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 is your writing going?

It’s our anniversary on Sunday! Jarrett and I are off to Richmond for the weekend, which is where we met and got engaged, and I’m crazy excited to stay at the new Quirk Hotel.

quirk hotel in richmond

Isn’t it pretty?

I may also be a complete lunatic and pack up my wedding dress to wear in the room…or around the lobby, if I’m brave enough. It’s just that I adore this dress, and it’s not fair that I’ve only gotten to wear it once.

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So I’m taking a cue from this smart chick and wearing it again. And yes, Jarrett’s wearing his suit again. We might even recreate a few of our wedding photos. And we will definitely be eating the Dexter Cider Mill donuts (our “cake”) that are stashed in our freezer.

Did I mention that I can’t wait?

But in the meantime, I wanted to ask you a quick question: is there anything in your writing life that has you completely stumped lately? We talked all about our reading lives a few weeks ago in our survey, but now I’m curious to know how you guys are feeling about your writing.

For me, I’m feeling stumped about how to balance it all—I adore working with authors, writing + editing proposals, writing here to you guys, coaching my authors through the publishing process, and writing for The Kitchn now and then. I just want more time. Someone package me up and send me a bundle of time. (There’s a cooking joke in there somewhere.)

So I’d love to hear: what’s your biggest obstacle in your writing life right now?

I’d love to hear all about it, and the more details you can give me, the more I can try to help you out!

No fancy survey today—just email me at maria @ cooksplusbooks . com and let me know what’s on your mind. I LOVE hearing from you guys, and you can bet I will read and respond to every single one of your notes.

Can’t wait to chat!


As a thank you…

I’d buy you a drink if I could, but let’s go for the next best thing: a cocktail recipe! Here’s a Cucumber Jalapeno Gimlet recipe Jarrett developed a few weeks ago. It was GOOD. Really good. And it’s exactly what you need for soaking up these last few weeks of summer.

Cucumber Jalapeno Gimlet Recipe

cucumber jalapeno gimlet recipe

Makes 1 cocktail

For cocktail:
  • 5 slices of cucumber + more for garnish
  • 1-2 slices of jalapeno, seeds removed (optional)
  • ¾ oz. lime juice
  • 2 oz. cucumber gin
  • ¾ oz. mint syrup
  • Club soda
For mint syrup:
  • 5-6 mint leaves
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
For cucumber gin:
  • 3-4 cucumber slices
  • 1 cup gin
For the mint syrup: Add 5-6 mint leaves to 1 cup of water in a small saucepan. Add 1 cup of sugar and heat over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes. Let steep until cool, then strain out mint leaves.

For the cucumber gin: Chop 3-4 slices of cucumbers and place them in a glass with 1 cup of gin. Refrigerate for 10-15 minutes, then strain out the cucumber.

For the cocktail: Pour the mint syrup into a shaker along with 5 slices of cucumbers and 2 slices of jalapeno (optional). Muddle, then add the lime juice and gin. Add ice up to level of liquid, and shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Double-strain into chilled coupe (or a Collins glass filled with ice, if you prefer); top with a splash of club soda. Add a cucumber or jalapeno slice for garnish.

Cheers!


What I’ve Been Reading This Week

Your Literary Twin, According to Your Myers-Briggs Personality Type (Carolyn Stanley for PureWow): Here’s a fun one for the weekend! I’m an INFJ, which means my literary twin is Jane Eyre. Who are you?

How to Write Your Book and Blog at The Same Time: 7 Strategies for Succeeding at Both (Chad R. Allen): I get asked about this all. The. Time. I’ll let Chad answer it this time–he has 7 great actionable steps you can take right away to get this issue sorted out. I think you’ll find this really helpful!

The Secret Life of a Book Manuscript (Thomas E. Ricks for The Atlantic): I love the subtitle for this piece: “A best-selling author submits a draft to his editor. Hijinks ensue.” I remember that feeling of getting a manuscript in from an author and realizing it was not the book you had signed up. It still makes me shudder. This is such a well-written and fascinating look at what happens when you need to take your manuscript apart and put it all back together, and how this can happen even to bestselling authors. So don’t stress if editing is tearing you up–you’re in great company.

How the Silent Book Club Gave Me Back My Reading Life (Maggie Downs for Literary Hub): Would you go to a public space to read silently with others? Here’s what Downs thought of it: “There aren’t enough words to convey how good this feels. I’m the mother of a toddler, and carving out reading time for myself has been a challenge. During the day, I’m either working or playing with my child. At night I can’t crack open a book without the crushing guilt of the dirty dishes or the overflowing laundry hamper or, hell, my actual professional work.” Me? I would totally do it.

The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again (John Maher for Publisher’s Weekly): “Its chief critic took a buy-out. It’s consolidating like crazy. But the Gray Lady’s books team is neither flailing nor failing. Here’s what it is doing.”


What We’re Eating This Week

We were normal! Yes, we ate some pretty normal and home-cooked things this week, for a change. Nothing fancy–just the food, ma’m.

Monday: Mondo burrito bowls with charred corn and ground beef that Jarrett accidentally seasoned with thyme. (There HAS to be a cooking joke in there somewhere.)

Tuesday: Creamy Miso Fettucine with Brussels Sprouts from The Love & Lemons Cookbook, but with almonds instead of cashews, broccoli instead of brussels, and umami paste instead of miso, because apparently I never have the right ingredients for anything. It’s the thought that counts?

Wednesday: I am still crushing hard on these lentil bowls. My plan is to make them every week until I get tired of them and ruin a good thing. Hooray!

Thursday: Wine for dinner. I mean. We will order food, too. But we’ll be at Maxwell for a friend’s birthday, and you know how Thursdays go. #EntirelyMadeUpRationale

Friday: PIZZA NIGHT! I’m not excited except that I am, and it’s been months since we’ve had a shameless Friday pizza night. There will be plenty of salami and arugula on my pizza, plus my favorite roasted broccoli from Back Pocket Pasta. Yes and yes and yes.

Happy weekend!

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The 5 best books for writers

Jarrett came home from work the other day waving a new book, which one of the editors at his office said was essential reading for writers. Excuse me, I said, but we have that book already, and I could have told you all about it if I had known you wanted more reading assignments.

(I’m always telling Jarrett, “You really should read this book—you’d like it!” when I finish a book. I think his backlog of books I really, really think he should read is really, really long and really, really ignored.)

I was in such a huff that someone had beat me to recommending On Writing Well that I pulled out my yellowing copy from the shelf and forced on him a dramatic reading of my favorite quotes as we ate dinner. (I’ve learned that the best place to trap someone is at the dinner table, and I think this is a free and fair trade for all the cooking I do.)

Anyway, as Jarrett sat rapt, or maybe bored, I told him all about how, at my first job as an editorial assistant at a NYC publisher, one of the executive editors had called me into her corner office, handed me a stack of 10 books about writing, and told me to start there, but that I could come back for more soon.

I had been working as a paralegal at a law firm beforehand, so I thought it was the coolest thing ever that I got to read books about writing instead of police reports. But 10 books is no small stack, and I didn’t know where to start.

best books for writers

So consider this my starter stack for you—these are the 5 books I’d most recommend to any writer, whether an aspiring writer, an established writer, or anyone who has to write or blog for a living. These are the best books for writers; the best books to teach you how to get published; the best books to make you feel less alone and hair-pull-y all the time.

Maybe others have beat me to recommending some of these books on writing to you, but I promise not to get huffy about it, and I hope you’ll still find one or two new gems here:

 

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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!