21 August 2014

Getting Better All The Time

Becoming good at something interests me – you probably got that impression from the previous post.

Why does one person achieve success and another doesn’t? Why is one person excellent at a sport or occupation, while others are mediocre? What makes the difference?

I guess it begins with our individual motivation and desire to succeed at something. Like most people, I’ve watched athletes or musicians etc. and have been amazed at their skills, and wished I could do the same. The big difference is that my idle wish has never morphed into anything more than a frivolous fancy, at least not until I decided I wanted to be able to call myself a writer, and be proud of what I'd written.

It’s easy to look at a sportsperson, singer, musician or artist and think how lucky they are to have that talent; to be born good at what they do. But they weren’t.

‘If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.’ Michelangelo 

A number of years ago, I joined a badminton club. I’d always enjoyed playing and I wanted to improve. I played regularly (two or three times a week), with the purpose of improving. I played with, and against, better players and took part in the club competitions. I never became the best, but my game improved. That was my goal. We moved to a different part of the country and I wasn’t able to continue in the same way, but after a while we found some friends to play with once a week. We played mainly for fun. It was exercise and we enjoyed the evening out. I had a good time, but my game didn’t improve.

Thinking of that reminded me of years ago when I learned to type. The course involved some speed tests at the end, and so once I’d mastered the basics, I practiced hard to improve my speed. I can’t remember now what it was, maybe 90 words per minute, or even a hundred. These days  I use the computer every day, My typing speed is fast, but no faster than it was then, and possibly slightly slower.

My mother always used to tell me that ‘practice makes perfect.’ There is some truth in that, however, I don’t believe that all practice is created equal. Yes, I type every day, but my goal is writing a book, or an article or blog post, not improving my speed. When I only played badminton recreationally and not to improve, my game remained the same.

If we want to become excellent at something, or at least improve, we need to practice, but we need to practice with a purpose. That’s why goals are so useful necessary. They give us something to work towards, and results we can measure.

If we want to play a game professionally, an occasional fun practice with friends isn’t going to help us. We need more practice, lots more, and we need to practice with a purpose.

How much practice do we need to become excellent at something?

I’ve read a number of books on this subject and the consensus appears to be around 10,000 hours. That’s 10,000 hours of writing practice, or some other skill, with a purpose.

10,000 hours sounds like a lot (and it is), but let's convert it into more meaningful figures. If we use 40 hours a week as working at something fulltime, that is 250 weeks of writing, which is a little under 5 yrs.

That’s a lot of writing. And if you have a job and writing is part-time (say 20 hours a week) then it’s ten years of purposeful practice. Speechless yet?

On the plus side, improvement is an incremental process, so it’s not as if we’re beginners until we get to the 10,000 word mark, and then suddenly become amazing. We’re improving all the time.

Being excellent at something takes time, and effort.

It’s not just practice, but practice with a purpose. It should challenge us.  We should make ourselves work on the things we can’t do well, rather than paddling in the shallows of things we think we can do well.

Let's assume we're putting in our practice with a purpose! Is that all, when we've completed our 10,000 hours, will we be excellent? Is practice all we need?

All top athletes, musicians, artists need the right training. For writers, courses and books are a good start. However, once we’ve learned the basics we need more – we know about pace, point of view, tense etc. Now we need to know where we’re not applying these things in our own writing.

Athletes have coaches. I’ve never been a top athlete, but I’d guess the coach’s purpose (or one of them at least), is to give feedback. If the move or shot didn’t work, why not?  

What is the equivalent for writers? There is a point when we know the craft skills of writing, but we’re still a long way from excellence. Just as an athlete needs a coach to help them make changes or tweaks to technique or stance or training, so we need specific help. We need someone who also knows all the craft skills, and can tell us where we’re not putting them into practice in our writing. A writing group is excellent for this, they provide support, motivation and specific feedback. In addition to a writing group, once we’ve finished our novel then beta readers are invaluable. Writing groups and beta readers need to be chosen carefully. They provide different feedback and have different skill sets. Don’t forget professionals such as editors.  Mentors are popular in business groups and some organisations provide writing mentors, or subsidise programmes to link writers with mentors for a period of time. In this environment we can get feedback and support that is specific to us.

Building this knowledge can transform us and help us meet our own personal goals for success.

08 August 2014

What is Success?

Recently I’ve been considering how my writing goals have changed over the years. Like many people, I started writing the great novel. I got to about the 20,000 word mark, and realised my idea didn’t have the legs to be a novel. Around that time, I took a couple of writing courses and read a number of writing books. Through the courses, I met a small group of other writers who also wanted to be part of a critique group, and so I had the feedback I needed.  I left the 20,000 words of my novel behind, and started writing short stories. I really recommend this as a great start. It allows you to work through all those autobiographical stories and ideas in the short form without trying to force them into a novel, and you come out of the other side with new inspiration and characters to use, as well as improved writing and editing skills.

Short stories don’t take as long as a novel. You get to practice both the first draft and editing stages far more frequently.

After writing, editing, feedback and more editing, I began to feel I was improving, and so the writing itself wasn’t a big enough goal.

That was when I really started setting writing goals. Firstly, to send stories off to competitions. There were plenty of black holes when I never heard anything, or occasionally received a list of winners (my name being absent!). Mixed with that were a few modest successes. They were the highs, and on the back of those I changed my goals and sent stories to magazines. Later, there was the goal to write a novel – mostly to prove to myself that I could.

I gave this post the title What is Success? There is no definitive answer. Success is different to each of us, and it changes over time. 

What is your definition of success? 

BUT, the big question is - how will you know when you’ve reached it?

To know when we’ve reached our goal, we have to be able to measure it.

To say, I want to entertain people, isn’t specific or measurable. What do you mean? Do you want to read out loud to an audience? How will you know if your readers have been entertained? 

I recall reading a post from a writer outlining her goals, some of them were specific sales totals per month. At that time I was speechless (doesn’t happen often!) at her targets. I’m still a significant way from her numbers, but closer than I was last year.

Your goals will be personal to you. They might include a certain word count every week, sales targets, winning a competition prize, or a specific number of good reviews from people you don’t know. We have control over some of these goals, but others are out of our personal control.

Whatever way you envisage success, I think it’s important to know what you’re aiming for, and how close you are to reaching it.

24 June 2014

Follow Your Passions

During a writing class I attended years ago, the tutor asked us why we wrote. There were various answers, most taking the high road of feeling the need to write, having something to say or wanting to entertain with our writing. The tutor smiled and said it was perfectly acceptable to admit we wanted to make money.

At that time I was in the naïve stage of the writing business, and still wondering whether an 'ordinary' person like me could ever aspire to calling themselves a writer.

Fast forward to now. There have been huge changes in the publishing business, and I think for writers they are good changes, giving us more of a say in what we do and how we choose to accomplish it. However, while there may be more people making money from their writing, I doubt many have been able to give up the day job.

If you are a writer, why do you write? 

There is nothing wrong in wanting to make money from writing, but I do believe if money is your goal, you’re in the wrong business. It’s easier to make money in almost any other way. The payment per hour of hard slog is negligible, and the lottery probably offers better odds.

I’ve never been under any illusions about becoming rich through writing. If I'm ever able to make enough money to pay the bills, I will be thrilled, but money is a secondary goal. Much higher up the list are improving my skills, becoming a better writer and entertaining people.

Maya Angelou said, ‘You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.’

If you don't love writing (or anything), purely for the thing itself, if you don't have a passion for it, you won't be able to put in the work that makes you excel.

This is easily seen with children. As they grow you can see characteristics and their likes and passions develop. The correlation between things they love doing and the growth of skills is obvious. Somehow that connection becomes fuzzy as we get older, and are bogged down with stuff we ‘have to do’.

Pursue your passions, and it shouldn’t seem like work!

15 June 2014


Occasionally in a text or email from my daughter, she’ll add a #Perfectionist. It’s an in-joke between us, as I sometimes moan about by perfectionist tendencies.

I’m obviously well aware of this trait, and sometimes flaw, in my personality. I’m not a perfectionist with everything, far from it. I can live with dusty surfaces and general untidiness (to a point!). When we’re decorating, I’m definitely a ‘close enough is good enough’ worker, who manages to get plenty of paint on surrounding surfaces and myself. However, when it comes to my creative writing, it’s never good enough!

Perfection is a double-edged sword. If something is important to me, I absolutely believe in making it as good as I can, but some things just aren’t worth worrying about that much. For me, house-decorating, cleaning and a whole pile of other things definitely fall into that category. Perfection is also an impossible standard. Whether it’s trying to look as good as a model or actress, or be as fit as a professional athlete, we’ll probably never measure up, certainly not in our own eyes.

However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work at being the best we can, at things that are important to us. The hard part is knowing when we’ve done all we can, at this moment. Those last three words are important. I look at some of my early short stories and writing – the things that no one else has ever seen - and cringe when I read them. The flip side is that I’m improving.

This thing with perfection can defeat us if we take our search too far. I know I reach a point where I have to tell myself that something is as good as I can make it. Now. It’s been critiqued, edited and polished to the best of my abilities, and within that search for perfection, there is a certain pride that I’ve done my best. We have to know when we’ve reached the limit of what we can do now, and send it out into the world.

If we don’t, then we’ll never learn to be pleased with where we are now, and look at how to move beyond it.

Equally, we know when we could make something better, but we can't be bothered because we're fed up with it. It's a different feeling, and if we leave something there and don't improve it, we're selling ourselves short.

Some time ago I read the book 11/22/63 by Stephen King. In speaking about the book, he said he first had the idea as a very young writer, but knew he didn’t have the skills to pull it off at that point, so he practiced his craft and honed his skills until he felt he could write the book and do it justice.

Somewhere there is a point we have to find, where we can let go and be proud of what we've achieved, knowing there is still more of the hill to climb.

24 May 2014

Choosing Your Attitude

Yesterday I witnessed a most unusual incident, actually it was more than that, it was an extraordinary incident.

I was the third car at a junction, waiting to move onto a main road. It reasonably busy, as most people were on their way to work. My attention was on the two cars in front of me, but from what happened I guess there was a slight gap in the oncoming traffic, and the driver of the second car assumed the driver in front would go. You’ve guessed it, the first driver didn’t go, so the second car smashed into it.

I can hear you asking, so what’s unusual or extraordinary about that. In itself nothing, it’s what happened next that made it extraordinary. Both drivers got out of their cars. The female driver of the second car apologised, and was so obviously upset at causing the accident that the other driver, also female, gave her a hug.

I admit to a bit of gender bias here, but as I drove away after the incident, I was so impressed with the driver of the first car. The last thing anyone wants, or needs, on their way to work is to be involved in an accident. The damage wasn’t horrendous, but both cars will need to visit a garage. It wasn't an intentional act, but unfortunately our fast–paced lives seem to predispose us to anger. We react as if the other person did it intentionally, forgetting about the times we may have been in a similar situation and only narrowly missed causing an accident, and I certainly include myself in that.

If I wore a hat, I’d take it off to the lady yesterday morning. She turned what could have been an acrimonious encounter, into one that was resolved in a far more pleasant way. It certainly made me more aware (once again), of the importance (for our own well-being), of choosing our attitude rather than letting it be chosen by other people or situations.

On a lighter note: 

A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.

19 May 2014

Getting out in the world

Writing is a solitary occupation, whether it’s your full-time job or a hobby that takes over your evenings and weekends.

That’s why I think it’s important to get together with other people, but especially other writers. They understand when you talk about the voices in your head (no, not that sort, the other voices!), the problems you’re having with plot, and they understand the lift of a great review, without thinking you’re boasting.

The past week has been a good one in respect of time with other similarly-minded people. Mid-week was our writers group meeting when we critique twenty pages of a WIP from two members of the group. These meetings are good for so many reasons: feedback, motivation, and the camaraderie and trust we’ve built up over the past four or so years.

Over the weekend I attended several sessions at the Auckland Writers Festival and met up with some writer friends. The sessions were extremely educational and inspiring. This year I attended more non-fiction sessions than fiction; hence the educational comment, but I also thoroughly enjoyed the fiction sessions and especially one with Camilla Lackberg, the ‘Scandinavian Crime Queen'.

Writing is a solitary occupation, but if we don’t get out and meet other people where will we get those ideas and snippets of conversation to use as springboards of inspiration. Meeting with other writers reminds us we're not the only ones who suffer with plot problems/unruly characters/procrastination/lack of confidence/bad reviews/not enough reviews (tick all that apply!!).

Happy Monday and happy writing.

20 April 2014


A few days ago I needed to call into our local shopping mall while I had the little people with me. It wasn’t especially busy, and the floors along the main walkway were nice and shiny, so within minutes the little people were ice skaters, doing loops and leaps, then a ballerina pirouetting. After that, they were lost in a forest on a snowy, slippery day (allowing them to skate again!).

There were shoppers around, but not enough to mean they were getting in anyone’s way. For the little people, nothing existed other than the story in their imagination.

I’m always fascinated by the way children can skate and dance and sing, at almost any time and anywhere, without embarrassment, or even being aware of other people.

I’m sure if I had the nerve to ‘skate’ along the mall, adding a few pirouettes and leaps, I’d receive more than a few odd looks. But wouldn’t life be a lot more fun if we could let our inner child soar more often.