Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The 10,000-hour Rule

Ernest Hemingway famously said, "the first draft of anything is shit." If you agree with that -- and I most certainly do -- then you could say that the second draft of anything is "organized shit." I don't mean that in a bad way -- I'm quite happy with my second draft -- it's just that it is far from publishable quality. But at least the story is getting clean and organized. 

I'm making great progress. I didn't write at all the week of Christmas, and by the fifth day I was freaking out about it. So when I got back into town, I worked my ass off for four days straight. It helped that everyone I know was out of town. Now, I'm caught up -- on schedule to complete my second draft by January 15th. And then I'll start on the third.

Meanwhile, I read a book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, the influential author of The Tipping Point and Blink -- and owner of really cool hair. I know, I recently berated y'all for reading too many nonfiction books, but I got this one for Christmas and I couldn't put it down. (In a previous post, I referred to Gladwell's New Yorker article, which highlights one of the same concepts as his book).

According to Gladwell, one of the main things that separates extraordinary successful people from others is PRACTICE. Tons of it. He discusses what he calls the 10,000-hour rule; essentially, it takes this many hours of practice -- about ten years of working nearly full-time -- to get really good at something. This holds true even for people we think of as prodigies or geniuses. He gives numerous examples, from Bill Gates to Mozart (Mozart actually developed "late"-- he'd been composing for over ten years before he produced anything good -- he just started really early).

But my favorite example is the music group, The Beatles. Everyone knows the story of how John, Paul, George and Ringo came to the U.S. in 1964 and took the American music scene by storm. But what's interesting is what happened before they landed in America. In 1960, while they were just a struggling high school rock band, a club promoter invited them to play in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, Hamburg didn't have rock-and-roll music clubs -- it had strip clubs. So that's were the Beatles played. The promoters wanted to keep this huge strip show going around the clock, so the group was forced to play up to eight hours a night, seven nights a week.

(sorry... distracted... wondering how I could get someone to pay me to write in a strip club for eight hours a night, seven nights a week...)

By the time they hit it big in 1964, they'd already performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Most bands today don't perform that many times in their entire careers. Factor in offstage practice, and The Beatles had easily hit the 10,000 hour threshold by the time they arrived in America.

I could go on about this topic for hours, but I've got to get back to work. Just 9,027 hours to go...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


My second draft is coming along. I'm about 70% done -- and on track to finish by mid-January. The main goal of the second draft is to form my narrative into a cohesive, fluid story. In the third draft, I'll go back and expand some parts, tighten up others, and generally try to make it "good." I think I'm on track to finish this whole project in a year, but it's hard to tell because I've never tried this before.

This holiday week, I'm taking a few days off from the book, so I don't feel much like writing about writing. Since it's Christmas week, what better time to write about... dog poop.

Chester is with me at my parents' house, where there's a lot of space for the dog to run wild. I still clean up after him, but it's nice not to have to clean it up immediately. For those of you who live in a city like San Francisco, you know all about the daily challenges of doggy defecation in an urban environment. Where it's completely normal to walk with a Starbucks in one hand and a steaming bag of poop in the other; to surreptitiously drop a smelly present in your neighbor's trashcan; or to drive with a fresh bag of poop in your car until you can get to a trashcan.

After spending so much time with Chester, I've found that, while a dog's potty habits might seem random and unpredictable to the untrained eye, there is a distinct pattern. And I think I've figured it out. It's something I call the "poop probability (pp)." It's the probability, holding all other relative factors constant, that a dog will poop in a given situation. Here are the results of my research:

pp:  Situation:
.57: on a baseball field
.63: when a menacing dog is nearby, thus prolonging time near said dog
.69: in a crosswalk when the yellow hand is flashing
.73: standing on any grated surface
.79: in front of a police officer
.81: next to a newspaper machine
.87: when there are nearly imperceptible holes in the poop bag
.91: at the beach, in the exact spot where the most sharp twigs congregate
.93: when he's off-leash in a place where dogs aren't allowed
.95: two miles from the nearest trashcan
.97: next to a sign showing a dog pooping with a line through it (though I might subconsciously encourage this one)
.98: in front of the dry cleaner's
.99: next to a baby in a stroller
.992: next to the person holding a clipboard and asking, "would you like to help the homeless today?"
.993: when I'm holding two coffees and two bagels in my hands
.995: when an attractive female is smiling at me and my dog
.997: when I'm hungover
.998: by a crowded bus stop
.99972: when it's an unseasonably warm day and we're next to a sidewalk cafe where people are eating outside -- and I'm out of poop bags

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dog Days of Winter

Over the weekend, I got to see some of my old biotech colleagues. I dare say it made me miss the office a little. Not so much the work, but the people. All the conversation, the laughs -- and the gossip. I'm currently in between writing classes, so I'm feeling that lack of human interaction. It's times like these that I'm glad my black lab, Chester, is here. I've already written about how I feel the need to wake Chester up and talk to him about my writing. Sometimes, if I finish a particularly good paragraph or chapter, I'll grab both sides of his slim face and say, "Chester, did you see that?" Did you see that stroke of genius?" And the confusion in those big brown eyes just about breaks my heart.
He's become accustomed to my weirdness, and he now largely ignores anything I say. But there are still a few words that get a rise out of him. They are, in order of increasing power: walk, park, and ball.

Now, it's an unwritten rule of doggyhood that I don't utter these words unless I plan to follow up on the promise. But in my depraved state, I can't help it: I've developed a case of Doggy Tourette's Syndrome.

Chester's not big on context, so if I say, for instance, "Chester, today I'm going to cook stir-fry in a WOK," it gets a reaction.
Or, "Chester, I have to go PARK my car."
Or, "Which version of the song 'WALK this Way' do you like better, the one with or without Run-DMC?"
And, the worst one of all, for which I should go to straight to hell: "Chester, this writing is so much fun, I'm having a BALL!"

Usually, by this point he's bouncing up and down like he's on a trampoline, and I feel so bad I take him to the park anyway.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

We read too much. We don’t read enough.

The revision process is getting easier -- although I’m still cutting words like mad. With all I've learned, the second time around should go much more smoothly. Yes, there will be a second book – someday. Speaking of what I've learned, I wanted to talk about one challenge I've grappled with this year: too much information. The amount of information and writing instruction out there is overwhelming. I suppose that’s why people go to school: sure, you could learn it all on your own, but sometimes you need someone to whittle the info for you.

I won’t even go into all the non-fiction books on writing. Lately, I’ve stopped reading them altogether because 1) they slow me down and make me doubt myself; and 2) once I’d read a few, I found they all say basically the same things. No, I want to talk about fiction. I still try to read fiction every night for pleasure and relaxation. But since I’m also writing fiction, my writing will inevitably be influenced by what I’m reading. I need to be a little more careful about which books I pick up. So, even though I own dozens of books I haven’t read yet – and I have one of the country's best public libraries in my backyard -- lately I’ve been re-reading books I’ve already read.

These re-reads fall into two categories: 1) books where I loved the prose so much I want to read it again for enjoyment and emulation (Lolita, The Shipping News, All the Pretty Horses); and 2) top-notch suspense books which I hope will teach me how to write a great thriller (The Silence of the Lambs, A Simple Plan). By re-reading these books with a critical eye, I’ve gotten more out of them than I would reading a new book -- and it’s still pleasure-reading. Two books with one stone, or something like that.

Now, I haven't really tested this, but I bet the same holds true for all those self-help and business books on our shelves. At my previous job, I attended so many excellent training sessions and was given countless reference materials, but I rarely had time to go back and look at them. What if I’d taken less training, read less, but re-read more and actually learned?

Timothy Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Workweek (overall, it’s a pretty ridiculous book, but it has a few gems), talks about going on an “information diet.” When reading non-fiction, or “self-help” books, we could do well to heed Tim’s advice:

Develop the habit of asking yourself, "Will I definitely use
this information for something immediate and important?"
It's not enough to use information for "something"—it needs to be
immediate and important. If "no" on either count, don't consume
it. Information is useless if it is not applied to something
important or if you will forget it before you have a chance to
apply it.

But my favorite tip is to practice what he calls “the art of nonfinishing." I've started to do this more and more this year. Tim sums it up best:

If you are reading an article [or book] that sucks, put it down 
and don't pick it back up. If you go to a movie and it's worse than The
Matrix Revolutions
, get the hell out of there before more neurons
Die … More is not better, and stopping something is often 10 times
better than finishing it. Develop the habit of
nonfinishing that
which is boring or unproductive if a boss isn't demanding it.

Now, you don't need to read The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve already summed up the two best points. Go back and re-read one of your favorites.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Right Brain

Maybe it’s the tryptophan-induced malaise, but I feel like the fun part is behind me. Rewriting sucks. Draft #2 has been slow going. I’ve only been at it for a few weeks and already I’ve cut over 100 pages. I didn’t realize how much of what I’d written was redundant, extraneous, or just plain crappy. The cutting, while painful, wasn’t completely unexpected. I’d planned to cut the draft down to a bare bones story of about 250 pages, and then expand it in the right places (dramatic scenes, character development, etc.) to bring it back up to around 350 pages. We’ll see… at the rate I’ve been cutting, I could end up with just a table of contents.

When writing the first draft, if I got stuck, I would write “fix later” and move on. If I came to a point that required extensive research, I would just make something up, add “needs research,” and forge ahead. Now the time has come to fix those things, to do that research, and I don’t want to. I don’t I don’t I don’t.

Before I started this project, I assumed that the research and rewriting and editing would be the easiest parts for me. After all, my education and career have largely focused on the analytical. I’m a data guy, or so I thought. I was more worried that I wouldn’t be able to write creatively for a sustained period. But over the past seven months (can you believe it’s been seven months?) it’s like my right brain has expanded and crowded out my left brain. The creative part has come easy. It’s the other part I want to put off. Now that I’ve finished one rough draft, I don’t want to polish it; I want to get started on a hundred other stories I have in my head.

While the next few months will surely be arduous, I see this revelation as a positive one. If I enjoy the process of writing above all, it means there’s a lot of gas left in the tank: I won’t be limited by subject or a lack of creative ideas. It means I’m in it for the long haul. It means I will always write.