A retired teacher called me yesterday to tell me about a 16-year-old girl who is working on a fantasy novel that is, according to the teacher, an incredible story. She wants to be a good advisor to this talented young woman and was seeking input. She asked if I would sit down with the student, and I declined.
I hope this doesn’t make me a bad person. Published writers receive many such requests and most of us sooner or later have to make decisions about how to respond. In my case I’m sympathetic because I well remember that as a writer starting out I would have given anything to have a “real” writer read my work and tell me what I should be doing to improve.
The honest truth was, is, and will be: The qickest way to get published is (as with Carnegie Hall), practice. Write and write and write. Hours and weeks and years of writing go into getting published. We all know someone who got there quicker, and I hope that the 16-year-old novelist is one of those fortunate ones, but the first rule of getting good at anything remains: practice.
In Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 blockbuster, OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS, he postulates that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve stardom in any field. If you do the math, working at something for one hour a day, 365 days a year, would require 27.4 years to reach 10,000 hours. Double that to two hours daily and it would take 13.7 years. Make it three hours per day and you might get there in a mere 9.14 years.
Of course there are other factors involved and I dare say that many people become outstanding in their field before reaching Gladwell’s lofty peak, but the point remains: if you want to get better at something, practice.
So when people ask me to read their work and tell them what to do to improve, I usually ask how long they’ve been writing and what else they have written. And my usual advice is: practice. Write more. Keep writing. Don’t sweat these early efforts. Develop your writing muscles. Become familiar with the routine of writing. Read about writing. Think about writing. Take classes in writing. Join writing clubs. Attend workshops. But write. Write until you hear your own voice coming back to you in your words on paper. Go through the routine of submitting your work, licking your wounds when rejections come, and telling yourself that you’re not going to let failure get you down.
I hope that budding novelist hits the big time with her very first effort. But if she does not, and it takes her 9 years of writing 21 hours per week, she’ll only be 25 years old when she “suddenly” breaks through into the publishing world. It’s like going through high school and college with a year of graduate work thrown in. Plus, all along the way she can tell people that she is a writer. And it will be a true statement.