Monday, 27 December 2010

10,000 HOURS

I got to thinking over Christmas about a side conversation I'd become involved in at the last meeting of the Renegade Writers. Peter asked how many times I edited/revised my books before I submitted them to my agent. It wasn't something I'd ever thought about before so my answer - twenty or thirty times - was a little off-the-cuff. But now that I think about it, it's about right.

But the impetus for this particular blog piece really came when my sister came to stay for Christmas and asked how long it had taken me to write the first Demi-Monde. I'd never added it up before but it goes something like this:

  • I made my first attempts at writing (under a pseudonym) a few years ago. This taught me the basics - maintaining POV; making characters interesting, plot consistency etc. I churned out one short novel and eight or so short stories (short story writing is a great way to become an author) and as I try to write at a rate of 3,000 words per day - but end up averaging 2,000 - so if this lot totalled 200,000 words I guess we're talking (with editing etc.) of around 1,000 hours of work. I earned zip.
  • Then I moved on to SF. My first novel was 'Dark Charismatic' , a reimagining of the Jekyll and Hyde story. Research for 'Dark Charismatic' (understanding Victorian slang; delving into psychotics; reading Jekyll and Hyde etc. etc.) took about two months or about 500 hours.
  • Writing 'Dark Charismatic': this was the precursor to The Demi-Monde and although it secured me an agent it never was taken up by a publisher, but I don't begrudge this because without it there wouldn't have been a Demi-Monde. It weighed in at 250,000 words. There were a couple of revisions too, so let's say, 1,500 hours.
  • Researching 'Invent-10N'': this was meant to be the next novel. I did a load of background research on philosophy especially determinism. Let's say 500 hours.
  • Writing 'Invent-10N': I went potty: 300,000 anguished words. I submitted it to John Jarrold and then pulled it because I decided it wasn't good enough. 2,000 hours anyone?
  • Research for 'The Demi-Monde' (the history of some of the real-life characters I'm using; finding out about Fascism and other cults; trying to get my head around quantum computers etc.etc.). Say 500 hours.
  • First Draft of 'The Demi-Monde' (or as it is also known 250,000 words of crap): 1,500 hours.
  • Preliminary edit: taking it down to a more publisher-friendly 190,000 words. I can edit at a rate of about 1,000 words a day (it's a slow, laborious, painstaking process). Say 1,500 hours.
  • Quercus' edit: getting it down to 150,000 words (and boy, I sweated over every word I canned). 40,000 words deleted or around 500 hours of torture.
  • Other bits and pieces (mainly stuff for the website); 500 hours.
This gives a grand total of....9,500 hours or four years of solid work. When I rounded up to 10,000 hours bells began to ring. A couple of years ago a guy called Macolm Gladwell suggested that 10,000 hours of practice is necessary to become proficient in anything. The Beatles needed 10,000 hours hammering out music in the clubs of Hamburg, Beckham needed 10,000 hours to perfect his free-kicks and I'm guessing that every other expert in their field has invested a similar amount of practice time in honing their skills.

Now I'm not suggesting that I'm of a similar proficiency to these experts but I think that this sort of practice mileage is necessary if any natural talent you have is to be given a chance to shine. Golfer Ben Hogan is reputed to have coined the maxim 'the more I practice the luckier I get'.

This 10,000 hour idea coincides with the proposition - proposed by Ray Bradbury, I think - that an author needs to have written one million words before he or she can have any claim to have mastered their craft.

That's why I get so annoyed when I see established authors advise would-be authors that the route to success is to read the masters. This is bollocks: the way to success is to write...and write, and write and write. And then to edit the shit out of the crap you've written.

Unfortunately shows like the X-Factor have inculcated the impression that there's a short-cut to success but in the vast majority of cases there ain't. We still (just) live in a meritocracy which is defined as:


and the greatest element here is HARDWORK...10,000 hours of it!


  1. Hi Rod,

    I couldn't agree with you more. The more you write, the more certain aspects start to come naturally and the more you can concentrate on the details, the polish that raises your work up to the next level. Also, the more you write the more natural and consistent your 'voice' becomes.

    Not to discount the importance of reading other people's work, of course. From a contextual point of view (this is the market you will be competing in), from a technical point of view (these people have skills and techniques that work to certain effects) and from a pleasure point of view (if you don't enjoy the genre, what are you doing here?).

    On a side note. We have your book in stock now. =) Looks really nice in the hardback, just a shame that you see so little of Nigel Robinson's excellent blueprint on the end papers.

    Best of luck. =)

  2. Hi John. The decision to just use part of Nigel
    s blueprint on the end papers was's a sort of teaser thing. Nigel's - hopefully - in the throes of finishing the three-elevations of the steamer which we'll be putting out as a poster. Best Rod.