Failure is probably the most important factor in all of my work. Writing is failure. Over and over and over again.
Coates received a MacArthur genius award and wrote the bestseller Between the World and Me. Eight years prior to saying this he'd been unemployed and desperately searching for freelance work. I chose this quote since he's an example of perseverance and following a deliberate practice.
Here are the rules to establish a deliberate practice:
- A clearly defined stretch goal
- Full concentration and effort
- Immediate and informative feedback
- Repetition with reflection and refinement
In her book, Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth shows how high performers -- athletes, artists, executives, entrepreneurs -- achieve amazing results. She dissects how achieving one's potential is more about showing up and persevering over the long term versus simple talent. (I read this book for my friend Asma's investment book club meeting this week --I'm always relieved when the chosen book is non-investment oriented!)
According to Duckworth, it's popular to believe that people are achievers because they have a special talent, a grand slam gift from God. Yet, what her research revealed is that talent alone will not generate high achievement nor is it a requisite. "Grit," or perseverance, is the hidden ingredient. In simple terms, talent + effort = skill and then skill + effort = achievement.
For example, Duckworth writes about the kids practicing to compete in the National Spelling Bee. There are basically three activities recommended for practicing spelling: reading for pleasure and playing word games like Scrabble; getting quizzed by a person or computer program; and memorizing words and Latin, Greek and other word origins, then reviewing words in a spelling notebook. Duckworth found that it was only the last activity -- deliberate practice -- that truly made the difference and predicted the winning spellers.
It's the same with athletics - sure, you can learn about basketball by watching a lot of games on TV, but to achieve skill you need to do drills on the court. Lots and lots of them. Even better, with a coach that gives you feedback on how you're doing and what to correct.
So, how do these ideas apply to writing a book?
I'm using Duckworth's ideas to establish a deliberate practice. Here goes:
- A clearly defined stretch goal = Complete a manuscript in six months
- Full concentration and effort = Commit to 12 pages or 3,600 words/week
- Immediate and informative feedback = Get a book coach
- Repetition with reflection and refinement = Create a ritual so that writing is a habit
Right now I am really worried about whether I can do this.
I just know that in January I wrote about 15,000 words on my own and then attended a writer workshop. It gave lots of great instruction and helped reshape my ideas on plot, but essentially scrapped a lot of the previous writing. Needing to start over the writing -- plus the knowledge that I need to do more research and I'm shaky on writing craft -- put me into a tailspin last week.
I don't think I can do this alone.
So I decided a coach will tell me what to do when I'm confused and also call me out when I'm making excuses.
Book coaches have emerged as traditional publishing has changed and self-publishing has grown popular. It used to be that a publisher's editor not only edited manuscripts but was much closer to authors, nurturing, cajoling and cracking the whip when needed. (You may have seen actor Colin Firth's portrayal of this type of editor in the 2016 movie Genius. Firth plays famed Scribner editor Max Perkins who worked with Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.) Today a typical editor is working on 30 books/month, so unless you are a blockbuster author, you won't get this attention.
So a book coach fills this demand.
My book coach is Sheila. Like me, she’s recently retired, an experienced editor and happily avoiding our arctic cold by living in Jacksonville, Florida. Every week I'll submit pages to her and within three days she'll send back revision notes and comments. We have a bi-weekly call and as much emailing as needed in between. (Sheila gave me feedback on my "sprint" writing in October so I’ve already experienced a bit of her insight.)
It's a six-month commitment. 25 weeks.
Every writer is unique and sets his or her own goal with what they want to accomplish in that time frame. My goal is to complete a first draft of the manuscript. So, I've learned that a typical fiction manuscript is about 90,000 words or 300 pages, so I will need to write about 3,600 words, or about 12 pages, each week.
How many hours will this take me? I'm not sure. I'm pretty slow so it may be one page/hour. (It usually takes me at least three hours to write this blog - often times, much more if I change the theme.)
There is more framework I'll need to put around this 6-month commitment -- like a daily ritual to get going, and how to plan for happy interruptions (like Eric and Angie's wedding!).
I have to tell you: It feels GOOD to WRITE DOWN the goal. It puts a little more umph to my intention.
Do you have any passions that could be umphed by deliberate practice?
How I'm Writing the Book
Scrivener Software (Still): This past week I attended a free 90-minute webinar on the latest software version - Scrivener 3 (along with my friend Crystal) to see how it’s been improved. However, I've decided to set the software aside for now. I'll be submitting pages via Word to Sheila so it will waste time to be simply transferring the pages back and forth.
Books I'm Reading: In addition to reading Grit, I've just started News of the World by Paulette Jiles. A National Book Award finalist, the book is historical fiction taking place during the Civil War. I'm paying attention to how historical fiction writers subtly layer in the context of their periods into the narrative.
On the wedding front (plural: fronts!) Juan and I booked an Airbnb for the June Flagstaff wedding plus made hotel reservations for my mom and Aunt Cynthia who will be hitting the town HOT for Wedding Week. Meanwhile, back in KC, Cristina and Jay decided to warm up their household by adopting two English bulldogs (Pods and Pebs). C & J were foster-caring the little rascals and fell in love with them (Uh-oh, foster-failed). Pods and Pebs hit the jackpot. Come to think of it, Eric and Angie’s greyhound mix, Kota, is doing just fine too - he gets a bunch of run-walks in every day on trails around Flagstaff. Hey, I just realized Juan and I are grandparents of pets before kids.
In closing, let me return to Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you have three minutes, here's a short video where he shares just a little of his experience. Toward the end of the video he gives a wonderful description of what it's like to be a gritty writer:
The challenge of writing is to see your horribleness on the page. To see your terribleness and then to go to bed. And wake up the next day, and take that horribleness and that terribleness and refine it. And make it not so terrible and not so horrible, and then to go to bed again,. And come the next day, and refine it a little bit more, and make it not so bad. And then to go to bed the next day. And do it again, and make it maybe average. And then one more time. If you're lucky maybe you get to good. And if you've done that; that's a success.
I want to be this gritty.