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 “writing a novel”

Writer Productivity Tip: Have a Routine

I’ve officially joined the ranks of the Query Tracker Blog team, and what follows was originally posted on the QT Blog yesterday. The good news is, official blog duties will keep me from being too much of a slacker, no matter how insane the rest of my life may be.

Now to the post:

Almost every parent I know understands the importance of the “bedtime ritual.” The components are usually something along the lines of: bathe the child, put on pajamas, brush teeth, read a couple of stories, get a drink of water, sing a song, say no to a second glass of water, say good night, say no to the next two requests to get up and get a glass of water, the child falls asleep. When the schedule is disrupted, even if it’s late and the child should be exhausted, getting the child to sleep is much harder.
The bedtime ritual works because of a psychological function called cognitive cuing. The child’s brain has essentially wired itself to understand that the endpoint of the bedtime ritual is sleep. The process of relaxing into that state begins with the bath, and each step in the ritual is a conditioned step toward sleeping. There’s nothing intrinsically sleep-inducing about most of the steps themselves—brushing your teeth is not, independently, a cue for your brain to prepare for slumber. The key is simply the existence of the ritual.

Not surprisingly, when researchers have tried to examine the ideal situation for creative writing, what they’ve largely found is that the presence of a routine—cognitive cuing—is essential. In his book The Psychology of Writing, Cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg explains:

This phenomenon can be reinterpreted in terms of the cognitive concept of encoding specificity. The abstract ideas, images, plans, tentative sentences, feelings, and other personal symbols that represent the knowledge needed to construct a text are associated with the place and time of the writing environment. These associations are strongest when the writer engages in few if any extraneous activities in the selected environment. Entering the environment serves as a retrieval cue for the relevant knowledge to enter the writer’s awareness.

In other words, going to the same place at the same time, then doing the same thing (writing awesome prose) when you get there, teaches your brain to expect to write. Instead of wasting a page or two “getting into the zone,” your brain eventually wires itself to know, “It’s six-thirty AM, I brushed my teeth, made a cup of coffee with my sexy French press, and ate some fruit, Now I’m sitting at the desk with my fingers on the keys, it must be time for awesome prose to explode out of my fingertips.

Substituting a different time of day to meet your scheduling needs wouldn’t harm anything (or much, Kellogg talks about time of day, too). You can swap brushing teeth for a regular chat session with a CP or turn that desk into a local coffee shop. Ultimately, what will yield results is your mind associating the routine with being deep inside a character, deep inside your novel. A place you can start writing from by giving your mind those cognitive cues that it’s time to be there.


The “Rules of Writing” Should be Called (and treated like) the “Guidelines for Editing”

Just about everyone who has written much has compiled a list of his or her Rules of Writing. Most of those lists include similar items, like:

  • Don’t use adverbs.
  • Don’t use adjectives.
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Don’t use passive voice.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen).

and so forth. Often, the lists also include one more item, saying it is the most important rule of all:

  • There are no rules.

None of the “Rules” is truly a rule — or at least not a law. The last one in particular. There is, however, an important reason for including that on the lists. Starting with the fact that these are not really “Rules of Writing.” they are, more accurately, “Rules of Editing Your First Draft.”

Why the difference? Because we have enough on our plates when we are actually writing a story or novel. Creating believable characters in the midst of a situation fraught with conflict is hard. Doing that well, writing dialogue, thinking of a clever (but not too clever) way of resolving that conflict is hard. Writing believable dialogue where fifteen different characters sound like fifteen different people — with different education levels, who grew up in different parts of the country or different countries, who have different motives, who may be acting out of character for themselves in a given situation or who may be perceived by other people in the world you create in a way that is entirely different from the way they perceive themselves — is ridiculously hard. 

Trying to come even reasonably close to writing a half-decent first draft while also worrying about following all of the “Rules” is like trying to drive cross-country being followed by a cop who watched you walk out of a bar. You’ll be so worried about signaling before every lane change you’ll probably forget to look at the fuel gauge and run out of gas somewhere in Kansas.

So you soldier through the first draft, secure in the knowledge that it is going to suck whether or not you bother trying to follow any “Rules.” The difference is, if you disregard the “Rules” at that stage, there is a chance you will actually finish your first draft.

That’s why they are rules of editing. You use them when you are done to go back through and clean up the steaming pile of shit that is your first draft. 

There are “Rules,” and then there are rules.

Capitalization notwithstanding, the rules (like the one that cause me to put a comma after the introductory clause in this sentence) are relatively concrete. When people are talking, we put what they are saying inside quotation marks (unless you are Cormac McCarthy, and even with a writer that much more brilliant than I will ever be, it still bugs the shit out of me). Rules of basic grammar and construction make your writing comprehensible to people who have learned to read according to those rules. There is seldom (like, maybe, one time per couple of full-length novels) a reason do deviate from that outside of dialogue.

“End each sentences with a period, exclamation point, or question mark” is a rule. There is virtually never a reason to deviate in prose. “Don’t use more than three exclamation points in a novel” is a “Rule of Writing” (which is to say, an editing tip). There’s a big difference.

Make no mistake about it, I love the Rules of Writing. Almost all of them. They are rules of thumb from people practiced in this art who know what they are talking about. And I follow those rules 95% to 100% of the time.

Because of that, I love breaking the Rules of Writing even more.Because that one time in fifty or one in five hundred that I break them, I’ve had a long, hard talk with myself about whether I should be breaking the Rule in question. There are few sentences in my writing I have examined more closely, dissected more thoroughly, more earnestly searched for alternatives to breaking the Rule, and so completely convinced myself that there was no alternative. Going down the list:

  • Don’t use adverbs. Maybe I overdid it a little in the prior sentence, but it’s packed with adverbs that, combined with the alliteration, hopefully made the point. I am certain that I did not overdo it with the sentence prior to this one, because I’m not sure whether I accomplished that end, so “hopefully” is necessary for the sentence to be true.
  • Don’t use adjectives. Application of this rule and its exceptions are functionally the same as adverbs. If the bomb is going to set something on fire, it’s best to give the reader a heads-up that it is an incendiary bomb. 
  • Use “said” (and nothing but “said”) as your dialogue tag line. Unless the speaker just finished running and finds herself panting. This is the Rule I probably break more than any other Rule, but I can also say that I follow it at least 9 times out of 10.
  • Show, don’t tell. Novice (or bad) writers breaking this rule without a good reason account for most of the crappy writing in the universe. That said, if you show something important at the beginning of a dinner party and your plot doesn’t move again until the drive home, no reader wants to watch everyone eat just for the hell of it. A sentence or two giving us the gist of what happened during the meal (telling) is much better storytelling.
  • Don’t use passive voice. Thanks to grammar check, I know I hover between 97% and 98% active voice, which is as close to following this rule as I will ever get. Sometimes (though very rarely), the “passive” voice means livelier writing. “He put his hand on the doorknob, not knowing that if he opened the door he would be killed,” is passive, but, if you don’t want to disclose who or how or why he would be killed in that sentence, it’s still the way to go.
  • Have your character see something, don’t just tell us she could see it (and a corollary, tell us the thing happened, don’t tell us your character felt it happen). Done without intent, ignoring this rule leads to flat, boring writing. It adds unnecessary words and perspective to action, diluting its impact. By the same token, though, writing that a character “could feel the sweat roll down her forehead, stinging her eyes” changes the sensation completely — because the significance is not the sweat itself, it is the character experiencing it. And if I want to say she could see Canada from her back porch on a clear day, I shouldn’t feel obligated to make her go out and look at Canada every day it isn’t raining.

Do not read that analysis as me being dismissive of the Rules, because I am not. Odds are, you will find those and many other general rules of writing followed closely in my prose (which, unlike blog posts, I edit). More closely than most other writers. The distinction between bad Rule-breaking and good Rule-breaking is this: Good Rule-breaking means (1) you know the Rule; (2) you understand the purpose behind the Rule; (3) you have looked at the sentence that breaks the Rule to see if you can re-write it so that it follows the Rule; (4) every way of following the Rule you can come up with makes the sentence worse; (5) so you highlighted the sentence and moved on; (6) looking at it the next day, you remain reasonably sure the Rule needs to be broken; and (7) you make a mental note to go back over that sentence when revising (each and every time) to make sure that the changes don’t eliminate or reduce the need to break the Rule.

That’s how seriously we should take the Rules. They are not absolutes, but they’re close. If you make a conscious decision to break them 2% of the time for a really good reason, those departures can make your writing shine. Up that to 5% and it dulls your writing. More than 10% and I can almost guarantee you are not someone who knows the rules and is making a conscious decision to break them. A person breaking them that much just doesn’t know how to edit his work. 

What #Queryfail Taught Me About Agents and Writers

I was late to the #QueryFail party, which is a little bit like being late to the Jonestown Kool-Aid party. I am not bummed I missed it.

If you, too, were fortunate enough to miss the massacre, here’s what went down. A couple of agents thought it would be a good idea to post the most egregious “QueryFails” they saw – i.e., parts of horrible query letters, on Twitter. OK, no big deal. They removed names, etc., so they weren’t calling anyone out. Some people even thought it might be a good learning opportunity for writers. Nothing teaches you how to succeed like watching other people crash and burn.

As one of the agents who started the party put it:

Colleen_Lindsay: It’s about educating, not about being mean! =) #queryfail

Then it got mean. Which is to say, its primary value came from mocking the easily mockable queries that must drive agents nuts on a daily basis.

As one person tweeted:

@Colleen_Lindsay i find your #queryfail to be both mocking & mean-spirited. laughing at people’s inability to reach their dreams always is.

Then there was some back and forth, with many writers saying how “hilarious” the queryfails were (and they’re often right) a few pointing out that the agents in question were mocking others for their own amusement (and they’re right). I have to assume the lopsided numbers have a lot to do with people’s propensity to tweet “u r so awesome & smart & funny” to someone whose ass they are kissing. True as it might have been, “u didn’t really think this thru” probably is not going to score points (not that I think the ass kissing scores that many, either).

By the time I stumbled across the corpses that were left in its aftermath, I think a consensus had arisen that throwing what was essentially an online party to make fun of other people probably wasn’t a genius move.

There’s nothing to learn from doing an autopsy (nor is it time to do the autopsy yet, the hash tag is still in frequent use). As of two minutes ago, the hash tag yielded this:

“SlushPile Hell, rejection, #queryfail – all signal an air of entitlement”

With a link to an interesting article from a publishing veteran in the Australian Book Review. https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/abr-online/current-issue/109-december-2013-january-2014-no-357/1739-queryfail?utm_content=buffer84247&utm_source=buffer&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=BufferShe has a frank and mature take on the subject (which is code for, “she agrees with what I was writing here when I checked the hash tag and found her article.”).

There is, however, a lot to learn from looking at the back and forth #queryfail entailed. With plenty of good and bad on both sides of the seesaw.

  • It’s About Educating People. Let’s just get this one out of the way right off the bat.

First, thanks for giving me the opportunity to laugh at something ridiculous that you wrote right before you started laughing at ridiculous things other people wrote. BWAAAAHAHAHAGWAHAHAHGAGAA –Good one.

Second, if someone is earnestly writing that s/he was divinely ordained by God to write a novel, there is a very good chance that person is mentally ill. Bitching about the query on twitter isn’t going to fix that, nor will it stop the next person who hears voices from sending you a query. There are already a billion other resources on the internet giving people this basic information. This added nothing new to the discourse. You were having fun with the most outlandish “queryfails” you could find. Period. Nobody who has ever spent an hour studying how to query would have done anything listed.

Third, what, exactly, was the purpose of providing the supposed education? Was your goal really to teach the person who believes God told him to write a book how to query you successfully? I find it somewhat difficult to believe that teaching the people in the bottom 10% of the slushpile how to query better, so you could invest more time in their manuscripts, was really your goal. “Not following our submission guidelines is a #queryfail” is educational. “My book is about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school.” AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!! #queryfail” is laughing at someone who is probably naively describing a book about eating disorders among teenage girls. Laughing at her is not educating anyone.

  • So, fine, it was about being funny. Everybody needs to blow off some steam. I have no doubt that what was happening on twitter was merely an online version of what happens at your agencies’ water coolers every freaking day. I get that. I’m willing to bet you have dozens of great query stories queued up for every cocktail party/date gone wrong/ uncomfortable holiday dinner with the in-laws imaginable. The problem is, twitter is not your in-laws’ table or the water cooler. It’s instantaneous communication with millions of people. In other words, public humiliation for the people you’re talking about. Which makes it a lot less funny.


  • The people you were making fun of are people. Some seem young and naïve. Some may even be mentally unbalanced. I have no doubt it must suck to have to sift through 1,000 pieces of crap, looking for the next J. D. Salinger and being offered a 700,000-word first volume in a nine book series from someone who didn’t make it 200 words without spelling and grammatical errors aplenty. But that’s the freaking job you chose. By all means, send the form rejectionthe minute you see the obvious queryfail. But celebrate the fact that it made your job easier, don’t go out of your way to humiliate the person who sent you the query.

There’s a lot here for writers to learn from, too. Just not anything about the reasons the queries in question were publically humiliatedrejected.

  • Queries are business prospectuses, nothing more. We are sending a proposal to a professional in the publishing business. We are essentially requesting that they invest significant amounts of time and effort bringing our product to market, using their names and reputations to facilitate that.
  • Negative feedback is a given. Ideally, it should be provided in a professional and courteous way. I have little doubt that a clear, professional query letter that meets all of the agency’s guidelines is not going to show up as a #queryfail even if the proposal itself is rejected. Writers seriously need to stop thinking in terms of “I sent you part of my soul – you owe me something.” That may be what you sent, but what the agent received was, to her, a business proposal competing with 1,000 other proposals for the same limited resources. Your love of your book, the earnest emotion you poured into it, the years of toil you’ve invested are irrelevant. How good your book is matters.
  • We are dealing with a world where the floodgates have been opened. Everyone has a computer, everyone has e-mail, nearly everyone thinks s/he can write a novel, and more people than ever are doing it. The frustration the agents are voicing is legitimate (even if their manner of voicing it was less so). There is no good excuse for a queryfail. The web is teeming with resources on how to write a query, agency guidelines are usually quite specific, and anyone who invests a reasonable amount of time and effort should be able to create a query that will pass muster. That’s not to say the agent will request your manuscript or offer representation. Rather, your proposal will be evaluated on its merits instead of the fact that it was written in hieroglyphics painted in pig’s blood.

I am really writing this blog post for one specific person, who may not even exist. When I saw the posts by agents and sycophantic laughter from writers piling on, I couldn’t help but think of some teen-aged writer who wrote a bad query letter for an equally bad novel. A writer who, 10 years from now, may write a good query letter for a good novel, but who may not do so after being laughed at by a bunch of so-called grownups. Or the person who was deemed #queryfail because he is in prison, without mention of what his book was about or how good it was.People who may be or develop into real writers, but who were told, through public humiliation, that they shouldn’t bother to try. They were somehow deemed unworthy of having and working toward the dream of being published — under the guise of “educating” them.



Don’t Use Adverbs Freely (Or: What’s the big deal about adverbs?)

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”

– Steven King

“I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ‘full of rape and adverbs’”

 – Elmore Leonard


What’s an adverb? Adverbs are words that modify other words, typically (hehe) verbs, to show degree or circumstance or provide more explanation about the word. Adjectives are basically (hehe) the same thing, with respect to nouns. That’s not a technical definition, it’s my shot at a good-enough definition to understand the issue.

Who gives a shit? Well, we should, for starters. Adverb usage is something worth looking at in our writing, because they tend to be overused. If that’s where the conversation began and ended, I’d probably just send out a bunch of bookmarks that say, “Adjectives tend to be overused” and call it a day. As the above quotes indicate, however, some people adopt a more orthodox (which is to say jihadist) view.


Advice about adverbs is to writing what the Red Scare was to sensible international policy from the end of World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Something based on a legitimate rationale (Stalin was a dick) carried to ridiculous extremes (the McCarthy hearings).  

The tongue-in-cheek advice above stems from a general truism. When I edit a first draft, I cut about half of my adverbs, often replacing them with a stronger verb. The number may be even higher than that. Counting the adverbs I auto-edit between the first glimmer of a thought and my fingers touching keys, it’s safe to say that I avoid adverbs most of the time. I have no doubt deleting every one of those adverbs makes my writing better. After all, that’s the point behind editing – to make one’s writing better.

Here’s the problem: Even looking at every single adverb as a target for deletion, fully (hehe) intending to get rid of every one that does not make the writing better, I still leave about half of them in. I have no doubt that including every one of those adverbs makes my writing better.

At best, if I were to try to formulate a “Rule” with respect to adverbs, it would be this:

We should look at each adverb to see if it’s necessary. About half the time it will be. Get rid of the other half.


Sensible advice, right? It’s probably (hehe) true. So, what’s the big deal?

Let’s start with the reason the advice is right half the time.

1.     “Show don’t tell.” Many writers, particularly novice writers, lean too heavily (hehe) on adverbs to convey emotion and emphasis that they should convey through stronger verbs or better dialogue. “She angrily hung up the phone” is no substitute for “She threw the phone against the wall.” The verb phrase “hung up” does not come close to showing the woman’s fury at the end of the conversation.

2.     “Stronger verbs.” One of the easiest ways to see your writing improve by paying attention to adverbs is to look at sentences where the adverbs are masking the need for a stronger verb. “He quickly jumped from the carriage” says the same thing as “he sprang (or leaped, flew, vaulted, etc.,) from the carriage,” though not as well. Getting rid of those is like giving your draft a tune-up.

3.     “Makes no difference.” This group includes at least half of the adverbs we can lose. It’s a little embarrassing, because they’re just sitting there, not really doing anything.

Then why is there a problem? Like all zealotry, the problem comes from taking a good premise (we should use adverbs sparingly, making sure they strengthen, rather than weaken, our writing) and proclaiming a stupider, simpler form of that rule as irrevocable truth (“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.”).

That last quote came from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, often referred to as the Writer’s Bible. I’m on a bit of a jihad of my own against Messrs. Strunk & White, which I’ll go into in a future post (or series of posts, because it’s hard to do a full-on jihad on someone’s ass in one blog post). But that particular quote, and those from Elmore Leonard and Steven King, lay out the basic problem. King and Leonard were somewhat tongue in cheek about their absolutist advice. First throwing out advice that looks quotable and can be put on T-shirts and faux motivational posters, then clarifying with more accurate advice that explains why there are a reasonable number of adverbs in their books. Unfortunately, people often read the T-shirts and internet memes, ignoring the fine print.

Strunk & White, on the other hand, were more than happy to proclaim absolutist rules like “do not use adverbs” and preach them as gospel. Rarely do you see anyone call them on their hierocracy, despite the fact that the next fucking sentence in The Elements of Style has two fucking adverbs in it. And not for effect. The title of the first chapter of the book has an adverb in it. Guess what part of speech the second word of the foreword to the 4th edition of Elements is. If you guessed an adverb, you’d be absofuckinglutely correct.

This gives me heartburn on a few levels.

1.     The bad advice makes the good advice impossible to follow. The mere fact that Strunk & White couldn’t make it one sentence after pronouncing the prohibition against using adverbs without using an adverb shows where trying to follow their advice will get you. It’s impossible. So don’t sweat it. A linguistics professor did a study of white’s work and found that it contained more than twice the number of adverbs as the average work of that time. Thirteen percent of White’s words are adverbs, the average for published material in that period was six. In other words, E. B. White is hypocritical as all shit about this stuff. Odds are, your first draft already contains fewer adverbs than his writing.

[Note here: I enjoy E. B. White’s prose immensely. He was a master of the craft. He was also horrible at explaining it and far too prone to pronounce minor truisms as absolute laws. Plus I had a college professor who believed White’s bullshit, no matter how many times I could point to White not following his own “Rules.”]

2.     The good advice, while less sexy, is extremely important. It is so important that I need an adverb to explain its degree of importance. OK, maybe I could have used “imperative,” but you get my point. Any part of speech that you get rid of 50% of the time (often by using stronger descriptions and verbs) is critical to our writing. So don’t get sidetracked by the bullshit about keeping them out altogether.

What we should be doing. I make every adverb in my writing beg for its life. I try to look at them with a presumption they should be axed. Even when I think I’ve done that, I use the search function to look for “ly” (because adverbs have a lovely habit of ending in “ly” a majority of the time) and look at each use again. As I mentioned, I end up getting rid of half or more of them. That strengthens my writing. The fact that I got rid of half also makes the remaining adverbs twice as powerful. More than anything, I’ve made sure that any adverb that remains is the best tool for the job in that particular sentence. Not with religious purity, but with common sense.

One final note: If I were looking for an absolute prohibition, I might be able to find it in sentences where the adverb modifies a dialogue tag. If an adverb modifies a verb associated with dialogue (usually “said,” but including “yelled,” “asked,” “admitted,” “panted,” or anything else), there is almost certainly a better way to structure the sentence. When I see that in my writing, I might as well be looking at a note in my handwriting that says, “This dialogue did not do the job it was supposed to do.”

There is no need to post a comment about the great work of literature that uses an adverb in this fashion beautifully, I am certain it exists. I’m equally certain I haven’t written one yet, though that would be a wonderful accomplishment. We are looking at one sentence in ten million or more.

Actually, please do comment, because I would like to see it. Out of curiosity, though, not because I doubt its existence.

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.


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.


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.


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


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