My 10,000 Hours Screenwriting Apprenticeship

10,000 hours
1 hour every day for more than 27 years;
2 hours every day for almost 14 years;
3 hours every day for over 9 years;
4 hours every day for almost 7 years;
5 hours every day for 5 and a half years.

I’m terrible at math, but today I listened to a ScriptNotes Podcast that had me pull out my calculator. Malcolm Gladwell has a theory that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve a degree of mastery in any practice. So, even if you quit your job and wrote full-time (8 hours every single day including weekends) it would still take three and a half years to complete a writing apprenticeship.

I’ve been writing in one form or another for a great many years already. I’m 29 now; I wanted to be a writer and started writing stories when I was 6. I might not have written story every single day of the past 23 years but I’ve had some form of connection to the narrative. I’ve read fiction and non-fiction books, I’ve watched t.v. and movies, I’ve played video games, I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve worked as an editor, I’ve done collaborative story telling, I’ve written short stories, novels, poetry, non-fiction, etc. I’ve been immersed in a world of words all my life and in that world I’ve actively sort to learn and improve craft.

Any screenwriter who sold a screenplay in less than four years has defied the odds. I can’t begin to do the maths on how many odd-defying screenwriters there have been over the decades but like John and Craig said, if you have the potential to be any good at it, then it rarely takes 10,000 hours of writing screenplays before you sell something. I hope I have that potential. I know I have doubts like most writers do, but most of the time I am fairly confident that I write very well and that people enjoy my stories. The greatest problem I have is that I get so obsessed with getting it right that I struggle to even start let alone get to “the end”. Obviously, for any chance of success I’ll have to get over that obsession. Screenwriting is a good tool for that because no matter how good a screenplay is, the final version that goes to air will be different. So, why obsess about being perfect when the whole thing is subject to change through the whole process and so many creative bodies are going to influence the final product. So yes, get it close to right, but it doesn’t need to be perfect, and it certainly isn’t going to be perfect when I start writing.

I think these two points are a fantastic counter to anyone who has been working at this for any length of time. When I track back to when I started “screenwriting”, I might date it to the beginning of this month although technically I don’t feel like I have started the writing. I’m still in the thinking and learning but I feel like I began a more specific screenwriting apprenticeship at the beginning of this month. So, I could, based on this 10,000 hours theory, expect to suck for a great many years to come. But, I’ve been with story so long that, again, on this theory, I could potentially sell my first screenplay. The odds aren’t stacked either way.

Perhaps one of the keys to this, however, is that the best way to become a screenwriter isn’t necessarily to study t.v. and movies, it isn’t to study scripts or format or character or plot, but to just start writing. The more hours you put into the act of creating story the better a screenwriter you are becoming. The rest is a natural amalgamation of that act. This fear I have that I really don’t know where to start is keeping me from putting together my first screenplay. The fear is moot because I really won’t know how to do it until I start trying to do it. The key is to start writing, and then learn the rest as the process evolves.

But, what I think I got out of this the most is that I spend a lot of time tinkering with the idea of writing. I do a lot of learning about writing, listening to podcasts, reading books, browsing blogs, scanning Twitter, but I don’t spend a lot of time actively engaged with my stories and my ideas. Last night for example, I had already written a journal entry for the day so I didn’t feel any real push to do more that night. I spent three to four hours tinkering. That time could have been more effectively spent at least brainstorming and fleshing out ideas and story for either FoT or Funny Signs.

My insecurity about not knowing the next step and feeling like I need to have some sort of mentor or guide to show me what to do and how the process should evolve tears down my confidence. I have to remind myself that I’m a pro. Ok, so I’m not a professional screenwriter yet, but I am a professionally-qualified writer. I don’t consider myself a professional-acting writer because I’m not currently freelancing as a business but I’ve done my dues. I’ve earned my 10,000 hours. I’m not a beginner at being creative or using words for trade. I need to accept my confidence as a writer; a good writer, who just happens to be trying on new clothes, new format, new medium. Telling the story is the same, it’s the shirt and tie the story wears that differs. And, it doesn’t matter if that tie isn’t straight because I can straighten it up before the story heads out the door. Yeah, terrible metaphor, bare with me.

I’m in two places. I am the accomplished writer who has done her due to the blank page, but at the same time I am the eager but intimidated beginner starting a new 10,000 hours screenwriting apprenticeship. It is difficult reconciling those two people within myself. I am beginning to see that the only way to really do that is to start writing, start creating, start building. And so, I start, again.

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Rebecca Laffar-Smith

Rebecca Laffar-Smith is a publisher, children's writer, and novelist. In 2010 she gave up a successful 12-year freelance career to focus on her three loves; family, community, and fiction. She self-published her debut novel The Flight of Torque in June 2014 and the first three titles in the P.I. Penguin series in from Aulexic in May 2015. At The Craft of Writing Fiction, Rebecca shares her journey of creation and learning with readers. She loves getting to know her fellow readers and writers and can be contacted through Twitter and Facebook, or Email.