Sunday, January 6, 2013

100,000 hours later

You can write!
The pursuit of wanting to be “a writer” is curious. Unlike many desirable skills, almost everyone is taught the mechanics of writing. So in a very literal way, you are already a writer. I assume you are reading this book? So you could probably write this book out verbatim if you had to? Therefore you are a writer, in the same way you are probably a walker and talker, although you don’t consider yourself a walker and talker for a living.

In contrast, not everyone is taught how to play an oboe or read a mechanical drawing. So when one says they wish to “be a writer” there is actually a more intangible desire in mind. I can only guess at your true desire, perhaps it is to be a published writer, or a commercially successful writer, or a more emotional or creative writer, or perhaps a famous writer?

Better then what?
To simply want to be a “better” writer would suggest you want your cursive hand writing to improve. No, what does “better” mean when writing is such a subjective art form? As writing itself cannot be measured on a linear scale, it is important for you to narrow down your endeavor to something more specific.

Let us take the example that you want to be a more confident writer whose works are enjoyed by a large audience in today’s culture. Ok, so that is the problem at hand. Now, your job is to break the problem down into bite size, logical pieces.

Practice, practice, practice
Becoming confident and more proficient at anything takes practice. I know you know this, but do you really believe it? We live in a society where we are exposed to incredibly talented people from across the whole world. We see thousands of singers, actors and, writers succeed every day. It seems like everyone is famous except us! What we don’t see are the millions of people who failed to get there. It is easy for us to rationalize that everyone who tries succeeds. Couple this with our modern mottos of “live your dream” and “you can do anything you want to do” it is even easier to prematurely feel we have failed and we don’t have the “natural talent” required.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” details that the average person requires 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at anything. Of course there are the Mozart exceptions that can sit at a piano for the first time and write a symphony. But do you think you are the average or in the top 0.0001% of the population? If you believe you are the later, that’s great, put down this book and go for it! If not, you might need to do the 10,000 hours. That is a LOT of repetition! This translates to approximately five years as a full time job, practicing from 9am to 5pm every weekday.

Consequently, this idea of an overnight success is probably a myth. How many “overnight success” stories of musicians or writers have we heard about, where we later find out they had actually spend years struggling and almost giving the whole thing in? When “I kissed a girl” by Katy Perry was released, it was a sensation, sky rocketing to the top of the charts. Only she remembered the three previous albums that had gone nowhere and the two record companies that had previously signed and dropped her. I don’t tell you this story to be a sad sack. I tell you this to motivate you to keep going! All those people who practiced, failed, kept practicing and kept learning did the hard yards, and you can too!

Correctly hitting the gold ball
Ok, so you feel you have the practice idea down. But don’t rush to write at your desk for hours and hours to “get through your 10,000 hours”. You may be practicing to be a not very “good” writer. Perhaps you are practicing a writing style that nobody likes, and you will become an expert at writing unpopular junk. Gladwell said you would become proficient, he didn’t say people would want to read it. For that reason, it is probably a good idea to get some feedback, preferably from the sort of people you want to be your final audience. Do you want to become confident at writing a romance novel that will sell well in North America? Then perhaps don’t only ask for feedback from your Chinese, male neighbor or you might become proficient at writing what he wants to read.

If I stood and hit a gold ball for 10,000 hours I would probably still not be very good at golf. That’s because I have no idea what I’m doing. It is the same with writing. I suggest joining a writers group, or attending writing conferences or events. If that isn’t possible, enlist the help of your friends, family and co-workers. Tell them to be your critics and you want help to improve. If they just like everything, or just hate everything, it really isn’t going to work.

Tacking the boat
I think of feedback as “tacking the boat” or tweaking your skill set. Like a sailboat it is impossible to actually sail in a direct line to your destination. It is a constant back and forth with each maneuver moving you slightly forward. Someone might suggest an improvement, such as “try using more dialogue”, so you go gang busters on your dialogue and get confident writing it, then someone else says, “maybe tone the dialogue back”, until you eventually find an equilibrium you are comfortable with.

Your house is always for sale
When I was in real estate, I was given a good piece of advice; “your house is always for sale, at the right price”. You may have no intention of selling or moving, but if someone offered you a crazy offer you would probably take it. The same goes for your writing. Your work or skills are always for sale, for the right offer.

The best part of asking for feedback and being open with your desire to write is that someone might hear about you. Connections and opportunities always come from the most unexpected places. You might be out at a boring work event, chatting to a colleague from the accounts department. How could they possibly help with your writing? Well, what’s the harm in just mentioning it? The worse thing that could happen is he isn’t interested and changes the conversation back to fiscal management. Or he could say, “hey, my father in law is an editor in Vancouver, I would be happy to ask him to read some of your stuff.” In summary, people can’t make you an offer if they don’t know you have a house for sale.

Look who’s talking!
My favorite part of writing is the creativity. Think of words as colorful, sparkly, and different sized building blocks. Like a game of mental Tetris as you try to manipulate each piece to fit perfectly so each sentence is punchy, engaging and gets the point across.

But! The way I arrange my words is 100% personal preference. Ask a million writers to write the same plot and you can guarantee they will all use their words differently. Even in this book of anthologies, you can see that despite being a group of Canadian writers from the same writers group, and despite being given the same premise, we have submitted incredibly diverse entries!

My advice for you then is to look who’s talking. When you are practicing for your 100,000 hours, one of the best outcomes would be to have a solid and confident “voice”. A consistent sound, rhythm, and style that is true to you. Only then will you be able to keep it up and be successful in the long term.

Healthy habits
This book might motivate you to get started on working towards your dream and that is truly fantastic! But how do we keep the motivation up over the coming months and possibly years? We make it a habit. It is hard to stay excited about anything for an extended period of time, but despite this, we still have a shower every day, perhaps you exercise every day or tidy up the kitchen every night before bed. That’s because these activities have moved from being a conscious effort that requires enthusiasm and rewards, to simply being a habit. And that’s where your writing practice needs to be.

Pick something you are already good at doing regularly, one of your good habits that you are proud of. Perhaps you are good at saving money, or eating healthy foods or keeping a clean house. These are habits that not everyone can do easily. 

Really think about why that activity comes easily to you. Dissect the cue, routine and reward you have set up for yourself within that habit. For instance, I am very good at saving money, it comes easily to me, but I am terrible at eating healthy.

The cue for saving money usually presents itself when I am deciding on whether to make a purchase or not. 
The routine follows by asking myself, “Do I really need this?” Most of the time I am reminded that I don’t really need it as I’ve been coping fine without it until now, if I really need it I can always come back and get it later.
The reward then presents itself at the time with a good feeling of saving money, or later when I look in my wallet or bank account and see money in there that makes me happy.

This cue, routine and reward system breaks down however when it comes to anything that tastes good.
The cue, anything yummy is anywhere near me.
The routine, “Do I need this?” “Yes! You are hungry.” Then I eat it.
The reward, a few seconds of yummy taste and feeling full. Oh dear.

If you pick one of your positive habits you can use the cue, routine and reward system and mirror it when forming your writing habit. Start straight away, it’s much easier to establish a good habit, then trying to break a bad habit.

Want to know more about habits? Check out “The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg”.

Don’t do that, you’re no good at it
Some of the best advice I was given was to not bother spending time on that which you are not good at. It sounds counter intuitive, particularly in our society that streamlines people into generalists. But think about it, why waste time working on something you will never be great at? Why not spend that time working on something you could potentially become renown for?

Richard Branson is one of the most successful Entrepreneurs in recent times. But did you know he was dyslexic? He has always struggled with writing, reading and traditional education. Some people in his position might have spent a lot of time trying to overcome this condition. Instead, Branson acknowledged the problem and decided to simply work around it. He was very good at talking to people and identifying market trends. He focused on playing to his strengths and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now I’m not saying if you’re not good at writing to give it up. But if you are not very funny maybe don't spend years trying to write a funny book. No matter how much you try, there will always be thousands of people who are funnier then you. If you are hilarious, maybe don't try and write a serious war and peace epic drama. If you play to your strengths, you will already be a mile ahead of the crowd.

Finding time
A lot of people complain that they are motived, and they have cultivated a habit but they simple don’t have the time. Well I’m sorry but I’m calling it…bullshit. Not being able to find the time is code for a low priority.

If you were struck down with food poisoning you would find the time to sit on the bathroom floor for several hours. Or if you broke your leg you would suddenly find the time to rest and let it heal. If you really wanted to find the time to write, you could. You would cancel other plans, or sacrifice activities you enjoyed, simply because you had to.

Finding time has never been easier. The average Canadian spends four hours a day watching TV. Even if you don’t watch TV, we are blessed with incredible technologies such as lights and heating enabling us to work well into the night. We have all kinds of devices at our fingertips to assist you if handwriting is not your style. Even if you have no arms or have to hold your baby for hours to get them to sleep, you can put on some headphones and dictate to your computer. We have washing machines, cars and hundreds of other helpful contraptions saving us time every day that our ancestors did not have. So what are you doing with all that saved time? Probably something with a higher priority.

Now go away
I love you but go away. Go and start writing! Practice anything and everything. People always say write what you know, and that’s a great place to start but that’s not going to fill those 100,000 hours. Get your personal experiences out and onto paper and that will free you to start being creative.

Maybe write the backstory to an ad you saw on TV, how did that young couple meet, what’s an average day in their life like?  Perhaps only watch the last 10 minutes of an old black and white movie, and then write what happened next in the story? There are millions of other writers prompts available online.

Mix up the formats. Write novels, poems, short stories comics and more. Each one will teach you and limit you in different ways.

But the most important thing is to just get started. Those 100,000 hours are not going to write themselves! Good luck.