The 10,000-hour Rule

July 14, 2009

So I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s third book the other day, Outliers, which is not about writers. But it is about success, which is good enough. And it says right there in chapter two that it takes ten thousand hours of dedicated practice to become a world-class master at any particular discipline.

(Such as novelist.)

Three things about this rule struck me. First, the “any” part. Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitan:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert — in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers [there we are], ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Of course, this doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do. But no one has found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

The second thing that struck me was the total lack of exceptions to this rule. Aren’t there any geniuses, with a natural gift, who get there with only, say, 5000 hours?

Apparently not. Not even people like Mozart.

Gladwell cites Michael Howe in his book, Genius Explained, who wrote, “Many of Wolfgang’s childhood compositions… are largely arrangements of works by other composers… the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No. 9, K.271) was not composed until he was twenty-one.”

And he had his 10,000 hours in by that time, see.

Well… what about Stephenie Meyer? She woke from a vivid dream in June 2003, drafted Twilight by August 2003, and had a six-figure deal by 2005. At this writing, 53 million copies sold. Genius? Luck?

(Don’t read too much into me mentioning Mozart and Meyer in the same freaking blog post. I haven’t read Twilight yet, but no matter how good it is, she’s not Mozart.)

(I mean, please. We all know Michael Crichton was Mozart.)

So I read up on Meyer. Turns out she earned a Bachelor’s in English in 1995. And she cited as inspiration for the Twilight series the works of Jane Austen, both Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Shakespeare. Since 2005, she’s been writing faster than her publisher, Little, Brown and Company, can publish.

King and Meyer
Ahem. You’re telling me she hasn’t been writing since she was twelve? That she doesn’t have a trunk full of crappy novels at home?

Stephen King, if memory serves, sold Carrie in his early twenties. What about him? Well, he wrote four novels before that, and he was publishing short stories at his school (and freaking out his teachers) in the eighth grade. King put his 10,000 hours in before Carrie, I’ll bet.

Gladwell says of the ten thousand hour rule: “The people at the very top don’t work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

Carrie Cover
By the way, have you done the math yet? 10,000 hours is:

Eight hours per weekday (full time) for five years.
Four hours per weekday (half-time) for ten years.
Ten hours per week (a weekend gig) for twenty years.

Which brings me to the third and final thing that struck me about it.

Which is that I find it encouraging. That’s odd. I must be somewhere near my 10,000 hours (I’ve thought about it and it’s impossible to tell. I keep crumby records). The ten thousand hour rule kills the notion that some of us will get published and others won’t, and it’s Lady Luck, that bitch, who holds dominion over us.

Just as there are no sneaky geniuses who cheat the rule, there are no cursed losers who grind away until they die. Gladwell described a study published in Psychological Review (“The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,”) and wrote that the researchers simply couldn’t find any “people who worked harder than everyone else, but just didn’t have what it takes to break the top ranks.”

Nice. Even when I’m writing crap, I’m making progress. It’s a handy answer for my superego when it asks me, “Why are you writing when you should be working?!”

Hey man, this is, like, hour 9,973 for me. Back off.

(PS. If you know any exceptions to the 10,000-hour Rule, or if you know how many novels Meyer wrote before Twilight, please leave a comment.)

Using the Green-Eyed Monster

July 2, 2009

“Make sure your reader can identify with your main character.”

Gee, thanks.

I’ll file that lovely bit of advice next to “Only buy stocks that go up.”

If I freaking knew how to make my freaking reader identify with my freaking main character, don’t you think I would!?!

Techniques of the Selling Writer

Well, now you can, because here’s a trick that helps. I learned it from Dwight Swain, and like certain bits of writing advice, once I read it, it struck me like a diamond bullet in the forehead and I knew it was true.

Stop and think of your favorite characters from novels you’ve read. (Movies are okay, too.) Got it?

They all have something in common, and that’s the specific emotion they invoke in you. Time for some honesty here. Ready? Swain says:

How do you persuade your reader to identify?

You shackle him to the character with chains of envy.

That is, you make the character someone who does what your reader would like to do, yet can’t. You establish him as the kind of person Reader would like to be like… a figure to envy.

Envy? Envy! The word rolls around in my head every time I make a new character.

Sherlock Holmes: we envy his deductive skills.
Harry Potter: don’t you wish that you could be a wizard? That your school could be like Hogwarts?
James Bond: where to begin? Gadgets, girls, guns… and fast cars.
Batman: Envy is emotion, not logic. Logically, we’d rather not be a traumatized neurotic who dresses up in a bat costume. But our gut tells us we’d love to strike terror in the hearts of bad guys, come and go like a shadow, and drive… again, a super cool car.
Bella Swan: Please. Is there a 13-year-old girl on the planet who doesn’t want to date Edward Cullen?

(Note that boys want to be Batman, and girls want to be Bella Swan. Think about your audience.)

Swain generalizes, proposing a universal enviable characteristic present in every well-loved main character:

Courage to do what?
Courage to attempt to control reality….
The exciting character is the one who challenges fate and attempts to dominate reality, despite all common sense and logic.


Robert McKee, in his libromagus Story, proposes that every story has a “Center of Good” that the reader (or viewer) seeks out and latches on to. I think this is envy again, expressed in a different way. McKee says that envy is relative, and if a character merely outshines secondary characters, we may be drawn to him. In the novel and movie Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a villain… sort of.

The writers place Clarice at the positive focal point, but also draw a second Center of Good around Hannibal Lecter and draw empathy to both. First, they assign Dr. Lecter admirable and desirable qualities: massive intelligence, a sharp wit and sense of irony, gentlemanly charm, and most importantly, calmness….

Next, to counterpoint these qualities the writers surround Lecter with a brutish, cynical society. His prison psychiatrist is a sadist and publicity hound. His guards are dimwits…. We fall into empathy, musing, “If I were a cannibalistic psychopath, I’d want to be just like Lecter.”


So when your main character makes your critique group snooze, think about that single powerful word, envy. It explains Han Solo… and Darth Vader. And along with an early “save the cat” scene, it can hook and hold your readers.