Career Killers: Skipping the Apprenticeship
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office
Weather: Hot, hot, hot.
Yesterday was the 50th Anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s the perfect time to look at becoming a master of the craft of writing.
This week we’re going to examine some of the career killing mistakes a writer makes by being sloppy, writing too fast or being impatient. Fun topic, right? But an important topic– one that can make all the difference between success or failure. Today I want to talk about the most important thing of all for a successful writing career– mastery of the craft. Too many of the queries and proposals we see are not anywhere close to publishable yet. Some writers expect to open their word processing program, start writing and sell that very first book. It’s like a kid getting his first set of pipe wrenches and setting off to get a job as a construction plumber. You can’t skip the apprenticeship.
I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book, The Outliers, where he focuses on what he calls the 10,000-hour rule. He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin as follows:
“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, 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.”
Gladwell tells success story after success story, each time adding up the hours the person invested before bursting onto the scene– a seeming overnight success. His analysis is eye-opening. I have a number of authors who also burst onto the scene seeming to be overnight successes. Jill Eileen Smith made the bestseller list with her very first novel, Michal and her books continue to rack up impressive sales figures. An overnight success? Jill spent twenty years writing and rewriting Michal. And that wasn’t twenty years on and off; she was a committed writer/ researcher. Jill put in her 10,000 hours many times over.
Lori Benton is a new client for me. Though I knew her from comments she often made on our blog, she came to my attention as the winner of the Novel Matters Audience with an Agent contest. As I read her entry I couldn’t believe she was an as-yet-unpublished author. Her writing was exquisite— so sure, so well-developed. Her manuscript exhibited complete mastery of the art of writing historical fiction. If she’d been writing long enough to achieve mastery why hadn’t she been submitting? Why didn’t she have an agent? It had me scratching my head. It wasn’t until I uncovered her story that I began to understand.
Here’s what she wrote in a blog interview with Romance Writers on the Journey:
“I wrote my first story when I was nine, and my interest in writing stories persisted in fits and starts throughout childhood and my teen years. But it wasn’t until 1991, when I was in my early twenties, that I realized the time had come to write the novel I’d always wanted to write. Just to see if I could do it. I did. It was a Celtic fantasy, and it was very long. The next logical step seemed to be… could I find a Christian publisher interested in publishing a massive fantasy tome? I never did, but I received enough positive feedback from editors who loved my writing that I didn’t give up. I set the fantasy tome aside and moved on to the next story. After two years of serious work on that first novel I joined a local critique group and began to get feedback from those ahead of me in the process, and mega doses of encouragement. In 1994 I joined Oregon Christian Writers and began attending their summer conferences. I gained a much broader sense of the world of Christian publishing.”
“Turning 30 is a milestone for most women, but my 30th year was a bit more of a milestone than I bargained for. I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in March of 1999. I decided to take those treatment months off from writing and focus on getting well. After the “all clear” in November of 1999, I intended to jump back into working on the novel I had set aside in March. An editor was interested in it and wanted to see it when I was finished. The chances of the cancer coming back were slim. I had every reason to press on and immerse myself again in the joy of writing. But that’s not what happened.”
“I’m sure everyone reading this knows chemotherapy has side effects. I experienced a number of them, but in the end I felt I’d gotten off easy… until the months started passing, and very little writing got done. And what did get done was joyless, frustrating. Concentration proved elusive. Plot threads frayed out of my grasp. I’d spend hours and hours researching and promptly forget everything I’d learned and have to do it over again. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was suffering from chemo fog.”
“When I experienced a lifting of the chemo fog nearly five years after my treatment, I found my writing process was both rusty and radically changed from how I approached writing a novel before cancer. I used to write in a linear fashion, Chapter One thru to The End. When I began Kindred, I knew next to nothing about the time period I had chosen to set it in, the late 18th century south, and I couldn’t see where the story should start. Having gained a healthy aversion to spinning my wheels in a mess of words that won’t behave, and knowing the importance of maintaining the joy of writing—joy in the process of sitting here and putting words on the screen—I decided to simply write what I could see. This turned out to be a chunk of scenes near the middle of the novel. I kept on that way, writing whatever scenes were speaking to me the loudest, the most beguiling, even if I wasn’t sure where they would fit, or if they would fit, doing whatever it took to keep me eager to come to the computer each day. I was reconditioning myself to daily work, and knew it was, for me, most important to find and maintain joy, not worry so much about what the end result might look like. I had to prove to myself that I could still finish a novel.”
“I did finish Kindred, four years later. But that was only the beginning.”
When Lori’s debut novel is published it will look to some as if this writer just burst on the scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. Count the years. Even with her hiatus from cancer, Lori achieved her 10,000 hours many times over. And the challenges she personally faced give depth and richness to her fiction.
Mastery. This has got to be goal, not publication. You don’t want to forever be making excuses about your “early books.” You want to be one of those writers who burst on the scene to critical acclaim.
So what do you think? How do you measure up to Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule? Or do you believe true genius does exist– a talent that doesn’t require an apprenticeship?