QueryTracker logo.As I mentioned in my last post, I’m back in the query trenches. And that means I’m spending way too much time thinking about querying.

So let’s talk about one of my favorite QueryTracker tools: the Data Explorer!

What is the Data Explorer?

The Data Explorer shows every time a QueryTracker user has submitted a query to a specific agent. It shows you their anonymized data: the genre of the book, its approximate length, how it was submitted, when it was submitted, what their response was, and how long it took to get it. And a whole lot of people use QueryTracker. And that means that, while the Data Explorer doesn’t show you every query an agent is getting, you can still see how that agent has responded to hundreds of other queries–in real time!

First thing’s first: this is, unfortunately, a feature you can only use if you have a paid QueryTracker membership. And while it’s not a feature I’d necessarily get a paid membership for, it’s super useful once you’ve made the jump.

So, with that in mind, you can get to the Data Explorer from your Query list. First, add some agents to your query list. Query people, and log those queries! Add agents to your to-query list! I explained how to do some of this in my last post. Once you’ve done that:

  1. Go to “Queries” in the top navigation.
  2. You can choose what agents to show here–the agents you haven’t queried yet? The ones you have? Choose whatever you want to see under “Advanced Search Filters.”
  3. Click this button:

QueryTracker Data Explorer - 3

The thing that looks like a stack of pancakes? That’s the Data Explorer. (The arrow beneath it goes to the Query Timeline, which uses the same data as the Explorer. The Explorer is a spreadsheet and the timeline is a graphical, er, timeline.)

Both are cool, but we’re going to click on the pancakes.

What does the Data Explorer look like?

Behold!

QueryTracker Data Explorer

I can see every single submission that has been logged in QueryTracker. And this is useful data! If I were about to query this particular agent, I could glean a few details:

  • She responds really quickly! Most of those rejections come in in under 20 days.
  • She might in a few days if she wants to request materials. (But not always! Don’t give up hope, me!)
  • She’s apparently  been busy, because she hasn’t responded to any queries at all since May 8. (Again! Don’t give up hope!)

But you know what? I’ve already queried her! Here I am~

Spreadsheet of manuscript submissions and

See that highlighted submission? That’s me. And that’s what makes this extra fun. I can now sign in to QueryTracker, check the explorer, and watch the people who submitted to her before me log their responses. And that means:

  • I can (roughly) tell when she starts responding to queries again. (I took that screenshot last week, for example, and she still hasn’t responded to anyone. So we’re still waiting!)
  • If she goes through her inbox in order (which isn’t a given), I can watch the people ahead of me log their responses.
  • Based on that, I can roughly guess when she might respond to my query.

And if I triangulate that with her agency’s website, that says she tries to respond to all queries, and usually does so within 4 weeks, I can say… Errrr, I probably should anticipate an answer around early June. So I’ve still got several weeks to go.

So… yes. This can make you obsess a little.

The Data Explorer does have some limitations, though.

The biggest drawback to the Explorer is that it’s self-reported data from the people using QueryTracker. It has some limitations:

  • People often forget to choose their book genre, leading to book submissions listed as “Not Specified.” That makes it harder to tell what an agent is requesting.
  • QueryTracker tracks Middle Grade and Young Adult books as their own genre, and you can only categorize your book as one thing. I write YA fantasy, so I have to choose: YA or fantasy? And since everyone else has to choose, I have no idea what an agent is actually requesting. They’re requesting YA! But what genre?! They’re requesting fantasy! But is that adult or YA?! I have no idea!
  • And, of course, people don’t always record their submissions right. People forget to report when they got a rejection. They forget to close out responses for “no response = no” agents. So sometimes you’ll see weird and likely inaccurate results.

So the data isn’t perfect. But it still gives you a general idea of what that agent’s doing.

This isn’t the only data you can get in QueryTracker, mind you.

If you want to get really number-crunchy, the Data Explorer isn’t actually the most useful tool in QueryTracker. There’s a whole other feature in QueryTracker called “Reports” that does stuff like, telling you an agent’s average response rate, or what genres they’re requesting, or whatever. But that’s a separate feature, and something I should talk about another day.

So, yeah. You don’t have to export the Data Explorer data into Excel and do your own number crunching (unless you really want to). But it’s fun for at-a-glance and real-time information.

In conclusion, this is an awesome way to obsess constantly over your queries.

Querying is slooooooooow. But if you have something like the Data Explorer, you can at least get a rough estimate for how long you might have to wait. Watch the responses to other people trickle in! Watch your submission slowwwwwwly creep down the queue! It’s still going to be a multi-month wait, but at least you know where you are in the queue. Kind of. Maybe. Sort of.

Or you can just be obsessive. That’s fun, too.

 

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I’m officially back in the query trenches! I’ve got a brand-spanking-new YA fantasy ready to go, and I’d dearly like to get a literary agent for it.

It’s harrowing! It’s nerve-wracking! I’m anxious!

And, well, that’s a lot of emotional energy. I just sent out my first batch, and… hey, it looks like most could respond any time between now and August. And since that’s a long time to be anxious, it’s time to distract myself!

…By writing a post about querying. This might not be the best plan. But screw it, let’s talk about how I find agents to query.

Step #1: QueryTracker is life.

QueryTracker logo.I’ve looked for agents a ton of ways–I’ve used Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and their website, gone to a ton of websites, searched through forums… But my absolute favorite tool, and the one I use almost exclusively these days, is the QueryTracker website.

It’s glorious. With a free account, you can find agents, track who you’ve applied to, and get basic statistics. (With a paid account, you can track multiple books and get access to the really awesome statistics–like the absolutely glorious data tracker.)

And it’s simple to find agents:

  1. Go to Agents > Search for Agents.
  2. In the right column, under “Advanced Search Features,” find the “Select A Genre” drop-down menu.
  3. Select your genre.
  4. Click “Hide agents who are closed to queries.” (This will be above the Advanced Search area.)

That’s it! A list of agents in your genre will appear on the page.

Step #2: Sorting through the QueryTracker results.

Now, don’t get too excited: you can’t query all of these people.

What are we looking at, and why can’t we query all these people?

You now have a list of agents who might represent your genre. Might. Maybe. But even if they’re all viable agents in your genre, you can only query a subset of them.

First off, an agency may have multiple agents in your genre. This is tricky! Some agencies let you query all their agents (as long as you let each agent reject you before going to the next) and some have a strict policy of “A no from one of us is a no from all of us.” So you’re going to have to choose one person per agency, at least to start–and possibly one person per agency, period.

And that’s assuming that you could query any of the people in that agency. You see, even though QueryTracker gave you a shiny list of potential agents, they still might not be appropriate for your book. An agent might represent fantasy, but they might only be looking for urban fantasy. And if an agent represents multiple age ranges, they might not represent your genre at all–I’ve seen a few agents that are listed under young adult and fantasy, but who only want contemporary young adult and adult fantasy.

So how do you deal with all this?

Research every agency.

Let’s say that you’re looking for YA and your QueryTracker search results include a boatload of agents from Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You now know you have to start with one of them. But who?

  1. In QueryTracker, click on any agent’s name from that agency. It doesn’t matter who.
  2. You’ll end up on that agent’s page. In the far left column you’ll find that agent’s email (if known), the agency’s website link, and some other information.
  3. Click on the agency’s link.
  4. Now you should be at the agency’s website. Every agency website will include a page about the agents and a page about their submission process. Start by finding their list of agents. (For the above-mentioned Andrea Brown Literary Agency, that page is here.)
  5. Read every agent’s bio. What are they interested in? Do any of them actually seem appropriate for your book? Out of all of these agents, who seems like the best fit for you?
    1. Optional: This is also a good time to check out #MSWL, a promising agent’s Twitter account, or your good ol’ friend Google. These might help you learn whether your story is a good fit for them.
  6. Write down the agents who seem most appropriate. But do you have to choose one or can you query one, wait for a rejection, and query the other? Let’s find out!
  7. Read the agency’s submission guidelines. You’ll have to dig for that page, too, but you can usually just look for a “Submissions” button. Here’s Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s submission guidelines.
  8. Now you have decided which agent to query first. You also know how to query them! Return to QueryTracker.
  9. Go back to Agents > Search for Agents. Find the agent you decided on.
  10. To the left of their name (and left of the “Query Status” column), there will be a single, unmarked checkbox. Check that!
  11. This will add this agent to your “My Query List,” which you can view by clicking “Queries” in the top navigation.

Phew! Now you have this agent on your to-query list.

Now do that again. And again. And again.

Step #3: Keep track of your submission guidelines.

Before you actually query someone, it can be helpful to know what to prepare. Submission guidelines are tricky. What do they want? A query? A query and 5 pages? A query and 10 pages? A query, a 2-page synopsis, and the first chapter? A query, a 1-page synopsis, a biography, and… OK, you get the point. It varies.

And if you want to make querying as easy as possible, you probably want to know who wants what ahead of time. There are a few ways to do this.

Option #1: Use QueryTracker

QueryTracker has a few tools to help you track your data.

  1. Go to “Queries” In the top navigation.
  2. You should see a list of all the agents you want to query. (If you don’t, click on the “Advanced Search” tab in the right column and click “Outstanding Queries.”)
  3. You can see who you queried, when you queried, how many days your query has been out, and a ton of other things. For now, find the “Query Details” column.
  4. The second icon in that column (which will be grayed out) is “Add a Note for this Query.” Click on that.

This creates a private note that only you can see. You can track your submission guidelines there (or anything else you want to.)

Option #2: Keep that information on a file on your computer.

I know this is a little low-tech, but I track all my agent research on QueryTracker AND in an Excel file on my computer.

I love my Excel tracker. I write down the agent’s name, what materials they want, and any special notes about what they’re looking for. And since this is Excel, I can see all this information in columns, side-by-side, at a glance.

This is especially fun for keeping track of stuff like “What version of my query I used” and “When the agent should respond by (if ever.)” You can track that stuff in QueryTracker, but only in your private notes. And the stuff in your private notes aren’t visible on your My Queries page, or sortable, and you can’t see them at all unless you open them one at a time. So I use Excel so I can see those extra details without digging.

Step #4: Get your materials ready.

So what do these agents want? You have to make a query letter. But what else? Do you need a synopsis? Do you need a bio? Do you need an ultra-polished, Standard Manuscript Format-formatted version of 5 pages? 10?

Get all that stuff ready.

Step #5: Enjoy querying!

And now you’re good to go. Look at your list, decide who to query in what order (or, hey, go into QueryTracker and assign each agent a Query Priority. It’s under the “Query Details” tab!)

Go back to the submission guidelines for that agent’s agency. Do everything they ask. Send the right materials to the right agent.

Then wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I like to use QueryTracker (or my friendly local Excel file) to track the agency’s estimated response times. Did they say that they respond in 6 weeks, and no response = no? Or  was it “We’ll respond to everything within 3 months”? Write that down.

Then you, too, can settle in for the long haul. And you, too, can write random blog posts to keep your mind–unsuccessfully–off the realization that you’ll be waiting a long time.

So, yes. I guess I’m saying that I’ll probably post a lot more about querying these next few months. You might as well prepare yourself.

The Scrivener logo.This week’s post is going to be a short one. But I have to share!

Scrivener is an incredibly popular piece of writing software. It has loads of features. Loads! It has so many, in fact, that you could use it for years and still find ones you’ve never seen before.

I had one of those moments last week. Scrivener has a name generator. You know, for coming up with names for your characters. And it’s ridiculously full-featured.

And now I’m going to show you where it is. Just in case, you know, you also had no idea it existed.

Note: these directions are for the Windows version of the software.

How to find the name generator

  1. Go to “Tools.”
  2. Go to “Writing Tools.”
  3. Optional: Boggle at the list of tools. Did you know those were there? I didn’t.
  4. Click on “Name Generator…”

That’s it! Super simple.

Screenshot of the name generator in Scrive

So what’s in this thing?

Just look at it!

The Scrivener name generator, with a list of generated names, genders, first/last name origins, and other fields.

You can:

  • Choose male or female names (or both).
  • Choose a culture for the first and last name.
  • Filter a little: do you only want names starting with the letter A? You can! Do you want a name that ends and starts with the same letter? I can’t imagine you’ll use that a lot. But you can!
  • Save the names you like in the shortlist.
  • Check out what the names mean in the “First Name Meanings” tab.
  • Import a list of names from somewhere else. Do you have your own list of names? Then plug them in!

And the “First name/Last name origin” tabs? Look at them. Look at them!

Scrivener's name generator with the "First name Origin" drop-down menu selected.

Not only can you choose names from many modern cultures, there’s also a large selection of ancient cultures. A list of ancient Aztecan names? That’s phenomenal.

Will this feature change your life? Probably not. But is it cool that it exists? Absolutely. It’s a cute, versatile little tool, and if you ever need it, it’s there. Go wild!

Within the writing world, you sometimes run into people who are obsessed with finding The Best Idea Ever. These are the folks who write posts like:

  • I’m terrified to talk about my story because someone will steal my idea!
  • I have an idea for a story that’s so good that it’s guaranteed to get me an agent!
  • I keep abandoning stories because I want to find The One Idea that is guaranteed to be a success!
  • And, of course, everyone’s favorite: “I’m an idea person, but I hate writing, so I think someone should write my idea for me and split the profit 50/50!”

These people believe the idea is all that matters–that their idea will get them published or that their idea is worth something. Sometimes you even encounter writers who are afraid to write at all until they hit on the best idea.

And all these people are getting hung up on the wrong thing. A good idea won’t get you published.

First thing’s first: having a good idea for a story DOES matter.

Ideas aren’t completely worthless. It is good to start with an idea that’s unique or underrepresented in some way. A fantasy that involves a dumb barbarian, an archer elf, and a drunk dwarf on a quest to destroy the Lord of Darkness is probably extremely cliche. Everyone on earth has already seen Harry Potter, and there are now two decades of “So-and-so is a [fantasy creature], in [fantasy creature] school!” stories. Overdone ideas are hard sells.

Does that mean they can’t sell? No, of course not. That’s the whole point of this post!

And if you have a unique, interesting twist for a story, then awesome! That’s a great starting point, and it may very well help you sell your story.

So that’s good! But it’s not enough. That one beautiful idea won’t get you published. And even if your idea is kind of overdone? That doesn’t mean you won’t be.

You see, I have an absolutely shocking truth to share with you.

What actually gets you published is the quality of your writing.

Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t warn you! You should have been sitting. I’m sure you’re all beside yourselves with shock now. It’s all right. Take a moment. Relax. Let that settle in.

Yes, unsurprisingly, the thing that agents actually care about is the quality of your writing. And “writing,” in this case, refers to the five zillion skills any talented writer has to juggle. Grammar? Absolutely. Excellent word choice? Yes! But also pacing, plotting, characterization, and an understanding of the genre they’re writing in. And more! Writing is complicated!

And let me tell you: good writing can make anything good.

I’m sure you can think of books that are popular, that have a lot of readers, and that have an extremely common story at its core. Heck, just look at the entire trend of fairy tale retellings: yes, they’re generally a mixup of Common Fairy Tale + Interesting Twist, but part of the challenge of that genre is taking a familiar story, with familiar themes, and making it new.

A really good author can take an idea that you’ve seen a million times and make it genuinely engaging. Their characters are just that dynamic, or their worldbuilding that gripping, or their tension that absolutely page-turning. If you reduced their story to a one-sentence summary, it might not sound like a completely groundbreaking concept–but it’s still good.

And, sadly, the opposite is also true: a bad writer can ruin a good idea.

So you have a really awesome concept. That’s great! But maybe your characters are flat. Maybe your pacing is terrible, and you spend thousands and thousands of words on scenes where no one learns anything and nothing happens. Maybe you struggle with words, and your story is riddled with grammatical errors and strange word choices.

No one–no agent, no publisher, and no reader–is going to say “Well, the underlying concept is cool, so I’m going to read this absolute mess of a book anyway!” It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to find an agent, a publisher, or if you just want to self-publish. A good idea is not going to give you a golden ticket to success if you don’t have the writing skills to back it up.

For that matter, two people can start from the same idea and write totally different books.

And if you’re one of those souls who worries that someone’s going to steal your ideas, stop. Just stop. It’s fine. Idea theft generally isn’t a thing, but even if it were, it doesn’t matter.

A villain could steal your complete and final draft and do harm to you, sure. (That also doesn’t really happen, but whatever.) But no one can really steal an idea.

And that’s because of what I said above–an idea fits in a few paragraphs. A story may be 100,000 words. Can you just imagine how many decisions someone has to make to write 100,000 words? You have to write dozens and dozens of scenes. What happens? In what order? How are those events described? What details are included? Which aren’t? What characters are in those scenes? How is the world set up? How is the tension described?

I mean, just look at writing prompts! Do you think everyone who uses the same writing prompt ends up with the same idea? I attended a writing group just this weekend where everyone wrote about “Two people meet for breakfast.” We ended up with a paranormal fantasy, a thriller about someone getting kidnapped, and a romance about two old flames. Do you genuinely, sincerely think that two people can write two stories that even vaguely resemble each other unless they’re working from a full-novel outline and the same batch of character/worldbuilding notes?

And no, of course they can’t.

In the end, good ideas are nice. But it’s only your writing that matters.

That’s basically it.

Your agents, publishers, and readers are not going to settle down with their Kindle and read your ideas. They’re reading a novel. And in the end, that matters: your writing. Your skill. Your craft.

So don’t let yourself get hung up on ideas. They’re the sprinkles on top of the cake–but they don’t do you a ton of good if you don’t know how to bake one.

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before: get your first draft down. Don’t overthink it. Just get the thoughts down, get the words down, and finish.

It’s common advice, and it’s not hard to see why. One of the hardest lessons for a new writer to learn is that you have to actually finish projects. And that’s really friggin’ hard! Unless you’re very, very fast, writing 80,000+ words will take several months of work. And that’s just finishing draft #1!

Thus, the advice: just finish, even if it’s garbage.

But you know what? “Write a shitty first draft” means totally different things to different people.  So here’s what it means to me, and why I think it’s an excellent idea… if you’re doing it the way I do.

What does it mean to write a “shitty first draft”?

So, first thing’s first. Finishing is important. Finishing is really important! But this doesn’t mean anything goes. Specifically:

  • Write all the events that you want to happen, even if they’re out of order or don’t have the right emotional tone.
  • If you have scenes you absolutely love to death, put them in here.
  • Connect those scenes as best you can, and foreshadow them as best you can, even if you aren’t 100% sure you’re going to keep all this content.
  • Don’t worry about how nice it sounds. Your scenes don’t have to be beautifully crafted. They just have to exist.
  • Attempt to put all the connections in. For every plotline or character arc, you should put all the major events in: every plot twist, every reveal, every important landmark of character growth.
  • Write all the way to the end.
  • Try to structure it as a story. This means that there are no holes, no “And then everyone was somewhere else, with no explanation!”, and no “WRITE FIGHT SCENE HERE”s. Try to connect the dots.

Does that mean that you only write stuff you want to keep? Of course not! I always have a few scenes (or a few chapters, or many chapters…) that I’m pretty sure I’m going to have to throw out. But I write them if I have to do so to finish the story, then push through to the ending. But I write everything I know I want, connect it with stuff that will probably be similar, and finish.

The end result usually looks like a coherent novel that you could theoretically read and understand. It’s just not very good.

What does a “shitty first draft” NOT mean?

So here’s the problem: I’ve seen people take this advice really differently. “Just finish, no matter what? Great! There are no rules anymore! Nothing matters! There are no standards! Now, as long as I reach 80,000 words, I’m successful!”

And then they just write nonsense. Your story isn’t long enough? Throw in two chapters of backstory! Add characters or events for no reason at all! Who cares! We’re just aiming for a word count!

No! No no no no! You should definitely not:

  • Write nonsense.
  • Completely give up on telling a story and only care about producing a full novel’s worth of words.
  • Change your mind about the story you want to write, but write the old idea anyway so you can “just finish” something.
  • Write filler for the singular purpose of raising your word count.
  • Give up on writing anything that resembles a linear story.

And why not?

The point of finishing a story is to create something you can edit.

When people say “JUST FINISH THE STORY,” they aren’t giving you permission to write anything–anything at all!–as long as the end result is longer than 80,000 words (or whatever your goal is.)

The goal isn’t only to finish. If you want this to be more than just a learning experience, you also need to make something you can edit. And what can you edit?

  • Characters you want to keep
  • Events you want to happen
  • Plot arcs you like

…Even if these are all trash! If your characters exist but are poorly fleshed out, you can fix them. If you have events you like, but they’re not in the right places, you can move them. These things may be poorly written and not very engaging, but they exist, and you want them, so you can fix them.

But if you needed 20,000 words to finish a story, so you padded out the ending… who cares? You don’t care about that content. And when it comes time to edit, and to decide what stays and what goes, your only choice will be to throw it all out. And now you’re 20,000 words poorer and you have nothing to edit.

Remember: it’s okay to write messy. Just be strategic about it.

A first draft is like a puzzle. You can finish it if you have all 1,000 pieces on the table in front of you. If your pieces are gross? That’s fine. You only have the outline, and you’re missing big parts of the middle? Still a place to start. You have a bunch of pieces that don’t even belong to this puzzle? That’s okay! You can fix it.

But you can’t make a puzzle by starting with 1,000 mixed-and-matched pieces, especially if your master plan is to just sweep the table and start over from scratch. In that case, why bother? You wrote a full-length novel, sure. But you didn’t make it any easier to write the story you want to write.

So write messy. Write imperfect sentences. Write not-beautiful things. But write with purpose, too.

Logo for WriteOnCon.

WriteOnCon is coming up! This year, it’s running from February 9 to 11, Friday through Sunday.

Haven’t heard of it before? Check it out. WriteOnCon is a writing convention for children’s book authors, including everything from picture books to New Adult. It’s also completely online, which means you don’t have to go anywhere–just register, sign on, and watch the panels!

It’s only $5 to read all the blog posts, $10 to see all the content, or $15 to see all the content and also have access to it for a month after the conference. So it’s dirt cheap, it’s fun, and it has a lot of seriously good speakers and topics. And Susan Dennard (author of the Something Strange and Deadly and Truthwitch series) is doing the opening keynote! How cool is that?

My experience with WriteOnCon is limited, but it’s something!

I attended WriteOnCon half-assedly in… I’m going to say 2014? It’s hard to compare that experience to now, because the convention was managed by a different team, went down for a while, and now has apparently been revived by a different team.

But that’s not really relevant for this post, because this much is the same: in 2014, I literally only signed up for the forums. I paid no money and didn’t attend any panels. I specifically did the Query Feedback forums, which are exactly what they sound like:  you post your query and you get feedback from the tons and tons of attendees.

Better yet: since agents are participating in the event, they look at the forums, too! And if you get super-super-super-duper lucky, you might get a request!

But chances are you’ll just get a ton of feedback, which is still super useful. You do need to take it with a grain of salt, of course–the attendees range from brand-new writers to honed veterans, and since everyone wants to be fair (if you get feedback, you want to give feedback, too!) you get a lot of feedback. This means you’ll get a mix, some great and some decidedly iffy.

Back in 2014, I was querying Justice Unending, and I got an absolute bucketload of feedback. And while I definitely didn’t use all of it, WriteOnCon did help me forge the query letter I eventually queried with.

Buuuut, I admittedly don’t know what to expect.

That said, I’ve never attended the full event before, so I have no idea what to expect. I’m attending this year, though! I’ll be  listening to all three days of events and participating in the forums. And, hey, it’s $10 and a few days. This isn’t a massive investment.

So if you write kidlit, give WriteOnCon a look!

I looooove Sarah Andersen’s comics. They’re one of the only reasons I check Twitter, because I’m clearly not going to get over my social anxiety and talk to someone.

This gem came out over the holidays. Let’s talk about it!

Practice! Practice. Practice. I want to keep its URL in an easy-to-reach place and paste it into every “I’m new to writing, and I don’t know how to…” post. I want to smoosh it into the face of every person who claims “I’m just not good at [thing]!”

This comic speaks to me. Now I will speak to you. About the comic. And creativity. And practice!

The Myth of Innate Artistic Talent

Let’s talk about drawing for a little while. This problem exists in the writing world, too–and I’ll talk about that in a second–but it’s more obvious with art.

Here’s the myth: many people believe that creativity is an innate part of your being. It’s not something you learned–it’s who you are. You don’t have to study or practice it. You have nothing to learn. You were born with a natural talent for art, and this makes you better at it than other people.

Before we go farther, check out the comments on the above comic. People vehemently disagree with this comic. Let me paraphrase some of those comments. (These’ obviously are not quotes.)

“This isn’t true!” they argue. “I could practice every day and never draw well.”

“It’s definitely not all practice. I can barely draw stick figures. So obviously, I could never get better, even if I tried.”

“But two people can practice the same amount and one will get better faster. Obviously some people will just never be good.”

“It’s all practice,” an artist who has put in a lot of hard work and practice says, and people fight it! I think this is fascinating. Americans have a complicated, weird perspective on work ethic. This is a culture that believes anyone can become better if they try harder. It’s a culture that says that everything you get in life is a result of your own personal choices, and that if you really want something, you should work harder for it.

Unless it has to do with talent.

Then we give up. Talent! No, you’re born with that. You either fall out of the womb with a preternatural talent for art or you will never, ever, ever be good at it. In fact, if you have to work hard at being creative, you should be ashamed of yourself. You are bad, you will never be good, and you should just accept it and find something else to do in life. You are making a fool of yourself. What are you doing? Don’t you have eyes? If you were meant to do this, you’d already be good at it.

Holy moly!

Some people really believe this. They deeply, fiercely believe this. And when someone struggles, this is the first thing they club themselves with:  you must not really be an artist if you didn’t figure all of these out yourself.

But you know what? This is nonsense.

You could learn how to draw. Yes, you. Even if you can only draw stick figures. If you took lessons, practiced every day, and put in hundreds of hours of practice, you would get better. You could, if you tried hard enough, even get good at it.

Don’t believe me? Check out this Reddit post. That person wasn’t blessed by a fairy at birth. That’s practice. And heck, even in the comments, you’ve got the same argument going on: artists who have put in the time to learn these techniques saying that it’s all hard work and learning the right technique, while complaining that everyone blames it on “innate talent.”

How this all applies to writing

The same assumptions happen in the writing world, although they take more time to play out. You can look at a piece of art and see that someone’s talented in a few seconds, but it’s much harder to objectively label a book as “good.”

But everything I mentioned above? The complicated feelings? The “I’m not good at this now, so I am completely incapable of ever getting better” thing? That happens in writing, too. It happens all the time.

People think writing is an innate gift, too. They think that you either have a talent for ideas, worlds, and words or you don’t. They assume that if you’re “meant to be” a writer, you’ll effortlessly write publication-ready, agent-worthy pieces, and vault right over that awkward “no agents will even respond to me” phase.

And people absolutely maul themselves over this.

“I’m not good at coming up with new ideas for stories, so I obviously have no ideas and am not creative. I can never learn these skills or practice them, so I guess I’m not an author.” Yeah. I’ve seen posts like that. Heck, I literally argued with someone who said, “if the first book I write isn’t agent-worthy, I’m never going to write again–it’s not worth practicing writing unless I know I’m good at it.”

Good golly! So let me get this straight: you’ll consider practicing after you become a professional? It doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that!

Your favorite authors did not spend their lives not writing. They did not go from “never writing a single word for fun” to “writing a masterpiece.” They’ve probably written for years. They probably produced a lot of junk before they started producing professional work. They might have a natural gift for wordplay or clever ideas or realistic dialogue, but they still had to hone that talent into something useful, and they probably produced a lot of awkward garbage while they were figuring it out.

It’s practice! Practice. Practice!

It’s all about practice!

Does talent exist? Maybe. Something probably separates the grand masters from people who are just really, really good at something. But having a natural talent for something doesn’t mean you’ll never have to work at it at all. That’s just a fixed mindset.

We should definitely stop thinking “if I’m not good now, I’ll never be good.” You don’t know how good you’ll get if you put more time and energy into it. How good you are now is no indication of how good you could be.

Art is not an innate part of your being. It’s something you learn over time by practicing and doing. And if you aren’t where you want to be right now, that’s okay–just keep practicing. Just keep doing. Just keep learning.

It’s practice! Practice. Practice.