Chipping Away at the Scariest Number Ever

Perspective is a beautiful thing.  Keeps us sane.  Smacks of reality therapy.  Lets us know we are not alone, yet we are the primary architects of our own destiny.

You may have heard of a guy named Malcom Gladwell.  Looks a little like Richard Simmons, but with something important to say. 

He’s actually a brilliant journalist and researcher with several bestselling non-fiction books on his CV.  One of them — “The Tipping Point” (2oo2) — explains why some books become bestsellers and why other worthy books (not just books, but anything that catches fire, culturally-speaking) don’t.

One of his other books is called “Outliers: The Story of Success” (July 2011).  It addresses how some unconventional thinkers become massively successful, and in doing so he draws some baseline conclusions that we can apply to our writing.

Because we all have that in common… we’d like to become massively successful.

Did you know that…

… Bill Gates spent 10,000 hours programming his high school computer, beginning at age 13, before he became the richest man in high-tech?

… the Beatles spent 10,000 hours performing prior to coming to USA to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, which changed music forever?

… the guy who (basically) invented the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, spent 10,000 hours in some dreary basement lab before he joined that team?

Though he doesn’t claim to have invented it, Gladwell lands on what he dubs “The 10,000 Hour Rule,” which he explains as the ante-in before a “cumulative advantage” sets in, which in turns sets the stage for massive success.

Do the math.  If you worked at something for two hours a day, every day, that’s a 13.7 year apprenticeship before you join this club.  And if that sounds like a lot… look around.  Look at the best in any field and look closer at when they emerged as the best, and the time it took to get there.


You think all those pro athletes haven’t spent at least 13.7 years working their game?  Even if they were Rookie of the Year?  That the best surgeons and teachers and scientists and game show hosts and chefs and pilots and preachers and architects haven’t logged at least 13.7 years of anonymous practice and growth before getting to wear that nametag?

The NaNoWriMo Relevance of it all.

So yeah, writing a novel is hard.  Meeting your NaNoWriMo goal is hard a total time-suck.  But think of it this way: if you log three hours a day during November getting your story down on paper, that leaves only 9,910 hours to go before you, too, can have lunch with Nora Roberts and Dennis Lehane.

I’m just sayin’… you’re in this.  On the path.  Out of the gate.  Celebrate that. 

Make every hour count.  And don’t be too hard on yourself if, say, six or so years into this you’re still not on a bestseller list.  It is what it is… and it takes 10,000 hours of your blood, sweat and commitment to make it so.

I sold my first novel 22 years after declaring I wanted to write and publish one. I gave my first writing workshop 25 years ago.  And I’m still learning new stuff all the time. 

So I feel you. 

A suggestion on how to log 20 minutes on that road.

Yesterday I did a radio interview with a writer who had attended my presentation at an event held on the Oregon coast last week.  Turns out she hosts a regional radio program, and was sufficiently engaged to invite me to participate in an interview, which aired on KCUP out of Newport, Oregon.

The interview, as it often does, turned into a little mini-workshop on story planning and the writing life.  Something you might enjoy, and benefit from.

You can listen to it HERE.

Quick footnotes:

I’m in the process of assembling last month’s NaNoWriMo planning posts into an ebook, with embellishment of the articles (and some necessary editing) and inclusion of the many linked reference posts.  I’m also including the entire manuscript of my novel, “Bait and Switch” for use as reference and example, as well as, I hope, your reading pleasure.

That’s well over 317 pages of content, for which I’ll be asking about $8.95.  The book will be available through various venues, including PDF direct from Storyfix, Kindle and other eReaders, and possibly a paperback version. 

Title: “When Every Month is NaNoWriMo — Principles, Guidelines, Tips and New Thinking to Make Sure Your Novel Doesn’t Tank”

I have to confess, my original title was “… to Make Sure Your Novel Doesn’t Suck,” but my wife intervened. 

Not saying the content is brand new — many of you have my book, Story Engineering, already, and again, the primary content of the first half of the book comes from last months 31 posts in 31 days — but it’s buffed up and optimized for NaNoWriMo, with an application for any writer, in any month. 

Will let you know when it’s ready.  For now… keep writing, keep dreaming… and keep churning out those hours.



Filed under NaNoWriMo

16 Responses to Chipping Away at the Scariest Number Ever

  1. I’ve read Gladwell’s book, Outliers, for a college course I took. Really liked it.

    I think the whole 10,000 hours thing aligns with the whole in-order-to-become-a-good-writer-you-just-have-to-sit-down-and-write thing.

  2. That 10,000 hour figure is really intimidating. It’s like I need to climb Mt. Everest before I can start succeeding. 🙁

  3. Patrick Sullivan

    @JJ: More like you have to climb 15-20 other mountains before tackling the Mt. Everest that is your first publishable novel ;).

    My experience as a software developer has always synced up with the 10,000 hours rule, though at this point I’m probably closer to 20,000 than 10, since I’ve been doing this off and on since I was a kid. Pity I didn’t put a bit more of that time into writing, but such is the way of things :).

  4. spinx

    Just came here for a litttle chat- about those 10.000 hours…………..I can most deffinitely say that this particular rule holds true, at least for me.

    My main thing is art (drawing, painting), and it is certainly starting to get me somewhere now. I am 25 years of age, and have been seriously doing art since age 15. Sometimes even for eight hours a day, for months and months.

    So yeah, I can assure you that the hours packed into something really do pay off!

    Secondly: @ Larry

    Thanks a great deal for the past month (and more)!!!!!

    Even though I am still too much of a beginner in the writing field to even think about NaNoWriMo, I have still learned loads- actually, my head is still hurting from all the lessons- but what a nice pain that is ;T

    Though one thing I did notice- switching from planning to actual writing is harder than I first assumed. See, up until last week, I really had trouble putting all my planned details and characters into work.

    Because planning and writing really are two totally different things, I got that finally. I am that slow….I know it.

    But I really had this misconception that having the whole story planned ahead, having all the details, the action, the characters and their backstories—I thought that simply planning it all would actually be enough to get me writing it (in a proper and interesting way).

    But boy was I ever wrong!!

    Those two fields really require a totally different mindset. I don´t know why I was so shocked when it finally clicked!?
    And yes, clicked it did….just a little click thought…because I still have to wrap my brains around that whole new process somehow.

  5. Darren Hardy, president of Success magazine, has an excellent book that covers the 10,000-hour principle, called “The Compound Effect.” Highly recommended! Chipping away is, for sure, the only way we can reach those huge goals. The hard part is to keep going, even when it seems nothing is happening. Laying the foundation is slow grunt-work, and there’s no glamour or praise in the early days. To quote George Michaels, “You gotta have faith.”

    @spinx, I second your experience that planning and writing are two separate games. My prologue was mapped out completely in my head and beat sheet. But writing the actual words – making it come to life – was excruciating! Still, getting through that scene was exhilarating, and I learned so much. Also, switching to first-person narrative in my second scene (the prologue was third-person omnicient) was like turning on a light switch. It was instantly more comfortable, and the words came easily. That, too, was interesting to discover.

  6. Martha

    Excellent post as always! I don’t know how you do it. Your two-day workshop here in Portland left the two dozen people in attendance inspired and excited — and you still produced a Storyfix post every day.
    BTW, I vote for a paperback edition of the new book you’re planning.

  7. David

    **Sorry for double posting this … but I put on a blog post that I thought was this one … makes more sense here.

    Hey Larry,

    Another nonfiction book to add to your list is: Talent is Overrated. The premise is similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s Oultiers, except he states that an individual needs to engage in years of ‘deliberate practice.’ This is crystalized in the book when he takes some test cases such as Mozart, Tiger Woods, and Jerry Rice. A great read, and one that made me think about what ‘deliberate practice’ looked like for me as a writer.

    I look forward to the compilation of your blogs as I have not had time to read them all. The compilation will make it easier for me to read them.


  8. 10,000 hrs. As David implied, you need “deliberate practice”.

    That’s not 9,000 hrs dabbling and 1,000 with a professional attitude. We’re looking at 10K as a professional.

    Working as a professional means using the body of knowledge about the Craft and Creativity while you’re working. Just slopping around putting down anything that comes to mind won’t cut it.

    Go write something great.

  9. I’m not sure how many hours I’ve logged writing since 2005, which is when I took up writing seriously — that is, when I started devoting time to writing and learning to write. But I can testify to the fact that I’ll never make any progress at all if I don’t keep writing.

    I play the flute. I’m no James Galway. And know why? Well, most likely he’s more talented than I am, but the true gating factor is the number of hours per day that he spends working at his art.

  10. Family issues reduced my computer time so I entered your countdown to NaNoWriMo late. I’m glad to hear you will be turning your blogs into a document I can download on my Kindle!!

    As for the 10,000 hours of writing — it was my impression from the book that ALL writing counted. Whether fiction, a journal, correspondence, etc. My environmental writing may not have been the fiction I longed to write, but it was writing and editing for clarity and flow. It was a lot of “translating” from “biologese” into plain English for the intended audience. And when researching and writing responses to appeals in another job — accurate representation of laws and rules was essential. My “not-fiction” writing involved a lot of editing by non-writer experts — so the writer ego had to swallow hard. I may have grumbled at the time about the subject matter and collaborators — but it made me a better writer and I’m counting all those hours, by gosh!

  11. I believe Gladwell got those numbers from researcher Anders Ericsson. They’re intimidating, but Ericsson stressed they were about becoming world-class, a Mozart or a Tiger Woods (both of whom started in their professions at age 2).

    For many of us, that’s not a reasonable goal. But Ericsson stressed that deliberate practice goes a long way toward making good into great.

    I with David, what does deliberate practice look like for a writer? It’s not just hitting a daily word count. Would love for you to elaborate.

  12. I can’t wait for all the posts wrapped up in one e-book. I’ll definitely download it. One thing that’s really helping me (and I’m sure someone’s already thought of this) is that the 4 weeks of Nano correspond with the 4 boxes of a story. On the first day, I wrote the beginning and ending scene. Then the rest of the week has just been about the set-up. And all I’m worrying about now is setting up what’s to come and aiming toward that first big plot point. It’s easier to think about writing to that than it is to think about writing to the end of the book. Then next week will be the response, etc. Anyway, Story Engineering has really helped me turn Nanowrimo into much easier-to-swallow chunks.

  13. spinx

    @Dana kuznar

    It is hard, thanks for sharing your experience.

    One of the major things I had wrong all this time was simply— motivation.
    The motivation to think up characters, places actions and a plot- it is quite a different one than what one would need to write proper scenes.

    And it is so, because it requires a totally different energy. Making up details- it´s fun!
    I like putting endless notes of a persons history in my notebook (even though most of it will never even see the light), coming up with issues, places, homes- struggles. It´s fun.

    It´s a kinf of liberating energy. A cool kind of energy- one that comes easy (or easier…)

    But this is the point- writing the details, knowing everything—that´s just not a story.

    Because the motivation to put all your details together, and put some soul behind it- is a totally different one.
    Because simply having a list with loads of details does not a story make.

    There needs to be an emotional background there- something to stick to.

    Details alone are dry. They won´t make you sweat and write when you really don´t feel like it. And why? because they lack emotion- they lack a purpose. They are just numbers in World War 1.
    We know when it started and when it ended, we know who attacked first, and who was defeated. But that alone is boring, when we were all much more interested on the “WHY?”

    Why did it come so far, why did no one stop it? How could a whole nation go completely against all human rights, and enjoy it? Were people really that easy to manipulate?

    None of those questions can be answered with numbers.

    And it is exactly what I am looking for at the moment.
    @Debra eve

    Intimidating, yes- holy cow, YES!

    But possible——-though only under one condition.

    Talent is one thing, genius a totally different. No talent in the world, regardless how big, and no amount of hours in the world would ever turn you into a second Mozart for one reason alone- passion.
    Passion for a certain something that comes from yourself and only yourself alone.

    Because there always is a difference in HAVING to work for a relationship, and WANTING to work for it.

    Both require hard work, but only the latter will truly inspire you to make that step beyond.

    In sports there is a standard to what is considered best. You are the best baseballplayer when you score the most. You are the best swimmer when you are the fastest.

    There are goals for what is considered best- in sports.

    But thankfully, we have it easier. Because what we do, is considered a kind of art. And we really should thank god that there are no such boundaries in art.

    Because you and I, and a million other people can hate Justin Bieber (which I don´t!) yet our critism would go unnoticed by another ten million of his fans.

    Aaaaahhh….this is where my English ends. Sorry, sorry- long post- long thoughts………I´m too tired to think right now.

    I will have to catch a plane very sson- see you all in two days.

    Peace out ;T

  14. Craig


    The October posts were great. Thank you. And now a short request. I would love to see a post on how to apply Brooks’ Story Engineering to larger, longer, honking, multiple protagonist narratives that will run to well beyond 100,000 words. I know most of us readers are beginners and should thus K.I.S.S., but you never know – maybe George R. R. Martin is reading storyfix, too.

    Much masculine man-love,


  15. I was sitting down eating some ahi katsu with wasabi and sweet chili sauce, yeah I wish I had a plate of that right now, and I had to scramble for a piece of paper to scribble a comment on. Here is what I wrote:

    “I’ve learned to laugh at your cynicism. I love it! So you don’t think Mr. Simmons has anything important to say? I’m going to guess that Mr. Gladwell doesn’t wear shorty shorts either. At least I hope not. 🙂 ”

    I guess I need to be eating good food while reading. 😉 Anyway, finally at my computer and I am enjoying your radio interview as I type this.

    Your blog scares me but Story Engineering has given me a bit of confidence, so far. There is a sense that my novel is not impossible. I can do this! Can I do this? Yeah, I can. Thanks for that little boost of confidence.

    Yeah, my comments are “out of context” just a bit but, so be it. :p

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