© 2011 Mark Canter
To win big, every fiction writer needs three allies: life experience, craft and talent. The first two can be (and must be) acquired. But the third ally, talent, is something you’re born with—or not. No amount of real life adventures or writer’s workshops will earn you more talent. By definition, talent means gift. And every aspiring writer must face the scary question: Do I have enough talent—am I gifted?
One way to answer that question is to see how closely your personal muse matches a collection of traits that most successful fiction writers possess. As an obvious example, just as painters and photographers are engrossed by light in all of its moods, natural storytellers are fascinated by language in all of its voices. A person who is not easily enthralled by the power and grandeur of words probably lacks a true gift for writing.
What follows is a quick test for gauging your writing aptitude. Okay, it’s utterly unscientific—but the chances are pretty fair that a high score means you’ve got the bard’s gift, and a low score—well, don’t quit your day job until you’re forced into retirement.
How to score: On a scale of 1 to 5, mark whether you strongly agree (5), or strongly disagree (1), with each statement as it relates to your own character traits.
THE FICTION WRITER’S (gulp) TALENT ASSAY
or D.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. TEST
(Do I Possess Sufficient Talent Independent of Craft or Knowledge?)
1. YOU MAKE UP STORIES ABOUT PERFECT STRANGERS. That silver-haired executive-type in the theater seat in front of you ditched his wife half a year ago for the trophy blonde now clinging to his arm. His new sex life is hotter in some ways, but lying awake tonight, he’ll remember his love for his ex-wife and ache for all that he traded away.
2. YOU OFTEN PLAY THE IMAGINATION GAME, “WHAT IF? What if you had the secret power to heal people by stripping off your clothes in churches? To destroy a person at any distance simply by blinking your eyes three times and saying, “Begone.”?
3. YOUR CURIOSITY HAS BIG MUSCLES FROM CONSTANT EXERCISE. Curiosity may get you killed, as it did the cat, but perhaps you’ll die as a bestselling novelist. A jetliner passes above—Who’s in it? Where are they going? What are they doing right now? That’s the way your mind works.
4. YOU’RE NOSY ABOUT THE WRITING PROCESS. If you receive a letter with some words crossed out, you’ve got to snoop and see what it said before revision.
5. YOU STUDY PHOTOS OF CROWDS, FACE BY FACE. A crowd in Mogadishu surrounds the smoking, blackened corpse of a Marine airman. Projecting yourself behind each set of eyes, you try to imagine the experience from that person’s viewpoint.
6. YOU SPY INSIDE OTHER PEOPLE’S MINDS. This is closely related to the above trait. You almost can’t keep yourself from wondering about the psyche of others; not only the horror of a murder victim, but what the hell was going on in the killer’s mind.
7. YOU’VE GOT A “WEAK EGO BOUNDARY”. This term, coined by Freud, describes people who have a hard time telling where they end and another person—or the whole planet—begins. At its worse, this kind of fuzzy self-border makes you looney. At its best, it helps you to be a mystic, a damn fine novelist, or both.
8. YOU HAVE AN ARTIST’S EYE FOR DETAILS. Most will notice that the shed roof is rusty; but you see that the orange rust on the steel roof branches as it runs to the porch eaves like a river fanning into a delta.
9. FOR YOU, HEARING IS BELIEVING. Listening to a radio drama or a story read aloud can move you just as much as watching a dramatic movie.
10. YOU WRITE FOR THE EAR. You’ve got to like the sound of the words, not just their meaning, so you often read your writing aloud to yourself. “For the ear trieth words, as the mouth tastesth meat; let us choose...what is good.” (Job xxiv. 3,4)
11. THE DICTIONARY IS YOUR READING COMPANION. You never let an unfamiliar word pass by and remain a stranger. When you look up a word, you also browse all the interesting words around it. Word origins are especially revelatory. (You do have an etymological dictionary, don’t you?)
12. YOU’RE A COMPULSIVE READER. Of billboards, cereal boxes, T-shirts—whatever. You tailgate so that you can read the bumper sticker up ahead. (It says, “Don’t tailgate me, or I’ll flick a booger on your windshield.”)
13. SO MANY BOOKS, SO LITTLE TIME. Since childhood, you’ve devoured books of all kinds. Walking into a superb library or bookstore is like entering a temple of earthly delights. For you, life without reading would be like procreation without pleasure—entirely possible, but why bother?
14. YOU CAN’T BEAR TO SPEED-READ. Try as you might to read faster, you automatically slow down with a good book—like a gourmet hovering over steaming Peking duck—to savor the rhythm, the nuance, the mouth-feel of the words. The more satisfying the writing, the slower you read.
15. YOU ENJOY WORD GAMES. Crossword puzzles, anagrams, Scrabble ™, puns, acronyms, palindromes—you name it. (My favorite palindrome—a sentence that reads the same way backward as forward: A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.)
16. YOU ACE VERBAL TESTS. On the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, you scored in the high 600s or better (a perfect score is 800). If you took the Graduate Record Exam, your reading comprehension/verbal skills score was in the top 20 percentile or better.
17. YOU WRITE WITH YOUR WHOLE BODY. Books on the craft of fiction advise you to include aromas, textures, flavors and sounds in each of your scenes—not just what the eyes perceive. If this has to be learned, it is mere technique. For a sensualist it comes naturally, and is, therefore, a gift.
18. A GOOD STORY KIDNAPS YOU INTO ITS WORLD. According to genetics researchers, of all inheritable personality traits one of the strongest is the ability to become absorbed. So, thank mom and dad if you can easily abandon yourself to fiction—reading it, or writing it.
19. YOU EXTEND STORIES BEYOND THEIR FINAL SCENE. What happens now that E.T. has gone home? You tend to create sequels in your head for stories that have grabbed you. Characters linger in your imagination and show you their further adventures.
20. YOUR FICTIONAL CHARACTERS TAKE ON A LIFE OF THEIR OWN. You make up story people, plop them in the middle of an intriguing conflict, and they quickly become so real to you that you get the feeling you’re simply a reporter, observing and describing what they say and do and what happens as a result.
21. YOU’VE GOT TERRIFIC PERIPHERAL VISION. You aren’t just interested in the heavyweights slugging it out in the ring. What about the teen-ager selling popcorn? The guy over there who’s sipping from a hip-pocket flask? Why is that great-grandmother sitting ringside? You hear a cat mewing somewhere under the bleachers. You risk boring your readers into a coma if you include too many details, but it helps your characters come alive if you’re the type of author who notices the little things in your fictional world.
22. YOU SHRINK FROM CLICHES LIKE A GARDEN SLUG SHRINKS FROM SALT. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” That’s wonderfully vivid language, or at least it must have been when it was first used back in Chaucer’s day. Now it’s weaker than three-time tea.
23. GETTING THE WORDS RIGHT IS SATISFACTION ITSELF. Maybe you’re not as obsessive as Ernest Hemmingway, who rewrote the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms 119 times. But in your own writing you strive for something very close to perfection.
24. PEOPLE OFTEN TELL YOU, “YOU OUGHTA WRITE A NOVEL.” Hear this enough and it means there’s something special in the way you sling words together. At the least, it means you’ve got the storyteller’s knack. At best, it means you not only tell stories well, but you’ve got your own voice. The crucial advice: Write the same way you talk.
25. YOU’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO WRITE FICTION. Maybe it’s because you are a fiction writer, disguised as some other professional. It’s your destiny to write fiction, and in your heart you know it.
INTERPRETING THE F.Q. TEST RESULTS:
ADD YOUR SCORE, THEN GIVE YOURSELF 10 BONUS POINTS FOR BEING BRAVE AND FOOLISH ENOUGH TO TAKE THIS SILLY TEST.
110 to 135 points: Wonderful. You may be the next John Grisham. A worldwide readership awaits you; topnotch literary agents cry, “Me! Pick me!”
85 to 110 points: Excellent. You’ve definitely got what it takes. Begin that novel now. Never give up until you see your byline in the bookstores.
50 to 85 points: Good. You’ve got some pizazz. But read everything you can on the craft of fiction to bolster your talent.
35 to 50 points: Okay. What you need here is a real life that seems like a thriller. For example, it would help to be a retired S.E.A.L.S. commando leader. Just be sure to hire a talented ghostwriter.