Friday, October 27, 2006

The Ten Year Plan

Fortune magazine recently pointed out a study about greatness – how people achieve it and whether the lessons from those people can be applied to society at large. The good news is that achieving greatness does not require any especial talents. The bad news is that it takes about ten years of hard work in a given field to achieve greatness. More specifically, the kind of hard work that advances a person’s abilities the most is something called “deliberate practice.”

In online roleplaying games like EverQuest, it is possible to do the same task for hours on end with an eye towards increasing one’s score in that ability. Among gamers, this is known as grinding. Unfortunately, deliberate practice is not the same as mere grinding. It is not enough to merely perform a repetitive task ad infinitum. Instead, you must aim for the next higher level of competence, always seeking to gain feedback on your work so that you can improve.

Given these criteria, is it possible to apply this methodology to becoming a great writer? Perhaps. As we have seen, there are three steps for a writer within the traditional publishing industry model: 1. write novel 2. get agent 3. sell books.

The first step is the most obvious. The only way to become a great writer is to write a lot. But it is not enough to merely write. You must get feedback as well. Because it takes so long to read, critique and rewrite a novel, the iteration process can be lengthy. But if you want to become a good writer, those steps are absolutely necessary. Eventually (ten years or so down the road), you will have achieved greatness in your craft.

The second step is nowhere near as straightforward. You could spend ten years going to conventions, meeting people and developing networking contacts. In theory, this will work. It will not make you a better writer, nor will it ensure that your book will sell, but chances are that it will allow you access to an agent. To be honest, though, it will not obligate that agent to represent you, either. But if you expend the effort, you can become great at gathering industry contacts – something which is actually more suited to becoming an agent yourself.

You could also spend ten years contributing to the slush pile. However, this is not really a scenario that lends itself to deliberate practice. On the contrary, submissions are a black box process – you put something in and perhaps you will get a yes/no response. If you are exceedingly lucky, you get more. In practical terms, you may spend ten years working on the submissions process, but it is doubtful that you will ever get enough feedback to actually achieve greatness at it.

The third step brings us back to a place where practice can, indeed, make perfect. Sales and marketing are a feedback-intensive process. It is extremely easy to get discouraged over the long haul with a marketing career, but the rewards are worth it. Unfortunately, for industry writers, this skillset is encouraged, but not heavily so – the theory is that the marketing professionals from the publisher will take care of most of this work. Even more discouraging, a significant subset of all published writers will not have the luxury of working in the industry for a full ten years.

The self-published writer only has two of the three steps to get good at (obviously, agents are something that happen to people who want to sidestep the hard work). Getting good at writing is the same process, regardless of publishing path. Getting good at marketing, however, is far more intensive for a self-published author. It requires a lot more hands-on experience and a willingness to get out and talk to the people involved in the buying and selling of books. Admittedly, a vast number of artists are not very good at business or self-promotion. But that is like pointing out that a vast number of birds aren’t very good at running.

Remember: if you are willing to devote ten years of your time to the business of learning how to promote yourself and promote your book, there is every reason to believe that you will become very good at it. There is no such thing as instant greatness – regardless of which publishing model you choose to go with. You have to work hard for it, just like everyone else. But if you have written a novel, you probably already know the value of hard work. The only remaining question is, “to whom would you rather entrust the product of that hard work to – yourself or someone else?"