natasha as my agent. Her words are always golden.

Casey said...

Thanks Natasha for the great post!! :)

Pepper said...

What a wonderful post, Natasha.
Thanks for sharing the encouragement and wisdom.
I write because I can't get these imaginary people out of my head otherwise. And it's so much fun to create!

It's not easy to etch out time within a busy schedule, but I guess that's where the perseverence comes in.

(snicker) Mary? Not normal?
Sigh.
Must be why I love her so much!

Shawna Williams said...

I loved this! I've been wrestling so much with insecurity over my writing lately. Even in my sleep. Last night, I had this crazy dream that I'd decided to try out for a soccer team. You have to understand, in real life the only thing I know to do when I see a ball headed my direction is duck and scream. Anyway, I still decided I'd go to a practice just to see. At practice I struck up a conversation with another player, who immediately seemed annoyed that I spoke to her. When I told her I was a writer, she sneered in disbelief and then started laughing. I have issues.

Thanks for this encouraging post, Natasha.

S. Dionne Moore said...

Thanks for posting, Natasha. Great food for thought.

Natasha Kern - Literary Agent said...

Thanks for your responses everyone. I am so glad that my clients persevered in expressing their talents so we could all enjoy their stories. They are creators of entertainment and sources of inspiration for thousands of readers. That elusive thing called 'voice' is how their talents are expressed.
Natasha

Myra Johnson said...

So glad Julie pointed me to this blog! I'm also one of Natasha's clients, which makes me feel like I've won the lottery!

I totally agree with what Mary said about the writing mentality. You'd better love spending hours alone at your computer making up stories and living out of your own head--and I do!

Of course I've always known I wasn't "normal." But look at the great company not being normal has landed me in!

Tina Radcliffe said...

Excellent and interesting post, Natasha.

I persevere because I am too stubborn not to.

Debby Giusti said...

Natasha,

Great blog! Lots of inspiration! Thanks for sharing. When you speak, I always listen.

Mary Connealy said...

I used to coach softball (a town team...trust me they were desperate for help) And one of my standard pep talks was that the very BEST batters in the major leagues were batting .300. That meant that they were STRIKING OUT seven out of ten times they got to bat. And these were the STARS of the athletic world. I'd tell my girls they needed to get up there and take a change, go in swinging and do NOT be afraid to strike out.
Because they would.
But they'd get some hits too and that was the game they'd signed up to play.

Pam Hillman said...

I'm with Tina. Just too stubborn to quit! lol

Stubborn.

Perseverance.

Mental.

Yep. I've got it!

Oh, wait, Mary said mentality, not mental.

Vanessa Miller said...

Natasha, thanks so much for the encouraging words! You have so much knowledge in this business that when you speak, the world just seems to make sense.

I'm glad that I have an agent who knows how to hang in there and get the job done for her clients! You're the best...

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Mary's not normal.

I am.

And I keep telling myself that!

Natasha, what a keeper. The list of people whose perseverance paid off... Don't you just love that, the success stories??? And like Tina and Pam, I'm too stubborn to quit, which ended up being a good thing!

So glad I saw this!

Ruthy

Julie Surface Johnson said...

Natasha,

As one who switched from writing non-fiction to fiction, I've been amazed at how difficult it is to write good fiction, at times wondering if I'll ever "get it."

Thanks for your statement:
"I think it can be helpful to pick out one aspect of the craft to master in each book."
That encourages me that I don't need to be perfect in Book One, that I can learn and grow as a writer until my dying day. Bless you!

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