10,000 Hours Can Feel Like 10,000 Miles

Not long ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s best seller, Outliers, which got me thinking about the long, tedious road to publication. Although we occasionally hear of the author who gets a contract with a traditional publisher for a first novel in record time, it seems more the norm to hear of stories of authors (like me) who have been trying to get published for five, ten, even twenty years. Through research Gladwell discovered experts agreeing on the amount of time needed to bring a person to the level of an expert in his or her field. He cites examples: Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, The Beatles, as some who put in the requisite 10,000 hours into their field or craft. It just seems to be a very basic rule that to become proficient in any field, you need to put in a lot of hours—which equates to a lot of years of diligent effort.

There are no shortcuts or get-smart-quick ways about it. Unless you’re a prodigy or Mensa genius, you are going to have to become an expert the old-fashioned way—by hard work and persistence. In this modern age of instant gratification in which we can’t even tolerate more than five seconds for a web page to load, the idea of having to take such a long time becoming an expert in our craft is downright annoying. We want it all now—success, recognition, fulfillment.

 “But Writing Is Different”

As a copyeditor, I see lots of manuscripts lacking in brilliance and writing expertise—as do literary agents and acquisition editors. Yet, I’ve come across many new writers who state that because their book was divinely inspired, perhaps even “written” by God, they can justify “bypassing” the needed amount of training and honing of their craft that perhaps an ordinary person might need. Oftentimes, when feeling the spirit of creativity moving on our imagination and heart, revealing to us words and themes and concepts, we figure all we need do is be faithful and write it all down—and voila! a masterpiece.

Funny how writing seems to fall into its own special category. If I felt called in life to be a brain surgeon, people would think me nuts to walk into a hospital, state I was “destined to become a surgeon,” and ask for a scalpel to operate on the patient on the table. In fact, should I press forward and take scalpel in hand, I would quickly be carted off by force and removed as far from that hospital as possible–to protect the patient lying on the table. I might even find myself in a nifty jacket that ties in the back, where my eager hands can’t reach the knots.

Reasonable people expect aspiring surgeons to put in the requisite hours of study, residency, and supervised and assisted training to work up to being the capable doctor they hope to be. This is the same across professions—whether one hopes to practice law, build a skyscraper, or even drive a school bus full of squirrelly children. Some “careers” may not call for ten thousand hours of diligence, but Gladwell notes that to become an expert in your field, to rise above the masses, you have to put in ten thousand hours. That’s about twenty hours a week for ten years of practicing and honing your craft. We feel comforted when we hear our 747 pilot has logged in over ten thousand hours of flight time. We might not feel so at ease if we were told this was his first time behind the wheel (or stick).

“What’s Taking So Long?”

Sometimes new writers lament that they haven’t been able to sell their first manuscript after a hard year of writing and querying agents. Maybe even after even five years they ask, Why is this desired goal of publishing next to impossible? I would venture to say this: Maybe the goal feels impossible to reach because they haven’t yet put in their ten thousand hours. Sure, it can feel like walking ten thousand miles, but when you take such a lengthy trip through many lands, you grow and learn and absorb the cultures and surroundings until they become part of your soul and fill your cache of imagination to the full.

We need to mature in our writing. Our writing technique and voice needs to age like a fine wine. Remember that slogan—“We serve no wine before its time”? How about: “We sell no manuscript before our writing is honed and refined”? Unfortunately now, with the ease of self-publishing and eBooks, writers who have not “put in their hours” are jumping the gun and trying to sell their novels, and the flood of poorly written books online is a testimony to this impatience. In a rush to get their name out there and be thought of as an author, many writers publish books that, frankly, to measure up. And some may not care. But those who want to grow their reputation as a skilled writer should give this some thought.

Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Journey

A few—very few—writers find “success” or publication after only a year or two of starting their journey as a writer, but that’s not the norm. Talk to most authors who have been publishing for years and you will often hear numbers thrown around: “It took me ten years to get an agent . . . twelve years to get my first publishing contract . . .” Sure, there are factors of timing, accessibility to conferences, personality, the genre you write in juxtaposed to the market needs. All these things can have a bearing on your “success.”

But, rather than focus on the “success” part, I’d rather focus on the “expert” part. I don’t know if I’ve put in my ten thousand hours yet, but if not, I’m sure close. I have more than a million words in print. And I’d rather look ahead to the twenty-thousand-hour mark, drinking in the sights along the way—reminding myself that it’s all about the journey, not the destination.


20 Responses to “10,000 Hours Can Feel Like 10,000 Miles”

  1. Amy Paulussen August 6, 2012 at 4:13 am #

    Great advice and just the kind of thing us writers need to hear/read on a pretty regular basis. It a weird way the 10 000 hours rule is encouraging: it’s not that I’m rubbish, I just haven’t put in the time yet. YET!
    I blogged on a very similar subject only yesterday (uncanny huh?): http://www.amypaulussen.com/patience-grasshopper/

  2. cslakin August 6, 2012 at 5:09 am #

    Thanks for sharing that!

  3. Kwei Quartey August 6, 2012 at 6:55 am #

    Well said. I agree writing seems to fall in its own special category. I laugh (probably more with irritation than mirth) when random people ask me for a free signed copy of one of my novels, sometimes even demanding, “Where’s my free copy?” Now, none of these people would go up to a movie box office and ask to go into the theater free, or go to a car dealership and ask for a free car, yet they see nothing wrong with asking an author for a free copy of his or her work.

  4. Dale Amidei August 6, 2012 at 7:11 am #

    Doing what we love will produce work that can become a legacy. Words written for commercial value will be forgotten. Words written with passion can change the world. It is always good to remember this.

  5. Jaimie Engle August 6, 2012 at 8:21 am #

    What a great blog. I really enjoyed this one a lot. And it’s so true. I can see a tremendous difference in my writing over the past year. What used to be my best polished work is now worse than today’s first draft.
    I feel sorry for those people who self-publish or give up when their books aren’t ready; when they aren’t ready. It’s so much fun to read something you’ve written and know it is your best sentence yet. And as long as that keeps happening, I guess I’m bound to write a book that’s worthy of publishing…one day!
    Thanks again.

  6. Anne Briggs Buzzini August 6, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    Wholehearted agreement here. Having been divinely inspired towards several things has never provided me the easy path to mastery–the road was more brightly illuminated.

    Possessing a high IQ in itself is not a determiner of success. The possessor must also have the perseverance and focus to stay on track to make any endeavor a success. Many people of very average IQ have been wildly successful. While watching a show Joan Rivers did a couple of years ago about very successful entrepreneurs (aka rich), my husband noted that few of them were all that educated or accomplished as we traditionally would expect.

    Those 10,000 hours are what is important. Natural talent and intelligence helps, of course, but determination and perseverance often pay off much greater in the end. If you have to work for it, you appreciate it more.

  7. Jeanine Kitchel August 6, 2012 at 9:32 am #

    I loved Malcolm Gladwell’s book, and I, too, keyed into the 10,000 hours strategy. It makes total sense, especially when he lays it out with examples like The Beatles and Bill Gates and the time they put in. Thanks for the reminder. It’s an important one.

  8. Connie Neal August 6, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Thank you for your excellent posts and resources you share with us. My experience proves out what you have written. I tried to get published with traditional publishers for ten years before getting my foot in the door through ghostwriting and supplementing others’ projects. Then, I spent the next 18 years writing 36 published books. The revolutionary changes in technology will not change the need to learn from experience, trial and error, corrections. So, while having some of the gatekeepers removed gives us seemingly glorious freedom, it will require emerging authors to learn in fresh ways.

    • cslakin August 6, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

      Good point you make about technology. It has certainly made writing much easier for me. I remember typing on a typewriter and using scissors and tape to rework a scene. No doubt we all write faster and better with software and high-speed computers, and we can learn so much online as well as access info we need for research. But even so, we still have to put in the hours of work–of actual writing. That, and time spent reading well-written books, which is essential to becoming a great writer.

  9. Feather Stone August 6, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Terrific advice. As you mentioned, the trend in our culture is for immediate gratification. However, writing is a creative process wherein the author must exercise patience and perseverance. Putting words together to describe a plot is not enough. A potentially exciting scenario will fall flat if the author relies only on the actions of the hero/heroine. The author needs to be aware of so much more. Crafting scenes, dialogue, subplots, character profiles, etc. requires considerable thought and planning.

    I spent ten years working on my first novel. Even if my book had not been published, I would not have considered those years a waste of time. Everyday at the keyboard, I lost all track of time. I became immersed in another world and my life changed in ways I could not have anticipated. A most beautiful journey, indeed.

  10. andrew toynbee August 6, 2012 at 12:45 pm #

    I agree with all that’s been said, but find myself puzzled as to how this can be quantified, especially for a writer still balancing writing with a full-time job.

    It might be easier to judge 10,000 miles that it is to estimate 10,000 hours. I can think of no accurate way besides simply saying ‘I’ve written four hours a day every month for the past ten years.’
    With this being the case, how can it be possible to gauge our journey, other than to celebrate the day that the agent says ‘yes’?

    Help, please!

  11. Roland Clarke August 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    Excellent post and comments. I’m still waiting to get a first book published even though it has been 12+ years spent writing as well as countless years as a journalist. Each time I write – although maybe not this reply – I sense an improvement and each new project/novel feels better than the first.

    I suspect that I have put in the 10,000 hours but I feel that the time is a guideline not a rule. Minimum requirement unless you are a WW1 pilot thrust into the RFC perhaps – fly or get shot down. But that is extreme and no qualification to carry passengers. And I digress……….

    Andrew Tonybee – you mention the difficulty in quantifying this especially when balancing writing and a full time job; but do we need to be so precise? As you say – an agent saying ‘Yes’ is the day of celebration. But it’s only that and like a good wine we should continue to mature as we keep writing.

    At the point we think we have mastered something, then we haven’t. (To paraphrase someone)

    • cslakin August 6, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

      I’m thinking that it’s the attitude writers need to consider. Do we write to hurry and sell something? Or do we want to become proficient and experts over time? Do we aim to keep growing in technique and experience to where we can write any type of book we put our mind to? For me, I constantly challenge myself to write new, better stories. I push my own envelope and try new things. Not all writers want to do that, but I’m in it to grow, learn, experiment. Not all my books are big sellers, because I break out of the norm so often, but I’m very happy with each book–what I’ve learned and the insights it’s given me about not just my writing but about my soul.

  12. Jennifer Brown Banks August 6, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Love the magnitude and meaning of this post. Well stated.

    Thanks for your pov on this, Susanne.

    • cslakin August 8, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      Thanks, Jennifer. thanks for popping in!

  13. KayTheAuthor August 7, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    This is a great Post!

  14. Wendy Heuvel August 8, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    Great post! The ‘10,000 hour’ rule is always a good one to think on. Thanks for reminding me again!

  15. April Danann August 9, 2012 at 8:16 am #

    This is exactly what I needed to hear today – keep going no matter how long this dream has been alive. I like to think of my books as part of me, and indeed I write them as I learn to navigate along this path.

    The journey is everything, the book arrives as you live it. Sharing it with other people is a bonus that each of us hopes to eventually enjoy!

    Thank you kindly.

  16. AD Dupont August 12, 2012 at 5:33 am #

    Wonderful perspective! I had heard this before about the 10,000 hours but wasn’t sure where it came from. I will make sure to get a copy of Outliers and keep it handy for inspiration.

    I have been writing now consistently for just over a year and love it more than anything I have ever done! For the first month or so I wrote little snippets of stories that crossed my mind, just making sure that I did something every day. Then, I hit upon an IDEA.

    If any of you have read Stephen King’s book, On Writing, you’ll recall that he describes stories as not originating in the mind of the author, but rather as found objects -– like fossils. Some things that you stumble across are small fossils, like a mosquito in amber. But sometimes you happen upon an immense brontosaurus skeleton. You simply don’t know until you start digging and dusting at the fossil just what its dimensions are.

    Mine is apparently a brontosaurus.

    I still work at a somewhat full-time job, though I am blessed to be able to work from home and have a great deal of latitude about my work schedule. So I do three two-hour writing sessions each day in order to have any hope of extracting this monster of a story.

    At this point I am very committed to this project. I am in love with my story more than I’ve ever been in love with anything in my life. But to think it’s going to go on like this for ten years — that is hard for me to wrap my head around. The thing is, if it turns out that I am not any good at this; that if the brontosaurus just turns out to be one of those big fake dinosaurs from a roadside attraction — then I will simply be ten years older and sitting on top of a big pile of fake dinosaur bones.

    Sometimes it’s just a little daunting.

  17. gaye mack August 13, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    Just a terrific reminder that like anything else it is about honing skill and craft…I have the following quotation from the poet, Marge Piercy tacked to the board over my desk reminding me of same:

    “The real writer is one who really writes. Talent is an invention like phlogiston after the fact of fire. Work is its own cure. You have to like it better than being loved.”

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