Career Killers: Skipping the Apprenticeship

Wendy Lawton

Blogger:  Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office

Weather: Hot, hot, hot.

Yesterday was the 50th Anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s the perfect time to look at becoming a master of the craft of writing.

This week we’re going to examine some of the career killing mistakes a writer makes by being sloppy, writing too fast or being impatient. Fun topic, right? But an important topic– one that can make all the difference between success or failure. Today I want to talk about the most important thing of all for a successful writing career– mastery of the craft. Too many of the queries and proposals we see are not anywhere close to publishable yet. Some writers expect to open their word processing program, start writing and sell that very first book. It’s like a kid getting his first set of pipe wrenches and setting off to get a job as a construction plumber. You can’t skip the apprenticeship.

I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant book, The Outliers, where he focuses on what he calls the 10,000-hour rule. He quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin as follows:

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week, of practice over 10 years… No one has yet 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.”

Gladwell tells success story after success story, each time adding up the hours the person invested before bursting onto the scene– a seeming overnight success. His analysis is eye-opening. I have a number of authors who also burst onto the scene seeming to be overnight successes. Jill Eileen Smith made the bestseller list with her very first novel, Michal and her books continue to rack up impressive sales figures. An overnight success? Jill spent twenty years writing and rewriting Michal. And that wasn’t twenty years on and off; she was a committed writer/ researcher. Jill put in her 10,000 hours many times over.

Lori Benton is a new client for me. Though I knew her from comments she often made on our blog, she came to my attention as the winner of the Novel Matters Audience with an Agent contest. As I read her entry I couldn’t believe she was an as-yet-unpublished author. Her writing was exquisite— so sure, so well-developed. Her manuscript exhibited complete mastery of the art of writing historical fiction. If she’d been writing long enough to achieve mastery why hadn’t she been submitting? Why didn’t she have an agent? It had me scratching my head. It wasn’t until I uncovered her story that I began to understand.

Here’s what she wrote in a blog interview with Romance Writers on the Journey:

“I wrote my first story when I was nine, and my interest in writing stories persisted in fits and starts throughout childhood and my teen years. But it wasn’t until 1991, when I was in my early twenties, that I realized the time had come to write the novel I’d always wanted to write. Just to see if I could do it. I did. It was a Celtic fantasy, and it was very long. The next logical step seemed to be… could I find a Christian publisher interested in publishing a massive fantasy tome? I never did, but I received enough positive feedback from editors who loved my writing that I didn’t give up. I set the fantasy tome aside and moved on to the next story. After two years of serious work on that first novel I joined a local critique group and began to get feedback from those ahead of me in the process, and mega doses of encouragement. In 1994 I joined Oregon Christian Writers and began attending their summer conferences. I gained a much broader sense of the world of Christian publishing.”

“Turning 30 is a milestone for most women, but my 30th year was a bit more of a milestone than I bargained for. I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in March of 1999. I decided to take those treatment months off from writing and focus on getting well. After the “all clear” in November of 1999, I intended to jump back into working on the novel I had set aside in March. An editor was interested in it and wanted to see it when I was finished. The chances of the cancer coming back were slim. I had every reason to press on and immerse myself again in the joy of writing. But that’s not what happened.”

“I’m sure everyone reading this knows chemotherapy has side effects. I experienced a number of them, but in the end I felt I’d gotten off easy… until the months started passing, and very little writing got done. And what did get done was joyless, frustrating. Concentration proved elusive. Plot threads frayed out of my grasp. I’d spend hours and hours researching and promptly forget everything I’d learned and have to do it over again. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was suffering from chemo fog.”

“When I experienced a lifting of the chemo fog nearly five years after my treatment, I found my writing process was both rusty and radically changed from how I approached writing a novel before cancer. I used to write in a linear fashion, Chapter One thru to The End. When I began Kindred, I knew next to nothing about the time period I had chosen to set it in, the late 18th century south, and I couldn’t see where the story should start. Having gained a healthy aversion to spinning my wheels in a mess of words that won’t behave, and knowing the importance of maintaining the joy of writing—joy in the process of sitting here and putting words on the screen—I decided to simply write what I could see. This turned out to be a chunk of scenes near the middle of the novel. I kept on that way, writing whatever scenes were speaking to me the loudest, the most beguiling, even if I wasn’t sure where they would fit, or if they would fit, doing whatever it took to keep me eager to come to the computer each day. I was reconditioning myself to daily work, and knew it was, for me, most important to find and maintain joy, not worry so much about what the end result might look like. I had to prove to myself that I could still finish a novel.”

“I did finish Kindred, four years later. But that was only the beginning.”

When Lori’s debut novel is published it will look to some as if this writer just burst on the scene. Nothing could be further from the truth. Count the years. Even with her hiatus from cancer, Lori achieved her 10,000 hours many times over. And the challenges she personally faced give depth and richness to her fiction.

Mastery. This has got to be goal, not publication. You don’t want to forever be making excuses about your “early books.” You want to be one of those writers who burst on the scene to critical acclaim.

So what do you think? How do you measure up to Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule? Or do you believe true genius does exist– a talent that doesn’t require an apprenticeship?

28 Responses

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  1. Wendy says:

    How fun to see Lori mentioned here and to learn more about her story. What integrity!

    I aim to be an eternal student in life and in writing. It’s worth it to put in the work.

    And that Novel Matters blog is one of my absolute favorites! I love the conversation there.

    ~ Wendy

  2. Wendy, thank you for sharing Lori Benton’s story. Very admirable.

    Until I talked to you, I’d never thought of the nearly ten years I spent writing fanfiction as my apprenticeship. I’ll probably look like another one of those authors who just bursts on the scene when “Making Waves” releases this fall, but I’m so grateful for all those years of finding my voice and figuring out how to craft stories readers will want to come back to. With the great fanfiction group I wrote with, the 10,000 hours and multiple book length stories were painless. Almost. 😉

  3. Great to read Lori’s story here and to know she’s a fellow Bookie now. Look forward to reading her books in the next few years.

    When I talk to school kids I always tell them that doing anything well takes practice whether it’s being a basketball player or a writer. You’ve got to have the want to and be willing to put in the hours.

  4. Lori Benton says:

    I was blessed during many of those years to have found a support group of sorts on line, called the Compuserve Books & Writers Community, where published and unpublished writers from all over the world hang out, crit each others work, ask and answer off-the-wall and obscure research questions, provide foreign language translations, mentoring in the writing craft, and even finding a new home for the precious cat of a member and friend who recently passed away, pooling together to pay for and accompany said kitty on a 3000 mile flight to his new home with another forum member. For a writer working to learn the craft, I can’t imagine a greater blessing.

    Thanks for featuring my journey today, Wendy. From where I’m sitting this morning, it’s been worth every step.

  5. I read OUTLIERS earlier this year and immediately applied those 10,000 hours to writing. I signed with an agent after 11 1/2 years of writing and sold my first book just shy of 12 years.

    I loved OUTLIERS so much, I continued with BLINK and TIPPING POINT.

  6. I’m so happy to read Lori’s story! I’ve run into her from time to time on other blogs, and it’s wonderful to know that she’s on her way. God’s timing is never the same for any two people, is it? Thanks for sharing today!

  7. Teri Dawn Smith says:

    I love the way we get the truth here! I will post a link to this on twitter & Facebook.

  8. What a great article! I don’t know Lori Benton, but I loved that she worked hard to secure the “joy” of writing. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’m clicking away to look up the OUTLIERS. God bless.

  9. I love this article. I often stress out by how fast some people (appear to) write.

    Thank you.

  10. Lynette Sowell says:

    I think all talent needs apprenticeship. Otherwise that breeds pride and the believe that because we have talent, we already know everything we need to know.

    Talent also needs discipline and good habits. I’ve seen where I’ve been a slave to bad habits–those of impatience and not allowing an idea to fully develop before pitching, for example.

    Talent needs perseverance. There are tons of talented, perhaps “genius” writers who give up too soon.

  11. Wendy,

    Thank you for sharing this. It gives me hope. I too, have written since I was a teenager. I remember writing just for the sheer enjoyment of creating a world that, at the time, only I inhabited. I had no intention of trying to publish them at that time. Through the years I’ve written, on and off. I grew serious about it again, over 12 years ago, when I started creating stories to teach kids Biblical concepts. About 6 years ago, I finally decided it was time to take some of those stories and re-work them into a series of novels. I’m on the second draft of the first one. We’ll see where it takes me, when the time is right.

  12. Erika Marks says:

    When I recently told my father that I had sold my first novel after twenty years of writing and submitting, he looked rather perplexed. I don’t think he had realized how long or how hard I had been working at the craft of writing, maybe because it was something I did off his radar, but whatever the reason, I suspect he had a sense that selling a book was fell into the overnight success category. I am certainly proof that it isn’t (though I am sure there are always exceptions to this).

    Those of us who write and submit our work with the hope of being published know that it can a long, long time. I am never surprised to read the wonderful stories, such as Lori’s, of how much life people have lived, and the challenges they faced, as they grew as writers. But then, I like to think it’s a lot like love. Certainly, many people love and marry their very first love, but there are also lots of us who keep at it for years before we see the fruits of all our learning and growth.

  13. Such an encouraging post. Congrats, Lori! So exciting. 🙂

  14. Thanks for the wonderful post and for sharing such inspiring stories. They’re wake-up calls that we all have to put in hours upon hours of study and work before our ‘babies’ are ready for the real world. But they’re also a study in perseverance and how those of us who aren’t yet published can hopefully reach that goal if we keep learning and growing.

  15. Wise words, Wendy, and I love the idea of an apprenticeship. Truly the craft of writing – or anything, really – is based not only in the knowledge of the craft but also in the practice of it.

  16. Jennie says:

    Although I am not published, I have written three manuscripts. With each one I learned a great deal. As anxious as I was to have my first story published, I can see where it never measured up. I agree with the 10,000 hour rule and if a writer wants to be published (using the law of averages), then they must put in their time.

  17. Definitely inspiring, thank you!

  18. Carla Gade says:

    Great, insightful post. I’m so proud of Lori! Wendy, you have a gem there!

  19. Karen Ball says:

    Can’t tell you how DEE-LIGHTED I am that you and Lori are working together. I was one of the editors interested in Lori’s novel way back when. I was at Multnomah then, and loved what I saw in Lori’s writing. And she’s only gotten better!

    Thanks for speaking truth, Wendy, and for always being such a mentor at heart.


  20. Love this post! I’ve tried always to keep mastery as a higher goal in my mind than publication. And I will not begrudge the (many and unseen) hours it takes to walk out a true apprenticeship in my craft.

    This summer, I have been reading Frank McCourt for the first time. He burst onto the writing scene (and won the Pulitzer) with his book “Angela’s Ashes” at the age of 66. I’d rather not wait till I’m 66, but if that’s what it takes to write with that kind of painful clarity…I’m willing to put in the time.

  21. This is an interesting article. I’ve heard of the book before and the 10,000 hours. But your article — and the story in it — is a pithy and compelling summary of the principle.

    Whether it’s always a literal 10,000 hours or simply an extended amount of time, the point is that we should give ourselves time to develop and be patient.

    Two Qeustions:

    1. Some nonfiction authors publish highly successful books without putting in this much time as a writer. I’m assuming some of their time was put in on their field of expertise or experience and that the value of their work is, in part, the information they share? One example I can think of is John Eldredge, whose books were immediately successful. But much of those hours went into ministry and developing his insights, rather than writing.

    2. Would the 10,000 hours have to be writing done in a structured way for other eyes? Could serious journaling or private writing be part of the grand total?

  22. Wendy Lawton says:

    Cassandra, I don’t think the 10,000 hour rule will be applied to anyone as a pre-requisite. Gladwell just observed and set about to test that observation over and over.

    And a for trying to figure out whether someone else has put in his 10,000 hours of writing, it would be impossible. So much of our early writing goes un-noted and unpublished. Debbie Macomber gives a workshop called, “An Overnight Success in Twenty Years.”

  23. Jan Cline says:

    I feel much better now about all the hours I have put in my first two novels. I thought maybe I was being a slow poke. I know I have so much to learn about writing still, so I don’t expect my pace to pick up much. Writing historical fiction also takes more time for research I am finding. But I love that part. Great post. I’m just pressing on to be better.

  24. Wendy — I just finished OUTLIERS today and nodded my way through that whole section about no practice being wasted. So glad you wrote this excellent post!

  25. Wow! What an inspirational post! It’s so easy to see another’s success and forget about all the hours they had to put in to get there. I totally believe in the 10,000 hour rules. Give or take a few depending on the person. I’ve written four novels and am currently close to finishing my 5th. Each novel gets slightly better than the last. Hoping the trend continues. 🙂

  26. Julie Musil says:

    Lori’s story is truly inspirational. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    I think we always have room to learn and grow, and we should enjoy the ride along the way.

  27. Elisa says:

    I found this blog through another writer I’ve been following and have enjoyed reading the few posts I have. In fact, I enjoyed them so much I thought I would add you to the list of agents I would query when my manuscript was finally complete and ready to send out. When I went to add you to the list of potential agencies for me to look into further I realized I already had your agency down on my list. I just thought it was amusing how I seemed to have found you all over again and thought I would share.

  28. Linda Strawn says:

    Lori’s story is inspirational and the basis of this post so true. Although I dabbled in writing for many years, I jumped the gun on publication. Most of what I’ve learned about the writing craft came after I had the hard copy of my book in my hand. I don’t regret having my first book published prematurely. In fact, I believe God allowed it to teach an important lesson and I’m a better writer because of it.