The advent of self-publishing has opened the doors for any would-be author to add their work to the digital marketplace. People from all over the world, and every walk of life, are flooding the market with books. A quick tour of the Amazon shelves reveals an overwhelming tide of fiction and non-fiction books which range in quality from the downright atrocious, to the sublime. If you can afford the ten dollars a month, opt for Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program and you’ll see what I mean. The books in Kindle Unlimited range from dynamite to dismal and everywhere in between.
I get a lot of people asking how hard it is to publish, but rarely does anyone ask if their story is ready to be published. Tales of overnight success and vast fortunes to be made selling books online does nothing to calm the tempest. A lot of people are jumping into self-publishing feet first. Some are successful and most are not. I get emails from a lot of writers eager to put their book up for sale and start making money—dreams of a lavish lifestyle in their heads—but I often caution these writers to make sure their work is ready before taking the plunge.
Publishing a book, selling a boat load of copies, making a few bucks, and earning a bunch of five star reviews can be an exhilarating experience. Rushing a book to market and getting slammed by one star reviews is devastating. Releasing a book that’s not ready to be published can destroy a writer’s future hopes for success.
Have you ever wondered if your writing is good enough? Do you harbor dreams of quitting your job to write full-time? My first question to you would be:
Have you put in your 10,000 hours?
If you are unfamiliar with the concept, in his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posited that is takes, on average, 10,000 hours to master a skill. His in-depth study found that the most successful musicians, athletes, mathletes, and artists from all over the world shared one thing in common; they had all amassed at least ten thousand hours of practice in their field. Even more interesting, the study found that innate talent was not nearly as important as rigorous practice. For instance, a child with little innate ability at playing piano can eventually outperform a child with natural talent if the first practices every day and the other neglects the skill. More often than not, those with less natural talent become better because they have to work harder, while those with natural talent don’t put in the same effort. This is true in all walks of life.
Yet, for some curious reason, amateur writers often don’t feel they should be held to the same rules as the rest of the world. Most writers don’t feel like they need to practice. In fact, thanks largely to Stephen King, most writers assume that you’ve either got it, or you haven’t. With all due respect to Mr. King, I’m going to have to disagree.
I’ll be completely honest; when I first read King’s On Writing I fully bought into his theory that you are born with a certain amount of writing ability and you can only move up one level and only with a lot of hard work and practice. But I’ve come to reject the notion outright. Writing, like any other skill can be learned. Good writing is no exception to the rule. If you want it bad enough, and you are willing to put in the practice, I believe that even a lousy writer can become a pretty darn good writer. Maybe they won’t be the next Hemmingway, but they can learn to tell an entertaining story. And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?
(Side Note: I still highly encourage you to pick up a copy of On Writing by King. You will learn a lot of valuable information about the processes of writing. )
How did I come by this epiphany? Simple, I looked back at some of my earliest writing. I was bad. I mean really bad. Like, who farted? It was that bad. But back then I was in high school. I was young and dumb and my stories were hokey. My plots were all over the map and my sentence structure sounded like something written by a Russian emigrant who was only passingly familiar with English grammar. But I stuck with it. I kept writing even when I didn’t think anyone wanted to read it (because they didn’t) and even when I thought I’d never make a dime at it (turns out I was wrong about that).
From my late teens until my mid-thirties I kept reading and I kept writing. I published my first short story when I was thirty-one (I think) and published by first novel for Delight Games when I was thirty-four. It wasn’t the next great American novel, but it was entertaining. I certainly sold a lot of copies. Too bad I got a flat fee. Since then I’ve published several novels and they’ve done pretty good. I’ve been able to write full time, all praise to God, and I usually have enough money to pay the rent. Sometimes I even eat.
But here’s the important thing. It didn’t happen overnight and I didn’t get rich on my first book. Am I saying that can’t happen for you? Not at all. I fact, I hope it does. I’m saying for me, it took over a decade of dedicated practice. I committed myself to writing every day.
If you buy into Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, and I certainly do, then you can break it down into simple math. If you practice writing for an hour every day, it will take you twenty-seven years to hone your skill. Write for two hours a day and you can cut that down to just 14 years. Give or take. The only other question is; how bad do you want it? Do you want to be a writer bad enough that you are willing to spend the next decade of your life writing every evening after work in order to make your dreams come true? If the answer is yes, then the only thing standing between you and success is time and hard work.
Success = Time + Hard Work
I say all this because I often get emails from people who have never tried their hand at writing before (a lot of these people haven’t written anything since high school) and yet they think they are going to write a novel, publish it, get famous and rich. You might. Others have done it. Like I said, I hope you are that lucky and naturally talented. But if it doesn’t happen, don’t be discouraged. You just have to put in your 10,000 hours. Depending on how much raw talent you started with you might need a little more, or a little less. But you’ll get there eventually and the good news is the journey can be incredibly enjoyable. Especially if you are telling the stories you want to read. Remember when I said I went back over my own writing? Even though I recognize that my work was really poor, I still got a real kick reading some of those old stories. They entertained my then, they still entertain me now. I’ll never publish them. Oh, I might show them to a few trusted confidants one day in the far future, good Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, but they aren’t publishable material. However, they served a very valuable purpose. While I was working on those early stories, I was learning how to write. Mostly I was learning how not to write, but you get the point.
My suggestion to you if you are just starting out is this: write three books that you have no intention of selling. Three, full length, novels that are just for you and nobody else. No pressure. No one will ever see them. Write them as fast as you can. Have fun with the process. If you spend six months on each, you’ll be a year and a half into your journey as a writer and you’ll have polished off most of the rough edges from your writing. You won’t be Falkner, but you’ll at least be able to play in the varsity league without embarrassing yourself. And you might also save yourself the pain and embarrassment of putting out a book that collects a handful of one star reviews on Amazon and never sells.
If you want to jump start your fiction career check out my book, Crafting Fiction. It will teach you how I personally plot bestsellers. It can’t help you short cut the 10,000 hours, but it will help you create a road map for your own novels so you don’t get lost in the weeds while you’re cranking out those first three novels.