Malcolm Gladwell’s Book Outliers – A How to Succeed Manual for Writers and Screenwriters

February 23, 2009

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I tend to lean toward non-fiction books.  I like knowing the hours spent reading something are beneficial.  If the book is interesting I’m done in a few days – absorbing big mouthfuls like a jumbo-size tub of popcorn.  If it’s not so good I consume it like a slice of holiday fruitcake – with gracious etiquette – laboring over every bite because I feel impelled to finish what I start.  Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book Outliers was not only consumed like a jumbo-size tub of popcorn – it was deliciously smothered in butter.

First of all, I have to admit my bias.  I love Gladwell’s previous books, Tipping Point and Blink.  Both are very insightful.  But Outliers has made me view life, success and most importantly screenwriting and what we do here at LitCentral in a much different way.  In Outliers Gladwell suggests that “genius” or a high IQ has nothing (yes, I said nothing) to do with success… and even more so, extraordinary success (hence the title – Outliers).

In true Gladwell style, he backs up his hypothesis with facts, stats, studies and real-life examples.  Taking a close look at prodigies like Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Mozart, Bobby Fischer, The Beatles, etc. he discovers they have one thing in common – 10,000 hours of practice in their field or talent of choice.  Ten thousand hours breaks down to roughly 20 hours a week x 10 years.  Can anyone commit 10,000 hours of practicing to something?  In theory yes, but in reality no.  Not everyone has the inherent desire to engage themselves in the same task for extended periods of time.

Gladwell took a scrupulous look at the elite Berlin Music Academy where not one of the soloists could claim they had practiced less than the 10,000 hours to achieve their position.  Starting in the 7th grade, by the time Bill Gates started Microsoft he had 10,000 hours of computer programming. The same is true for Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems.  Chess king Bobby Fischer made it to #1 in the world in just less than nine years.  Talent?  Maybe.  Time well spent? Definitely!

What does this have to do with writing and screenwriting?
Let me return the question…

Do you know how long it took Mark Twain to write what is arguably the greatest American novel, Huckleberry Fin?  Nine years!  Draft after draft went by the wayside because he couldn’t figure out how to end the story. The idea for Harry Potter entered J.K. Rowlings head in 1990.  By 1995 she had finished the first manuscript.

Do you know how many screenwriters were involved in the movie Tootsie? Eleven.  That’s right, eleven.  Add up their combined hours spent.  How long did Andrew Walker labor over his first script Se7en?  Three years while working at Tower Records.  Callie Khouri has a similar timetable with her first script Thelma and Louise. The notion that great writers and screenwriters are born is simply not true.  Great writers are constructed from hundreds of “steel beams” called drafts.  Simply put, the more you write, the better you write.

Hare Gets the Sale & Tortoise Gets the Oscar
Have you ever been represented by a literary agent?  I have.  You’ve barely finished your last script before they are demanding the first draft to your next.  Why… because it’s a numbers game.

When an agent is on the phone pitching to a producer she’s trying to get a feel for what the producer is looking for in his next project.  So, the more material the agent has to present, the better chance they have of engaging the producer.  Because of this, premises tend to sell scripts, not great characters or solid story structure.   Sad but true.

A premise can be pitched in 60 seconds, but describing characters and story structure takes time.  Unfortunately for moviegoers, the premise might get them into the movie theater, but it’s the characters they identify with, and who keep them in their seats – singing a movie’s praises long after a moviegoer has left the theater (word of mouth).

Nielson did a study on the disappointment of moviegoers.  In the end it wasn’t the high-priced popcorn and ticket, it wasn’t DVD alternatives or the chatterbox in the seat behind you, IT WAS THE QUALITY OF MOVIES that has movie-lovers less willing to shell-out cash at the box office.  Think about it.  When you decide to go see a movie isn’t it because you think the movie is going to be worth your time and money?  Of course!

Bottom line is this…  Don’t be a hare and rush, rush, rush to get a “mediocre” screenplay to your agent.  Be a tortoise, like Dustin Lance Black – the newly “Oscared” screenwriter – who researched Harvey Milk for three years before writing his screenplay on spec.  Add that to his 9-year screenwriting career, and well, he has a beautiful gold man to don his mantle.

Pure + Natural = Hogwash
Folks who don’t have the propensity to stick with what they aspire to be or do, have the tendency to unintentionally dismiss the fruits of painstaking labor as “natural talent” or “pure genius”.  Michael Jordan used to take great offense at sports writers who described him as a “natural born talent”.  That cursory description dismisses all the basketball practices where Jordan arrived early and stayed late, or the hours spent at home practicing jump shots and free throws.  Michael Jordan is what Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as an outlier.

How does this apply to you?
Want to be a great writer?  Then arrive early and stay late at your computer.  There are no shortcuts.  And if you’re a producer or an editor looking for the next great [fill in the blank], start by asking for the writer’s “recipe for craft”.  If it requires a slow boil or marinating of any kind, you might be onto the next Juno or Little Miss Sunshine!

Check out Outliers, you’ll love it!

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