The Myth of Natural Born Talent

#SFWAPRO

I saw a conversation on Twitter recently about a writer “starting from nothing” and it got me thinking. There’s a fairly prevalent myth regarding not just writers, but nearly everyone in the creative arts. Hell, if we’re being honest about it, it extends into most aspects of life. This myth (and it is a myth) is that some people are just born artists, or singers, or mechanics, or mathematicians, or scientists, etc.

“She’s always had a gift for math.”

“He was drawing the most amazing things by five.”

“She was always helping with car repairs.”

“They were always making people laugh.”

It’s true some people have a natural aptitude: i.e. their brains are wired in such a way that they grasp some concepts quickly. However, this doesn’t mean someone is born with a best-selling novel in their tiny hands (thankfully for mothers everywhere), or a paint brush, or singing Ave Maria. Well maybe the last one, but it just comes across as crying. I don’t know any writer, musician, artist, or the like who never had to work at their art. Make no mistake, while some people might have a natural advantage, damn near anything you can imagine is a skill developed over time. Let’s take a common go to when the topic of geniuses come up.

A common misconception about Mozart is that he was born a gifted musician for whom music came as natural as breathing. The truth is more nuanced and complicated. Amadeus’s father was a music teacher and composer; more successful at the former than the latter. Amadeus sat in on his older sister’s lessons at age three and developed an interest in music. His father began teaching Amadeus, and by four, the child was playing the piano. The story goes that he was composing original music by five, but there is some debate about how true this is. His father stopped composing at the same time his son started, and most of the handwriting of the music was his father’s. Additionally, his father made money from his children, touting them as prodigies and having them play in front of the well to do of Europe.

This is not to say Amadeus wasn’t brilliant, but he also spent literal years learning his craft. It’s been shown that young children learn much quicker than adults, by necessity. Consider for a moment just how much kids learn in just the first few years of life: motor skills, language (sometimes more than one), social interaction, spatial awareness, and a whole long list of other things. We’ve all heard how young Olympians are when they start training. A lot of what we recognize as natural born talent is simply an interest sparked at a young age that isn’t lost. If your friend in high school who was an amazing sketch artist started drawing when they were six, is it any wonder that ten years later they’re pretty freaking good? Could it be that if you start something early enough (while the brain is still developing) that a natural aptitude is created? Regardless of how, some people are just better at somethings, but how is that different than all the other advantages people have over each other (better schools, food security, support and encouragement, a stable home life)?

When I was very young, five or six I think, my brother (nine years older) had an open house at his high school. This would’ve been the early eighties and Apple computers were just beginning to show up. While my mother talked with my brother’s teachers, I found a computer, booted it up, loaded a game, and set to playing. For anyone unfamiliar with the Apple II, let me assure you this wasn’t a herculean feat. Maybe I had some natural aptitude with computers, but more likely I got lucky. However, this event got the attention of my mother and the teacher. As such, I got branded a computer genius at an early age. When most kids were getting Atari 2600s, Colecovisions, or the like, I got a commodore Vic-20 (yes, I’m old, I’ve come to terms with it). When I complained that I couldn’t play many games on it (it had a cartridge slot and cassette tape input, but few options) I was told I could make my own games. So I did. I’ve used the Vic-20, the Commodore 64, Timex Sinclair, Wang (the computer, I was a kid you perve!), several Tandy models, and eventually windows and Apple computers (including the early Macintosh). I remember hearing about Cray supercomputers and losing my mind.

After working with computers for almost forty years (we’ve established that I’m old) I can be functional in a program or system in a few days, and be showing others better ways to use them in a couple weeks. This isn’t to brag. I’m not a genius, I’ve just spent a lot of years developing this skill.

I’ve also been writing, at varying levels of seriousness, for just about as long. That skill however wasn’t born from the encouragement and support of my above example. I’ve mentioned before that my childhood wasn’t ideal. It’s wasn’t the brutal hellscape some grow up in, but it left its mark. I lived in near constant fear and amid near constant conflict. Like many families in that situation, we projected the appearance of normalcy. Most of my friends knew things weren’t great for me, but only a few knew the whole truth. I grew up believing that maintaining this illusion was of the utmost importance. This meant lying, a lot. My instinct to “keep the peace” at any cost took a long time to overcome. I have a feeling more than a few of you reading this know what I’m talking about.

But a useful aspect of this skill is that it translates well into storytelling, both writing and acting. I wrote my first stories in either kindergarten or first grade, I’m not sure which. I don’t imagine they were terribly inventive, but my teacher would read them to the class at story time. I don’t remember those instances in detail, but I remember how amazing they felt. I wrote poetry through junior high and high school. Yes, most of it was terrible and will never see the light of day, but some of it was good enough to win contests. When I got into college, I started taking writing more seriously. It took me ten years to finish my first novel, but only three months to finish the second. That second, The Stolen, would be my first published novel.

I’m a bit of a rarity among the published authors I know in that I don’t have a sizeable stack of novels (finished or not) in the proverbial drawer. Before The Stolen was published, I’d only worked on two novels, and only finished one (the other won’t ever be finished because, well, it’s crap). I don’t think this is because I’m some literary genius or naturally gifted writer. Rather than writing more novels, I took one (guess which) and started working with freelance editors to improve it. That’s when I learned that coming up with a story, and telling it well, were two different skill sets. I’d gotten pretty good at the first, but had no idea how to do the second. I learned a LOT from those early editors, and even more from my editor at Harper. In the years since, I’ve learned even more and continue to improve my craft. I hope I’ll continue to learn and improve for the rest of my life.

I know this has been a long post, and thanks to those of you who made it all the way through, but it has all been prelude to a simple idea. Anyone can learn the skills to become a writer (or nearly anything else) at any point in your life. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing since you were five, or you didn’t start until you were in your sixties.I don’t know for sure why we assign an almost magical air to people who are exceptionally successful or talented in a given field. Maybe it’s because it makes it easier to dismiss our dreams (or worse, the dreams of others).

“You’ll never be as good as Yo-Yo Ma.”

It’s worth noting here that he started on the cello at four-and-a-half.

It’s true you might not be the next Amadeus Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Johnny Cash, or Van Gogh, but that doesn’t mean that if you put in the time effort, that you can’t ever be amazing at something. It might take you longer that some, or less than others. It’ll be hard, and sometimes it will just plain suck, but you can do it.

And don’t try to be the next anything, or berate yourself because you won’t be. We already have one. Work to be the first you. That’s something we don’t have, and no one else can do it.

Your Baby is Ugly…Again

#SFWAPRO

Almost four years ago I posted to this blog for the first time. The post, Your Baby is Ugly, is about dealing with rejection. And now we come full circle. Last year I submitted a proposal to Harper for the next several books in the American Faerie Tale series (four to be exact). It also contained the first four chapters of the very next book. After several months, they rejected that proposal. I was—and still am—disappointed but I will say I wasn’t entirely surprised. The sales numbers for my books haven’t been terrible, but each book has sold progressively less than the one before. Publishing is a business and, I hope, this was a business decision. As such, I hold no ill will toward Harper or anyone there. Sure, I would’ve liked to have gotten more support in terms of marketing and/or publicity, but I also knew from the beginning I was a very small fish and there was only so many dollars to go around. It should be noted that Harper has said they would be happy to look at anything new I might have. So what does this mean?

Well if you’ve read that first post, and several others, you know I’m sure as hell not giving up!

In the short term, however the series is done. I could finish the next book and self-publish it, but I’m not ready to go that path yet. It would be the fifth book in a series and I think would be more about my vanity than my readers. Besides, I would rather devote my limited time toward something new.

And that’s exactly what I’ve done. As I write this post I’m about 30k words into the first draft and I think it’s pretty damned good, if I do say so myself. No, I won’t tell you the title or what it’s about. I’d rather wait until it’s at least close to finished, or has a publisher ready to put it out. I will say it continues my habit of genre bending, and I don’t recall seeing anything like it before. That could be good or bad, we’ll see.

I’ve also started writing some more short fiction. It hasn’t been picked up anywhere, I think I’m better at long fiction, but you only get better with time and practice. So I’m going to keep trying. I’m considering posting the things that don’t sell on here. What do you think? Post in the comments if you have a thought one way or the other. I also have one manuscript finished, Luna and the Star, and I’m going to see about shopping it around while I finish my current work in progress. It might be my first self-published work, but I haven’t decided. Stay tuned for more.

Without any new books coming out, obviously I won’t have as many appearances, but that doesn’t meet I won’t have any. I’ll be attending RavenCon (April 28th-30th) so if you’re going to be there, stop by and say hi. I’ll also be attending the Nebula awards, and will even be on some panels this year.

In the long term, my goals are still the same. Rejection is part of life, and especially part of being an author. I’m still working towards living on my writing, and I’m not about to stop. The only way I’m going to fail is if I stop trying, and I’m not going to do that. If you’ve read the books, I offer my sincerest thanks. If you haven’t, well they’re still out there and still worth reading.

Impostor Syndrome

John Scalzi wrote a really great piece about Impostor Syndrome and I think it’s something everyone should read if you ever questioned if you were a “real” anything. For myself, and other authors I know, this is a something we struggle with at times. For me, I think it’s in part due to how I landed my publishing deal (which I wrote about here), and also with my modest sales. He makes some important points in this, and gives a simple test. Do you write? If yes, then you’re a real writer.That’s helpful, but it might not always be enough. The way I deal with it is to look at what I’ve accomplished.
  1. I have three books (soon to be four) published with one of the biggest publishers in the world.
  2. I’m on my second contract with said publisher.
  3. I’ve been invited to conventions as a professional.
  4. I’m a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, which requires certain qualifications.

I’m also  have a group of fellow authors that I can talk with. We all keep each other sane (or less insane). But I’m also lucky in that I have a group of very good of friends (a whole family of them in fact) that couldn’t me more supportive. They’re always there to celebrate every success and regularly remind me how proud they are of me, and to be proud myself of what I’ve accomplished.

Reviews: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Just do it.

It’s a common thing you hear from writers at all levels: if you liked a book, leave a review. In fact, this picture by a fellow Harper Voyager author has gotten around quite a bit on Twitter and Facebook.
Leave a Review
But what if you didn’t love the book? Or, even worse, what if you didn’t like it at all, or hated it? Well, I’m not going to tell you how to write a review or what you should put in it. That’s something for you to decide. Personally, I tend to keep my negative reviews (and I’ve done a few) straightforward. I just say what I didn’t like: I couldn’t connect with the characters, the story line didn’t hook me, I had trouble following the plot, etc. But even if you didn’t like the book, you should still leave a review.

Let me repeat that. Yes, you should leave a review, even if it’s going to be a bad one.
Now obviously there are people who have no problem doing that. Yes, some reviews can get ugly, and that’s just part of the business. I wrote about that here when an author on Goodreads replied to a review. No, this blog post isn’t for those people. They’re leaving reviews and for that, I sincerely thank them. Yes, I just thanked people for leaving ugly reviews.

Here’s why. All reviews help sell books. Yes, you read that right. Studies show that books with only positive reviews don’t always sell as well as books with mixed reviews (though usually with a positive average). Negative reviews show potential readers that real people (not bots, or just the author’s friends and family) have read the book. No one, not even us starry-eyed authors, expects everyone to like our stories. Of course we’d love it if they did, but we know that isn’t going to happen. So if you’re worried about hurting our feelings, thanks, but don’t be. I promise we’ll be okay. We have other writers, friends, family, beer, and chocolate to give us solace. If you’re worried about hurting sales, again, don’t be. As I said, you’ll actually help. Not to mention that most authors I know try to approach negative reviews as a chance to learn. Obviously we’d go insane (or more insane) if we tried to adjust our writing for every bad review, but if there’s a criticism that readers keep bringing up, it helps to shine a light on something specific we can reflect on and possibly use to help us grow as artists. I say this speaking from personal experience. Like I said in my last post, here, it wasn’t until my first book came out that I saw the tropes and stereotypes I was using. You can’t improve without seeing both what you’re doing well and not so well, and I know I always want to be improving my craft.

Here’s something else you might not know. Amazon.com, and probably Barnes and Noble as well, use an algorithm to look at how many reviews a book has. When it reaches a certain number (there is considerable debate over what that number is, and Amazon isn’t sharing) it starts showing up on the recommended books section of users’ screens. This is a HUGE benefit to authors and can mean the difference between drowning in a veritable sea of books or standing out enough that someone sees it and buys it.

Yes, I realize all this could come back to haunt me. It’s entirely possible that people who were holding off on bad reviews will suddenly come out of the woodwork and my book ratings will plummet. That’s okay, I’ll deal with it. Like wise, it’s entirely possible there is now a Kickstarter campaign with the sole purpose of hiring someone to kill me. Please don’t contribute to it. But, please, review the books you read. You don’t need to leave long reviews, and they don’t have to be glowing. In fact, the only thing a review should be is honest. You owe that to yourself, to other readers, and even to the author. Amazon, B&N, Goodreads, wherever, just please, pretty please (with sugar on top) leave a review.

Pwease

On the Road to Publication: Myths and Truths

Like many people who’ve never been published, I went into the process with some preconceived notions. Some were just assumptions, which is never good. Others were things I’d read online in articles or in forums. On my journey through the publishing process, I’ve learned that some of those “literary legends” were true, some were not, and some landed in the middle. As part of my continuing journal down this road I’ve been lucky enough to find myself on, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.

Contract: This is something I wasn’t surprised about. It’s a full on, no joke, contract. It’s heavy legalese and not something easily understood by the uninitiated. As I’ve said before, I can’t emphasize enough that you really need someone to look over this for you, be it an agent, or a lawyer. The time to get the contract, review it, and make requests for changes took about three months. As for the terms of my contract, I’ll say only that it’s a two-book deal, with Harper Voyager having first option on the third book. Beyond that, well, never you mind.

Cover/Jacket Copy: Across the Internet (including here) you’re told the importance of a good query letter, a good summary, and a “hook.” The summary is often likened to the jacket/cover copy, which is what you read on the back of a paperback or inside flap of a hard cover. So, I assumed my summary would be my cover copy. Yes, an assumption. This was made for a number of reasons. As a new author with no fan base, I figured the publisher wouldn’t be investing a lot of money on me. Sure, it would want me to succeed, but from a business point of view, capital is invested where there is the greatest potential for return. Right? I was surprised and delighted to be wrong on this. My original summary was used as a base to start from, then the chief of copy took over and blew me away. What you can read here came after a few comments I made, and a little discussion.

Editing: This is probably were I was most surprised. I’ve seen all over that big publishers don’t have an editing staff like they used to, which is probably true. But, all those affirmations led me to believe that only the bestselling authors’ books are edited at all. As it turns out, this is wrong. At least it was for me. My editor did in fact edit, and I don’t mean copyedit (typos, grammar, punctuation). She went through the manuscript and made some suggestions for improvements. Note I said “suggestions.” I don’t know if it’s the norm, but I was very happy about how much my editor wanted to work with me and was open to my feedback, and sometimes push back. There was never a rigid “cut this” or “change this,” it was all suggestions. It felt more like a partnership. Sometimes she suggested cutting something I liked, and in some cases I did. However, if I really wanted it to stay, I rewrote until she agreed it was necessary and added to the story. I’m sure there are editors who work from a directive rather than cooperative stand point, but I’m glad my editor isn’t one of them.

Copyediting came at the end, and was more intense than I expected, but very helpful. It was interesting to see the kinds of things that were checked. As an example: M&M’s is the correct name of the candy, but the trademark is m&m’s, so which to use?

I would like to say here that while it’s true my book did receive editing, I still firmly believe in hiring an editor before submitting. You want to put your very best foot forward, and you need feedback from others to do that. Unless you have a group of skilled readers, and some do, you should look at hiring someone. Also, having your work edited is a good idea because it’s that much less work that needs to be done when you do sign that contract. There were three rounds of editing (suggestions which lead to changes, which were then reviewed, etc.) over the course of a month. So yes, The Stolen did receive editing, but I’m still glad I had it edited before I submitted to Harper, and in fact, I’m certain the reason I made it was because I had it edited and was able to present them a polished manuscript.

Cover Art: I discussed this when I posted the artwork and preorder information (here), but I’ll say again that I was nervous. I got a piece of advice from a bestselling mystery writer who is a friend of my brother. He said to make sure I was happy with my cover art, because to this day, he hates and regrets the cover of his first book. I tried to get something put into my contract for some level of approval, but to no avail. That was only logical, after all, they’re the professionals and have experience as to what works and what doesn’t. Things as simple as color choices can influence your opinion of a cover, regardless of the image itself. I was however asked if I had any ideas. I sent them to the home page of an artist (Tanner) whose gallery I discovered while walking through the French Quarter in New Orleans. I saw A Place to Rest through the window and was mesmerized by it, so much so that I bought a print. You can view it here. If you look at that picture, and then my cover, here, you can see the connection. No, I didn’t get to approve or disapprove of what they gave me, but they did take my thoughts and ideas into consideration. In hindsight, I think it was a good compromise. I don’t know what does or doesn’t work, just what I like.

Marketing: I’ve also heard often that first time authors aren’t given much in terms of promotion or marketing. That’s not far off. This is where it does come down to a business point of view. A publisher has a certain amount of money to spend. Should they spend it on someone who they know will sell and give them a return on that investment? Or should they gamble it on someone new who might not make it? Don’t get me wrong, I’m receiving support. In fact I have a publicist working with me. So far, she’s arranged an interview and a guest blog piece, a spot on a panel at the New York Comic Con, and provided me plenty of advice.But, even if you have a bestseller credit to your name, you’re going to have to work to sell your book. I’ve contacted local bookstores to ask them to carry my book, explored possibilities for events (readings or book signings), and looked for places to promote my book online. I didn’t expect a book tour, or a review by The New York Times or the like, and wasn’t surprised that I didn’t get it.

So what have I learned from all this? As a new author, I had visions of magic and wonder. Turns out, it’s a lot of work to make that magic happen. I had to turn around edits for The Stolen in fairly short order and I had a real deadline for my second book, The Forgotten, not just one I set myself. That being said, I’ve received plenty of support and encouragement, my questions have been answered, and not once did I ever feel condescended to. When I met the Harper team in New York, I was impressed beyond words by the enthusiasm and excitement waiting for me. They were all passionate about their support for The Stolen. I felt like a “real” author, not just someone who got lucky.

I thought I knew a lot, some of which I was right about, but not everything. Of course, just because this has been my experience doesn’t mean it’ll be yours. I just hope this gives you a little more information about what’s behind the curtain. I’ve said before not to ever give up if you want to be a writer, and that includes not giving up once you’ve gotten a deal. It’s hard work, but if it were easy, everyone would do it.

Winners and Losers

Perhaps it says something about me (and if it does, I hope it’s good) that when the excitement from receiving the publishing offer from Harper Voyager wore off, I started to think about all those people who submitted their manuscripts but didn’t make the final cut. There were over 4500 submissions. It’s probably safe to say that close to half of those were cut after a short read. Perhaps the manuscript just wasn’t ready to be published; I certainly started submitting The Stolen before it was ready. But this post isn’t about that level of rejection. I covered that pretty thoroughly in here, and here. No, the people I thought about were the last hundred or so who made it to the final stage, waiting more than a year, only to get the dreaded “no thank you” email. I think as writers, after a while we start to expect rejections, but that really doesn’t help. It’s especially bad when you make it to that last step, only to have the door close in front of you. The Stolen was submitted to 118 different agents, and that’s after getting it edited. There were probably 40+ before that. Out of those 118, I received six requests to see the whole manuscript; on one occasion I even had two agents request it at the same time. I was sure that was a sign and that I’d get an offer of representation. Spoiler alert, they all passed. So I understand how that feels, to almost make it, but not. We all know the adages: there are no points for second place, second place is the first loser, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, etc. That’s when I saw a post on Absolute Write, on a thread tracking forum members’ progress in the submission process. I was lurking at the time, having been chided for a comment I posted announcing the publication offer before I was supposed to. The author of it put it in such perfect terms, I’m not even going to try to summarize. It deserves a direct quote (with permission granted from the author):

I was thinking about this last night. I always thought, back when the call started, that the saddest person was the one who would come in 13 out of 12. You know? The one who ran the whole race, who survived every cull, but still had no prize at the end. That’s probably going to be me and several other people here.

On the one hand, I’m sad that I basically did all the work and got none of the reward. On the other hand, it’s nice to remember that we clearly did something right with at least ONE editor in this process, or one assistant. At the very least, our work was probably considered publishable. In the end, it fell because of a matter of taste, not talent.

I sometimes think that the greatest moment of weakness that happens to an aspiring writer, when they’re most compelled to give it all up, is not when they get rejected, but when they almost succeed. It’s a long fall, and sometimes you don’t want to get up again. I’m sort of feeling that as I rush towards a probable rejection.

But if you do get up again, you can remember that at least one, probably several professional editors thought you had some real promise and ability. In my opinion, once you’re there, getting SOMEWHERE is only a matter of time and will.

So this is a long, drawn out way of saying that even though this is going to be kind of a crappy week, and we should all be allowed to go into our caves and sulk for a bit, that the bright side is really very…bright.

Anyway. Rant over.

You can find the original post here. I read that post knowing I’d made it, but seeing others languishing with no news. I felt for them, and I knew MerchantIV (the author of that post) was right: a number of people would make it right to the end only to fall all the way back down. It’s true that in life there are winners and losers, but it’s important to remember that losing doesn’t mean failing. Those Olympians who take home silver and bronze medals are understandably upset they didn’t win gold, but they still wear those silver and bronze medals with pride. Writing is about winning by inches, a slow progression. Sure, some people land publishing deals on their first tries, but they’re the exception not the rule. The rest of us make a long, hard slog to get to publication. It’s easy to feel like a failure and think about giving it up. The thing to remember is that you’re the only one who can decide if you’re a failure or not. So long as you get up and try again, you didn’t fail, you just lost one. It’s not fun or easy, but if it were, people wouldn’t react the way they do when you say you’re an author. Publishing a book happens with hard work, determination, talent, and more than a little luck. It’s brutal and not for everyone, but if it’s what you want, don’t ever let anyone tell you to give up. Besides, the victory is so much sweeter when you’ve had losses along the way. Just ask a Red Sox fan.