I’ve been training in martial arts since I was eighteen years old. That’s twenty years of cracked shins, pulled tendons, and bruised forearms. I’ve trained under the former U.S. Taekwondo Olympic Head Coach, a Muay Thai heavyweight champion, and a U.S. Martial Arts Hall of Famer. Believe me when I tell you, it all hurt.
During those years of training I had a critical problem; I’m not very good. I’ve got poor timing, weak balance, and slow reaction time. Rather, I had those things. After twenty years, I can block or dodge most punches and kicks, my balance is much improved, and I can land a few good shots.
It’s important for me to qualify that I still feel like an idiot compared to some of my more talented training partners. However, if you watched me spar or grapple, you’d probably think I knew what I was doing. You might just see me win against some pretty talented fighters… might. There’s a lot you won’t see though. Buried in what I can do are years of losses and injuries. In younger days, I went home many times with my ego so bruised I could barely look in the mirror. Seeing only the skill a person has and not what he or she went through to get it is a dangerous misperception. To successfully walk a path one must be aware of the entire journey, not simply the destination.
It is critical to understand that anything done well must first be done badly. This truth is often where people struggle. I’ve seen it for twenty years in martial arts. New students arrive with images of themselves stronger, fitter, and able to defend themselves. That’s all great. However, the truth is that training hurts the body and ego. People feel awkward when they try to throw their first punches and weak because they can’t keep up with the class, even that 12 year old with the yellow belt. These physical and mental challenges cause most people to quit within the first few months because they did not expect nor appreciate those feelings. Yet, it is exactly these feelings of apparent failure we must pass through to find success.
The same reality of skill development applies to writing, but there is an even deeper failure rate due to a key problem. Most people will look at a martial artist throwing kicks and blocking punches and think, “Wow, that’s a different level of skill.” It’s not always that way for writing. Many people—and I’ve heard this sentiment several times—think that they can write a good story on the first or second go, and that simply isn’t possible. If you gave me two challenges, holding off a friend of mine named Jacob—a 265 lb. recent local MMA cage fight winner—and writing a story I can guarantee people will like, I’ll take the fight. It’s so much easier to control. Let me reiterate that. A 265 lb. cage fighter is easier to control than a reader’s perception of a fiction story. In a fight, I know when I’m winning. I know when I’m losing. Writing is in no way that clear. It’s a shadowy art in which you paint in the darkness of another person’s mind. You will never know the exact impact your words have.
Most aspiring authors don’t realize how difficult fiction writing is until they get their first reader reactions. The author is excited and sure the reader will love the work, and the reader winces and says, “Well, it was okay, but…” The realization that the aspiring author has not been able to create a masterwork can be demoralizing and defeating. Don’t let it! I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it many more: The only time we truly fail, no matter how many rejections we receive or how many matches we lose, is the moment we stop trying.
So what should you do? Write. Write badly. You will at first. Unless you’re that one lightning bolt—odds are you aren’t—you’ll need practice. How much? Malcolm Gladwell has written a book on what makes people successful called Outliers. I highly recommend it. I’ll leave the specific details to your reading, but the core comes down to hard work. How much? 10,000 hours. That may sound like less than it is. Trust me, it’s a LOT. I’ve been tracking my writing time over the last several years, and I’m still nowhere near that mark. However, if you want to compete with King, Rowling, and Sparks, you better be willing to put in that level of time.
Now I’m going to offer my most important advice: Don’t listen to me. You don’t want advice from a guy who doesn’t have his 10,000 hours in yet. Go to the experts. During my martial arts lifetime I’ve learned from first degree blackbelts and ninth degree blackbelts. I’ve attended seminars with a local stick fighter and seminars with world class fighters like Danny Inosanto. The first degree blackbelts can get you off the ground, but they can only raise you up so high. If you want to be competitive with the big names of writing, if you want to perfect your voice and art, then you need to be mentored by those with 10,000 hours.
The good news: That mentorship is there for you. I begin each writing day by reading from a how-to book by a bestselling author or professional editor. If you focus on the advice of these people, you will find valuable wisdom and—much more importantly—an intensely positive energy. As a starting point, I recommend the book Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. You want to be a skilled writer? Become a skilled editor.
So the secret to great writing presents itself as 10,000 hours of work, and many, many failures. But when you fail, if you see it correctly, you will move toward success. Believe me, when that boxing glove comes through your guard and connects with your face, your motivation to block the next punch is fairly intense.
Now stop reading this and get back to writing!
All the best,