David H. Hendrickson: Measuring Progress

David H. Hendrickson has published over nine hundred works of nonfiction ranging from humor and essays to scientific research and sports journalism. He is a graduate of Odyssey 2006 and has been honored with the Scarlet Quill and Joe Concannon awards. His short stories have appeared in anthologies, literary journals, and magazines, most notably the DAW anthologies Swordplay and (forthcoming in November) The Trouble With Heroes.

Measuring Progress
by David H. Hendrickson***

Am I getting better? Will I ever become good enough? Am I just wasting my time?

Writers ask themselves these questions over and over. The rejection slips that litter the mailbox provide the haunting answers: You sucked yesterday, you suck today, and you’re going to suck tomorrow.

The hard truth is that until you’ve almost reached the Promised Land of selling your words, there’s no feedback mechanism to let you know you’re making progress, that you’re one step closer to realizing your dream. The stories or novels go out; the polite no-thank-you’s come back. The Promised Land is nowhere in sight.

Few other pursuits are so heartless in their lack of encouragement. A golfer’s handicap goes down. A chess player’s rating goes up. A student’s grades or test scores improve. An actor or actress gets picked for increasingly significant roles. A salesperson’s commissions grow.

But all the writer gets is: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, and no.

This doesn’t just go on for weeks or months. It lasts for years.

Am I getting better? Will I ever become good enough? Am I just wasting my time?

After enough years of negative feedback, the answers seem self-evident. Because years and years–perhaps even decades–is what it takes.

The late, great John D. MacDonald once said that the first one million words a writer produces are crap. Derivative and useless.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers talks about how the perceived geniuses in almost every endeavor only got that way by working not just harder than everyone else but much, much harder. To the tune of about ten thousand hours to become world class, whether the pursuit was writing, music, or software.

Ten thousand hours. That’s writing three hours a day, every day, for close to ten years.

Which sounds a lot like Stephen King’s prescription in On Writing of “reading and writing between four to six hours a day, every day.” Elsewhere he comments that after ten years of regular writing, you should be pretty good at it.

Almost certainly, that’s what is required in terms of total effort for a writer to get to the Promised Land. (Yes, there are “joggers” and “sprinters,” the former producing every day and the latter in bursts, but the total productivity required remains the same.)

So how does a writer track that effort?

The problem with an hourly goal is that too many writers, especially new ones, waste hour after hour. Wasted hours don’t count.

Trust me, I was the worst. After that magical moment when I scribbled my first two paragraphs and felt like flames were firing out of my fingertips, I proceeded to fool myself with what I thought was hard work. I’d sit down for a three-hour session and think I was making progress when an hour of that time was spent endlessly rewriting the same few paragraphs, another hour bemoaning that I got a later start than those lucky souls who began as young teenagers, and a third hour mentally composing my Hugo Award acceptance speech.

Foolish as it sounds, I thought I was working hard. I thought I was making progress. But I wasn’t; I was fooling myself.

Only productive hours, measured in terms of writing lots of new words, matters. Dean Wesley Smith has written on his blog of how a professional can write a thousand words in an hour. I’m not at that level and perhaps neither are you. So let’s say for you it’s five hundred words an hour or perhaps two hundred and fifty.

The Outliers prescription of ten thousand hours to become world class–and you do want to become the best you can be, right?–means that at a rate of five hundred words an hour, you’ll need five million words before you’re world class. Give or take a few million.

John D. MacDonald set the bar at a million words to get past the derivative crap. The bar goes up to five million words, give or take, to become world class.

How do you measure the plodding steps you’re taking while climbing such a steep mountain? What feedback mechanism can you give yourself to help you keep faith, to remind you that you’re making progress?

Here’s what I do. On the shelf atop the desk where I write at home, I keep a small goldfish bowl. Every time I complete ten thousand new words of fiction, I put a penny in the bowl. Nonfiction doesn’t count. Rewriting doesn’t count. Only new words matter.

A hundred pennies means a million words. The John D. MacDonald hurdle. About eleven novels. Five hundred pennies, give or take, means world class.

Give yourself this feedback mechanism. As you hear a penny clink inside the bowl and see the mound accumulate, you’ll feel like the golfer whose handicap is dropping or the chess player whose rating is climbing toward master or grandmaster levels. You’ll know you’re making progress no matter what those slap-in-the-face rejection slips say.

Or use some other ten-thousand-word reward. If you’re a romance writer, pin an Ace of hearts on the wall. If you’re a mystery writer, try the Ace of spades (honoring Sam Spade, of course).

Pick the feedback mechanism that works for you, but pick something to feel good about your steps toward the writer’s Promised Land.

With sustained effort–writing new words and studying your craft, always learning–you’ll get there.

Now go earn yourself a penny.

*** = This article first appeared at OWN Writers Blog

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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