To Become a Novelist, Be a Novelist

Everything I know about success, I learned from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which argues that “talent” is more a matter of luck than we’d like to think. It has to do with when and where you’re born and how early and often you’re exposed to the skill you’re striving to master.

Take Canadian hockey players, for example (as Gladwell does). A quick glance at player stats reveals that a disproportionate number of elite hockey players from Canada are born in January, February, and March. That’s because the age cutoff for youth hockey in Canada is January 1. If you’re born on January 2, you have to wait a year longer to join a team. So when you do start to play, you could be as much as 364 days older than the other players on your team. When you’re a kid, that’s a big difference. Older players are also often bigger, tougher, and faster. Bigger, tougher, and faster players earn more playing time and are more likely to be noticed by coaches and scouts recruiting kids for camps and off-season play. The longer this goes on, the wider the gap grows between you and your younger teammates, until you’re practically a shoe-in for league all-star teams and other opportunities that will move you up the ladder towards a pro hockey career.

It’s not that hockey players born on January 2 are better than hockey players born on January 1, Gladwell argues. It’s just that the system favors them.

The same applies to talent and success in other arenas. The earlier and faster you’re able to get exposure to a certain skill, the more likely you are to pull ahead of your peers. Bill Gates may be a supergenius, Gladwell argues, but more to the point, he was one of the first kids in the country to have non-stop access to a fully outfitted computer lab. Because of when and where he was born, because of wealth and access, he logged ten thousand hours—the amount of time Gladwell and other experts claim is necessary to achieve mastery of just about any skill—before most kids ever laid fingertips on a keyboard.

Ten thousand hours. I often wonder if I’ve written ten thousand hours yet. I suspect I probably have, or at least I’m getting close. Someday (I tell myself daily), my ten thousand hours will pay off, and I’ll be published. But lately I’ve been thinking that hours-of-practice isn’t the relevant unit for measuring mastery in writing.

Maybe this is self-evident, but it’s not only how much you write but also what, exactly, you write that matters. When people say, “Writers write,” or “butt in seat,” or “words on the page,” they’re missing a key piece of the mastery puzzle. Writers of novels write novels. And more to the point, writers of published novels write, revise, revise again, and market novels.

When I first got to know Ruthie Knox, author of the acclaimed* Ride with Me and forthcoming About Last Night, she and I had both been writing for just about a year. I’d written one novel—by which I mean one revised and polished novel—and a draft of a second. She’d written six. She was still in the processing of revising and polishing some of the six, but more or less, she’d written the beginning, middle, and end of six books, revised them, polished them, and convinced an agent to represent them. (Also, I might add, they’re all good. But that’s a whole other story.)

Writing a book teaches you a lot of lessons. It teaches persistence—the mere act of putting down five hundred or a thousand words a day, day after day, is an enormous lesson in how small acts of faith translate to much bigger accomplishments. It teaches self-trust: When it doesn’t feel good, when you suspect something has gone awry, when you secretly know you’ve gone off track, you’re right.

Writing a book teaches other lessons, too—how to put together a story, beginning middle and end, setup, turning points, black moment, downtime, resolution. How to take a character from inadequacy to self-actualization. How to plot, how to scheme, how to stick it to your heroine, literally and figuratively.

You learn the vast majority of these lessons too late. You learn them when you revise the book, or when you plot the next book, or when you sit down with your friend’s book and help her take it down to the studs. You learn it just in time to get it more, or even mostly, right the next time. And you only learn it by sticking with each book as long as the book still has something to teach you, which often means long after the effort you’re putting into it is justified by the likelihood of market returns.

This is why people tell you to put your first manuscript in a drawer. Not so much because no first manuscripts are good, but because mastery, for a writer, is about moving on. It’s about collecting successes, where successes are finished—finished!—books. This is also why there is value to working on shorter pieces—novellas and long short stories—because you can learn all the lessons a book has to teach in a shorter time frame. You’re trying to find the optimal combination of books finished and hours logged, like a math word problem you couldn’t do in high school.

Ten thousand hours of starts and stops, ten thousand hours of rough drafts, ten thousand hours of a good book that you never try to sell (and thus never have to blurb or synopsize or get rejected)—those are good hours, but they will not get you there nearly as fast as ten thousand hours of written, revised, polished, marketed, agonized-over books. Six finished books in a year? That’s a year with six times the learning potential of mine. So yes, writing fast pays (as long as you write fast and thoughtfully, with enough time to plan and enough time to revise). And yes, follow-through pays. And also non-neurosis pays because the less time you squander in self-loathing, self-doubt, and Tweeting, the more books you will finish and the faster you will achieve mastery.

So. Write. And finish. And revise and revise and polish. And market. (Also, help your friends do all these things, because I swear, I learn twice as much when I help someone else with their book, because I have acres more perspective—I can see the problems clearly and don’t get into lying to myself about them, the way I do when I revise my own stuff. When you help someone else with their book, when you think hard about someone else’s plot or character arcs or story goals or marketing blurbs and synopses, that’s when your suspicions about how to do things solidify into useful conclusions. It does not take away from your work—it is your work.)

When you are finished, rest, briefly, and do it again and again and again. And did I mention again?

*Ever since I met Ruthie, I’ve been waiting to use the word “acclaimed” in reference to her.