Telling the Difference

Zoë Sharp

We live in a Want it Now society. A No Waiting world, where delivery must be fast fast fast or we lose interest. Trash it and on to the next thing. Fifteen minutes of fame has become fifteen seconds.

If you’re lucky.

It may just be what I see of the UK, but kids’ ambition has turned from wanting some kind of career that might one day bring reward, to craving celebrity for its own sake – without apparently wanting to do anything to earn that status.

Patience and persistence, it seems, are dying qualities.

I have always said in the past that there were more persistent writers published than there are talented writers published, and I feel that was true.

It’s not just the actual business of writing an entire book. That’s tough enough. Having the self-belief and the knuckle-under mentality to keep going, a few hundred words at a time, until you’ve got a completed manuscript sitting there. Sustaining the idea, building the characters, developing the plot. It’s a feat that demands applause on the grounds of persistence alone.

There are hard drives all over the world cluttered with literary efforts that staggered to a halt less than halfway through, never to see the end of their journey.

By the law of averages, some of them might have been brilliant masterpieces.

Some would have been total dross.

Of course, some brilliant masterpieces do make it to the completion stage, are discovered and published to all-round acclaim.

Weirdly, quite a lot of the dross makes it that far, too.

In his last Murderati post, David Corbett talked, among other things, about the value of having a football coach who encouraged him in his endeavours. ‘Not because I was gifted. The reason I played football and not baseball or basketball was simple: I lacked any conceivable athletic talent. The only thing slower than me on the football field were the goal posts.’

Having someone to encourage your efforts at an impressionable age is vital for healthy development. What form that encouragement takes, and how you define the word ‘encouragement’ in the first place, is quite another matter.

Encouragement is important for writers, because self-doubt will always be part of the writer’s make-up. The devil on your shoulder, whispering in your ear nothings that are a long way from sweet. And the worst thing about that particular little demon is that whatever praise you receive only eggs him on. ‘Aw, come on – they don’t mean it. They’re just humouring you …’

Most fledgling writers don’t stray far from the nest for their first test readers. They ask family and close friends. In a lot of ways, it’s a logical choice. Who wants to turn their baby over to strangers who may send it out to play in heavy traffic?

Instead they turn to family. And family, being family, is most likely to deliver praise. ‘Well done,’ they say with a smile that doesn’t quite reach their eyes. ‘It’s great.’

Even if it isn’t.

After all, they love you. They want you to be happy, and most of all – unless things at home fall firmly into the dysfunctional category – they don’t want to see your fragile ego bruised. Possibly, also, they don’t want to have to live with the emotional fallout of telling you the hard, blunt truth.

That your baby sucks.

And then some.

Nobody wants to be told they’ve failed to achieve their dream, even if it is at the first attempt. Just as nobody wants to be told they haven’t got any talent ever to achieve their ambition. Or, worse and more cruel still I think, that they have some talent – just not enough.


Not quite.

Close, but no cigar.

Because, what if your bouncing baby bestseller is not actually destined forever for the slush pile, but what if it’s just … ordinary.


Not bad.

All right.

After all, some people’s terrible is other people’s brilliant. But there’s an awful lot of middle ground in between, so how do you distinguish between undiscovered genius and mid-list also-ran?

Somebody said recently that if you write for the approbation of others, then don’t do it. But if we don’t write to be read … then why do we do it? It’s just a voice in the wilderness, unheard.

That might be all right for the tortured artists among us, who work because they can’t do otherwise, driven by those whispering demons, urged on, flogging themselves until they’re bled dry by their ‘talent’.

Such artists are rarely appreciated – or acknowledged – in their own lifetimes.

But what about the rest of us?

Yes, we’re all driven to write in one form or another, but I see what we do as a craft rather than an art, and thus we’re all striving to better our craft in the hope that talent will out while we’re still in a condition to enjoy it.

If talent were enough.

If only talent were enough.

So, when do you decide that it’s not? And, if you make that decision, won’t the brockenspectre of regret follow you for the rest of your life?

I coulda been a contender …

If you block your ears to the critics, then surely you must also disbelieve those who offer praise.

Always waiting for the but …

The nearly.

The not quite.

Just as we live in a Want It Now society, we also live in one that attempts to homogenise us. It rounds off the corners and in doing so crushes aspirations at the same time as attempting to eliminate disappointments. It creates that vast pool of middle ground.

Everyone’s a winner, babe.

Some schools in the UK have banned Sports’ Day because of the negative effects losing the egg-and-spoon race may have on the pupils whose speed and agility and hand-to-eye coordination isn’t quite up to the task. Other parents have been known to sue because their little darlings are not selected for the school choir, regardless of actual singing ability …

They must all be winners, and the playing field will be levelled and re-levelled until that is so. But isn’t it as cruel to encourage those without talent, as it is to discourage those with it?

Will the rise of ePublishing be the artificially levelled playing field of the literary world?

No longer do struggling writers have to go through the selection process of submitting to agents in the hopes of being taken on. Agent rejections can be blunt, and hard. They not only don’t pull their punches, they’re usually wearing a set of brass knuckles when they swing. And more often than not they follow it up with a swift knee to the groin for good measure.

And even if you make it that far, there’s the whole painful process to go through again, submitting to publishers. If you thought agents could be brutal, wait until commissioning editors get hold of your baby and start casually disembowelling it with a few slashes of a sharp red pen …

So, the temptation to circumvent this process and go straight to ePublishing is understandably strong, but there are dangers, as were pointed out in JT Ellison’s excellent interviewwith industry professional Neil Nyren on Murderati recently: ‘If you’re thinking of self-publishing an ebook, please—don’t make it a manuscript dump. Most ms never see the light of day for an excellent reason – they’re not very good.’

Sound advice.

Because, if you don’t go through the pain of rejections and rewrites, do you really know if what you’ve done is good, or even good enough? How do you tell if you haven’t quite got what it takes, or are simply misunderstood?

Having some talent is not the same as having enough talent.

But how do you tell the difference?

Finally, please spare a thought for all those Edgar Award nominees who will be put out of their misery this evening – April 28th. I have the honour of being a contributor to a nominated title – THRILLERS: 100 MUST READSedited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner. Whatever the outcome, congratulations to the winners and commiserations to the losers.

This week’s Word of the Week is exenterate, meaning to disembowel, from the Greek ex from and enteron intestine.

38 thoughts on “Telling the Difference

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    In this particular picture, adversity wins. No WAY am I even getting close to that thing.

  2. Barbie

    Zoë, this post is absolutely brilliant. I completely agree with it. Just… absolutely, especially in the whole talent thing. I'm short of against parents telling their kids just how brilliant they are, how absolutely beautiful. I think it makes it for adults with unrealistic dreams, often feeling arrogant and believing they're better at something than they really are. The truth is, your child is probably not as beautiful or as smart as you think they are. Not all of us can be the prettiest and smartest little thing is our kindergarten classes. And, no matter how much they want to believe we can do anything we put our minds to, if we just try hard enough, we can't.

    I would never be able to be an astronaut, no matter how hard I worked for it. I could barely manage High School Physics, let alone the whole spacial thing (I don't even know what it is called). A dancer or a singer? Pffft, I have a decent singing voice, but I have NO RHYTHM. Even if LOVED these things and tried for them my whole life, chances are I'd never be good enough for it. If I really believed I could do anything I wanted to, I might spend my whole life focusing on doing something I'd probably never achieve, because it just wasn't there for me. And I think a lot of people end up becoming unhappy and frustrated because of that. Of course, you don't have to tell your child they're ugly and dumb as a door, but telling them how brilliant and stunning they are is probably going to do more damage in the long run!

    That [i] terrifies [/i] me. I've known I want to be an author since I was ten years old and it kills me to think I may not be good enough. Am I talented? I truly believe I am, up to a point. Am I talent [i] enough [/i]? I have no bloody idea. Am I willing to do what it takes to get there? Absolutely. Do I [i] have [/i] what it takes? I honestly don't know. I'm 22 and desperate to find a suitable alternative, something that could make me happy, for this dream I have. An alternate choice, just in case that isn't for me after all.

    I just think… people (and their parents) should be more realistic about their abilities and focus on finding something that makes them happy that are realistically within their reach. Most of us are average in most things we do. Some of us are average at everything we do. I'm a completely average person in pretty much everything: I'm not beautiful, but not ugly, either. I'm not a genius, but not stupid, either. I'm okay. And I'm okay with that!

    Anyway, just want to say again how much I LOVE this post! 🙂

  3. JD Rhoades

    Fingers crossed for the anthology (since I'm a contributor too, and BTW, loved your piece on THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, one of my all time favorites).

    As to the whole e-self-pubbing thing, how do you know when you're good enough? The readers let you know, as opposed to some whiz kid in the marketing department who's arbitrarily decided that "no one's buying books about x this year" (even if a book about x is currently on the best seller list).

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi PK

    You and me both. I don't think I have a glass big enough to drop over that sucker, or a piece of cardboard strong enough to slide under the glass. And I certainly don't take such things into the bathroom with me!

    Hi Barbie

    Wow, thanks for such a detailed response. I don't agree with telling kids they're average, though, because as I said at the beginning, success has always been a balance of talent and persistence. The late great Ayrton Senna had raw talent by the bucketload. Nigel Mansell had to work really hard at it. But they both became Formula One World Champions, just by different routes. Writing is different from sports, however. You can be amazingly talented – and persistent – and yet through bad luck or whatever, never quite achieve the success your talent deserves.

    Or is your lack of success because you don't, after all, quite have enough talent?

    It's a knotty one, isn't it?

    Hi Dusty

    Of course! I should have checked through my copy of the book before I posted. Best of luck to all the contributors, including our own JD, Tess, Allison and JT.

    And you're right about the readers having the choice, although do they make that choice based on quality alone?

    (Please excuse the mass response, by the way, but the anti-spam filters tend to block me out if I try and post too many responses one after another.)

  5. Barbie

    Zoë, I didn't mean in anyway that we should tell kids they're average! I just don't think they should be told they're absolutely brillian and jawdropping stunning when they're normal kids. And, instead of telling them they can do anything they want, maybe parents should focus on their talents (though I think parents are somewhat biased for that). I don't know, I'm just a kid, I don't really know what I'm talking about 🙂 I was never given many compliments, in fact, my mom never really complimented without a but (as in "Yeah, 95% os good, but why didn't you get 100%?") and I'm fine with that. Keeps me from becoming too arrogant.

    By the way, anyone who uses Very Demotivational pictures to illustrate a blog post is a winner in my book!

    (ps: You don't know I'm from Brazil, do you? You mentioned Ayrton Senna and I thought it was funny) 🙂

  6. billie

    The most exciting thing to me about e-publishing is the emergence of unique voices. So many writers aiming for traditional publishing either get edited toward the mainstream or end up writing in that direction in order to sell, and what readers end up getting are a lot of very similar books to choose from, based on the tastes of a few people serving as gatekeepers.

    I scoured the small presses all along, looking for books to read that didn't find a home in a big house, for just this reason.

    As a writer AND a reader, I value books that take on difficult issues, writers who tell amazing stories but maybe not all in the same way, and I'm thrilled to have access to voices that HAVEN'T been edited to death. I don't mean for grammar and spelling and such, but developmentally and structurally.

    I always preferred hearing music live, when the bands were still a bit raw, than hearing the recorded, produced versions – I think it's a similar thing for me and books. I want to read the gutsy, original draft.

    I'm not saying every book that goes through the traditional path ends up being homogenized – but many do, imo.

    Disclaimer: after 7 years of agents (representing me) and editors (full of praise and how much my books deserved to be published) in the traditional publishing world, I decided life is too short, and I never aimed to write for the masses anyway, and wow – I can do it myself. November Hill Press has four books on Amazon now and I'm as happy as can be about that.

    I didn't do it because I "wanted it now." I did it because I wanted to do it DIFFERENTLY.

  7. Murderati fan

    Thoughts are bouncing around in my brain. Persistence – consider the tortoise.
    Everyone is special at something, most don’t look to discover what it is. One must always follow passion for true satisfaction, but often discovering that passion is difficult. Society has such an influence. Our parents, friends and relatives help us form before we are aware we are forming. So many things to rise above including peer pressure at every age. Congratulations to the 61 year old woman who birthed her grandson.
    We are what we think, yet we’re not.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie

    Hey, I was a hoooge Senna fan. I used to know a guy who was one of his test mechanics at Williams and had nothing but praise for him.

    Praise is good, but constructive criticism is often what a writer needs more ;-]

    Hi Billie

    Congratulations on your four published titles. You clearly have a great deal of the persistence I mentioned. It's so tough when people in the industry praise your work and tell you it definitely *should* be out there, but then don't actually want to publish it.

    I'm interested in your music analogy, because I hate the mass-produced-for-the-masses artificial pop that's out there, but I never thought of the literary world in the same terms. You make a great point!

    Hi MF

    I've always wondered which was the sadder – someone who has a dream but never achieves it, or someone who never works out what their dream is in the first place.

  9. Allison Brennan

    I always enjoy your posts, but this one is effing brilliant.

    The world is a competitive place and I absolutely loathe the mentality that everyone must be brought down to the lowest common denominator. Sports are competitive. How can kids learn good sportsmanship if they don't win some games and lose some games? My youngest daughter was in intramural soccer for two years–young kids (4-7), no score keeping, learning basic skills. Great to learn skills. But she was frustrated that no one (except her and the other players) were keeping score. I put her in a league last year. They won some and lost some and she was much happier overall.

    My first rejection letter on my first full manuscript request was brief — my cover letter returned to me with one word written and double-underlined: SUPERFICIAL. Ouch. It was, but sheesh, my mom would have sugar-coated it! The thing is, agents aren't our parents, nor should they be. If something sucks, they should say it sucks.

    I've never thought I had an amazing talent. I write first for me, then for my readers. People who like what I write. Not everyone will, and that's okay. I have to please me first, otherwise writing the story would be a miserable job. I LOVE writing and I LOVE coming up with characters and stories. It's fabulous that I can get paid for doing something I love. But I also recognize that now that I'm published, I have reader expectations, and so I consider my readership as well. Before I published I had no readership, so I only had to make me happy.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Ah, Billie – just remembered talking to Jeff Lindsey about his Dexter series, and him saying that when he first mooted it, nobody but NOBODY wanted to know about a series where a serial killer was the main protagonist. He shopped it around everybody before he finally got a bite, but when he did it was different enough – as you mention – to become a bestseller.

    There's nothing wrong with different ;-]

  11. Eika

    My parents struck a happy medium: they stuck my drawings on the fridge and said they were good, so I was happy, but my sister's drawings had them take their friends over to look at the fridge and lead to her getting art supplies for Christmas. Course, they're outliers in the world now; they were firm believers of letting a kid who wants something enough earn it. I got to determine my own bedtime after I started going to bed before bedtime when I was tired, was allowed a computer in my bedroom when I spent June-November doing odd jobs to earn money (I was 13. Getting a real job wasn't an option. But it also got me control of the savings account they had set aside for college- I made that thing GROW), and if I wanted to be on the soccer team with away games I'd better be practicing if I wanted them to come.

    Course, my parents are also teachers. My mother was my high school band and choir director. You have no idea how often they try to shove in special education students- not 'needs help with reading' but 'development level of a nine-year-old'- into a high school band. Drove me specially nuts because I wasn't given any special treatment; I didn't get solos, I wasn't first chair trombone until my senior year, and she wound up taking me aside one day and telling me she was grateful I was a strong confident singer but I did not have a 'solo voice'.

    Do I have what it takes? I don't know. But I'm writing, and editing, and writing, and editing, and querying, and editing, and writing, and editing. I got my first partial request, so maybe I can make it. But my parents aren't allowed to read my stuff; I'm not sure if it'd hurt me worse if they liked it or if they didn't!

  12. Louise Ure

    "Having some talent is not the same as having enough talent. But how do you tell the difference?"

    This is the one that haunts me, Zoë. An absolutely brilliant post.

  13. Gayle Carline

    Parents can be blinded by their love. I mean, we have to love them – otherwise we'd ignore those cries at 3 am because our sleep is more important than their bad dreams. This is why I tell people that I have no idea if my son is a good singer. He is a vocal performance major at CSULB's Conservatory of Music, was selected as a freshman to be in the vocal jazz group, was the only student selected for both the All-State Honor and Jazz Choir, so other people think he's got a good voice. But I don't say it – because I love him fiercely and everything he does is golden in my eyes.
    I just tell him I'm proud of him.

    Now, as far as self-publishing goes… my author friends and I believe that the cream will rise to the top. Most self-publishing is done through e-format, and with most e-formats, you can download a sample of the book before you buy it. It's our belief that the books that are the most compelling will be the ones purchased. I was going to say the most well-written, but after the Twilight series, I can only say "most compelling", as those books apparently were. At least, that's what we're hoping will happen. In the meantime, we're writing and editing and getting critiques and hiring professionals to edit and design our cover art, so that we are part of the cream.

  14. David Corbett


    First, I hope you and Andy are on the mend.

    When I visited San Quentin Prison for a writing workshop, one of the other writers there with me was a former bank robber turned memoirist named Joe Loya (I mentioned him yesterday in one of my comments: ).

    In addressing the inmate writers, Joe said they already had two advantages over outside writers: They had no problems taking risks and they were comfortable with ambiguity.

    This blew up in my brain when he said it and the detonation's been echoing ever since.

    That spot where we know we're gifted enough to be in the biz, but the rewards have been ambiguous obliges us to look honestly within and ask: Do I really have what it takes to make this work?

    The problem: There is no clear answer. People in the biz blow so much smoke it's amazing anyone can see talent clearly. And one writer's virtues are another's limitations. One person's a mid-list because he's a mediocrity, the other because the publishing house had no clue how to market his books. How do I know which one I am? I don't. I either take the risk of continuing on or I go another way.

    BLOOD OF PARADISE got turned down by virtually every major publishing house in NY, with the same responses: can't get into the protagonist, can't buy into the premise. It was ultimately published and nominated for the Edgar, the Anthony, the Shamus, and was named both a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book and a Top Ten Thriller of the Year by the Washington Post.

    The follow-up DO THEY KNOW I'M RUNNING? was my best book. The publisher decided it wasn't worth pushing, It dropped like a stone. My life as literary outcast begins. (Fortunately, not everyone thinks I'm pariah, and I have options.)

    Tomorrow on SPINETINGLER's website ( — see Patti Abbot's Friday feature on forgotten books), I have a piece about Desmond Lowden, one of my favorite writers whose BELLMAN & TRUE is a lost gem (and the film on which it's based is one of my top five faves of all time). Never heard of Lowden? Join a very large club. Sad.

    Daniel Woodrell once remarked that if WOE TO LIVE ON hadn't been made into a film (by Ang Lee: RIDE WITH THE DEVIL), he wasn't sure where his career — or his life — would have been headed.

    Don Winslow confided that if Janet Maslin hadn't written her rave review of SAVAGES, it would have been his final book. His career would have been over.

    Ambiguity and risk. This is the writer's life. Luck is the angel who appears or does not. One lures the angel closer, it's said, through talent and persistence. One can hope.

    Wonderful, thought-wrangling post, Zoë. Now get some much-needed rest.

  15. Barbie

    Zoë, very recently (last year, if not this year) they made a movie out of Senna's life. Did you ever get to see that? Let me look up the name for you.

    Here's the trailer:

    I remember clearly the day he died, I was a child, visiting my dad's parents with my mom, my dad lived in Canada at the time, and my family watched the news all day afternoon/evening long with reports of it.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Allison ;-]

    "Superficial"? Ouch, that *does* sting, doesn't it? But you bounced back from that so you, also, have more than a healthy dose of persistence!

    Hi Eika

    Maybe if I'd had parents like yours, I might have stayed on at school. Best of luck with the writing. We are all the worst judges of our own work, which is why I need someone brutally honest to point out the plot-holes.

    Thanks, Louise

    Trust me, it haunts me, too …

  17. Jake Nantz

    Wow, Zoe. Boy did you just hang a curveball right in my wheelhouse. I may someday turn to e-publishing if I have worked hard enough to clean up my writing (which is improving, but not near good enough yet) to the point I feel it's publishable, whether the industry likes it or not. And from there, I sort of agree with Dusty about me putting it out there and letting the readers decide.

    But the bit about overinflated self worth? I'm a high school teacher.
    I am D-R-O-W-N-I-N-G in children with overinflated senses of self-worth.

    For those of you out there that are of the "everyone gets a participation ribbon!" variety, let me paint you a picture: A young adult sits dejected in a dorm room, surrounded by boxes half-packed, trying to figure out why he went from a solid GPA in high school to flunking out of both semesters of college. This stuff was so HARD. Why wasn't he prepared for how hard the work is? So he calls mom, who explains that those damn school officials (admins, coach, and teachers, the lot of 'em), the ones they had to wrangle with for twelve years, were just plain incompetent (as suspected all along). Thing is, the young adult doesn't feel any better, because he still flunked out of his first year in college, and blaming the school officials isn't going to change that.

    Know why he wasn't prepared? Because of all those times his teacher expected him to be personally responsible for his work EVERY day, and his coach expected him to hustle EVERY minute of practice and games (even when he had a hurt toe, or an upset tummy), and the administration explained that, yes, even though he's the same age as the kids going from the 7th to the 8th grade, he just hasn't mastered the concepts (or has, but didn't put in the work – the working world doesn't care that you CAN do it if you DON't do it) and therefore shouldn't be "socially promoted." Because each of the times one of those situations arose, you refused to let him fail so he could learn to pick himself up and push back, harder. Because you know that many parents are enabling the hell out of their children, but YOUR child is different. YOUR child is facing a conspiracy.

    Kids, hell people of all ages, NEED to fail. They need to LOSE. Because sooner or later no one else is going to be there to coo and comfort and tell them it's all right, or (worse) grab their hand and march down to that so-and-so's office and demand a change. But it's becoming less and less likely because the educational system as a whole has thrown up its hands and said, "Why fight it, when we'll be blamed anyway?" Now we regularly socially promote kids to the 7th or 8th grade who haven't yet mastered the basic skills of the 5th grade, because it's not worth the hassle of dealing with more vitriol from the parent who's raised a stink since the 3rd grade about biased grading or too many assignments. We focus on high school graduation rates, to the detriment of rigor in the curriculum, because it's not worth people blaming the education system for being unable to pump out every single student with a diploma in hand in 4 years. Instead, we get laughed at for pumping out kids with diploma in hand every 4 years who can't function outside of mommy's basement, and so they end up clogging the courts and the prisons and the unemployment offices (and making it tougher for people who've been 'downsized' from jobs they were qualified for, or overqualified for, to feed their families).
    But don't worry, that won't be your kid. Your kid's a winner. And if he's not, you'll make damn sure he's not 'a loser.'

    Whew. Who would've thought an acrophobe would have such a high soapbox? Sorry…

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gayle
    Sorry, I posted a reply to this earlier, but for some reason it didn't take. Just wanted to say I hope your son realises how lucky he is ;-] Like the cream analogy, too!

    Hi David
    Andy's on the mend, thanks, although quite a way from actually mended, I think. I'm a lot closer to normal – normal for me, that is ;-]

    And you've made my point far better than I managed in my original post, dammit.

  19. David Corbett


    You wrote: "Having some talent is not the same as having enough talent. But how do you tell the difference?" This is the one that haunts me, Zoë.

    Louise, let me be blunt. You have plenty of talent. But the intersection of the marketplace with talent is often akin to the buzz saw's with the wood. Do not carve yourself in two over for any perceived lack of talent. You possess no such lack. But does that mean your talents fit this particular Moment in Marketing?

    Right now, the high concept model is again all the rage because marketing people need something vivid, catchy and quick to sell. This may be a reflection of what younger readers want, or can hold in their under-challenged brains (see Jake's post above) or publishing's unwillingness to develop talent anymore because of an obsession with driving while looking in the rear-view mirror.

    I was told straight up that standard crime stories just don't sell now. NY isn't interested. Then a show like THE KILLING comes on and everyone wonders where it came from.

    Sometimes you just have to wander in the wilderness while the rest of the world realizes they miss what you bring to the party. There's no guarantee they will ever come to that realization of course — which is what I meant by ambiguity and risk.

    I think the answer to Zoë's question — "How do you know the difference" — is this: You don't. You live with the ambiguity and take the risk. Or don't.

    But don't blame yourself or mistrust your gifts because the current zeitgeist is obsessed with zombies, vampires, faux medieval "epics" and stories that are all premise. It hurts to be passed over, but that doesn't mean it's your fault.


  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Barbie
    I didn't go to see the biopic of Senna, mainly because I just knew I'd cry like a little kid in the cinema. I'll get the DVD instead and weep over his story in the privacy of my own home. I was watching the race on TV when he crashed. I remember the marshals running towards his car, then suddenly stopping a few feet away from the motionless driver, and I knew then that something terrible had happened.

    Bravo, Jake
    Dammit, someone *else* who's put it better than I did ;-]

    And just wait until they start dumbing down college…

    …oh, wait a minute…

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Louise
    Take heart from the fact that David's not telling *me* I have talent ;-]

    And David
    How'd you like to collaborate on a saga set in an alternative Middle Ages where the Undead roam the earth, erm, taming dragons, and sinking their fangs into the necks of computer hacker trainee wizards?

  22. Allison Brennan

    I haven't watched THE KILLING yet, but it's next up — I just finished LUTHER, which was an amazing crime show from the BBC. Different, slightly different rules (cops without guns? What's with that?) but fabulous, dark, gritty, and real characters. Loved it.

    Jake, Amen! Out of five kids and so far 32 years of schooling between them, I've only gotten involved twice when I thought the teacher was wrong. One because the teacher was a hypocritical bitch who would tell my daughter she needed to ask questions if she didn't understand something, then when my daughter asked questions, she'd berate her in front of the class by saying, "If you had paid attention, you wouldn't have to ask" then not answer the question. She went from an A math student to a D math student in one year. I sent a personal note to her to meet, outlining my concerns (not just that, there were several problems) and the teacher showed the note to other students. I was livid and went to the administration. Grrr. Another time was when if was obvious a teacher had a personal conflict with my opinionated daughter. I went to him, though, not the administration. I know my kids, I know when they're trying to get away with something or when they're really having conflict and strife.

    I've told my kids they can achieve any of their goals if they work hard enough and want it bad enough. I know that's not always true, but I know it's impossible if they don't work hard.

  23. Jake Nantz

    Allison – and it's teachers like those that make me question the tenure system, even though I KNOW how badly teachers would be abused and subject to the whim of particular administrations if we didn't have it….because oxygen thieves like the ones you describe make the rest of us look bad, just as the parents I've described make the rest of you look bad.

    PS – I'd teach any of your kids you want to send me, if only because you have the common decency (or is it common sense) to deal with the teacher directly as a professional courtesy first instead of always expecting to "go straight to the top and get some damn results!!" God bless ya, lady.

  24. pari noskin taichert

    Wonderful post, Zoë.
    I agree with Dusty re the market dictating what is "worthwhile" and what isn't, especially due to my more recent experiences with editors saying they love the writing but didn't think readers were "ready" for some of my ideas. My response: Let's see if readers are or not!

    For now, I'm giving up on print publishing through an external publisher. Does this mean that the quality of my work is going to go downhill? I don't think so. I'll push myself hard to put out the best products I can. But I don't think I have the stomach for the patience required to work through others for the time being. Maybe I'll find that my new approach is folly . . . maybe not.

  25. Sylvia

    Brilliant post!

    "There are hard drives all over the world cluttered with literary efforts that staggered to a halt less than halfway through, never to see the end of their journey." ha ha ha – welcome to the bin in my garage!

    Effort, effort, effort and smart effort. That's what I tell my kids. You need to put in the effort and if you sow good deeds through the rest of your life, hopefully the stars will align and work for you. More important, if you're good to others, they provide you with the support, encouragement and information you need – even when you're failing. That's more of life than success.

  26. David Corbett


    Ouch. Please let me repeat what I said in my first post: I'm honored to be part of this blog precisely because I respect so highly the writers who contribute to it. I was responding specifically to Louise's heartfelt profession of soul-searching, and wanted to provide reassurance. Of course, if I’d read closely, I would have seen your post, to wit: “Thanks, Louise. Trust me, it haunts me, too …”

    If it's any consolation, I feel sufficiently chastened (and stupid, and ridiculous, and . . .)

    Moving right along: One of the great joys of studying mathematics in college was the fact that no one could BS his way to a B.Sc. Whenever someone tried to bluster his way through a proof he was quickly dismissed by the professor for "hand-waving" (i.e., like a magician at a children's birthday party).

    But that interestingly does not extend to business school. One of my math professors, when I returned for a visit a few years back, lamented the fact that he had commerce majors who didn't realize that applying compound interest resulted in an increase in one's initial capital.

    I'm not making that up. I rather wish I were.

    David Fumble-tongue.

    P.S. Zoë, yes, I'll gladly collaborate on the aforementioned project (“a saga set in an alternative Middle Ages where the Undead roam the earth, erm, taming dragons, and sinking their fangs into the necks of computer hacker trainee wizards”), as long as all the women are blonde and Barbie-esque, and are ultimately saved by male valor. Or special effects. Assuming they're two different things, of course.

    P.P.S. Allison–Luther's an exceptional show.

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Ah, Jake – nice use of the word acrophobe.

    Perhaps the answer is an acro-prop?

    Hi Allison
    "I've told my kids they can achieve any of their goals if they work hard enough and want it bad enough. I know that's not always true, but I know it's impossible if they don't work hard."


    Hi Pari
    I'm sure a few years ago a certain unknown and unpublished author called Joanne Rowling was told numerous times that the market simply wasn't ready for stories about a school for witchcraft and wizardry, and what kind of a name was Harry Potter for a young kid anyway…?

    You have the experience of the editing process – you know how it works. I know that the rule of thirds applies – one third of editorial advice you discard, one third you consider, and one third you follow absolutely – but it does alter the way you write. Not necessarily to create a more homoginised piece of work, but so that you make sure you have answers to the kind of questions an editor might ask. 'What is driving this character?' 'How did X know Y was going to be there?' etc.

    Can't wait to find out how it goes!
    As for Brit cops without guns, as I said at LCC, the Brit idea of hard-line policing is to put our coppers in long trousers…

  28. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    I really really really really really really really really really love this. Just the one thought. Since our egos are so wrapped up in what we produce, don't we have to get past that to risk real help? I am completely with you on the e-book temptation for that reason.

    Best on tonight, to all!

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Sylvia
    Your answer reminds me of that old saying (the exact wording of which temporarily escapes me) but it's something along the lines of 'success is partly down to luck, but the harder I work, the luckier I am…'

    Hey, David
    Actually, it's nice that it's not just me who's opening my mouth to change feet ;-]

    Your remarks about degrees remind me of a tale about James the First when he came to the throne in England. It was said of him that he was 'learned, but not intelligent'.

    And this is an example of a dumbed-down science problem:

    'A boulder weighing 2.8 tons is rolling down a 1-in-4 gradient that is exactly 97 metres in length.'

    (1950s' question) 'What speed will the boulder have attained by the time it reaches the bottom of the slope?'

    (2010s' question) 'Should we get out of the way?'

    Oh, and I think over here Valor is a tradename for gas…;-]

  30. Louise Ure

    Hi again, guys. Thanks for your messages of support Zoe and David. Right now, my questioning is not whether the market thinks I have talent, but whether I think I do. And alas, that reassurance can only come from inside.

  31. Reine

    Pari, I love your writing and ideas, so I will always buy your books, however published.

    Louise, yes. Good point on reassurance and self. All of my successes, smaller and larger, don't stop my critical insides from crawling out from behind my spine telling me I can't do it, I am a failure, and I am destined to be so.

  32. Reine


    What did I miss… you and Andy on the mend?

    Oh, and did I mention how brilliant this post is? It really is a thinker's paradise here.

  33. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks, Reine!
    Sorry, I could swear when I posted last time, your comment wasn't there. Anyhow, I only seem to be able to do about three replies, then I have to go away and leave it for an hour otherwise I get anti-spammed.

    I'm really really really happy that you enjoyed the post ;-] (Can't compete with all those reallys.) A writer's ego truly is a fragile little butterfly, isn't it? Except when it grows into a rampant man-eating spider – probably much like the one perched on the loo roll in that last pic…

    Oh, and anyone who can come up with a piece of imagery like "…my critical insides from crawling out from behind my spine telling me I can't do it…" definitely CAN do it, I'd say!

    Ah, my dear Louise
    That inner demon is a bugger, isn't it? I always seem to find that just when I start to believe that I might actually possess some tiny little nascent germ of talent, something happens to stomp all over me as if I've been tempting fate.

  34. Zoë Sharp

    Thanks again, Reine
    Sorry, I mean't to answer your other question. Yes, I've been suffering with an inner-ear problem since we got back from the States last month, which means the room spins and lurches without assistance from any hallucinogenic substances. (More's the pity.) And poor Andy has some kind of respiratory infection that's absolutely knocked him sideways to the point of me taking him to hospital over Easter.

    I know we like to do everything together, but synchronised sickness is pushing things a little too far…

  35. Reine

    Zoë, I am so sorry you and Andy have been ill. Have you two been checked for Valley Fever. It's endemic here. People who live in our desert tend to build immunity, but often visitors return home never knowing what's made them sick. It can take many forms, but the respiratory is often the first symptom. If you and Andy, especially – but you, too, haven't been tested for this (simple blood draw) please check this page… please:

  36. KDJames

    Excellent thought-provoking post, Zoë. I think for some writers, self-publishing IS a reflection of their impatience and unwillingness to persist through the traditional process of rejection and editing and whatnot. I've been reading a good number of self-pubbed ebooks lately and many, though certainly not all, of them just aren't ready to be out there. It's a shame, for writers and readers.

    But for others of us (like me), it's more a realization that being published by traditional means isn't the same indication of you're "good enough" that it used to be. I see too much dreck being published because someone decided they could make money off it and know of way too many incredibly talented writers who can't get published at all or who have been dropped by their publishers. And not because they aren't "good enough" as writers. That kind of "validation" just doesn't mean (to me) what it used to mean. No disrespect intended to all of you here who have been published through that system, clearly on the merits of your writing. Things are very different now.

    So the decision to take that route isn't necessarily about impatience or unwillingness to obtain professional feedback and do the hard work of revisions. I think a big, and frankly very scary, part of it is making the decision about whose opinion as to whether I'm "good enough" matters most. For me, it's readers. If anyone thinks that somehow lessens the pressure to produce quality writing, bear in mind that every single writer I know (and I know a crap ton and a half of them — yes, that is an official unit of measure) is a voracious, and potential, reader.

    Best wishes to all of you who are Edgar nominees! The wisdom of this post notwithstanding, I think writing "competitions" are one area where every finalist should be declared a winner.

  37. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Thanks for the tip – I'll definitely check it out!

    Hi KD
    Well, we didn't win the Edgar, but making any shortlist is always a worthwhile achievement.

    And I think you raise some very valid points about the state of the publishing world at the moment. 'Flux' is the word that springs to mind.

    Working out what is 'good' and what is 'good enough' is always going to be one of the toughest questions a writer faces.

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