Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Holly Lisle's Workshop
Honing Your Talent A Workshop
2001, By Holly Lisle
can be more competent, but talent is innate, God-given -- you either have it or
Is that true?
Well, what is talent, first of all? Sometimes
if you can define a thing, look at all of its parts, maybe take them apart and
play with them a little, you can figure out how to create some of that thing --
or some more of it -- for yourself.
We see the results of talent every day: people who run faster, jump
higher, think smarter, write more powerfully than we do.
And in our minds, we know that a lot of what they do that sets them apart
is training. Long hours, hard work,
bloody-minded persistence in the face of downturns, embarrassments, defeats, and
That's what we know in our heads. What
we tend to believe in our hearts is that they each have something more.
Some magic spark, some touch of fairy dust or the hand of God or one
lucky roll of the genetic dice that makes them different than the rest of us --
and that makes what they have done therefore somehow unattainable.
Folks, there's good news and bad news.
And I'm going to give you the bad news first. They have talent that you don't have. Everything they have ever done and everything they have ever
dreamed has given each one of them an unduplicatable set of special skills.
They have a unique perspective of the world, and an equally unique way of
expressing that perspective that you can never get, no matter how hard you work.
Depressed? Don't be. Here's
the good news.
You already have as unique a background as any Gene Wolfe or Thomas Harris
or Lois Bujold or Robert Parker. By
the simple act of being alive, you have a toolkit full of tools that are your
The trick is to learn to use them. And
that is the purpose of this workshop.
So let's dig into your personal Talent Toolkit and see what you have to
work with. Get a notebook and a
pen, sit someplace comfortable and interesting, and brace yourself.
We're going to do a lot of writing.
Writers' tools break down into several basic groups:
Content Tools, Style Tools, and Presentation
Tools. We'll unpack each one
and play with it a little to give you a chance to see what each will do.
Tools that Draw from Present
very broadest sense, these five tools encompass all of your writing and draw
from both past and present, but we're going to be using them more narrowly, and
in more detail, than in that broader sense. By being present in the moment --
any moment -- and focusing on where you are and what is going on all around you,
you gather in the details that make your writing come alive.
now, what do you see around you? Write
it down in as much detail as you can muster, from the color of the chenille
bathrobe you're wearing to the way the dust motes float in the beam of sunlight
falling through the window. Get the
people in, the shapes and masses and colors, as if you were telling a painter
how to paint a scene he couldn't see, and your life depended on him getting it
right. (Career-wise, at least, it
you finish, relax your shoulders, close your eyes (as long as you're sitting
someplace safe), and listen. What
sounds do you hear up close? How
about a few feet away? In the next
room? Outside close? Outside at a distance? What
about any voices? What emotions do
they convey even before you listen to the words?
And what words do you hear? How
about animal sounds, machine sounds, plant sounds, environmental sounds?
When you think you have everything, rewrite your previous scene using
only sound cues.
sensation -- start with the itch between your shoulderblades, the feel of
clothes on your skin, the weight, texture, and temperature of the air in the
room, and move outward incrementally -- the seat supporting you, the cat against
your bare foot, the hair falling into your eyes,
the table beneath you hand, the carpet on the floor.
Move outward, being concrete, digging for the truth of the way things
and smell are our blind senses, but do the best you can.
What do you taste right now, what do you smell right now?
you can write anything that captures a moment or a world, you have to be alive
to the world, and to everything all five of your senses are telling you.
Practice this exercise until you're used to noticing details.
of the real power of your unique talent will come from your memory.
From memory, you'll draw and reshape the incidents that will give your
characters depth and permit them to reach others.
The characters in your fiction will not be conceived or born outside of
you, in people you know or watch. They'll
first come from inside of you, from your hopes and fears, and will then be
dressed up in other people's skins and voices so that your stories won't be
you've probably started wondering, When do I get to list my successes, all the
good things I've done, all my happy moments.
don't. Fiction is not born out of
all the good things you've accomplished; those aren't the things people want to
read about, no matter how much fun it may be to write about them.
Conflict lies in the things that don't work out, so the useful moments in
your life will be the screw-ups you've made. And the more public and painful the
belly-flop, the better fuel it will make for your work.
you're getting uncomfortable little warnings about the nature of writing fiction
and what sorts of people make successful writers . . . well, hi.
People who do well following rules and coloring inside the lines and
fitting in are the CEOs of their companies. Or middle managers.
Or guys on the line Welcome to Misfits'R Us.
I should relabel this one "Nightmare" -- but hard as I find this to
imagine, there are actually people in the world who don't have nightmares.
have terrifying dreams -- things that wake you from a sound sleep and leave you
shaking, breathing fast, and afraid to leave any stray body parts dangling over
the bed -- you can get paid for them.
As a long-time nightmare sufferer, this was a revelation to me, let me
dreams are pretty worthless. Anything
from finding yourself at work in your pajamas to fighting off vampires to rescue
your kids, though, has a place in your fiction.
have bad or interesting dreams, start keeping track of them.
Write down the ones that wake you up, that leave you feeling uneasy.
And then look for ways that you can work them into your fiction. In Minerva Wakes,
I used them straight out of the plastic wrap; in other books, I've drawn themes,
characterization, and motive from them.
can't live in the future, but you can write there. List the things you most hope for, and the things you most
fear. Five to ten of each.
When you're done, consider how you might transfer these hopes and fears
to your characters.
Raw talent may come from the mystical etheric realms, but
if you can master the technical elements of storytelling, you can turn raw
talent into something infinitely better -- namely, a dependable skill.
The elements you need to master include:
are for relevant articles or workshops Ive done on the site or in Vision.)
of these alone requires more space than I have in a single short workshop.
Multiple books exist about each of these style tools; you can be writing
professionally for years and still find new facets of each to explore.
thing you need to remember about style tools is that each of them represents a
series of learnable skills -- if you're deficient at any or all of these,
effort, study, and a great deal of practice can correct the deficiency.
remain flat-out stunned by the number of people who want to write (or more
likely, who want to have written) but who lack basic written language skills.
Here are the bleak facts -- if you don't know the difference between past
tense and past participle, cannot figure out when to break a paragraph, or have
shaky or nonexistent spelling skills, you have no more chance of making a living
from writing than a carpenter who can't use a
hammer or saw or plane does making a living from woodworking.
good news is that basic grammar skills are learnable. The bad new is that most would-be writers are too lazy to
take the time and effort required to learn them well. If you're telling yourself, "It doesn't matter if I mess
up spelling or punctuation or stuff like that -- that's the editor's job to
fix," quit now. I'm not
kidding. If you're not willing to
learn the tools of the trade, writing for a living is not in your future.
you're willing to learn but just aren't proficient yet, no problem.
The first thing you do is read. A
lot. You'll get an instinctive feel
for grammar from reading the work of good writers.
This means people who are writing in your genre, and those who aren't.
I recommend any works by the following writers:
are multitudes of writers who tell good stories, multitudes who write with
beauty and technical proficiency. The
writers I've listed above consistently do both, and they are members of a rare
that, pick up a copy of Strunk & White. Read the book; learn the
rules. And for grammar practice,
you can visit:
seem overwhelming. There's so much
to learn, you can't get it all in one workshop or from taking one course or from
reading one book. The more you
learn, the more you discover remains to be learned.
writing isnt something to do in a day. Its
a life course, a path. A journey,
not a destination. Youll never
be as good as you want to be, and every book you write will be the failure of a
perfect idea but as you progress, every day will also bring its rewards.
Youll get closer to expressing your perfect idea.
talent is everything about you that makes you unique. With effort, you can shape and sharpen it.
So to answer the statement at the beginning of the article yes
talent is innate. Youre born
with it. Everyone is.
However, not everyone chooses to pursue it.