My Ten Year Theory

A sketch of a woman reading in a chair with a realistic clock off to the side

Though I write about aliens, I’m not one for conspiracy theories. But…I have completed thorough research and careful observation to build one specific theory. The project has fallen to the wayside, for reasons you’ll soon see. However, I used to obsess over its documentation.

The theory is: it takes ten years for a writer to become an author.

Or, rather, that it takes ten years from when a person, usually already writing in some capacity, pin points their desire to become a published author, to when they actually have a book on the shelf.

When I was on the board of the Fox Cities Book Festival, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Elizabeth Letts. She asked how many of us were writers, and then shared her experience that if a writer continues to practice their craft and put themselves out there, they find a way to bring their book to life. This looks different for each writer, but perseverance is the ultimate key.

I began to get curious about the role persistence played and decided to look at some case studies by composing a list of media that I was obsessed with at some point or another in my life. I wanted to ask what those pieces of media had in common and how much experience the author had at the time of creation. Part of this was also the start of my process to identify what I wanted to write myself, though I didn’t realize it then. I built this list in the early days of the pandemic.

The list included 6 book series, 2 graphic novels, 2 tv shows, 2 in the category of music, and 1 video game. I saw a lot of commonalities between these, the reason why I was drawn into them in the first place. They were long, ongoing series with multiple POV characters and strong voice and style. 

Further, the average age of those creators was 34 years at the time they started the project, with 8 years of experience.

As if that’s not kooky enough, I made another list, this time a table comparing the careers of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin, and J.K. Rowling. I read their biographies thoroughly and marked out on a timeline for each when they started writing and what they did each decade of their career—yeah, if I ever meet them, I’m not saying a word about this!

There were some outliers and it’s a small list to start with, but, generally, it took a decade of work before they were first published.

Additionally, I learned about the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something, an idea made popular by Malcom Gladwell. Over a ten year period, that’d be nearly three hours of practice every day.

Remember, at this time, I was not yet a published author. It was a goal I felt I was working towards for…almost a decade, and I was beginning to wonder if it would ever happen. I was searching for data and information in an industry that is often very anti-data. The writing world is often run by vibes.

So, my next step was to write out my own timeline:

2013 (This was the year I decided to work towards becoming a published author)

  • Journaled
  • Kept my first blog detailing my time in the Peace Corps
  • Wrote three short creative pieces
  • Finished serving in the Peace Corps

2014

  • Began writing “Life Without Pants” with my sister, a shared memoir
  • Worked at an art museum

2015

  • Edited “Life Without Pants”
  • Kept a blog about my daughters’ medical journey
  • Worked at an art museum
Rebecca M. Zornow's handwriting

2016

  • Edited “Life Without Pants”
  • Got my first article published in the Potawatomi Times
  • Became a finalist in a Peace Corps storytelling contest
  • Worked a series of part-time nonprofit jobs as I fought for stability as a new mother

2017 (The first year I made money as a writer)

  • Queried “Life Without Pants”, hit a dead end
  • Began research for a science fiction book
  • Wrote a multi-part short story
  • Published another article for the Potawatomi Times
  • Joined the Fox Cities Book Festival board
  • Made $185.25 from my writing career

2018

  • Wrote through five drafts of Dangerous to Heal
  • Published articles in three publications
  • Wrote more short stories
  • Founded Conquer Books and launched the website as a reader blog
  • I made $2,080.86 from my writing career and began to see this as a viable route
Nicole and Rebecca with the Conquer Books logo

2019 (This was the year I wrote this chart. So everything above was stuff I was able to document, and then I had three blank columns ahead of me)

  • Queried Dangerous to Heal, no literary agents were interested
  • Packed my year with writing courses and classes, doing all I could to learn more about my craft
  • Became editor-in-chief of a regional magazine
  • Ran Conquer Books, growing my network and gaining experience in the industry
  • Continued on the Fox Cities Book Festival Board
  • Was a Woman of Distinction Nominee
  • Made $8,650 from my writing career

2020

  • Wrote and queried a nonfiction book proposal called “So, You Want to Save the World?” and despite excellent feedback, agents cited it would be difficult to sell a travel volunteer guide to a publisher during the pandemic
  • Started plotting a weird book about aliens that would eventually become It’s Over or It’s Eden
  • Wrote and submitted a short story every month which meant I added another publication to my byline list
  • Won the Hal Prize
  • Shifted Conquer Books fully into a book coaching company
  • Worked with a business coach and a financial coach
  • Made $12,058.70 from my writing career

2021 (This was the year I became a published author!)

  • Wrote It’s Over or It’s Eden and felt so intrinsically passionate about this book despite it being the kind of story I thought would be hard for a publisher to market, that I decided to self-publish
  • Replotted Dangerous to Heal and split the storyline into two books
  • Created an author website
  • Continued writing articles and short stories
  • Continued building Conquer Books as a book coaching firm
  • Continued taking notes on podcasts, virtual conferences, working with mentors, and everything I could think of to grow
  • Did my first radio interview
  • Made $20,474

I made it. I had brought a book to life. I also still had one column remaining in the ten-year plan and most of you will know I went on to publish Dangerous to Heal in 2022 as well as become a bestselling author. In 2023, I published Negotiated Fate and felt my growth and output  boom. I was now out of the am-I-ever-going-to-do-it? phase to the OMG-it’s-actually-working phase. I folded up my taped-together, graph paper chart and put it into a folder titled “Me” in my file cabinet.

Why don’t I continue to work on my ten year theory? It’s because I’ve moved on to researching another theory—when in an author’s career, on average, does a writer have their big, breakout book?

Picture of I'm Rebecca Zornow

I'm Rebecca Zornow

A science fiction author living in Wisconsin, I love traveling, eating good food, and reading long books.

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