In regards to talent and skill, there's an idea that writers like Malcolm Gladwell (of "Outliers") and Robert Greene (of "Mastery") are especially fond of promoting.
It's the idea that talent is insignificant-if it exists at all-in the rise of legends like Mozart, Einstein, and Van Gogh. Rather than talent, we can attribute hard work and dedicated practice to the incredible output produced by these, and other, notable creators and thinkers.
I love this idea, and I wholeheartedly buy into it. When I first began seriously writing fiction, I was 21 years old. I had been writing short stories since I was 16, and had crafted a handful of them in college that won a couple of campus awards, but it wasn't until I was 21 and working a temp job as an assistant at a New York City magazine that I first began writing Bloodcrier, my novel about a boy with a telepathic ability that sometimes turns into a weapon, with the intent to publish.
It sucked. Oh man, did that book suck.
I look back at what I produced and I see promise, but mostly I see a product that was rushed, raw, and unconvincing. Back then, of course, I thought it was a work of creative and moody genuis that would catapult me to the level of a Stephen King or a Dean Koontz.
Then I took a poetry elective that my MFA program offered on Saturdays. I don't remember the teacher, but I do remember the only advice he gave us that I really took to heart.
"When you have a poem or a piece of fiction you're not proud of," he told us (this was a guy who taught creative writing at prisons), "throw it away and start the same project completely from scratch. You'll surprise yourself with new ideas and better quality."
The idea of doing this with a novel enthralled me, even though it meant throwing away more than six months of hard work. Bloodcrier had already been rejected by dozens of agents. Hell, if anything, it would serve as an interesting experiment. And who knew? It might actually work.
So I threw away Bloodcrier and wrote it again, this time under a new title, "Ascendant." I published it less than a year ago, and so far it has sold over 2,000 copies as an eBook on Amazon.com.
But here's the thing: I didn't start writing Ascendant right away. I abandoned Bloodcrier in 2007, wrote two other novels (Trainland and Savant) and a collection of short stories (Peltham Park). I started writing Ascendant in 2011, almost 4 years after I gave up on Bloodcrier. By then I felt I had the knowledge and the experience I needed to tell this story the way I had been obsessively envisioning it since I was a teenager.
I didn't feel comfortable re-writing this book until I'd accumulated 6 years of dedicated practice to the art and craft of writing fiction. It was and remains one of the best decisions I've ever made, and Ascendant sells more than any of my other work.
Ten years (or 10,000 hours) is the amount of time Malcolm Gladwell and Robert Greene prescribe as the required amount of time to master a skill. Now, am I a master? Absolutely not, and I'm glad I'm not (yet). I love that I have so much more to learn.
But I'm definitely a much better writer now than I was back in 2006/2007, when I produced the mountain of crap originally known as "Bloodcrier." I've definitely put in at least 5,000 hours of that 10k Gladwell and Greene insist on. And I can feel the difference whenever I read my old stuff.
My point is this: Writing is not some kind of flighty art that lands on your head every once in a while, allowing inspiration to blossom. It's a tough and maddening craft that requires patience, dedication, and an almost sociopathic resistance to the judgment and criticism (or worse: apathy) of others.
Keep practicing and you'll get better. That's what I tell myself. Every. Single. Day.
And the better you get, the more it begins to feel like a superpower-one you can use to give life to entire worlds and complex characters and exciting situations that your readers will experience and possibly never forget.
Once you arrive at that level (and I like to think I'm close), it just gets to be fun. And that's where you want to be: so comfortable with your craft or art that you can just have fun with it while continuing to grow and produce work you can be proud of.
How often do you practice? How many of those ten years have you knocked off the list?
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