Archive for June, 2012


While I’ve come across advice in the writing world that pushes reluctant writers to eventually take the plunge and try submitting their work, it is far outweighed by that desperately trying to instill some sort of reality check.

I have never been one to expect I will “get good” at writing within a few months and so the reality checks I keep coming across have always made me think, “well, duh!” What I do know about myself with cast iron certainty is that I have potential that can be developed and I firmly believe that to be successful at something requires an initial seed of talent or aptitude.

But how long is it going to take to germinate that seed? What is a realistic time scale?

Many writing advice books and websites quote the figure of 10 years; it takes 10 years to hone your writing craft to the point of proficiency. Perhaps this figure is just used as a scaremongering tactic to discourage those who think writing is a quick and easy way to make money, but maybe not.

Cover art for Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (2009 paperback version)Published in 2008, the book “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell generated (or at least made popular) the idea of the 10,000 hour rule; to become successful at something requires a cumulative 10,000 hours of practice and development.

If you could devote an average of three hours a day to writing, in ten years you would pretty much hit the 10,000 hour mark. Many writers juggle full time work with their writing, especially in the early phases of their development, so perhaps there is something to both of these numbers.

Some people might see such figures as daunting, but I see it as a rite of passage, or an apprenticeship.

In the two years I’ve been writing seriously, I’ve learned a huge amount; improved my technique, gained better understanding of many aspects and discovered a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses. I’ve dipped a toe in the waters of publishing and met loads of fellow writers. But I don’t kid myself that I’m even half way there yet. I’m prepared for the long haul. What about you?

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When I review a book I like to think about what I can learn from it. A few weeks ago I reviewed Crimes Against Magic by Steve McHugh, and it got me thinking about the pitfalls of making your hero too powerful.

Nate Garrett, centuries old sorcerer assassin is a master of kicking ass. Great, right?

It’s tempting to make your hero all powerful, with incredible powers and the smarts to use them wisely, because, let’s face it, that’s cool. Chances are you also like them, and you enjoy watching them effortlessly crush their enemies under their boot heels. Unfortunately for them, that doesn’t necessarily make a good story. Make the hero too powerful and you make things too easy. The outcome of every scene becomes inevitable, aka boring.

Superhero Superman incapactitated by glowing green KryptoniteSomething must get in the way, there must be some way of restricting or limiting the powers of your hero until such time as they are ready to have them. The use of that inoffensive looking green crystal in the Superman comics is such a blatent example of this need that Kryptonite has entered language as the perfect analogy. (Read more about the Kryptonite Factor)

Thankfully, kryptonite comes in many less crystalline forms. In Crimes Against Magic, McHugh uses maliciously inflicted amnesia as a way of incapacitating Nate: without his accumulated knowledge, he cannot use his abilities to their full potential.

Of course, eventually the hero needs to overcome the barriers holding him back. Unexpectedly revealing new powers can make it seem as if you’ve cheated; simply changed the character and them more powerful in order to overcome their foes. Having your mild mannered hero suddenly show an aptitude for martial arts, for example, or a shy heroine suddenly finding a strong and confident voice in the courtroom.

This is where precedent is paramount; the dropped hints and gradual build up which makes the unexpected believable.

In Crimes Against Magic, McHugh reveals Nate’s true potential through a series of flash backs to an earlier time in his life. By the time he recovers his memories towards the climax of the story, you understand the implications and you know the bad guys are in trouble.

Other ways to set precedent will depend on your story could include introducing your kryptonite later in the story, after an establishing scene/scenes  or putting your hero in a position where they have to learn to control their powers.  The barrier could equally be internal; reluctance or fear, with the hero (and by extension the reader) aware, if only partially, of their potential all along.

Above all, make things hard for your hero, because therein lies a good story.

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