Writing Excuses 9.5: Hijacking the Knowledge You Already Have, with Mette Ivie Harrison

What are those things you already know, but which you might not be using in your writing? How do you identify those things and put them to work for you? Mette Ivie Harrison joins us for a discussion of how you might “hijack” (okay, “repurpose”) the knowledge you already have in order to make you a better writer. We hear a lot about the 10,000 hours of practice required to gain expertise in a given domain. It’s possible that you’ve already spent some of those 10,000 hours in activities that you didn’t realize were related.

Mette leads with her love of history. Mary directs us a bit with a metaphor from Jim Henson. Brandon talks about what is, by any other name, fanfic, and Howard talks about his degree in music composition. We also talk about how we leverage the knowledge we’re acquiring in other activities to flesh out the things we’re writing — in effect, letting that stuff serve as research without it being part of the actual research we do.



Look at your own life. Take some skill, activity, or piece of esoteric knowledge that seems completely unrelated to your writing, and then incorporate it in the next thing that you write.

Dangerous Women, by George RR Martin, Gardner Dozois and several others (including Brandon Sanderson), narrated by a long A-list of voices.

16 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.5: Hijacking the Knowledge You Already Have, with Mette Ivie Harrison”

  1. Sorry for this, but that’s not how the 10,000 hour rule is supposed to work. It’s primarily concerned with the amount of practice of structural elements of kinda mechanics focused activities that one has to do in order to reach a top level of performance. So just fantasizing or writing doesn’t really count, as the hours that count are those during which one works on improving the way one does something in a deliberate and goal-oriented manner. The 10,000 hour thing has never been about the amount of time one has to spend doing the thing one wants to become a pro at. That idea just isn’t supported by the literature on expertise or expert performance. In fact, it has been emphasized again and again that merely engaging in the activity doesn’t have the desired effects once you reach a level of not-totally-incapable-of-doing-stuff. It’s 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, not 10,000 hours of doing stuff.

    Love the podcast though!

  2. Sorry for this, but it actually CAN work that way, and that’s why we used the word “hijack.”

    10,000 hours of work don’t count for squat if you keep doing the same thing (and making the same mistakes.) 10,000 hours of FOCUSED PRACTICE, especially with the direction of a mentor, can yield expert performance in just about any domain.

    The point above is that some of the things you already know may apply to your writing. They may allow you to refocus your practice. They may be things that you’ve spent a lot of time mastering, and can now repurpose in a different domain.

    1. Here’s an example too recent to have made it into the show: Several of us went to the archery range, got some instruction, and shot arrows at targets. Myke Cole, who had never shot a bow in his life, was consistently better than any of us except Mike Underwood, who had done quite a bit of archery. Myke, as it happens, is well-practiced with firearms, however.

      Well, there are a million things that are different when you compare archery and and firearms. Myke, however, had learned how to pay attention to his stance, and how to accept correction from the instructor. We all heard him the moment he found that sweet spot when the muscles across his back aligned, because he was in tune with himself enough to recognize it (and loud enough to let us all know.)

      He’s got thousands of hours of practice with firearms. I suspect that a mere 1,000 hours with the bow would have him shooting as well as all but the very best.

  3. Malcolm Gladwell got the 10,000 hour rule from K. Anders Ericsson–a single study.

    10,000 hours amounts to a 1 year (n0t a leap year),the month of January and 21 days, 16 hours . But I think it is a bit more complex than that. Malcolm Gladwell said that the 10,000 hour rule isn’t strict (It’s a mean–the math mean) and isn’t ignoring talent either. It’s not a magic number. There will be people with natural talent over you. But then there will be people with natural talent that don’t get the opportunity either.

    So if you’re talented and do nothing, you’ll be left in the dust. If you aren’t talented and work on it, you’ll succeed, but if you’re talented naturally at it and have the opportunity the time will be shorter. But if you’re seriously stunted and you keep working at it, there will be people that fall behind and just get marginally better too.

    It’s focused practice yes, but he never says it’s particuarly goal-oriented. Just that it has to be mentored/focused.

    I think this explains why the majority of people only make it in writing until their 30’s and 40’s. You can be working on writing since you were able to write and make stories and have someone who writes a practice book in their 40’s (Diana Gabaldon) and succeed the first time. It’s not the hours of writing only that goes in stories, it’s the experience of life itself. However, when that, say 3 year old gets to their 30’s and 40’s, they probably will be a better word smith than the person who just got published, but not if they didn’t have the opportunity to learn how to cull the words they didn’t need. And even being a word smith does not mean they will also be a story smith. Story takes experience– a shared experience to make it hit just right for its audience.

    But I still think going for a degree other than English is a good idea. I just wish they allowed “world building” as a degree in the universities! (Would allow me to take a more diverse cirriculum with more classes…)

    I still think one needs to be a nerd to be a story writer (A geek helps too).

    I do have a slight pick…
    Imitation isn’t the same as experience. Experience is the most bitter teacher (Confucius reference) and while you can imitate that to some degree, often the experience will trump the imitator. Imitation isn’t the same. Often people, expecially in front of you will cut off the more painful parts of whatever it means, kinda like a parent doesn’t tell the child who wants to be a firefighter that people die in fires. Sometimes people ask for prejudice that others get, and it’s often hard to describe why that moment was prejudicial, which may be able to be expressed in a story, but not in a conversation. And sometimes people are just scared to tell you the awful truth because they’ve gotten judged in the past or people shut them down halfway.

    This doesn’t mean you need to experience everything. But it does mean to keep that in mind and to ask more than one person with that experience, research and cross reference. (i.e. if you’re going to imitate, put in extra effort to get it right.)

  4. Thank you for this episode! I’d actually been meaning to write you guys and ask you guys to do an episode about how to make better use of the ‘what you know’ in ‘write what you know’. Apparently I wasn’t the only one. So thank you!

  5. @Herr Tayler;

    I guess I shouldn’t have started off with a ‘that’.

    My point wasn’t that there can’t be skill transfer between activities. Of course there can be. What I have a problem with is (i) attempts to apply the 10,000 hour rule where it is unclear how it is supposed to apply, and (ii) the examples you discussed. As the rule is used in the expertise and expert performance literature, it is primarily concerned with the amount of structured and process focused practice (with feedback) that one has to go through in order to reach a state of reproducible, superior performance on domain specific tasks, which is usually taken to include superior domain specific memory and knowledge organization. Merely learning about history or making up stories in your head doesn’t really fit into the idea of deliberate practice unless you’re actually trying to reshape the HOW of what you’re doing. Likewise, spending a lot of time playing the piano or shooting hoops or shooting a gun might count as a kind of practice, but not as deliberate practice – the thing the 10,00 hour rule is concerned with – unless you’re actually actively trying to improve the WAY you’re doing it.

    Again, I’m not saying that a habit of producing stories or knowing how to handle an audience isn’t helpful. I just think it’s odd to discuss it in the context of the 10,000 hour rule from a paradigm of expertise studies that stresses form based practice over outcome focused practice.

  6. When I became an improvisor, it was because I loved “Whose Line is it Anyway”. I wanted to be an actor. Little did I realize that having to craft 8 stories a night off the top of your head while 200 people sit in judgement is not acting–it’s writing.

    By the time I sat down to get ink to paper, I had a very clear understanding of what audiences like, when a plot is complete, when a character arc is complete, what promises I’d made to my audience and how to throw a twist or two.

    Though my hands weren’t on a keyboard, it’s some of the best training I ever got. I’ve since taught writing for improvisors. Lesson 1: I can lay out a story for you in one sentence. If I come on stage and say to you “Give up Danny; you’re never going to be a fighter pilot with those hook hands you’ve got” we know several things. We know you’re the protagonist. We know your objective: to be a fighter pilot. We know this story is going to be over when you succeed or fail at it.

    If you ever struggle with writer’s block, take an improv class. There are simple tricks to doing it spontaneously and once you know them, that blank screen is no problem.

  7. Being into fantasy can often make my own life seem really dull. It’s nice to get a reminder that those ‘boring’ experiences can be incorporated in new and interesting ways. They can be the element that really brings the world to life and makes it seem real.

    Just one little element can add a huge range of depth to a book; the authors I love to read all incorporate their love of something. It shines through and often makes me want to be really into that ‘something’, whatever it happens to be.

    Thank you for this reminder. It came at a very opportune time for me, just as I’m trying to add some depth to a possible story.

  8. Right now, I’m mostly busy posting stories on the internet without publishing or any money involved whatsoever, as practice for when I finally do get to write a story that I’ll send to a publisher and make money from. That, already, is a way of transfer on itself. However, that’s not my example.
    I’m Dutch. In the Netherlands, in thirteenth grade, you have to do a special kind of assignment(it’s called a ‘profile assignment’). A big one, in which you’re forced to spend at least eighty hours. You can choose the subject, any one you like. I did mine together with a friend, and we decided to have it be about the history of the Native Americans before Columbus arrived, a history period that often gets overlooked. I did the research on the Native Americans in the South, he did the Northern ones.
    Two kinds of transfer happened there. At the time, I was already writing fiction(same way I do now, to post on the internet), and as a result, the pieces I wrote read much better than the pieces that came from my friend, who had no writing experience whatsoever.
    During doing the research, I discovered that I was liking the Mayans best of all, I really enjoyed doing research about them. So, fast forward a few years. I have this great idea about a guy who gets caught in a car crash, but instead of doing so, gets sent back in time. But to what time period? I puzzled and wondered, before I realized the answer was really simple. I sent him back to the Mayans, because I had already done my research about them and was so excited about them that I could easily use that in my writing. The (Dutch) story turned out pretty okay because I loved the subject so much.

    Anyway, thanks for the podcast, it was a great one! Learnt a lot!

  9. Oh oops.

    Well, it seems Life on Mars has stolen my idea years before I got it x) I’ve never watched it, I’m afraid.

  10. Mary & Company:

    Thank you about that bit about taking a step back during a moment of trauma and thinking “I have to remember this, can use it…”

    I was actually in a pretty horrific accident my senior year of high school. Afterwards, when I was forced to go see a therapist, I remember telling her (my therapist), about having this exact reaction to the accident. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it gave me the distinct impression that how I reacted was not normal and slightly disturbing to her.

    I have been walking around for years thinking that something was wrong with me for reacting to the accident in that way. You have no idea what a relief it is that I am not the only one who reacts to traumatic situations in this way.

    Thanks so much.


  11. I’ve been running on this premise for quite a while now. I’ve found that my younger interests, and most definitely my college studies have been immensely useful in my writing. My major in Anthropology has given me a very good base in the creation of cultures as well as assisting with my characters. My studies in Psychology have been a great boon in my character creation. Both of these fields have also given my the analytic tools to further my own research and ideas.

    Upon graduation I had thought that my degree was not going to be as useful as I had hoped. However, the realization that my studies and interests had given me the tools for my writing was a great relief and galvanized my process.

    Thank you very much for this podcast as I feel strongly that it brings to light the fact that people have more experience in an area than they may give themselves credit for.

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