Ready, Get Set, Stop

On this blog, I’ve been talking about Fun a Day Dundee, a project where artists and other creative sorts are encouraged to work on ‘something fun’ during January. For those who make a living from their art, this is traditionally a slow month after the chaos of Christmas.

For my previous two FADD projects, I’ve taken the opportunity to undertake writing projects. I’ve happily updated my Instagram page each day showing draft work, with a view to improving it at a later stage.

I’m at a point with writing where I don’t mind showing people half-done work. But I plan to use FADD to step away from writing and attempt something new, and I don’t want to reveal my pieces before I’m ready.

Nonetheless, there’s no requirement to show works in progress, and I will keep Instagram updated with something relevant to the project each day.

I also have a handwritten diary to log my process and progress, so when I’m ready to show my work, the details will be there.

10,000 Hours of Practice

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the theory that 10,000 hours of quality practice can make someone an expert in a given field. There is an excellent introduction to the theory on ReviseSociology with reference to figures including The Beatles and Bill Gates.

Note that the word ‘expert’ is probably not the most accurate one in all fields. However, let’s stick with the term for the purposes of this entry so as not to overshadow the broader point it makes.

It seems redundant to say that 10,000 hours is a considerable length of time. Think back to what you were doing on Hallowe’en in 2018. The period that has elapsed since then is approximately 10,000 hours.

Realistically, it’s going to take longer than that to clock up the magic number. Assume you work on something for eight hours a day on five days per week, giving a 40-hour work week. Then, for argument’s sake, multiply that by 50 to represent the weeks worked in a year. That gives a round figure of 2,000 hours per annum. Now repeat that five times.

I’ve been writing since 2010, and I don’t rely on it for an income. Instead, I have an office job that offers flexible working hours, allowing me to devote extra time to writing where necessary.

I’ve probably served my 10,000 hours of practice since 2010. It doesn’t mean I know everything – far from it – and neither does it mean I stop learning. But I do feel I’ve had quality practice.

When I was a student in the early 2000s, I had a flatmate who would play the opening bars of In The Shadows by The Rasmus over and over again on his electric guitar. I didn’t live with him for longer than six weeks, but he never improved in that time, probably because he didn’t approact the problem from another angle.

As I say, I’m still learning, and I found out only this year that varying your practice rather than merely repeating an action can help you learn a skill up to twice as quickly. In a writing context, this might mean using a pencil instead of a keyboard, focussing on description rather than dialogue, or changing the time of day when you write.

It’s also important to invite feedback if you wish to improve. Particularly in poetry, I read a lot of work that has potential, but would need to be trimmed or otherwise refined to make it sparkle.

Don’t forget there are many milestones on the way to 10,000 hours, no matter what your field. Just 10 hours is usually long enough to read up on the history and theory of your chosen field, while a language learner probably knows enough after 100 hours to hold a reasonable conversation. And how could you possibly be bad at snooker after 1,000 games?

Above all, probably the most important part of is to enjoy what you’re doing. It’s usually possible to tell whether someone has enjoyed writing: the words seem to pop off the page and carry the reader along. You don’t need 10,000 hours to have a good time.

One Poem, Three Audiences

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a fundraising event featuring open-mike slots. I’d gone along under the assumption that the stage was reserved solely for musicians, and there were a number of talented ones there. But after a chat with the organisers, I discovered it was open to anybody.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m always willing to perform. This, however, would be a tough crowd because a music audience is different from a poetry audience.

Your average pub rock group expects to encounter some external noise, like audience chatter or the noise of the till, but three or four instruments with amplification can easily compete against that. By contrast, a poetry audience knows to be silent because the performer has only words to convey; even with amplification, it can be hard to talk over a noisy audience.

I drew upon my experience to pick two suitable poems, and they received a better response than I could have hoped for, even with a lot of background chat. One of the poems was a humorous and surreal piece about personified biscuits; I’d picked it because it seems to appeal equally to poets and non-poets.

The following night, I performed the biscuit poem at a dedicated poetry night with an open-mike element. While the audience did hold a respectful silence, they were harder to excite than the pub group crowd, perhaps because many of them had heard it before.

While drafting this entry about the two aforementioned evenings, I was then unexpectedly invited to perform at another gig.

I sing in the church choir on a Sunday, and the organist was organising the music to entertain their Wednesday Club. Most of the choir performed solo songs, but I was asked to perform a couple of poems. I turned again to – you guessed it – the biscuits.

This time, I was uncertain how it would be received. I knew the audience would lend me their silence, but not whether they would consider it appropriate for the event. But I needn’t have worried, as I heard some great feedback both on the night and at the next Sunday performance.

There is no foolproof way to tell how an audience will react. However, by performing often enough, it’s possible to gauge which pieces to perform – and sometimes it pays off incredibly well.

Sailing By

Four weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about warming up for Fun a Day Dundee in 2020.

I’m pleased to report that a version of that entry has been posted on the official website. Be sure to click around the menu at the top to read more stories and information about the project.

Note that the post is under my legal name of Gavin Cruickshank, which I don’t normally use for writing since few people can spell it correctly.

I haven’t had a great deal of time this week, so I’ll be back next week with a fuller entry.

The Middle of the Road

It can be hard to believe that that even well-known writers might only be one piece of work away from losing popularity.

Experience helps a lot, from knowing your particular audience to being aware of wider trends – not to mention fads – in contemporary tastes. However, there is no telling for sure how the public will react to the next offering.

A good way to look at this phenomenon is to consider the winners of the Booker prize. Here’s a list from 1969 to 2014, in reverse chronological order.

Only a few of these have become household names, such as William Golding, Salman Rushdie, and double winner Hilary Mantel. But mention Aravind Adiga, JM Coetzee or even the first winner Bernice Rubens, and it’s likely you’ll need to give a little more context about who they are. That doesn’t mean they aren’t popular writers among their fans, merely that their work hasn’t caught on with the public the same way as their prized novels.

But who needs to be an outright success as an author? There is a term in publishing known as the midlist.

These are books from authors that don’t shift in great numbers, but do sell well enough to justify remaining in print. By its very nature, there are no great examples of midlist authors, because most of a publisher’s roster is likely to fall into this category. In fact, remove the handful of high earners and everyone else probably fits there.

This structure seems to be particularly true in non-fiction. Friends who have told me anecdotally that writing articles can bring in a steady enough income to justify their efforts.

So even if your next project doesn’t catch on as you expected, give it a little time and see whether it fits within the midlist.