Getting up your flying hours

[This blog post appeared on the LearnHowToWriteANovel web site in March 2020.]

You may have heard that to become an expert, you need to have completed 10,000 hours of it. I’m a big believer in this concept – you can only improve by experience, by testing the waters and by having the waters test you.

That’s certainly the case if you’re a pilot. Commercial pilots need hundreds of hours of flying experience before they’re thrown the keys to a passenger jet, and those hundreds of hours of flying experience come after the hundreds of hours they need to put in to even get a licence. They need to have experienced the joy of flight over a long period of time. They need to learn how to handle bumps, how to manage difficult conditions – they need to make the controls an extension of themselves. And the best pilots talk about the confidence they have in knowing where the controls are and when to use them, mainly based on the fact that they’ve practiced over and over and over again.

You see, the more familiar they are with the tools, the better they use them. It’s not just pilots. I’ve got a friend who is an award-winning baker and I’m still amazed at how he can determine one flour from another by simply running it through his fingers.

The same goes for writing. We need to be the same in how we approach our tools – words and story. No-one writes a great final draft first, and very, very few people – I’d suggest nobody – writes a ground-breaking novel first time around with minimal effort.

But we all improve over time through practice. Through writing and rewriting… and rewriting… and rewriting. We improve through observation when we read. We improve through editing and then editing some more.

Now I know many, many writers are stuck for time – including me – so how do you get your ‘flying hours’ up if you’re a writer? Here are a few ideas:

  • Keep. Writing. That’s a given. It’s all experience, so even if your piece doesn’t work, you now know how NOT to write that way. Get rid of this idea that what you write needs to be good.
  • Write according to your available time. Just say all you’ve got today is a 40-minute window in which to write. How many words can you write in a hour? 1000 (I just picked that to make the math easy). Aim to write 660 words of … pick something. A blog post. An intro. Some dialogue. And don’t judge what you wrote.
  • Don’t limit your writing to just your WIP. Write character pieces, expand on plot points or write some backstory about the location. Just put words on the page.
  • Write short stories. Even if it’s just a half-baked idea that loses traction halfway through, you’ve still been stretching and using your writing muscles. And if your short stories are any good, they could come in handy in your marketing plans later on.
  • Write blog posts for yourself, or for other people’s blogs. More chances for you to work on your craft, develop your research skills or just hone your ability to hit a deadline.
  • Get your reading up. Make sure you’re stoking the fire that fuels your writing process and add hours to your experience by immersing yourself in the craft you want to perfect.
  • And read outside your genre. If you’re a romance reader, head into contemporary. Science-fiction? Try fantasy. Fiction only? Read non-fiction. Try an author you’ve never read before. If you find you want to drop out on page 20 because they lost you, treat it as a writing craft exercise. Why did they lose you and what can you learn from it? Where is this story strong and how can I develop my own writing? Look at the writing technically and see what you can take away from dialogue or description.

So there are some ideas to get up your flying hours – a necessity if you’re going to master your tools. If you’re a writer, which ideas do you find work for you?

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