I’ve been nervous about posting this, maybe because I’m new to blogging, but this is something that always seems to be on my mind: time, or the lack of it. Since I started writing, I’ve never been so aware of the passage of time.
Is it like this for all writers, I wonder? Maybe we need to feel the sucking whirlpool of time drawing us in if we are to finish each page and every chapter, if we are to complete that novel?
Or do I feel the drag of time so powerfully because I’ve already been sucked halfway down the vortex? I’m so new to fiction writing – starting from scratch two and a half years ago – and I’m in my mid-forties. I feel like an adult in training pants. Am I too late to achieve my dream of becoming a published author?
A couple of hours’ investigation and a few statistics later, my self-confidence has taken a rollercoaster ride through shock and dismay to a cautious optimism. If you’re interested in what the statistics say, strap yourselves in and don’t jump out till we get to the station:
I started by looking at the so-called 10,000 hour rule. Apparently this was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book or the studies on which it was based, but the basic principle is that it typically takes at least 10,000 hours or approximately ten years of dedicated practice to achieve mastery of a skill.
I didn’t want to hear that. Must I work another eight years to become an accomplished writer?
Perhaps not. The studies were based on chess grandmasters, top musicians and sports stars. For writers I believe the situation is different because we use our writing skills in daily life. School might not have taught us to hone our golf swing, but it gave us a grounding in spelling and grammar and creative use of language. At work we send emails and write reports – could this count towards that 10,000 hours?
That set me wondering. Suppose I’d already achieved 1000 hours from school studies, and 2000 hours from reading novels (which most authors agree is beneficial in developing a sense of plot and style). Then all those technical reports I wrote over fifteen plus years as an engineer must count for something (besides the comment on my first novel that ‘it reads like a report’), so let’s give myself another 2000 hours.
I’m halfway there already!
Is it realistic, though, to think I can drop it down to 5 years’ practice? To get a better idea I picked five of my favourite sci fi books (all published after 2011) and checked how long the authors had been writing. This is where I got a shock.
The average age at which the authors had started writing for publication (usually short stories, screenplays or comics) was 31 years. The average age at which their most popular novel was published (the one I’ve read) was 45 years. So it took an average of 14 years for them to hone their craft! (Insert expletive here).
How did I get from dismay to cautious optimism? Well, there was a lot of variation. A couple of authors were on the slow side, taking over twenty years to produce their most popular novel. Two produced a successful debut novel after 5 years and 7 years of writing. That’s looking more reasonable.
Then there’s the statistic I’ve come across (I’m not sure where it came from), that on average an author gets a publishing deal after writing three to four novels. Say it takes around 500 hours to write a novel, that’s less than 2,000 hours of actual novel-writing we’re talking about to become good enough for publication. That brings us down to about 3 years’ practice.
New studies are questioning the 10,000 hour rule as well, seeming to suggest that if one is willing to be ‘very good’ in a field, rather than ‘expert’, we might be looking at 7,000 hours. Again, that’s only 2,000 hours over my assumed base level.
I can also take some comfort in the age at which some of the most prolific genre authors published their first novels. Thriller writer Ian Fleming was 44 and wrote 17 novels, while Lee Child started at 43 years and already has 20 novels published. In the SF genre, Anne McCaffrey was 41 years old when her first novel was published and went on to write over a hundred more.
In some ways, it’s the young who are handicapped when it comes to writing novels. While the authors of debut novels are typically in their thirties or forties, there are still a significant number in their fifties (more than in their twenties) and a good few in their sixties.
So there’s hope. Maybe I won’t have to plug away at my writing for a decade or more to achieve my dreams.
Here’s the good bit, and the reason why time can be a friend rather than an enemy. Suppose I don’t get lucky and land a publisher soon. If I don’t let it get me down but keep practicing my writing, I’m only going to improve. If I keep at it with enough dedication, who knows, I might even become the writer I would so love to be, not just a decent writer but a grandmaster, who could stand up there alongside my favourite authors.
Well, you know, I have to dream.