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Month: September 2009

10,000 hours

10,000 hours

So, what about this:

You’ve heard that whole “the first million words are crap” thing, right? I read a corollary to that recently, that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything.

That’s a lot of hours.

I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a Story-a-Week project for a long time now, and I can never quite bring myself to do it. It feels like setting myself up for failure, because I can never predict with any kind of accuracy how long something is going to take to be done. Like right now, I’m editing “They Are Living Still” and I’m trying to fix one paragraph. It’s a bad paragraph: all tell, no show, totally out of the blue and doesn’t flow with the story where it is but contains important information. I have to put that information somewhere, and I have to do it in a better way, but right now I’m stuck. And I don’t know how long it will take to fix it. So “done” is completely unpredictable right now, and if I say “I have to have it done in a week,” and then it’s not done, I have failed.

(I realize that if I ever intend to get a novel “done” I will simply have to overcome this, because novelists work to deadline.)

So Story-a-Week may not be for me.

But a Ten Thousand Hours Project… maybe.

Lifehacker recently posted about a personal time-tracking tool called Klok. I downloaded and checked it out. It’s slick. I like it. It’s got me thinking.

I have no idea how many hours I’ve put into being a writer so far. I’ll ignore everything before 2002, because that was when I really decided to put some sweat into it and learn something. And what exactly goes into learning to write, anyway?

Word count, of course, but just making words without any kind of input or seeking out the knowledge of people who do it better would just result in a consistent level of crap, with maybe a slight trend upwards over a very long period of time. So the learning needs to count. Learning comes from a number of places: reading writer’s blogs, articles, and books on writing, going to workshops and critique groups, reading fiction and noticing what works and what doesn’t. Editing my own work counts. How about the time spent researching markets, and preparing submissions? Does that count too? What about this blog, where I take stock of what I’m doing right and wrong, and hang it all out there for you good people to see?

10,000 hours is a long time. I would be retired by then, (I hope,) which means it can’t be a real goal. A goal that takes decades to reach isn’t something I can really handle. But it can certainly be a standard to rally to.

Still thinking about it.

Learning to write the short-short story

Learning to write the short-short story

Woot! Got another story out. I wanted to blog this one, though, because it was a new experience for me on a number of levels.

This was the story that I wrote in two hours, a couple of weeks ago. I set a timer for fifteen minutes for brain storming, and another for character creation. I borrowed an existing universe I’d created for another story (or so I thought,) created a character that wasn’t involved in the original story, figured out what he wanted and how he was going to change. Then I set the timer again and hammered it out in about an hour and a half.

I did not expect great things. I just wanted to see if I could get a complete draft out of it.

It turned out to be about 1200 words in that first draft (about six and a half pages.) I figured the editing would be quick and I’d have it out the door in a day or two. I was wrong.

In just under seven pages there isn’t room for sloppiness or weak writing. Every single word counts – that is, of course, always true, but in so little space there is just no room for the reader to gloss over anything. Each and every word has to deliver.

It took me a week. I labored over every paragraph. Sentences that I probably would have left alone in a longer piece I stared at, deleted, wrote, and rewrote.

I also discovered something about that ‘world’ I had borrowed: it had a lot of holes in it. I spent an hour alternately staring into space and free writing, trying to figure out how much of their own history these people knew; how much astronomy the general population knew; what certain things would look like to this particular character.

In only seven pages, there is no room for ‘oh there must be more to this world than is in these pages.’ There is no room for ‘how did he know that?’ The reader won’t forget – there isn’t time for them to forget. Every word counts, and that character’s world needs to make sense to the reader in the context of the story.

I’m actually not 100% sold on one detail that I left in, even though I’ve already sent the story out. I might change it after it’s rejected.

In the end it came in at 1465 words, which is the shortest story I’ve ever written. I consider the experiment a success, even if the story itself never sells (none of them ever have, to date, so hey it’s just status quo.) I learned so much about my weaknesses and was forced to do mental work that I’ve never before made myself face that I am eager to go and do it again as soon as possible.