While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Friday, November 21, 2008

How Long Do I Have To Write Until I Get Really, Really Good?

It’s about a week old, but I only just read this extract from Malcolm Gladwell's upcoming book, Outliers, over at The Guardian Online. It’s definitely worth a read.

Basically, in addition to All-World talent, one number links The Beatles, Bill Gates, Mozart and Tiger Woods: 10,000:

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers,
ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the
neurologist Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand
hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of
practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true world-class
expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this
long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

Obviously, the mention of fiction writers got most interested me, but I’ll have to wait to read the whole book to see if there are any persuasive case studies of writers.

[This piece on Gladwell, also via Guardian Online, does mention his own 10,000 hours writing non-fiction came while working for the Washington Post ages 24-34].

Does a wannabe have to write for 10,000 hours before there’re ready to win the Booker, or write their Sgt. Pepper? Ten years of writing twenty hours a week? Goodness.

But I am strangely comforted by this idea. Talent is crucial, but maybe persistence and patience is just as important. This links back to my post a few months ago where I argued for public apprenticeships for writers. You may be able to write an entertaining book after, say, 5,000 hours of practice (though who’ll admit that their current novel / story / blog post is just practice?) but it will probably have a few kinks. Perhaps once you reach 10,000 hours, you’d be able to iron out those kinks, or (more likely) be able to recognise that the kinks are part of the genetic makeup of the book and you’re better making another one from scratch -- but the kink-y book still has value. To give a book over to the world provides fresh perspectives on the book for the writer (I imagine, check back with me in 2010), and allows them to start something new.

Right at the beginning of this Quest for a Million Words lark, I said:

I know this is a gimmick. But if it makes me write everyday, regardless of mood
or circumstances, it's the gimmick for me.

What I thought I’d mentioned, but it seems I decided against, was that I felt my writing had reached a tipping point (to borrow another Gladwellian term) at the end of 2007: I had an MA in Creative Writing, I’d recently won the novice section of a short story competition and had another story published for payment… all I needed was more finished things to submit for publication, which would require a lot of writing.

And write I have.

Okay, so I haven’t finished either of the two novels I worked on this year, and probably won’t finish one next year either, but I feel like it’s happening.

Three hours writing a day is probably quite close to my average for 2008 (most days I do more, but all those travel goose-eggs bring the average down-down-down), which means I’ve probably chipped a year off my ten year apprenticeship. Which begs the question: how many hours had I done before this year? And: how many more do I have in front of me?

During September-October 2006 (in the lead up to handing in my novel/thesis), I wrote an average of eight hours a day (honest). For the majority of my MA year, however, I was lucky to pull down three hours of writing time. But I was living and breathing writing the whole time. I was reading books by the pile and the work of my other classmates, providing comments, talking about writing and books, attending readings, seminars, book launches… All of these things were important in shaping either my understanding of writing (reading especially) or my drive to become the one giving the reading / having the book launched. So perhaps the 10,000 hours for a writer is actually 10,000 hours of writerly activity, be that reading books with a writer’s eye, talking about writing, or writing writing. Or maybe for writers it’s more like 10,000 hours writing + 10,000 reading.

Either way, I’m not there yet, but I’m on the way. If I keep working, well, I’ll only have my lack of talent or the seismic shifts in the publishing industry to blame for not winning the Booker!

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