Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten thousand hours

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By Dennis McCloskey

Are you willing to write for 10,000 hours to become one of the best in the writing business? I suspect that most aspiring writers are not, and that is why there are precious few big name commercial authors like the Grishams, Kings, Clancys, Bradfords, and Ludlums.

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called “Outliers” in which he talks about the “10,000-hour rule.” He explains that studies indicate ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything—sports, music, business, chess, even fiction writing! He figures it takes about 10 years to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness and he names some of successful people who put in their time during their formative years, such a Microsoft’s Bill Gates; and Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and sometimes called the “Edison of the Internet.” Gladwell even writes about the Beatles who performed 1,200 times before hitting the big time in North America in 1964.

You’ve probably heard the old joke about the tourist in New York City who stops a man on the street and asks him how she can get to Carnegie Hall. His answer: “Practice. Practice. Practice.” When I am asked what it takes to become a fulltime freelance writer, I give the same advice. Mary Heaton Vorse put it more succinctly when she said: “The art of writing is the art of putting the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” Gertrude Stein put it even more simply: ‘To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.” If you want to become a successful writer of fiction or non-fiction or journalism but you aren’t putting in the hours, what part of that do you not understand?

A long time ago a friend told me she was having a hard time making a living as a freelance writer. I asked her a few questions, such as: “Where is your office set up?”
“Yes, where do you do your writing?”
“On the kitchen table.”
“When my kids go to school and after I finish the housework and get the dishes cleaned, and...”

And she wondered why she wasn’t making a go of it? Hello? Give your head a shake. Writing is a business, just like any other job, and it should be treated as such. I have always had an upstairs office in my home. There is a bronze sign on the door that reads “Office.” There is no mistaking what does on behind that door. No video games are played. There is no TV in that room. No fridge. It’s a workroom and I treat it that way. I made a vow to myself when I became an independent, fulltime writer in 1980 that I would be at my desk at 9:00 a.m. every weekday morning whether I had something to do or not. I have rarely wavered from that plan when I am home, although in the past few years it got moved up to 8:00 a.m. when I realized I could deal with a lot of emails early in the morning before I got into my other work.

I learned long ago that not everyone accepts that you are working if you are at home. Business executives have called me at 10:00 a.m. and asked if they woke me up. They probably have ‘telecommuters’ in their companies but some just can’t get their head around the fact that a writer is “working” in the comfort of his or her home. I attended a meeting one day in a Toronto corporate boardroom to pitch an idea for a board game that my wife and I invented with another couple. When the Marketing Manager asked what I do for a living, I said I am a freelance writer. “Oh,” he sniffed. “You’re unemployed.” I laughed off his inconsiderate and ignorant remark, and it’s a good thing because his company produced 10,000 copies of our board game “Songsations.”

If you can get over the outdated attitudes that some people have about the business of running a writing business from your home, you’ll be okay. I was once part of an Author’s Program, sponsored by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) that sent writers to schools around the province to talk to students about writing and books. At the time I was also doing some contract writing for a large Canadian bank. One day I was talking to someone at the bank and I mentioned something about the modest speaking fee I was receiving from the OAC. He expressed surprise and remarked: “You get paid for doing that?” This time I was not so polite. To my surprise, I answered rather insolently: “Do you get paid for your work at the bank?” He got my point.

I have lots of advice I like to give to aspiring writers (set goals; know your strengths and weaknesses; write what you like to read; and be disciplined.)The most important tip I offer is to not get discouraged. I have what is called a sense of “black humour” and I still chuckle when I think of a cartoon I once saw. It showed a man standing on a kitchen chair about to slip a hangman’s noose around his neck. A radio is on in the background and the man’s eyeball’s bulge in an expression of hope when he hears the announcer shout: “Listen! Here’s news! You may have what it takes to be a professional writer!”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page