Hi there! I’m in New York today, attending the party conference known as Thrillerfest. As such, I’ve asked a friend of mine, award-winning author, cameraman, and all around cool guy Tom Kaufman to sit in. His post is incredibly intriguing, and you all know how much I love figuring out these kind of puzzles. Read his post, and at the bottom, I’ll share my results. Would love to hear everyone else’s too!
Without further ado – Tom Kaufman!
Thanks, JT, for letting me drive the bus today.
Have you ever finished reading a book, and thought, wow, what a great writer? I’ve often wondered what it takes to be great at writing. Is it having an ear for dialogue? Knowing how to plot? Writing characters that resonate in the mind of the readers, long after they’ve finished your book?
Well, yes, of course. But according to Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, OUTLIERS, it’s also 10,000 hours.
First of all, what exactly is an outlier? Gladwell says,
‘Outlier’ is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience…In this book I’m interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”
In OUTLIERS, we’re told that all of the greats, the people who have really excelled in their fields, have worked at what they love for at least 10,000 hours. And I have to say, Gladwell, a wonderful writer himself, makes a compelling case for this rule.
One of the examples he sites is the Beatles. Before they went to Hamburg, they were just an average rock and roll band. But in Hamburg they had to play 8 hours a day, six days a week. They lived on stage. And when they returned to Liverpool, their friends told them how different they sounded, like a professional band.
Did John, Paul, George, and Ringo get their entire 10,000 hours in Germany? No, but they had played together for years prior to that. What Hamburg offered them was the chance to work together intensely, day after day.
Another example Gladwell hands us is Bill Gates. As a teenager, Gates would sneak out of his parents’ house at midnight, and walk to a local university that had a computer lab. The lab was open 24/7. Gates spent every night there, writing code and programming, then hustle back to bed around four or five in the morning. His mother said she always had trouble waking up Bill for school.
Now, to be a huge success, there’s often more to it than simply being prepared. OUTLIERS goes into a lot of detail as to what exactly happened, the string of events that mad it possible for Bill Gates and the Beatles to get those 10,000 hours.
(By the way, Gladwell tells us that it’s a mistake to think we live in a meritocracy. We don’t, not as long as random chance plays a part. OUTLIERS shows us that being born in the right year is as important as the desire to work hard.)
The thing is, for these people, that work wasn’t a tedious chore. To you and me, 10,000 hours of computer programming might be hell. For Gates, it was heaven. Likewise, sleeping on cots, eating crappy food, and playing rock for German businessmen for eight-hour stretches seven days a week might seem like a punishment. For the Beatles, it was an incredible opportunity.
So let’s say we’re all on board with this, right? We want to be great writers. So how do we do that? Basically, we do what Ed McBain instructed, sit our fannies down and start typing.
Could we get our 10,000 hours in a year? Sure, if every day had over 27 hours in it, and we skipped little things like eating and sleeping.
Okay, well maybe three years? Yes, if you wrote for nine hours every day. Piece of cake, right?
Well, maybe for you. Nine hours a day is a bit steep for me. I might manage four hours a day though, in which case I’ll reach my goal in just under seven years.
Yes, and that’s if I write every single day. If you want to factor in a few holidays, sick days, and those days when your mother comes to visit, you’re really looking at eight years.
It would seem daunting, if you didn’t love to write. But if you do, if it feels good to you, and not some chore you have to get out of the way, then it not only can be done, it has been done. Look at the great writers in our field, folks like Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, and yes, Ed McBain, to pick three at random. They began their careers in the late fifties. They hit their 10,000 hours sometime in the mid- to late-sixties. And their work got progressively better.
Westlake once said, “The thing that I prefer, when I’m working on a book, is to do a seven-day week, because it’s easy to lose some of the details of what you’re doing along the way. Years ago, I heard an interview with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The interviewer said, ‘Do you still practice?’ And he said, ‘I practice every day.’ He said, ‘If I skip a day, I can hear it. If I skip two days, the conductor can hear it. And if I skip three days, the audience can hear it.’ Oh, yes, you have to keep that muscle firm.”
How about you? Do you think 10,000 hours is an attainable goal?
Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the PWA/St Martin’s Press Competition for Best First Novel. His second book, STEAL THE SHOW, comes out this July. You can see the rest of his blog tour here.
JT here. OK. I’ve done my calculations.
I’ve been writing full time for 8 years. In that time, my fiction output – this is fiction only – is at about 1,000,000 words: 9.5 novels @ 100,000 apiece and 15 short stories. 8 years = 2,920 days = 70,080 hours. I can’t average my daily time spent writing because it fluctuates too much, so I’m going by word count. It takes me 1 hour to write 1,000 words. 1,000,000 words/70,800 hours = 14,269 hours over the course of 8 years.
So 10,000 hours in a year, no way. But I probably did it in 6. And Lord knows, I love what I do. Am I an outlier? I don’t know. But I loved having a chance to examine the concept. Thanks, Tom!
So what about you?
Thanks, JT and Thomas. I think this theory is particularly interesting when you think how long it takes many people to get published. It's rare that the first book sees the light of day and maybe that's because at that stage writers are only around the 3,000 hours mark!
I don't write full time (or, rather, I don't put words down full time), but I'm willing to put in my 10,000 an hour or two at a time for as long as it takes.
This probably makes me an inlier, but at least I appear to be a persistent one.
I'd say I've got over 10,000 hours in reading crime fiction. I should turn pro. Now how to turn a paycheck out of that….
OUTLIERS is a fascinating read, almost as good as the author's hair.
Without boring you with my calculations, I'm coming in somewhere between 4,000-5,000 hours. Sheise! I have a long way to go.
Thanks for guesting today Thomas!
Hi guys! Taking a quick break here:well, honestly, I'm sick, and have no voice, so I'm actually resting in the room. This is the glamourous life of the author.
PD, such a good point. I didn't think about the novels in the drawer, the hours learning the craft, attending cons, reading, all of that. If you average in all the other work, we are all outliers.
Sarah, exactly. You have to want to make this work, right?
PK, a blog, with ad revenue, could be the trick. Review some of those books and boom!
Chuck, sorry to bore you with my calculations… Kidding! Actually, I am curious about how you balance writing with your work. I've been really lucky to be able to focus solely on mine, so I have the utmost repect for those hitting that mark in addition to working full time.
Can I count the hours of procrastination and whining as well? If so, I hit my mark a long time ago.
Actually, Ringo wasn't with the Beatles in Hamburg. He didn't join until they returned to Liverpool and Brian Epstein took over their management. He thought Pete Best wasn't good enough, gave him the boot. And the rest, as they say …
Also, I'm not sure whether it takes 10,000 hours or 10,000 maniacs or 96 tears to get good at something. But I do know, as Wilson Picket famously said, that 99 1/2 just won't do. (Got to be a hundred.)
Thanks for the great post, Tom. You're welcome back anytime. (And JT — thanks for sneaking him into the asylum.)
Haha JT. Sorry. Didn't mean to insinuate that you had bored me. You didn't! You have published product to display, hence, you calculations = INTERESTING. I have (insert Chris Farley's "van down by the river" voice here) JACK SQUAT! 🙂 That's why mine isn't worth showing.
It took me three years to find the balance. At first I wrote only on weekends. When I realized things were drifting from my mind, I made up my mind to write every day. With two young children and a busy job, the only fat in my schedule was sleep, so I simply started getting up two hours earlier and that's when I write, every single day. It's an obsession, but I think it's healthy.
Have fun at TF! Wish I was there.
Oh great, now I'm really depressed! This is just re-inforcing my belief that I am a Jane of all trades, master of none. I've been training to become a court reporter- 2 years into that process- and if I have to wait another 5 years to become really good at it, I might as well give it up now. And writing? There's no way I can put that kind of time into it with a full time job (does the legal writing I do count – demand letters, rogs – they're kinda creative, right?). Holy cows! And I'm working with a 50-year-old brain. I so want to change careers but this is not encouraging me.
Great post, Tom. Thanks for bringing him to the table, JT.
Listen, I've been writing since I was eight. I didn't take it seriously until I was nineteen or so. I wrote a lot of crap, but I wrote. There were maybe three significant moments that completely altered my writing: 1. A college English professor who kicked the cliches out of my work, 2. My father's suicide, and 3. The moment my marriage almost imploded. Those events, combined with continued writing, did the trick. It's more than just putting in the time, which is essential. It's about getting past each plateau and climbing the next mountain.
Between JT's calculations and SJS's reminder that the writing starts pretty damn early for most of us, I'd say I've put in 20,000, easily (novels, screenplays, plays). Which makes me feel a bit like an underachiever, actually….
Thanks a lot, Thomas! 😉
Huh. Now I need to read that.
With writing, I heard the goal was 1 million words. First million is practice. So, that's been my goal: 1 million words I sweated and deliberated over. Right now, I think I'm about 750,000… not quite there, but on my way. But if I had to translate that into hours, I don't know how I'd do.
Sure, there's writing, but there's also rewriting (does that count?) and editing (which has aspects of rewriting, crossing things out, moving them around… huh), both of which I feel should count as writing because they're integral parts of the work. I know that when I edit, I get better at writing overall; every time I do it, there are fewer unnecessary words to take out. Does that mean it should count?
Still, food for thought.
I've heard of this and wondered at the time to be found while taking care of other business. However, I think it's safe to say that one is "writing" in one's head long before hitting the keys. I often have reports to write, and cook them in the car or while I'm doing housework or whatever. Thank goodness for you outliers; you make my life a pleasure.
I've been doing this nearly full-time for 10 years now, so I should be right about the 10,000 hour mark. My writing has certainly gotten a hell of a lot better recently so hopefully this theory will play out like Gladwell suggests!
JT, thanks again for letting me sit in. And what an interesting group of comments.
Phillipa, I think what you say is true, and at 3000 hours you're doing better than most.
Sarah W, we all start at the same place. Persistence is they key, and if you have that, you're sittin' pretty.
PK, let me know how that works out, I'd love to join you in this new venture.
Chuck, we all have a long way to go — that's the thing about a goal, it helps us set our sights. And yeah, Malcolm's hair is pretty amazing.
JT, I thought you said you were gonna lie down and relax while I did the heavy lifting, right? 😉
Louise, if procrastination and whining counted, I'd have hit 10,000 years and years ago.
David, quite right about Ringo joining up later. Glad you liked the post.
Chuck, you're doing this the best way there is — every day. Good for you!
Jenni, don't be discouraged. We're all doing the best we can with what we've got. What's important is to keep at it.
Stephen, I think that's true. It's about pushing yourslef to do more, coaching yourself, in a way.
Alexandria, that's very impressive! You're a double-outlier!
Alaina, I do think that all parts of the craft should count towards the 10,000 hour mark, except maybe driving to Staples for more paper.
lil Gluckstern, I think if you set time aside each day for writing inside your head, and ONLY for writing inside your head, you should count that as time writing.
Brian, that's exciting, I'm veruy happy for you.
Everyone, thanks for your comments, and for reading the piece.
Thanks, Tom. I work hard to stay positive, but the sheer numbers are intimidating. Good thing they count all the various parts! My dad told me when I was learning French – when you start dreaming in French, you know French and become French, and I can only think the same is true here. When you start living it, beyond the time that your hands are on the keyboard, it's bound to be becoming a part of you. I will have to read the book and figure out some ways to work harder to reach all my goals. 🙂
Good blog. I always liked the outlier concept. For me, though, I put in the hours but the actual writing is slow. NaNoWriMo helped speed things up for me. I probably should revisit the concept.
Yes, NaNoWriMo is a great help for those hours/words. And I love 10K days too! Stream of consciousness writing.
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