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The Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule

A book I have found fascinating to re-read more than once is "Outliers," by Malcolm Gladwell. As far as my body of knowledge goes, it’s the seminal book on the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule.

Blake Snyder, the now sadly deceased author of "Save the Cat," which may be the most popular and maybe the best screenwriting book ever written (300,000+ copies sold) also liked this rule, and in fact dedicated his last blog to its ideas (See: http://www.savethecat.com/todays-blog/best-of-blakes-blogs-blakes-last-blog).

What is the 10,000-hour rule and why is it relevant?

To answer by example, take the story of Bill Gates. His world-changing Microsoft Windows is still the operating system for 75% of all personal computers in the U.S., not counting phones.

You probably know that he was a brilliant young man who dropped out of Harvard in his freshman year, 1975, to found Microsoft with fellow genius Paul Allen.

At the time, literally no one on Earth had a commercially-produced personal computer. The IBM PC didn’t come along until 1981, and my 28-pound Osborne I “portable” with the five-inch screen the same year. The Commodore 64 hit the market in 1982 and the Tandy 1000 in 1984.

Even before then, he had a head start: prior computer experience which probably no other kid in the world (except his friend Paul Allen) had, starting in eighth grade.

Through one lucky event after another, he and Allen gained access to computer terminals all the way through high school. And they spent every spare minute at them. Their high school even let them spend their last half of their senior year off campus, doing computer programming, when they were hired by TRW to program. Why did TRW hire two teens? The 10,000 hour rule: even adults with their level of programming experience were extremely rare back then.

So they had put in vastly more than 10,000 hours learning and doing programming when virtually no one else in the world (Gladwell mentions a couple...Steve Jobs, Bill Joy) had a chance of getting in those 10,000 hours - other than being tied to a job at IBM or a big company, which were not opportunities to do what one wanted to do on a mainframe.

As a modern-day screenwriter, you have at least one thing in common with Bill Gates, and possibly two more:

The one is that you have easy access to every resource you could possibly need to write a great screenplay. You have far easier access, in fact, than he had to the resources he needed. When I created my first website from scratch in 1996, I spent a couple hundred hours researching how. By then, a rudimentary research tool call “the Internet browser” was newly available. I’d bought a dial-up modem with a whopping 1200 bps speed (compare: today you could download at 100 mbps if you had Spectrum (Time Warner, Charter), which is 83,888 times as fast as I could fetch data then. Bill Gates had terminals with very fast direct access to mainframes, but with clumsy, characters-only user interfaces.

To put it another way: this is THE golden age, in the entire history of the world so far, of access to all of the resources needed to write great screenplays, from learning how to write character, dialogue and story structure, to how to format, how to spell correctly and write good English, and to all the market information needed to figure out what to write. It is also the screenwriter's golden age (so far) of a multitude of buyers of screenplays and producers of creative content.

When William Goldman wrote that nobody knows anything about what will work, he was speaking of an age in which market research on what works was so rudimentary that, well, no one really knew.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take a market research company with a seven-figure contract to figure out what the markets are for screenplays. You can do it retroactively in a day or two, and with a bit of creative extrapolation, have some idea of what will be marketable later this year.

What it takes to be a successful screenwriter is having the array of talents, one of which is some degree of vision about what will be marketable (which requires research) and then marketing, which requires effort or paying someone to do it for you, or some combination thereof. Marketing is a vital skill you can acquire, even if it’s against your nature to be a huckster or side-show barker. There are follow-the-dots marketing books.

And it takes putting in the 10,000 hard, focused hours. Or more.

And the right attitude. An open mind to learning. A willingness to see “failure” as learning experience. Rats succeed in finding their way out of mazes by hitting dead ends -- trial and error. You are far smarter than the average rat. You can find your way.

That brings me to the final point of this blog. In my research for Be that One In A Hundred, I received a large volume of comments from angry and frustrated writers about the industry. The fact that the comments were negative did not surprise me a bit. I had asked specifically what the industry does wrong and should do better in dealing with aspiring screenwriters.

What did surprise me was that most of the negative commentary from aspiring screenwriters was based on wet dreams and fantasies about what the industry should do differently for “me.”

To be honest with you, the industry is a business, not a social service agency. If it has a social responsibility at all -- and I very strongly believe that it does -- it is to the health of the society, not to you. Because it is a business, it should probably not do many of the things responding screenwriters said it should do. It already does some others.

A good deal of the negativity was comments along this line: that the industry makes only blockbusters, franchises, movies with fat brand and toy/game tie-ins. If you are one of those who holds that belief, I have two thoughts to leave you with:

1. Do you think Bill Gates ever whined, “Why does the computer industry make only huge mainframes?”

2. Do buy my book, and first read the chapter on production companies and what they make. It’ll open your eyes, and maybe boost your morale and show you some opportunities to Be That One In A Hundred.

Oh, the two more things you might have in common with Bill Gates: creative genius and the drive to put in 10,000 hours learning and writing.

Keep writing, and I wish you success.

Bill Donovan
Author of Be That One In A Hundred

What if you've already made a bad mistake?

Be That One In A Hundred is a compendium of just about every common and major “mistake” aspiring screenwriters make (the quotes around “mistake” mean a mistake in the views of industry people) as they pursue professional careers.

So, let’s say you bought the book (Thank you!), and you started reading it.

You came to an industry comment which absolutely, perfectly describes a really bad, boneheaded thing you’ve already done.

So maybe you’re thinking, “Now what do I do?”

As the book says, people in the industry have long memories, they talk to each other, and some of them keep written records on aspiring screenwriters who have contacted them. So hoping that they just won’t remember you probably isn’t the best approach.

If you did something similar to the guy who inexplicably blamed me and called me a “Mother******” because he couldn’t figure out how to attach a script file to an email, and who then followed up with another foul and accusative email, you don’t have a lot of options. Sure, apologize. But I very quickly put his email address in my spam filter.

I figured that he was entitled to one nasty email, even if he had his facts wrong, but he sent two. It’s fairly likely that a producer or agent would react similarly. Maybe not a screenplay contest manager, because there’s money to be made in the contest business by forgiving people their vitriolic moment, but a producer or agent wouldn’t ever want to hear from you again.

If he’d sent that email to a producer or agent, then what he could do, would be to apologize, and then do his queries and writing under a pseudonym from then on. And, of course, he should never do anything so mean or stupid with an industry person again.

Suppose your “mistake” was more innocent but amateurish, such as a script with a lot of typos or bad grammar under the assumption that “they have people to fix this sort of thing”?

What I’d do – and I have done this when I’ve made a truly dumb mistake like the one* described below – is immediately correct it just once (such as by sending out the query or the script or the whatever communication again, corrected), leave it at that, and let time pass.

* The one...Several months ago, late at night, when I was tired and rushing to get the job done, I sent an email blast out to 74,000 people for my screenplay proofreading service. In that email, I spelled “proofreading” incorrectly.

Not just in the email, but in the subject line, of all places. In one of the first three words of the subject line, where it was pretty hard to miss.

A number of people responded with mocking catcalls and nasty emails. Good for them. I deserved it. Wow, what a stupid mistake! Especially considering the fact that I’ve been a professional writer and editor for many years.

However, one screenwriter, who saw both the original and the correction, hired me to proofread and provide notes. He seemed very satisfied with my work afterward.

People do understand and forgive honest (but reaaaaaalllllyyy stupid) mistakes like mine. We all make them. Own up, fix it, move on, and hang onto that feeling of utter humiliation as a life lesson – not to beat yourself up with, but just to remember not to do it again.

So what if your “mistake” was sending out a juvenile, dumb, copycat, insipid script? Accept the feedback which seems to be asking, “Are you really that incompetent?” and grow a bit. Write a better one.

The other really bad mistake (not just a “mistake,” but a really bad one) is responding to negative feedback, especially with a negative remark of your own. Yes, it hurts to have your work trashed. You simply have to accept that it’s going to happen.

For example: when I owned Creative Screenwriting Magazine, I wrote a few commentaries for it. I’d hired a very good copy editor, and I turned a commentary over to her before letting it be published. I did so to set an example to our article writers, some of whom were too-sensitive screenwriters who didn't like having their magazine copy touched. With all those years as a writer and editor, my writing was just SO good that I didn’t really need a copy editor.

Or so I told myself.

Well, she edited it to shreds. My first (silent and all alone) reaction to her doing the job I’d hired her for was outrage.

Then, I reread all the substantial improvements she’d made in my work, and ... “Well, huh! This reads a lot better, come to think.” And I knew from long experience that I’d be the one with the byline who got the credit for her very fine copy editing and rewrite work.

That’s a thing to remember. If “they” give you feedback on a script, and then the movie is good, you get the writing credit for the work they did thinking about how to improve it.

Say “Thank you” for feedback. Always say, “Thank you,” and stuff the angry remarks.

And thank you for reading this far.

If you think Be That One In A Hundred might help you advance your screenwriting career, you can click on the "ORDER THE BOOK" link above.

Bill Donovan

What Is This “Be That One In A Hundred” Phrase In My Book Title All About?

And Who’s Claiming To Know?

As for who’s writing these books and making claims to have information, please see my bio at bethatoneinahundred.com (right side of the page) and read the homepage blurb on the research I’ve done to gain some understanding of this subject.

As to “That One In A Hundred”:

Well, first, it might not be a hundred. “One In A Hundred” is a convenient way of talking about the numerical odds of selling or optioning a screenplay to the U.S. movie industry (and probably the British or Australian, and maybe the French, Chinese, Bollywood, Nigerian, and other movie and TV industries).

Your numerical chances might well be a bit better than a hundred, or a bit lower. No one knows because no one has any real statistics on how many screenplays are proffered and how many sold. The phrase is a convenience, not a definitive statistical declaration.

The goal of my books is to help you increase those odds substantially by avoiding the mistakes which the other 99+/- percent make. It might also help you to market your screenplay(s) and yourself as a writer more effectively.

This first book in the series is about what many aspiring screenwriters do “wrong” (“wrong” in the eyes of the industry) which reduce their chances of making it as a screenwriter.

My purpose in researching and writing it was to inform (not give my opinions, but actually inform, based on factual research) aspiring screenwriters about what gets in the way of success.

Some people reading this commentary are bound to think, “Well, who needs a book like this? It’s all pretty simple. You just ...”

Yes, it’s simple, What it is not is obvious to most new screenwriters.

For example, suppose you just wrote the greatest box-office-bonanza screenplay since “Casablanca” or “Gone With the Wind” or “Star Wars.”

Then, you just “get an agent,” and then your next “Casablanca” or ”Gone With The Wind” or ”Star Wars,” appears on 3500 screens nationwide next year, and has a run so long that people forget there ever was a “Casablanca,” or a “Gone With the Wind” (which, counting by ticket sales and adjusted for inflation, is still the top-grossing movie of all time, I think), a zillion samolians come your way, you buy that Malibu Colony mansion, and you show up at the Academy Awards to pick up your little gold statuette.

No. Doesn’t work. If you copied “Casablanca” or “Gone With the Wind” or “Star Wars” and renamed it, and sent it out to a hundred Hollywood agents under your name with no other produced credits, not one of them would get back to you. At least 99 agencies wouldn’t even read it, and the one person who opened the envelope and maybe passed it on to a reader at the hundredth wouldn’t recognize it.

That route to success doesn’t work anymore.

I’m not blaming agents.

OK, I am, to a degree. As marketers of work for unknown, unproduced feature screenwriters, they suck. Marketing unknowns and their work is not their expertise. Even if it were, marketing is so much work, and the response rate is so low, that they’d still put all their marketing efforts into their established clients with production credits.

That is, even if they were good marketers, they wouldn’t market well on your behalf. Why? There are a hundred thousand or more of you aspiring screenwriters, but only a few hundred agents, all of whom have full client lists.

So do the math. “Write screenplay, get agent” is not a viable approach for you, the unknown writer.

The good news is that there are many approaches that DO work. They are discussed in chapter 8, and will be discussed at greater length in a second book.

But first, you need to know what doesn’t work, and how your own pet fantasies are working against your success. And that’s what this book is about: how to avoid or stop doing the things that don’t work, and how to change your attitude if it is holding you back.

That’s what Be That One In A Hundred is about. Doing the smart things and not doing the dumb things, as the industry sees them.

It’s for sale in both digital and paperback formats. Go to the book order page to order.

Bill Donovan
Author