Have you noticed that most characters have at least one mad skill?
Harry Potter is a whiz on a broomstick with a natural grasp of defensive magic.
Katniss Everdeen can shoot anything that moves, and has superior survival instincts.
Artemis Fowl is a genius like the world has never seen, and is always one step ahead, while Butler, his bodyguard, can fight blindfolded with any weapon ever created.
Maybe you can name one or two others, hmm?
We love mad skillz, and the characters that wield them, because we want mad skillz ourselves.
Maybe not the particular skill we’re reading about (I don’t know of anybody who longs for Sunny Baudelaire’s sharp, strong teeth), but we love the very idea of excellence, however far-fetched.
What is the secret of these wished-for mad skillz? Somehow, many of the marvelous tomes that bring us these dreams of awesomesauce fail to mention the secret weapon of the greatest warriors, insightful inventors, and perfect stonemasons.
Mostly, I think they don’t want to bring it up because it’s a dull thing, something for parents to natter on about, not a matter for novels.
Have you guessed it yet? That’s right: work. Flippin’ hard work.
Dull? Oh, certainly. A dull subject? Only to the narrow mind. Some writers tell the truth of mad skillz, and tell it well.
The best that comes to my mind is Tamora Pierce. (She comes to my mind a lot. She is my writing hero.)
She turns endless hours of drills into a stunning plot point, a stirring and rallying tale. Here’s an example from her Protector of the Small quartet.
Kel struggled to raise the lance. It was quite happy to be lowered, and agonizingly hard to raise. Kel leaned forward, her back and shoulder muscles protesting as she fought to keep the lance tip from sagging.
…Kel considered the problem with the lance… all of the other first-year pages had been able to keep their lances from pointing at the ground.
I have to train harder, decided Kel. I have to strengthen my arms.
“My lord, I’d like permission to take this to the smithy,” Kel said, hefting the lance. “It’s too light.”
Wyldon blinked at her. “What?”
“Surely my lord knew that Page Keladry has lead weights in all of her practice weapons,” commented Neal, who stood nearby.
…”How long have you done this?”
How could she forget? On the day the first-years began to train with the lance, Joren had made sure that Kel got a lance three times heavier than the normal ones.
“Since the first week on lance, my lord.” Kel said evenly.
By the way, Kel goes on to be one of the best lancers in the realm.
When you read Protector (or any book of hers, truly) you see how skillfully the writer crafted it, what care was taken to say enough but not too much, the ingenuity in knowing when to go into detail on the morning’s staff practice, and when to simply mention the passage of four months worth of drills.
Now, that takes mad skillz.
Can you guess what kind of mad skill I want?
Well yes, I do want to cook Le Cordon Bleu and handle a Sig Sauer like Butler, but those are secondary passions. You can tell, because I don’t work hard at them.
What do I work hard at? What do I spend hours a day studying, struggling through, and perfecting?
That’s right; writing.