Post 500: Back to Basics

This is the 500th blog post on Fictorians. That’s a pretty amazing statistic, in some ways. I mean, the fact that a sizable group of disparate and diverse people scattered around the globe has hung together for years and remained focused on and dedicated to blogging about the craft and art and business of writing for this long says good things about the vision, commitment, and perseverance of the Fictorians. Kudos to my fellow Fictorians.

So, since I volunteered for this slot, I guess I’d best be about it. As it is a special post, I’m stepping outside the October theme.

What is the one indispensable trait of a writer? What one characteristic does every good writer possess?

He or she writes.

That is, after all, the first of Heinlein’s Rules for Writing:

Rule One: You Must Write.

I can hear the “Duh!” comments as you read that last statement. Yes, it’s kind of self-obvious that you can’t be a writer if you don’t write. And there have been multiple discussions that touched on that thought in the Fictorians pages over the last few years. But tonight I want to take that thought in a slightly different direction.

You may or may not have heard of a book entitled Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. You have probably heard of the premise of the book, though: it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.

Now I know that there are those who question that statement. For myself, the more I think about it, and the more I encounter other masters of various crafts and arts, the more I think it’s generally valid. But for the purposes of this post, let’s assume it’s a valid statement.

Ten thousand hours to mastery. 10,000 hours.

Have you ever applied that thought to writing—that it might take 10,000 hours of practice to attain mastery over your craft?

Just how long is 10,000 hours? Well, let’s try to quantify it. If you write one hour a day, 10,000 hours would be reached in 27.397 years. Not months—years. (I was so surprised at that answer I did the calculation three times on two different calculators just to verify it. Believe it.)

Staggering, isn’t it?

And who wants to spend twenty-seven years learning how to do something? (Not me.)

So how do you shorten the time frame? Obviously, write more every day. So if you write two hours a day, you drop the required time down to not quite fourteen years. And if you write four hours a day, you’re now down inside seven years. And seven years, my friends, is a manageable number, an attainable goal.

“But that’s so long!” I hear someone mutter.

Is it? To attain your goal of being a professional writer, to reach out and grasp your life’s dream, is it really too long?

Ask Joshua Bell how many hours of practice he had before he became a famous violinist. Ask Emmanuel Ax how many hours of practice he put in before he became a world-famous pianist. Ask Paul McCartney how many hours of performing, how many concerts the Beatles played in their early years in Hamburg’s oblivion before they became an overnight success.

I can’t find a cite for this story, so it may be apocryphal, but knowing what I know about musicians, I believe that something like it happened. As I heard it, after a very well-known pianist gave a concert one evening, a girl walked up to him and said, “That was wonderful. The music was beautiful. I wish I could play like you do.” To which the pianist, after looking at her for a moment, replied with, “No, what you wish is that you could play like I do, without having to practice like I do.”

There is no substitute for practice. There is no substitute for learning the craft, for drilling it into your head and your hands until it evolves into mastery.

Rule One: You Must Write.

Everything else comes after that.

About David Carrico

David is a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. He has been writing since 1977, but made his first sale in 2004. Most of his work has been written in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire universe, and has either appeared in The Grantville Gazette electronic magazine (http://grantvillegazette.com) or in the anthologies Grantville Gazette III, Grantville Gazette IV, Ring of Fire II, Grantville Gazette V, and the forthcoming Grantville Gazette VI and Ring of Fire III.

4 responses on “Post 500: Back to Basics

  1. Quincy Allen

    Salient and sage advice.

    The beauty of it is that applying words to any medium counts. It doesn’t matter if your blogging, or writing in a diary, or exchanging words with your friends in an IM. The exercise is the point of the exercise, if you catch my meaning.

    What also matters is that you are composing your ideas and leaving them on a surface or in a file or on a site where someone can read them later on, where you can track back to where you were and what you were thinking. Reflecting upon these words also lends itself to becoming an even better writer.

    Every word you write counts… now and later. Think of it in terms of The Karate Kid: “Wax on, wax off.”

    Do it enough times and it becomes automatic; it becomes a muscle-reaction where your brain is simply flowing onto the medium without the distraction of conscious thought.

    And then, only then, will your Kung Fu be strong. 😉

  2. David Carrico Post author

    True, I think there is a cumulative effect. It doesn’t necessarily have to be focused on one style or genre. But if your goal is to write fiction, it would be best to focus your practice on writing fiction. If you spend a lot of time journaling, or doing blogs, or essays, etc., to the exclusion of fiction, that will impede the development of the creative voice, without which fiction is basically a non-starter.

  3. Evan Braun

    @ Quincy: “What also matters is that you are composing your ideas and leaving them on a surface or in a file or on a site where someone can read them later on…”

    This immediately made me imagine an alien civilization digging through the archaeological rubble of my small town a few thousand years from now and discovering my journals. They’re pretty good journals, so I imagine a religion will probably sprout up around them. 🙂

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