Why talent is a myth, and the 3 things you actually need to be a bestseller

Why writing talent is a myth, and the 3 things that can actually help you become a bestselling author.


I was scrolling through my Instagram feed on Monday when something stopped me:

“I’m afraid I’m not talented enough.”

It was a caption on a pretty photo of a journal, and it was by a young writer who wasn’t sure she should keep going.

I could almost picture the real scene. The paralysis and anxiety about opening her manuscript. The embarrassment and self-criticism over what she’d written already. The fear that it was all for nothing. The escape to social media so she wouldn’t have to face those hard feelings.

I know it all, because I’ve been there, too. Who wouldn’t rather watch panda videos instead of doing the hard work? (She says as she Googles for panda videos…)

But anyone who’s ever written anything, from a novel to a blog post to a pitch letter, has had those same sinking feelings.

What if we don’t have what it takes? What if we’re not talented?

This nagging fear crops up everywhere, and it makes us wonder if, no matter how much effort we put in, we’ll just never be any good. We say we want to write, but then life gets in the way. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, what’s really keeping us from writing?

It’s us. Our own fear.

The fear that we’re not talented enough.

how to become a bestselling author

But here’s what I’ve come to realize, after nearly a decade of working with writers and successful authors: that person who seems “talented”? They just have more experience.

It may seem like talented is a natural state for some, but that’s because all we see is the output of today and not the inputs of their entire lives. It’s a totally bogus construct. Most likely, that person began paying attention to writing before you, or maybe, through luck and circumstance, they have more time each day to pay attention to writing. They’ve simply accrued more hours on their experience meter, or they’ve had higher quality inputs. They’re not innately “better” than you–I promise!

What do I mean by inputs? I know we’re not machines, but I’ve always found it helpful to think of the creative mind like a container, one which has both inputs and outputs.

The output—the quality of your work—can only be made with the inputs that already exist in the container. Inputs can be anything. A creative mind is like a sponge, and it sops up anything and everything it finds interesting, even if it has no immediate use for it.

Inputs can be:

  • Books
  • Magazines
  • Art
  • Music
  • TV shows
  • Advice
  • Classes
  • Research
  • Nature
  • Conversations

See? Anything. But the key is:

The more high-quality inputs you have, the higher-quality your output is.

If you started reading The New Yorker at 7, you will be a better writer than most people, simply because you’ve absorbed the cadences of good writing. If you’re reading US Weekly and corporate memos most days, your inputs are mucking up your mind, and you may have to unlearn some bad cadences and turns of phrase.

Since we can’t see most people’s inputs, we assume their superior output is coming from someplace else: their talent. Instead, it’s coming from their superior inputs.

Which, trust me, is great news: it means all you have to do to up your game is fill yourself with the best writing, reading, and other inputs you can.

But fears are like whack-a-mole. You finally stop worrying about whether you’re talented, and then you start worrying about whether you’re self-disciplined enough. Or smart enough. Or clever enough. Or literally [any adjective] enough. Instead, we need to unplug the game and go get a drink at the bar. Um, I mean…stop letting the moles run the show.

That’s what separates bestselling authors from struggling authors. They know that the fears will always be there, but they don’t let them run the show.

Instead, bestselling authors have 3 deep beliefs about themselves and the world that make them completely unstoppable.

That’s why I believe that part of the work of being a writer, blogger, or creative of any kind is character-building. Without methodically developing these 3 beliefs, just like you methodically develop your writing or photos, you can only go so far.

Here are the 3 beliefs that separate bestselling authors from the rest:

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How to save your favorite quotes from books (& free art print!)

I’ve been rereading Bird by Bird the past few weeks, and I’m remembering how many underline-worthy sentences there are in it. I love those sorts of books—the ones that make you pause every few pages to dwell on and soak up a sentence that hits a vein of truth.

The problem is, we soak up the sentence but then forget it a few pages later when a new little gem emerges. I don’t know about you, but I have the worst memory. Jarrett has always had a knack for remembering quotes and favorite lines, but I would draw the longest “uhhhhhh….” if you asked me to name my favorite line from a book. It’s sad, really. And no matter how many times I read and reread a sentence, hoping to imprint it on my memory, it slips right through my fingers when I try to think of it later.

What to do, what to do? Outsource it!

best quotes from literature books

That’s right–I’ve given up trying to stockpile favorite quotes in my brain, and now I just hoard them in places I can easily access anytime. Here are my two favorite ways to build a library of favorite quotes from books:

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10 book art prints to inspire you to read more

Jarrett and I watched The Little Prince last week, and I am smitten. Why had no one told me how cute this movie was when it first came out?!

I loved every bit of it: the gorgeous paper cut-out animation, the thoughtfully done adaptation and expansion of the storyline, the themes of finding adventure and wonder in books. The movie did a great job of keeping the ethereal and delicate tone of the book yet overlaying the struggles of modern life: how the cult of productivity and busyness has made for less spontaneous and unscheduled childhoods (and adulthoods!).

It made me feel like a little kid again–it’s that same happy, giddy feeling you get when you read a great book. So, in honor of The Little Prince, the start of spring, and the very cutest Google doodle (did you catch it on Monday?), I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite reading illustrations and art prints.

Reading and book art prints

I have a whole board of reading and book art prints on Pinterest, and sometimes I just open them up to smile and remember what it is that I love so much in books. (Follow me there, if you want more!)

10 Reading Art Prints to Remind You to Believe in Books

Reading and book art prints

(Source: Simini Blocker)

Reading and book art prints 7

(Source: Doodlemum)

Reading and book art prints

(Source: unknown)

Reading and book art prints

(Source: unknown)

Reading and book art prints

(Source: part of a WPA series)

Reading and book art prints

(Source: Monica Castanys)

   Reading and book art prints 5

(Source: Book/Shop)

Reading and book art prints

(Source: Book Geek Confessions)

Reading and book art prints

(Source: Sarah Wilkins)

Reading and book art prints

(Source: unknown)


What I’m Reading This Week

Stop Focusing on Follower Count: 5 Better Approaches for Improving Social Media Use (Andrea Dunlop on JaneFriedman.com): This is such great advice–I see follower count trip up so many authors, yet it just isn’t an accurate predictor of the success of your book. Instead, focus on these 5 goals to stay motivated as you grow your author platform.

Writing the review in advance (Seth Godin): “The last click someone clicks before they buy something isn’t the moment they made up their mind. … We lay clues. That’s what it takes to change the culture and to cause action. The thing we make matters (a lot). But the breadcrumbs leading up to that thing, the conversations we hear, the experiences that are shared, the shadow we cast–we start doing that days, months and years before.”

The business of posting recipes online (Dreena Burton of Plant-Powered Kitchen): There isn’t a blogger out there who hasn’t had to work through this same emotional mire of seeing their work copied without credit, so it’s great to see a blogger discuss this so openly and yet so positively.

5 Scientifically Verified Reasons You’ll Hate Yourself if You Stop Writing (Chad Allen): “So much of winning at the writing game can be summarized succinctly in the immemorial words of Dory in Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming.”

How I Won 12 Book Awards for My Memoir (Judith Newton on Dianne Jacob’s blog):  Memoir can be a tough category to break-out in, so start here if you’re looking for ways to build buzz for your work!

10 Empowering Writer’s Retreats for Women (Ellen Turner on The Write Life): Feeling a little blah or overwhelmed in your writing life? Sounds like you need a retreat!


What We’re Eating This Week

What’s for dinner? Why, I thought you’d never ask!

Monday: Grilled shrimp greek salads, because Monday.

Tuesday: Chicken fajitas, made with a recipe by my author Robyn of Add a Pinch (Have you preordered her gorgeous book yet? It’s a weeknight lifesaver!)

Wednesday: Spaghetti with salumi and endives, adapted from Back Pocket Pasta by Colu Henry. Lordy, I love that book.

Thursday: The notes in my phone say: “Asian slow-cooked beef and mushrooms with rice and broccoli and snow peas.” AKA throw everything in the fridge in a pot, cover in sauce, cook, and serve over rice. #fancy

Friday: Last weekend Jarrett and I went to this fabulous event at the Museum of American History about the women behind America’s first cookbooks, and they demoed chicken croquettes and tomato butter sauce from The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph. All I had to hear was “add a stick of butter to the tomato sauce” and, boom, it was added to the meal plan. I’m powerful like that. (But actually, please say a little prayer for me in executing these–I’m cooking them as a birthday dinner for my mother-in-law and want them not to be, as Mary Randolph would put it, intolerable.)

Cheers!

 

6 mindfulness practices to relax into your work

It’s 77 degrees in Alexandria today. (What?!)

Spring is popping up in every corner, and Pepper has had more long walks this past week than she knows what to do with. She loves to chase squirrel trails (which I’m convinced she’s just pretending to pick up on so that she can go berserk), and she runs so fast that she practically drags my lazy butt down the running path.

mindfulness practices for writers

But it feels so good to finally be entering into spring—I love that feeling of both new energy and slow growth. It’s equal parts raring-to-go and stop-and-sniff-the-flowers (or be dragged away from the flowers by your embarrassingly athletic dog).

Isn’t that the same balance we strive to keep in our work? Excited and energetic, yet still calm, composed, and present. Which isn’t easy for writers—I think nearly every writer or blogger would own up to being neurotic or perfectionistic or overachievers or wound a little too tight in one way or another. (I think their agent might be guilty of this, too. Ahem.)

So today I’m sharing 6 mindfulness practices that can help bring a little more zen into your day-to-day work. I think we’re all guilty sometimes of being so results-oriented and efficiency-driven that we completely forget that we actually like doing this work that’s in front of us.

I know that happens to me all the time! Half the time that I’m editing proposals or answering emails my shoulders are so tense and my jaw so clenched that it feels like I’m shouldering through some sort of terrible trial. But in reality, I love editing proposals, and I love chatting on email with my authors. With just a few calming breaths and some of these mindfulness practices, I’m reminded that I love this work I do and that it’s okay to relax and enjoy it.

Maybe the same thing happens to you?

You sit down to write and find yourself so pressured by the ticking clock or the word count or your own expectations that your whole body tenses up?

Or maybe you find yourself knotted into a ball of stress as you’re drafting query letters, or writing social media posts, or responding to email?

If so, head on over and read this article on The Kitchn!

It’s framed around work in the kitchen, but these practices can just as easily be applied to showing up at your computer to write or facing a stack of pages to edit.

I hope it’s a little reminder in the middle of your week that, once we learn to relax into our tasks, anything can become the soothing and meaningful experience we search for in meditation and yoga. So for those of you who show up to a manuscript or a computer or a kitchen every day, remember to breathe, feeling deep gratitude for this moment, right here, right now, with this work.

Mindfulness Practices for writers


What I’m Reading This Week

Ready to Learn How to Write With Purpose? (Kristen Kieffer of Well-Storied): Since we’re chatting about being purposeful today, it was perfect timing that Kristen released this free 46-page workbook! Aren’t we all trying to bridge the gap between what our ideal workday looks like and our actual habits? If you’re nodding “yes” along with me, then this is a great resource to help you take a few more steps toward getting it right.

The Why of Urgent Vs. Important (Seth Godin): “The reason we go for urgent is that it makes us feel competent. We’re good at it. We didn’t used to be, but we are now. Important, on the other hand, is fraught with fear, with uncertainty and with the risk of failure. Now that you know why, you can dance with it.”

Remember Chutes and Ladders? Book Publishing is Just Like the Game (Emily Wenstrom on The Write Life): This is a great inside look at how to speed up (or slow down) your journey toward reaching your publishing goals. And yes! Be bold and chase down any leads, always staying professional along the way.

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds (Elizabeth Kolbert for The New Yorker): “People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”

12 Tips for Pitching Articles to Publications and Websites (Dianne Jacob): Essential tips for pitching to both online and print outlets! Make sure you scan through these before starting in on pitching a piece.


What We’re Eating This Week

Another week without traveling for work means lots of fun things to cook! And would you believe this: we ended up with the pickiest eater of a dog. I’m now the world’s most accomplished chopper-upper of hot dogs. There has to be a culinary award in this.

Monday: Ah, Monday. I always feel better about you if I have a salad on deck for dinner. Otto-inspired Italian chopped salad it is (with extra salami, of course).

Tuesday: Soboro beef with rice and broccoli, using this Bon Appétit recipe. Easy, yummy, and not a hot dog. Checks all the boxes!

Wednesday: Thai chicken and rice noodle soup, from my author Jenn of Once Upon a Chef. Because springtime means soup…? I don’t know, I just wanted soup. Welp.

Thursday: Arroz cubano, just like my Yaya makes! Start by packing some white rice into a cup, turn it over, and shake it out to form a little mountain. Then top with whatever kind of tomato sauce you like and a crispy-edged, olive-oil-fried egg. Kids love it; adults love it; dogs better not decide they love it.

Friday: ??? I have no idea. Can we have gin and tonics for dinner?

Cheers!