Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Category Archives: creativity

Becoming a Master – 10,000 Hours to Master Your Craft

Malcolm Gladwell writes some fantastic books. My favorites include Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point.

In Outliers, Gladwell introduces a concept:

It takes 10,000 hours to become a master at something.

10,000 hours of investment in your drawing skills will lead to a level of mastery. 10,000 hours of the study of the history of Venice will likely make you an honest-to-goodness expert in the field. This makes sense to me, even though life can’t always follow the rules of a formula. But it’s a good general guideline.

So let’s do the math:

  • 10,000 hours / 365 days (1 year) = 27.5 hours/day (Impossible!)
  • 10,000 hours / 1095 days (3 years) = 9.1 hours/day (Possible, but exhausting)
  • 10,000 hours / 2190 days (6 years) = 4.6 hours / day (More likely)

Interesting to think about, isn’t it?

How many hours a day do you spend honing your craft?

To be a good writer involves an investment of time. This is where formal education does come in hand. It forces us to invest the time required to improve our skills. Additionally, we get feedback, critique, and hopefully some encouragement along the way. We gain a formal understanding, and pick up numerous tips and tricks. We’re more likely to develop faster than we would on our own.

But not all of us have pursued this sort of formal training.

I didn’t. I have 7 years of university under my belt, but it was divided between a 4-year BA degree in Psychology and Philosophy and a 3-year BFA degree in Acting. Sure, I did a lot of writing in both programs, but nowhere near the 10,000 hours needed to become a master.

However, there’s another component aside from education: practical experience. We can’t discount that. Any work – be it reading, writing, critiquing, or editing – definitely counts.

Lately, I’ve been reading tons of articles, books, and blogs about the craft of writing. I’ve learned a great deal and it’s really changed the way I approach my craft. I know there’s still so much for me to learn, and I am actively pursuing my own practical experience and training. Some days I’m discouraged, feeling like I’m so far behind. But then, when I look at what I’ve accomplished over the past 15 years, I realize I’m exactly on target.

As mentioned in my last post, I started playing online text-based roleplaying games when I was 13. In the gaming world, they’re called Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs. They had no graphics, no fancy special effects or sounds. They relied wholly on imagination, and that made them both powerful and engaging.

I am afraid to calculate how many hours I logged on MUDs over the course of the 10 years I spent playing, administering, and running them.

I started out as a player and eventually became a staff member. I helped police the game, assisted with problems, resolve bugs, and even add content. I would also help encourage role-play by planning quests and special events for some or all of the players to participate in, and these events involved storytelling in its purest form.

Now, I know for a fact I logged well over 10,000 hours. It might be close to 30,000 (or more) – but let’s not concern ourselves too much with that. And not all of my hours were spent writing, but a good portion of them were. I cannot deny that my involvement in running and administering MUDs helped develop my craft.

My journey might not be conventional, but it definitely had worth.

How about for yourself? What unconventional methods helped develop your craft? Do you have a unique journey that led you to writing? During a typical day, do you find opportunities to focus and develop your skill? I’d love to hear your stories, so please feel free to share them in the comments below.

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A Map of the World – The Magic of Maps in Fantasy

When I read fantasy books, there’s nothing I love more than the maps.

Well, maybe the story. But the maps are definitely right up there. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s because my first exposure to fantasy was at the age of 10 when I jumped with full abandon into The Lord of the Rings series, followed by The Hobbit. (I still remember my parents being astounded seeing me walking around with the massive 1100-page ‘complete trilogy’ at the cottage. How does a boy go from reading nothing but Calvin & Hobbes to something of that size?)

Maps complete the world for me. Even though our imaginations are incredibly powerful, there’s something wonderful about having a piece of the author’s vision at our disposal. It’s like a sacred secret. They’re sharing with us how they see the world, and it transcends – and completes – the story.

I’m guilty of flipping back to the map every time the characters travel to a new locale, or talks about a distant territory. I love seeing the topography, the rivers they might have had to cross, whether it’s plains or forests or mountainous terrain. It’s a little bit of magic, and a fantasy wouldn’t be complete without it. Some favorite maps include Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

A map of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

When I was 15 and started world building for my fantasy realm, I started with the maps. Well, to be honest, I started with the titles. Titles have always come first to me, whether I’m writing blog posts, books, short stories, or plays. But the map was a close second.

That summer, I sat at the picnic table that served as our dining room in our tiny little cottage and started to doodle. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted the world to be at this point, but I knew I needed a map. I knew the map needed nations, and those nations needed cities. And there had to be conflict. And isolated areas complete with secrets of their own. And cool names. You can’t forget that.

I suppose it should come as no surprize that I value maps so much. I’m a professional actor and writer, and one of the fundamentals of storytelling in both art forms is setting. In my opinion, there is no clearer setting than the world as described by a map. I am amazed, however, at how many stories were born out of this seemingly haphazard – or perhaps careless – doodle of a 15-year old mind.

But perhaps that’s exactly how it should be.

There’s a wonderful saying – and, to be honest, I don’t remember who said it, or which nationality it is attributed to (I believe it is the Native Americans, but I may be wrong) – about the nature of story and storytellers. It goes a little something like this:

“The stories exist; this much is true. They exist always, constantly searching for the right storyteller to introduce them to the world. When – and only when – the right storyteller is found will we finally be given the gift of the tale.”

And perhaps the innocent vessel of my 15-year-old self was tapping into a story that chose me as it’s teller, thus giving birth to the map that would shape and define the stories I would inevitably write. I’ve already written one book (the first of a trilogy), and I guarantee you there are at least 30 other tales for me to share.

And in case you’re wondering, an exceptionally talented friend is currently creating a digital version of my hand-drawn map. I hope to share it with you one day soon.

How important are maps to you? Have there been books where the map has added nothing to the stories, and others where the map nearly completes the story for you? Who has succeeded, and who has perhaps failed to deliver? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Make Your Writing Groggy – How Spirits Can Add Characterization

I am a bit of a geek. I’m not ashamed to admit it, and one of the things I like to “geek out” on is random (some would argue useless) information. There I’ll be, having a perfectly normal conversation…

Friend: “How goes today?”
Me: “Not bad, and you?”
Friend: “Ahh, I’m feeling a tad bit groggy.”

…and my brain suddenly gets hijacked. Where does the expression “groggy” come from? What’s it all about? What does “groggy” really mean?

And I’ll spend the next twenty minutes futzing around online in order to satisfy my curiosity.

Today, I wanted to share a brief history of GROG. Why? Because it’s neat, and neat stuff rocks.

I spent five years working in the liquor industry, so I’ve got a little bit of knowledge when it comes to spirits. I tend to include spirits in my writing, and I find the inclusion of “adult beverages “can inject a lot into a story.

Three characters walk into a bar.

  • Susette orders a light, fruity white wine.
  • Benson orders an 18-year old oak-cask whisky.
  • Charles orders an ounce of over-proof spirits.

When we read this, our brains conjure up an idea of what these characters are like and what sort of personality they might have. We also get a sense of age, socio-economical status, and perhaps even temperament. Immediately, conclusions are drawn. We’re left with an impression.

It’s a great, simple tool to help flesh out a characterization without overloading the reader with “telling” descriptors. And if you want to add comedy to the mix, you simply go against stereotype. You have the big, battle-hardened warrior order something that’s counter-intuitive, like strawberry wine. It’s instant comedy gold. (Well, maybe not gold… but you get the point.)

Now back to my groggy friend.

Grog is a type of spirit, and it tends to appear in fantasy novels – especially pirate fantasy, or any fantasy tale where the characters find themselves a-sailin’ on the seas..

Back in the days of yore, when sailors went to sea, they needed to bring fresh water as it wasn’t practical to distill fresh water from the salty seas. Water was stored in wooden barrels, which would develop both algae and bacteria. Over months at sea, that water would get pretty vile, and so beer or wine was added in an attempt to make it more palatable. But that involves transporting even more barrels of liquid, and after many months aboard a ship, the risk of spoilage would increase. And since sailors were issued a daily ration of beer, the amount of storage space required to transport the casks – water, beer, wine, brandy, etc. – caused a serious cargo problem.

Rum eventually replace beer and wine/brandy as the drink of choice upon the sea, but it was given to the sailor straight – and as a spirit with a high alcohol content, it caused some undesirable behaviors.  Some sailors would hoard their rations and then go on a bender, resulting in illness – “I’m feeling groggy” – and a severe lack of discipline. And likely a song or two sung off key. But that’s beside the point.

The decision was made to dilute the rum with water, as the final mixture had a shorter shelf-life than the rum alone. This solved the undesirable behavior, and thus became the standard practice. And if you’re curious, the ratio of water to rum was generally 4:1.

Seeing as the stored water wasn’t very tasty, a little bit of citrus – lemon or lime juice, typically – was added. So now we’ve got a tasty blend of foul water, rum, with a dash of citrus… and a ship full of satisfied – and lightly buzzed – sailors. As an added bonus: no more scurvy! And so, grog was officially invented and became common practice until the 1970’s.

And for those who care about etymology, “grog” is said to have taken its name from the nickname of “Old Grog” given to British Admiral Vernon because of his sense of style. It seems Old Vernon enjoyed the stylings of a kind of heavy coat of grogram – a coarse, weather-proof fabric. Vernon was stingy and had mandated the dilution of rum rations with water in 1740, and the term “grog” was used in a derisive way.

Personally, I’m not a fan of grog. I’ve tried it, and I find it tastes too much like Pinesol™. Or at least, it tastes what I imagine Pinesol™ to taste like, as I’ve never tried it. Honestly. Stop judging me. (No, seriously: don’t drink Pinesol™.)

Have you ever used spirits in your writing as a characterization aid? Do you notice it in the books you read? What sort of impression does it give? Share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your ideas!

Creative Goals: Using “Life Maps” to Get Your Desires

We’re all familiar with goals. Their origins lie in our basic human needs. “I need shelter” becomes a goal for protection, habitat, and safety. “I need food” turns into a goal for finding sustenance. We get better at achieving these goals, and the goals evolve. We evolve with them, until eventually our wants and desires become the primary motivator for our goals, rather than our needs.

But is the context for our “want goals” as strong as our “need goals”? And is there anything we can do to harness the power of our innate ability to set (and achieve) such goals?

Last night, I read Kristen Lamb’sAre You There Blog? It’s Me, Writer.” In it, she speaks often of the power of positive thought and goal setting, for it directs your thoughts and conscious energy into bringing something into fruition. I view it as literally programming your brain (or spirit/Universe/God) to make your desires happen.

Goals play an important role in my life and career, and I’ve been amazed at how strongly the act of setting goals can change my life and help manifest my desires.

Over a decade ago, I was introduced to the idea of “Life Mapping.” This technique involves identifying the desires in our life – present, short- and long-term future goals – and engaging in an act of “creative meditation” to formalize and direct our thoughts and energy toward achieving it.

In a nut shell, the technique involves four steps:

  1. Identify What You Want. This can be personal, emotional, financial, or professional. Anything is fair game. Dream big, but be certain it’s something you really want. And here’s the kicker: you must be specific. The more specific the goal(s) – the more details and parameters you set – the better.
  2. Get Creative. Sit down with a journal and write your goals down. Create a collage to help visualize the goal. Get as creative as you like: cut out pictures, doodle, use colors and fabrics. Go crazy. You are consciously putting effort and directed energy into your thoughts and literally manifesting them on paper.
  3. Be Positive and Present. Refer to the goal in the present tense, as though you already have it. Express gratitude for having it in your life. For instance: “I have a very favorable book deal with Del Rey for my fantasy manuscript. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted, and I am so grateful that my incredible agent negotiated it for me.” Don’t worry about how it sounds. Let it rip – but be specific.
  4. Create the Life Map For You Alone. The journal is not to be shared. Once you’ve completed your creative meditation and your collage, you’re not supposed to look at it again. Store it away under lock and key. Why? It protects the goal from our destructive “Judge” that’ll look for ways to belittle and undermine it, seeding it with negativity. Create the Life Map and pack it away, literally out of sight and out of mind.

This is an active, creative way to formalize setting goals. It might appeal to some, but not to others – and that’s okay. But you might not enjoy writing your goals on post-it notes, or feel like the 2 seconds you spent jotting down 10 New Year’s Resolutions was somehow insincere, and this might be more up your ally.

By taking 20 minutes to consciously give attention to the manifestation of a goal, you might be surprized at what can happen. And if you wanted, you could consider it a writing prompt to challenge your craft – and simultaneously meet the “write 200 words a day” post-it goal you made last week.

Recently, when I was going through my boxes in my parent’s basement, I came across one of my old Life Maps. A decade ago, I used this technique to plan a couple of things I wanted in my life: to be a full member of the professional actor’s union, and to be recognized for my work with an award.

In 2011, nine years after I sat down to put my wants and desires onto paper through creative meditation, both dreams came to fruition. I became a full member of the union, and I received a Best Actor award for my work in the professional theatre.

And you know what’s interesting? My Life Maps had a specific time-frame… of 10 years.

What are your favorite ways to set goals? Do you have creative method that might interest us? Do you have a personal success story with setting – and meeting – your goals? Please share in the comments below – I’d love to hear them!