Monday, March 29, 2010

The 10,000 Hour Rule of Proficiency

I love Murderati I've mentioned it before because the writers who post on the blog are some of my favorites and because Allison Brennan never fails to come up with solid, honest advice to writers, in addition to sharing her knowledge of craft and the publishing industry.

Sunday's blog post, I Think I'll Be a Heart Surgeon, was especially direct and as one commenter mentioned, encouraging.

The 10,000 Hour Rule.
I'm sure I've spent 10,000 hours over the guitar learning new songs and performing but I never really had a passion for it, even though I was constantly prodded to do something with my talent. But I probably spent 10,000 hours in music training and performing just in high school. When I discovered the computer back in the early 90's I spent many thousands of hours learning the ins and outs of hardware and software, eventually getting a job teaching night extension classes and I enjoyed it. Believe it or not, it was very creative, designing exercises and delivering the training as fun and computers as practical, not intimidating. But I never loved it like I love writing.

When I finally allowed myself the time to write toward publication, to get serious and believe, I found my core passion. I may have believed I could be the next one-book wonder when I started, who doesn't think that way? But I've since released the expectation of THIS book getting sold over THIS book being the best I can make it. I don't know if I've put in 10,000 hours, that's over a year's worth, but I'm probably close. And still I'm a newbie.

Few authors have done more to show us the realities of the industry while at the same time arming us with what we need to succeed. If we're good enough. If we continue to improve. If we work hard. Very hard. And if we're lucky. Thanks, Allison.

And if you just refuse to click on the link to read the post, here it is in full below. (Something else Allison does is share her knowledge and expertise without reservation but the words below are hers, not mine.) But you really should go there and read the comments as well as the other great posts.

I Think I'll Be a Surgeon, by Allison Brennan on Murderati

My good friend Karin Tabke wrote a blog last week asking the question, "How hard do you work?" and pontificating on the 10,000 hour rule: that to be truly good at something, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours. I thought that sounded like an unusually long amount of time, until I figured out that there were 8,760 hours in a year. Suddenly, 10,000 hours didn't seem very daunting at all.

Doctors go to school--not including residency--for eight years. Between classwork and studying, they probably put in 60-70 hour weeks for at least nine months of the year. That's over 20,000 hours just to graduate--and most of us probably prefer a doctor with a few years experience.

Musicians--the top guns, the ones who play at Carnegie Hall--practice many hours every day, often from when they are young children. I played piano for eight years, and I was technically proficient--but I didn't love it so much that I was willing to put in more than the minimum required 30 minutes a day. (I can play piano, I've said, but I can't make music.) A girl two years younger than me practiced three hours every day. Was it any surprise that she was better? Yes, she had natural talent. But without practice, that natural talent would have gone nowhere. Just for the years she was a minor--before going to college--she practiced more than 10,000 hours.

Athletes train year-round, practice hours every day in and out of season, is it any wonder the basketball player who spends his free time shooting hoops and conditioning is the one getting the scholarship?

Then why is it that every writer on the planet hears, "I could write a book if I had the time." Or, "I'll write a book when I retire." Or, "It must be easy to churn out [fill-in-the-blank] books--they're so formulaic." (Romance writers get this all the time, but I know many mystery writers who hear the same thing. After all, aren't all mysteries the same? Murder, investigation, solution. Duh, anyone can do it, right?)

No one goes up to a doctor and says, "When I retire, I'm going to be a heart surgeon." Or, "If I had the free time, I'd go to medical school."

Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone thinks they're the best person to tell it. How many hours have they put in to read, learn the craft, write, edit, delete, and write some more? I grow frustrated at times by some writers who finish a book and are then stunned and defeated by rejection. Many times these writers blame the system (New York wouldn't know a good book if they wrote it themselves.) Or agents (they don't want to work, they want the easy money.) Or the reading public (they just want to read trashy books.) Far too often, these writers become discouraged and spend more time lamenting the system or learning only about the business of published, rather than learning the craft: how to be a great storyteller.

One of the best things that Romance Writers of America does that few other writers organizations do (largely because most aren't fully open to unpublished writers) is teach want-to-be authors that they need to practice, write, re-write, write some more, and repeat as necessary. That most authors do not sell their first manuscript, or even their second. Or third. Yes, some do--many do not. An article I read when I first joined RWA in 2003, the year before I sold, said that among published authors in RWA, it took on average FIVE MANUSCRIPTS before a sale and FIVE YEARS, SIX MONTHS of writing before making the first sale.

Storytelling is hard work that takes thousands of hours of practice (and this doesn't include the thousands of hours of reading) but it doesn't get easier.

A doctor or a lawyer or an engineer may become more confident in their abilities as they gain experience, but I'd venture that open heart surgery is never easy, no matter how many times you've done it. Books are the same way. It doesn't get easier. Authors may gain confidence, or may see problems in their stories earlier simply because they have more experience, but writing is never easy. In fact, as we've discussed here recently, it gets harder. My books are tighter and cleaner when I turn them in--meaning, the technical part of the writing is easier for me after 14 books--but the storytelling is harder now than when I started.

But even so, I love it. With all the warts and heartache and long hours and the fact that I'm still learning and have much, much more to learn about storytelling (like who knew I needed a theme? Thank you Alex and Stephen) . . . I wouldn't want to do anything else. There is no end of the road, where you've learned everything you can. Basketball players, when they win, don't stop practicing. Doctors, when they graduate, don't stop reading medical journals. Writers, when they get published, don't think they now know everything. (In fact, many of us are stunned when people come to us for advice because we're really just winging it.)

I figured I probably wrote or studied craft about 10,000 hours from when I was ten until I was 34, when I sold my first book. Since I sold, I've put in over 14,000 hours writing and re-writing and studying and practicing and learning from people who know much more than I do.

Writing is hard work. It takes hours, thousands of hours, to go from crapola to something marginally publishable. And if you fail as a writer, you can always be a heart surgeon, right?

Writers, what are some of the odd or insulting comments you've gotten about your writing? Readers, what are some misconceptions about YOUR profession? What, if anything, are you willing to put in more than 10,000 hours to master?


Michael Malone said...

excellent post, Marley! Wonder how many hours I've put in. This is my 5th ms, so I'm hoping I'm Joe Average.
I've heard all of that stuff as well - if I only had the time etc.
As a poet, the one that bugs me is...but it doesn't rhyme. How can it be a poem if it doesn't rhyme?

Anonymous said...

I've heard that one many times in reference to poetry, Michael. I imagine that gets very frustrating.

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Bill Kirton said...

Great post and thanks for pointing us to that blog. You're right about the posting itself and the comments. All so familiar. (Mind you, I don't know where you find the time to do all the jobs you have.