10,000 Hours

Damien Walter, writer for The Guardian, is conducting a lengthy investigation to find the best sci-fi, fantasy and horror available from indie writers.  Read about what he’s looking for, then nominate your personal favorites.

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Last year Walter released a checklist of seven criteria writers should consult prior to publishing their work.  It’s a solid list, and the only one I don’t agree with is number two:  practice writing for 10,000 hours.  No doubt taken from Malcolm Gladwell’s book about how any skill takes 10,000 hours of practice to master, whether writing or golfing or painting.  I generally write two pages in an hour (maybe three if I’m really cooking).  That means I would have to write 20,000+ pages before my work is worth publication.  20,000 pages is the equivalent of fifty novels.  If you don’t know what you’re doing by your fiftieth book, you aren’t paying close enough attention.  Most professional novelists won’t reach that goal over the course of their whole careers.

A better litmus test, perhaps, comes from Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury said every writer has a million bad words in them.  The sooner you get through that first million, the faster you get to the words worth sharing.  In other words, you must write the shit out of your system.  I agree with that assessment, though I wouldn’t ascribe an arbitrary number to it.  Each person has a different “million word” mark.  Some may be more than that, others a bit less.

Personally I’d place that benchmark at about 500,000 words.  I spent my first 250K learning the technical basics of writing and storytelling, the nuts-n-bolts of sentence-by-sentence composition.  After that my stories reached a minimum level of publishability and I began to start selling.  Not with regularity, mind you, but any early sale should be feted as a win, especially after a long period of self-imposed isolation. 

It took another 250K of experimentation to properly utilize those tools I’d aquired in my writers’ toolkit.  Style, voice, format, plotting, and the balance of creativity versus productivity were issues I tackled at that stage.  I challenged myself with different projects and forced myself outside my comfort zone.  I tried a lot of things (many of which failed) before finally settling on my default voice and style.  During this period I focused primarily on short stories, but I also broached screenwriting and even wrote my first novel.

In 2005, after seven years of steady writing, I felt like I’d paid my dues — or at least didn’t consider myself a fraud compared to “real” authors.  I emerged from that period with a range of writing tricks and techniques, plus the self-confidence and knowledge that I did have something to contribute to the craft of fiction.  Shortly thereafter, beginning with my second novel, I really upped my output and started to crank. 

Now that doesn’t mean I know everything about writing.  It’s not possible for any one person to achieve that level of expertise in a given field.  I’ll spend the rest of my life honing and polishing the same set of lessons I learned during those initial years, investing decades to find new ways of applying the correct tools in the correct manner.

So if you’re new to writing, forget the 10,000 hour rule.  Try instead my 1,000 days rule.  Richard Laymon advocated writing at least one hour per day.  That’s a low bar to hit, so let’s go with that.  Sixty minutes, or two pages written, whichever comes last.  Don’t just pick up a pen whenever the Muse strikes.  If you follow that schedule every day (note the italics), by the end of three years you’ll have reached well over half a million words.

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