A lot of people misquote Malcolm Gladwell about his “10,000 hour rule.” Ten thousand hours (roughly ten years at 20 hours a week) spent in gaining expertise will gain you Household Word status. Think “Beatles,” or closer to home for writers, “Stephen King.”
But that’s not what he said.
Chaining yourself to a piano, or a computer keyboard, for ten thousand hours won’t do it. It takes luck. It takes willingness to make errors. It takes willingness to have those errors seen, heard, or read. It takes correcting those errors. It takes, yes, connections. Above all, it takes willingness to spend those ten thousand hours more-or-less gladly, without the thought that they’re an “investment” that will “pay off.” And by the way, a smaller investment — I’ll look up the exact number and update this post, but I seem to recall 7,000 hours, makes you a competent professional. Not a household word — but a pro.
As a kid, bluntly, I didn’t want to spend those hours on keyboard practice, despite my mother’s desire to have a church organist in the family. But without really thinking about it, I put in at least 7K hours in science, math, and engineering. I enjoyed it, for the most part — a lot more than I enjoyed keyboard exercises. I had some natural talent for both, but I enjoyed the nerdly stuff enough to plow through the parts that were just slogging. I resented them. I grumbled. But I did them, and so became a pro. When it came to keyboard, I sloughed it off. I still slough it off, though I own a piano again. I will never be a pro keyboardist simply because I don’t want to spend any significant number of hours doing for-God’s-sake scales. Again.
As an engineer, my specialty was troubleshooting. “Maintenance programming,” it’s called, and it’s looked down on in the software developer community. It played to my strengths — a tremendous burst of energy, leaving all else in my life ignored, and engineering detective work. It downplayed my weaknesses — organization, mostly, as well as steady application to a task. My difficulty with organization and sticking to a (boring) task is why I have no Ph.D. after my name.
What does that have to do with writing? Well, here I am, trying to write novels — the equivalent of producing Ph.D. theses, two or three a year. This is not playing to my strength. I’ve been at this now for twelve years. In that time, I’ve mananged to spend (I did a spreadsheet, based on my typical typing speed and allowing for research and other auxiliary tasks) about 2,000 hours writing.
For engineering, school provided the structure I needed to put in those practice hours, as well as the feedback on my errors. A few years of on-the-job mentoring from senior engineers put the polish on my skills so that I could be a confident professional.
There is no such formal structure for fiction writing — at least, none that I trust. I am far too uncertain of my skill to attempt to enter an MFA program. Worse, I look at the writing produced by MFAs and I don’t want to write like that. Peer critique — I’ve sat in on some groups and cringed.
Yes, here I am, at best a mid-level padawan with no Jedi master. I try to supply the lack with books on writing from authors whose work I admire, and from those who have achieved what I want to achieve — professional competence as measured in being able to write fiction for a living. Not a fortune — a living.
That’s input, and that’s great. What I need is feedback, and that’s what I’m too scared to seek for free, and too stingy to pay for.
At least now I have tools to improve my ability to work steadily — positive and negative feedback on such measures as hours spent at the keyboard, and number of words produced in those hours. I have every reason to believe that my rate of writing will increase. But where do I go for the feedback I need?