Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “Michael McDonagh”

I Have no Talent as a Writer (and Neither do You)

“There is no excuse for anyone to write fiction for public consumption unless he has been called to do so by the presence of a gift.”

– Flannery O’Connor

Talent is a beautiful thing. Talent is the concept that God (or the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks who loved to talk about this stuff, or the cosmos for my agnostic friends) has imbued our flawed, frail mortal existence with a divine spark of greatness. It’s breathtaking.

It is also complete bullshit.

I’m not saying talent doesn’t matter, nor am I claiming talent is not important. I am going one step further. I am saying that talent resides in an imaginary world with leprechauns and gods who drive chariots across the sky, hauling the sun around like a boat trailer. Talent is not a thing.

Opportunity is a thing. Experience is a thing. Practice is a thing (and the right kind of practice appears to be the biggest thing of all). In certain endeavors, your body’s size and shape are things that matter – Michael Phelps’ clown-shoe sized feet certainly don’t hurt when it comes to swimming, and no matter how much or how well my daughter practices, she will never be an elite NFL Line(wo)man at 5’2 and about 100 pounds. But the concept that some people, in our case writers, have an innate ability that makes them superior to us (or that we have an innate ability that gives us some kind of leg up) is just flatly and empirically wrong.

This is not just my half-assed opinion. When addressing this issue with other writers (and surprised to find myself in the minority in an argument on this subject), my half-assed opinion was that talent is a minor element of success, far less important than diligently honing the skills required to write well.

I was wrong. It’s less important than that. Being a data-driven person, I went looking for studies evaluating the role of talent in controlled environments. There have been dozens of studies, and they all come to one of two conclusions:

(1)   The existence of talent cannot be proven to be a significant factor in reaching world-class performance levels in any activity (music, sports, writing, art); or

(2)   There is enough data to infer that the thing we conceptualize as “talent” does not exist.

So, if you were expecting to rely on your God-given gift to become a successful writer, you are shit out of luck.

FIRST, THE DATA:

Because we were having such a heated debate about this subject, I didn’t realize I was researching a question that has basically been put to bed in the scientific community. Geoffrey Colvin has a good rundown in his mass market book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. As far as free, objective resources are concerned, the study: Innate Talents: Reality Or Myth  published in Behavioural and Brain Sciences 21 399-442 #128 (available from Cambridge University Press) is awesome and free.  http://cogprints.org/656/1/innate.htm

Interesting studies have also been conducted on chess Grand Masters, dating back to the 1940s. They are consistently found to be of average intelligence and have average cognitive skills. They also have average memory ability, except when it comes to one thing. You guessed it, chess. After a certain amount (five or more years) of intensive chess-play, they begin seeing the board as one organic whole, rather than thirty-two separate pieces. Using magnetoencephalography (seriously, I didn’t make that up, it’s a machine that measures the electromagnetic signals in your brain), scientists have found that chess players get to a point that they access frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board. They are not actually analyzing the move their opponent made, they are remembering past games. Lower-ranked players, on the other hand, are accessing their medial temporal lobes. When they look at a move, they are encoding new information about the way the board changed.

I’m going to generalize and oversimplify a tad here (so check out the book or click on the link for more data or search “precocity” and “talent” in Google Scholar). So far, researchers haven’t conclusively ruled out the existence of innate biological traits that may aid in performing at high levels in things like art, accounting, writing, tennis chess, gymnastics. or any other endeavor.They have, however, determined that there is no relationship between people identified early on as potentially having “talent” and long-term success in any of those activities. If you were deemed mediocre musically year 1 and another student was deemed to be musically adept and advanced year 1, it’s a coin flip to see which student would be better year 6. Starting at the opposite end, looking at the “world-class” participants in those activities and working back to where they started, the researchers have also ruled out any factors happening before the first several years of dedicated practice in any activity as being predictive of the subjects’ ultimate success.

SECOND: ENVIRONMENT

Eli and Peyton Manning are “talented” football players, having each won a Superbowl, each having jobs as starting quarterbacks in the NFL, etc. The odds of two sons from the same family having the top starting position on two teams in the NFL are mind-bogglingly low. But their dad is Archie Manning (a legend in the game), they grew up around it, it’s what they’ve known and practiced and done and absorbed since before they can remember.

Now let’s pretend they were my sons. Guess who would have no “talent” for football. Same dudes. I can almost guarantee we’d still be hearing from college coaches, but they’d be the college debate coaches we’re hearing from about my daughters. My daughters are “talented” debaters. Not coincidentally, I went through college on a full-ride debate scholarship, met their mother at the national speech championships, and she and I both coached college speech and debate for a few years. Drop Peyton and Eli into my household, and you would probably have two of the best debaters in the country and a perfect score on the English portion of the ACT, but neither one would have a lick of “talent” when it came to football.

There is a spinoff from that early exposure thing, called the multiplier effect. Here’s how it works: Little Girl A happens to bowl a really good game when she’s 5. Everybody says “ooh, aah, look at that,” and she gets some ice cream. Then she gets a bowling ball for Christmas and keeps bowling to get more ice cream until she is old enough to bowl in a tournament where, having been doing it regularly for a couple of years, she crushes everybody. Yea Little Girl A! So she keeps bowling and hanging out with people who bowl, and taking lessons and competing against higher level opponents until – wow! She’s one of the best bowlers in the country. Then she fires her old coach and has three new coaches, working on foot placement and stroke and other bowling stuff (because I’m in way over my head here, I’ve bowled about five times in my life). So she ends up the grand champion of bowling or whatever and drives a Cadillac with longhorn steer horns across the hood and a giant diamond belt-buckle that says she’s the best bowler in the world! Because she is! But she doesn’t have one bit more “talent” for bowling than I do. She’s just spent 50,000 more hours deliberately practicing how to bowl than I have.

That’s what environment contributes to “talent.” More than anything, the mistaken belief that you have it. Or, worse, the mistaken belief that you don’t, but someone else does.

Which means there’s some good news and some bad news:

The bad news is, you’re not a talented writer. the good news is, nobody else is, either.

In either event, if the numbers in the English study are roughly accurate, even if you are at zero, with no background or supportive environment or anything else, start now and you’re probably going to catch up to the people who mistakenly believe they have talent and have also been working on it in about six years.

Not coincidently, that six year finding nearly mirrors Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours conclusion, though coming at it from an entirely different angle. It also fits squarely in the realm of the amount of time invested by chess Grand Masters. Take off some rounding errors, and you’re right at those “first million words” that people generally agree are “practice” before writers become good writers. [Note: The original attribution of that number is disputed, but I can assure you that Stephen King was not the first or fourteenth person to use it, despite it often being attributed to him].

So you give me a break about this “talent” crap. I don’t want to hear about it if you believe you have talent and therefore your words are lyrical gold that flows onto the page. I don’t want to hear about it if you think you lack talent and therefore cannot succeed. Write seriously for six years/ten thousand hours/one million words and get back to me.

I genuinely believe that the only real “talent” an author may possess would be the “talent” to see her work objectively and critically.  To identify specific, precise skills that need to be honed and work on them. To evaluate criticism effectively (which sometimes means rejecting it, after earnest evaluation) but always looking for the thought in that criticism that can be employed to improve. Which is to say, the only ”talent” one can have in the field of writing is a willingness to practice hard and well and for a long time.

image

If he was all that “talented,” why does he have to change every single fucking sentence?

 

An update on the Scammers Post and a Casestudy in Shadiness

I said in the scammers post that there were a thousand ways shady agents rip people off, but a new shady agency showed up on my radar (a couple of times in a couple of ways) and I thought I’d pass on what I learned. More particularly, I want to use this agency as a case study in how to look at an agency.

This one particularly bothers me because the agency is truly “shady,” meaning they seem to have a few legitimate sales mixed in with their business practices that rip people off. This agency scares the shit out of me.

Shady Practice No. 1: I’ve already warned you about this one – they have a for-profit editing service as part of their agency. 

Shady Practice No. 2: This one is new to me – they have a $2,500 minimum commission. This is a LOT worse than it sounds. Their justification for it is even worse. Per their participation on legitimate writers’ message boards (which they run around like hotshot fire crews, trying to justify their practices), they charge that minimum because so many new novelists get low advances that they need to have a minimum to justify the six months it may take to place a book with a publisher. At first glance, this may seem reasonable. But let me rephrase that for them. Their justification is essentially:

If we can’t sell books for enough money, which happens to us a lot, we need to make sure we get ours before the author sees a dime. We aren’t willing to wait for royalties to come in to get it from our percentage, either.

Shady as fuck, right? That just scratches the surface. For starters, they might as well be saying, “We can’t make a profit using the normal commission structure that every legitimate agency on the planet uses.”

Since they are offering for-hire editing services, they clearly aren’t adverse to conflicts of interest. This scheme sets up a couple of other conflicts that just make me sick. First, let’s do a little math. If they manage to sell your book for a $2,500 advance, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $10,000, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $15,000, they get to keep $2,500. If they sell your book for $17,000, they get an extra fifty bucks. So, unless you have a book that is likely to sell for a lot more than the average first-time advance, these shady-ass motherfuckers have no motivation to try to sell your book for a dime over $2,500.

Also, the best route for a first-time author may involve a low advance but decent support from a legitimate publisher who is willing to spend some money promoting the book. Like, for example, the recently departed Tom freaking Clancy and his debut novel The Hunt for Red October. Since this agency doesn’t give a shit about its authors in the long run (or the medium run, or even after the very first day of the short run), those offers are just rejected without response. How do I know this? Because small and medium-sized publishers also participate on writers’ forums, and they say things like “I made an offer on manuscript X and they just responded that the offer was insulting and not worth considering, now I understand why.”

We aren’t done yet:

Shady Practice No. 3: This is old news, but still a nice little window into their shady as fuck behavior. There are all sorts of legitimate sources on the internet writers can use to learn about agents. Databases are great: AgentQuery, QueryTracker, Predators & Editors, and WriterBeware are all excellent resources with unbiased information (they drive traffic to their sites by having good information, so their motivation is to provide just that). Obviously, people who are trying to rip you off are not big fans of accurate information, which tends to inform people that they are shady as fuck.

So some genius came up with the idea of creating a fake literary association to “protect” writers from things like, well, all of the above-listed websites. Then it listed the “Top 10 Literary Agencies” according to them. Not coincidentally, most of them were also on the “20 Worst” list from Writer Beware. It appears that one of the agents from this agency was formerly among the agencies on both lists.

Shady Practice No. 4:  This one is my personal favorite. Running through the new posts on a message board, I see one saying “Hey guys, I just found a new agent who is accepting queries [e-mail link] and this awesome agent is also taking queries, too [e-mail link to another agent at the same agency]. Here is their agency website [link number three]” Then I notice this happens to be the poster’s first ever post. I wouldn’t mind if they showed up and said, “We are accepting queries,” and, since it was the first post ever from that person I knew it was them, but pretending to be “one of the guys” (pardon the latent sexism, it was their word, not mine) just giving a “heads’ up” about a new agent is shady as fuck. You might as well post: “I am going to try to mislead you into going to my website and then enter into an important relationship with you before you realize that’s what I am doing.”

So, no, if you were the only literary agent on the planet, I would still not hire you. And your chummy post on a message board is not going to help that. But thank you for an opportunity to use you and your scummy-ass agency as a case study to help readers on my blog. We are starting at the end, knowing this is a shady-ass company that is not a clear-cut scam. They have some legitimate sales, but“even a blind pig finds an accord once in a while” is not a business model. So this one is technically a legitimate agency that I would never even think of using. Let’s to a walkthrough of how to vet an agency to see if we would get sucked in. In other words,

Let’s Pretend We Were Considering This Agency:

Step 1: Google is your friend. Googling the agency name, alone, yields the following results on the first page:

  1. Agency Website (doesn’t mean much, but if they didn’t have one it would be a nonstarter).
  2. A Publisher’s Marketplace listing with deals (at this point, I’m thinking ‘OK this person is legit.’ I’m mostly wrong, but that’s honestly what I would be thinking).
  3. A twitter account (that’s 4 years old. Again, it doesn’t count for much but it is one more indication they are legit).
  4. Two news stories about a book deal that didn’t go through, (no deal, but I’m impressed because this agent is in the media and appears to be a player. I have never looked into an agency that turned out to be shady that had this kind of legitimacy).
  5. A thread on one of the aforementioned bulletin boards (oops, I just found out about the $2,500 minimum commission and the editing conflict and, if you want to write non-fiction, they threw in a bonus ghostwriting conflict as well).
  6. Something I’ve never seen before, called ripoffreport.com (frankly, it looks like as much like a rant as a legitimate indictment of the agency, so I’m calling this one about as important as having a website and a twitter —i.e., not very, but worth noticing).

Step 2: The Usual Suspects.

  1. Predators & Editors has a listing, not listed as a “beware” but also shows that this agent had an AAR membership revoked. Now I am pretty scared.
  2. AbsoluteWrite told me what I outlined above, and I would have gone there anyway if I hadn’t found it via Google. The most damning thing on here were the posts from the agency itself, misrepresenting what was being said about it in the prior posts (as though we cannot read them for ourselves) and providing BS justifications for business practices the other legitimate agencies seem to live without.
  3. QueryTracker Not much information here, except for links to AbsoluteWrite and the agency posing as a member (for one post) and pretending to give information about agents (themselves). In other words, it is the agency’s own conduct more than anything anyone else is saying or doing that makes them look sketchy as hell.
  4. Writer Beware Lists the scary, don’t go anywhere near these people, agents. Just because an agent or agency isn’t on this list does not mean you should go with that agent, but it an agent is on this list, stay far away. They aren’t on this list, but I’m still not going for the minimum commission or overlooking two conflicts, so this agent is not even a maybe for me.

The lesson to learn here is that you should invest a little bit of effort in vetting any agent before querying him or her. It doesn’t take much effort to weed out the flat-out scammers, but you might need to go three pages into a five-page thread on a bulletin board before you find out the real problems with a questionable agent. There are over 1,000 agents out there, so there is no reason to even look at one who is questionable. If you can’t get a decent response from the first 100 agents or so, the problem probably relates more to your query or your manuscript (or both) than the availability of solid agents.

Word-Choice Rant No. 1: “When I’m Published, I’ll be an Author”

People keep drawing a false distinction between the terms “Author” and “Writer,” and it is driving me nuts. I am tired of witnessing arguments about whether you can call yourself an “Author” if you self-publish (the answer is: Who gives a fuck?) I’m ranting right now because of some spam I just got for a webinar that promised to help me “Go from being a writer to being an author.”

Gee, should I drop $99 on a webinar so you can coach me? Maybe not, since you don’t even know what those fucking words mean.

A huge chunk of people have gotten it into their heads that, until you’re published, you are merely a writer. Once published, you magically become an “Author,” and can therefore brag about your awesome Authorliness at cocktail parties – most of which are probably going to be thrown in your honor, since you are an Author. That’s what people do – they throw cocktail parties for Authors, because Authors are awesome.

Except that’s all bullshit. Most authors are unpublished. I am currently an author (as the “about” description on this blog truthfully states). I have never had a word of fiction published anywhere, but that has nothing to do with whether I am an author.

Here’s what the word “author” means:

author (n.) 

c.1300, autor ”father,” from Old French auctoracteor ”author, originator, creator, instigator (12c., Modern French auteur), from Latinauctorem (nominative auctor) “enlarger, founder, master, leader,” literally “one who causes to grow,” agent noun from auctus, past participle ofaugere ”to increase” (see augment). Meaning “one who sets forth written statements” is from late 14c. The -t- changed to -th- 16c. on mistaken assumption of Greek origin.

That’s right, author means “father” or “creator.” An author is a person who creates characters and stories. In other words, the phrase “fiction author” is as redundant as “fiction novel” since authors, by definition, are people who write fiction (and novels are, by definition, works of fiction).

What is a writer? Simple, it’s someone who writes things. Like me, right now, as I type this.

writer (n.) 

Old English writere ”one who can write, clerk; one who produces books or literary compositions,” agent noun from writan (see write (v.)). 

In other words, all authors are writers but not all writers are authors.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. There is no secret ceremony in the basement of a church, where hooded Authors paddle you  by candlelight upon publication of your first novel, turning you from a writer into an Author. You became an author the minute you put down your first character’s first thought, movement, or word.

And plenty of well-known, established, rich and successful people have to make do with being writers (without seeming to care). Every great, best-selling historian, self-help guru, memoirist, or theologian you’ve ever heard of is a writer, not an authorBand of Brothers made Steven Ambrose millions and was turned into an HBO miniseries (that made him a boatload more money), but it’s history, not fiction. Steven, you are not the father. Steven Hawking made millions from A Brief History of Time and his other works, including children’s books, but they are about science, not made up people from his imagination, so he has to settle for being a rich, successful writer. I seriously doubt he gives a shit. People who write memoirs are writers. Julia Child is a writer. There is nothing wrong with being a writer. Similarly, whether or not you are an “Author” doesn’t mean jack shit. It means you have typed out a mind-movie on your computer keyboard (or written it on a note pad or something). That’s it.

Is there a gray area? Maybe. Bill O’Reilly leaps to mind. He made $24 Million last year selling books that are mostly filled with unrealistic shit he made up. But he called most of them nonfiction. Being a lying sack of shit does not make you an “Author.” It makes you a douchebag. Therefore, with respect to those works, Bill O’Reilly is a writer. He is also a lying sack of shit and a douchebag, but he is not an author (or an “Author”). On the other hand, he has also written piles of drivel that he admits are fiction. With respect to those particular piles of crap, he is an author. But it had nothing to do with any of it being published.

So, if you are waiting for the magical day that your book is published and you can start calling yourself an “Author” that day is here. Not because your book is being published. There’s a 99% chance it won’t be (nothing personal, that’s statistically true of me, too). That day is here because you created a character or a circumstance and put it down in some tangible form.

Which, if you think about it, is a pretty awesome thing for you to have done. 

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