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Work Your Weaknesses

I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes a novel. Words being the sarcastic if true answer.

Vocabulary and grammar build sentences. Sentences build paragraphs and dialogue. We use paragraphs and dialogue to build mood, settings, tone, characters, and we use those to drive a plot forward. Every scene is a dance of characters interacting with each other, the world, themselves, the conflict as we have defined it, etc.

But how do we as authors know what to work on, or what we are good or bad at? How much effort do we need to put forth on each front?

There is a very well-established idea of 10,000 hours to mastery of a topic. That gets you to a concert hall as a pianist, or a professional level strength athlete or a published author level of writing. More or less. It means you are at the beginning, the bottom, of the professional arc, and grow from there. But 10,000 is not enough. Sometimes it is about the count of eaches…

My father, for example was a machinist. He cut and milled and drilled and constructed metal components for airplanes and aerospace for his entire career. He would have hit the proverbial 10,000 hours sometimes around his 5th-6th year of working. But I would like to invite you to imagine a silly world where in those 5 years he had only build 2 parts. Each part meticulously measured, weighed, and checked and umpteenth time checked. Has he become a master? The answer is likely, no. No he hasn’t, because while he has spent his time, he hasn’t done enough individual tasks.

I started thinking about this during a lecture given by Brandon Sanderson. He noted how many of his novels he effectively threw out, before he made it as an author. And I thought of other authors who have said the same. Then I realized, perhaps this is about our number of eaches.

One novel, is a sample size of one, at getting your plot right, getting your main story arcs right, your major themes right. It is a handful of main characters, and it is a handful of settings, and a handful of interpersonal interaction structures. It may well be 10,000 hours of lovingly crafted work, but it might be your first, second or even only fifth time doing it. We do not expect ourselves to be master of mathematics or reading or bike riding or baking, or cooking or anything else with one or two attempts, so why do we assume we can do it with writing?

Am I saying throw out your novel?

No. I am saying the odds we get our skill set aligned the first time we write a novel is nearly zero. We need something else. We need practice at the pieces. Need work at interpersonal relations? Write a piece of a novel where that is your focus. It doesn’t have to be this novel, jump into the story In Medias Res. Practice with just that one piece in mind. Do you struggle with a sense of place, write a piece just trying to set a scene. Trial just setting a mood. Try just writing an argument, or a character description without giving in to exposition.

Practice the pieces.

When we learn to increase the count for the components of a novel, then we will get better at the whole thing. Nobody gets it right the first time. Even if they sink 10,000 hours into it. So break a novel out into what you think are the pieces, figure out what you are not good at, and work on your weaknesses.

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