Monday, May 24, 2010

Brennan on How Time Builds Talent

Allison Brennan, author of Original Sin, considers the amount of time needed to perfect a skill. Excerpts:
Doctors go to school -- not including residency -- for eight years. Between classwork and studying, they probably put in 60-70 hour weeks for at least nine months of the year. That's over 20,000 hours just to graduate -- and most of us probably prefer a doctor with a few years experience. ...

Athletes train year-round, practice hours every day in and out of season, is it any wonder the basketball player who spends his free time shooting hoops and conditioning is the one getting the scholarship?

Then why is it that every writer on the planet hears, "I could write a book if I had the time." Or, "I'll write a book when I retire." Or, "It must be easy to churn out [fill-in-the-blank] books -- they're so formulaic." ...

No one goes up to a doctor and says, "When I retire, I'm going to be a heart surgeon." Or, "If I had the free time, I'd go to medical school."

Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone thinks they're the best person to tell it. How many hours have they put in to read, learn the craft, write, edit, delete, and write some more? I grow frustrated at times by some writers who finish a book and are then stunned and defeated by rejection. Many times these writers blame the system (New York wouldn't know a good book if they wrote it themselves.) Or agents (they don't want to work, they want the easy money.) Or the reading public (they just want to read trashy books.) Far too often, these writers become discouraged and spend more time lamenting the system or learning only about the business of published, rather than learning the craft: how to be a great storyteller.
Read the whole thing. Although Brennan is certain correct in supposing that most folks discount the upfront effort needed to become a good writer, I think there's another dynamic at work, too. Everyone hates the idea of sunk costs, of plowing effort into projects that ultimately yield no marketable increase. Saying that such attempts aren't wasted because they hone our skills can be cold comfort (even though it's true). But our imaginative forty acres isn’t anywhere near as barren as we like to think. We all have folders on our computers filled with failed stories, all brambles and thorns. Rake through them, pruning back the overgrowth and digging through the fallow dust. Who knows? We may find a seedlings that need only a little coaxing to burst into bloom.

(Picture: CC 2006 by


Michelle D. Argyle said...

I like your last sentence. That's so true. I just recently published a short story that only needed a little coaxing. I wrote it over 8 years ago, and now it's published. Yay! These things do happen, and the more we write and work on the craft, the better our skill should get. :)

Murr Brewster said...

I wrote in my head for forty years, and I was pretty good, if I say so myself (and no one else can). But then I retired and someone dared me to put something down on paper, and it's been a regular oil gusher ever since. Including the methane.

Loren Eaton said...


Congrats! I've discovered that I have a handful of stories with decent ideas behind them but extremely flawed executions. There's something fun in going back over them and trying to get them to work. Kinda like tinkering on a broken bit of machinery.

Loren Eaton said...


... it's been a regular oil gusher ever since. Including the methane.

That is a truly awesome metaphor!