On Writing,  publishing

Stages of a Fiction Writer: Chapter Five

(Every day or so, sometimes longer, I will put another chapter here of this book. Patreon supporters, you will get the full book sent to you when it is all done. Please note: This is advanced reader copy. This has not been proofed. That will be taken care of when I turn in the final book to WMG Publishing.)


Chapter Five

Starting into stage four, the top stage.

I got a question after the last chapter when I put that chapter on my blog. “How many writers are in stage four?”

Think of stage four as a decent-sized town.

Selling stage three writers could fill a couple large cities. As I said earlier, most stage three writers never get past those first sales. To reach stage four, it takes an intense desire to keep learning and studying the art of storytelling.

And it flat takes years and years and millions and millions of words. Sorry, just can’t jump there. Not even slightly possible.

So What Is a Stage Four Writer?

— A writer in complete control of the art of storytelling.

— A writer who is still learning.

— A writer who is using techniques, often without knowing, that are advanced.

— A writer that is balanced in skills.

— A writer that has no giant weak areas in their storytelling.

— A writer who can handle any kind of storytelling technique a story demands.

— A writer who is a bestseller and has been for many, many years, if not decades.

— A writer who knows when a reader needs something before a reader knows they need it.


So what is the difference between stage three and stage four writers?

Often not much for advanced stage three writers. But still there are critical differences.

Stage three writers are often bestsellers, but fairly new at it. Stage three writers often have huge areas of their writing they are weak at and fear some types of storytelling.

Often a stage three writer will be very good at one area and will be using that all the time to keep selling without adding in the balancing skills.

And most importantly, a stage three writer is not always in control of a story. Not from a critical place, but from a skill place.

More importantly, stage three writers have very, very little awareness of readers on the other side of the story. They may think of readers in marketing, but never in telling their own stories.


How to Explain This

To make this clear, I need to go back to the poker analogy. (And please, any professional poker player out there, give me some slack. I am being general here in a hope to help writers, not other poker players.)

As I said earlier, stage three poker players have expanded their awareness from the two cards in their hands out over the entire poker table to the other players and the five cards on the board.

Stage three poker players can often understand how other players are going to play, can often know what two cards another poker player has and so on.

Stage three poker players often make nice money.

Stage four poker players can do all that as well.

And so much more.

A stage four poker player is an expert at reading people in general. They know the types of players, they know the cards, and they will often know how a person will play before they sit down. Not kidding.

There is a scene in the movie Rounders where Matt Damon (playing stage four poker player Mike McDermott) walks into a home poker game with some of his law professors. They ask him to join them and he declines (as he should and as I always do with friends). He stands there and watches them play a hand, then gives his professor advice.

They ask him how he knows to make that play and he explains clearly what every other player at the table is playing.

That scene was a brilliant and quick scene to understand the level of stage four poker players. It looked almost like a magic trick, but it was not, it was a great representation of some skills of stage four poker players. I will explain how Damon knowing all the cards relates to storytelling in a minute.

Stage four poker players play details, play motions, betting, and everything. And folks, there are only 52 cards in a deck, so simply seeing a reaction and a few cards can give a stage four poker player a clear read on another player.

But those players you watch in the top events on television play very strange cards in their hands that are not good “starting hands” by any book written for beginners. Why?

Because the stage four players often don’t care about the two cards in their own hand. (I have played more hands of poker blind than I ever want to think about, meaning I never looked at my two cards, even though I often pretended I did.)

Unless it comes to a showdown, meaning all betting is done and everyone turns over their cards, a stage four poker player won’t much care about his own two cards.

A stage four poker player only cares what the other stage four poker player sitting across from him thinks he has.

Now understand, stage four and late stage three players often get into trouble with stage two players because those stage two players don’t have the awareness to be convinced of something one way or another. Stage two and early stage three poker players just don’t even understand the game they often watch on television.


A Real Life Example

I had bought into a $1,500 no-limit tournament at the World Series of Poker a bunch of years back. I found myself sitting across from Eric Seidel and on the left of David Pham, the Card Player Magazine player of the year the previous year.

Two top stage four players.

I did not know anyone else at the table and no one knew me.

There were over 80 tables. And as players got knocked out of the tournament, they had a list on a big board as to which tables would break to fill in the empty spots at other tables. Our table would not break until eight or nine hours into the tournament, if that.

So I was there on the same table with two of the top players in the world for at least eight hours if I could survive. They did not know me. I was like the other players to them, but they clearly knew each other.

So I just sat back, made a clear point of looking at my cards each time, and then tossed them away. I didn’t even care what they were.

I had no intention of playing for at least the first hour of the tournament. Not because I was afraid, but because I wanted to set something up for the two top players and watch how they played as well.

Seidel basically only played a few hands in the first hour and everyone folded to him.

On my right, Pham was raising almost every hand and pulling most of the small pots, only getting into a few fights at all with anyone at the table. And when Seidel was in a hand, Pham laid down his cards.

So finally, after one hour, Seidel and Pham clearly thought they had a clear read on me. They clearly thought EXACTLY what I wanted them to think.

I hadn’t said a word, just folded every hand. They figured I was a tight player who was playing scared. I would have thought the same thing in their positions.

So after the first hour, on one hand, I glanced down and had a pair of kings. Pham raised, I re-raised him and everyone else on the table folded around to him. He nodded and without looking at his cards folded.

That one hand repaid all the blinds I had lost in the first hour. (grin)

What Pham was thinking was that I was a very tight player, an early stage player with a lot of patience, and would only play top hands, and Pham didn’t want to fight with a top hand, especially so early in the tournament. (That was why I went with a pair of kings to start making my move, to make sure that if I did get called down to a showdown, I would have the powerful hand I wanted him to think I only played.)

I had made him believe he knew what cards I was going to play. And I noticed that when Pham folded, Seidel nodded. Seidel clearly had the same thought.

Two hands later, Pham raised again and I re-raised him again. This time I had two low garbage cards. But I knew he was a stage four player and all I cared about was what he thought I had, not what I actually had.

He folded again.

So for the next two hours, Pham took money from other players and I took money from him at times when he raised.

Not once did I get in a showdown with anyone in those first hours. Not one person ever saw my cards.

At that point in my life, I also had great peripheral vision and I raised Pham a couple of times when I noticed he hadn’t even looked at his cards. I hadn’t looked at mine, either, but that’s beside the point. I was just playing with his mind.

In essence, we were playing cards without caring what our own cards were. Impossible to even imagine to a stage one or two poker player.

Players kept getting knocked out and leaving our table and leaving their chips behind with the three of us. At the lunch break, Seidel and Pham and I had the three large stacks.

After lunch, Pham changed his play from raising almost every hand and went to playing more like Seidel and I knew they had changed their read on me, so I changed to regular play, and the three of us took turns taking money from the others.

And never after lunch did I raise Pham or Seidel and they never raised me either. In other words, their read on me had gotten a little closer to my actual skill level and in the early hours of the tournament there was no reason to mix it up.

They knew exactly what I had done to them. I had led them to believe I was one type of player when I was actually another.

Mind control.

After nine hours, the tournament broke our table to send us to empty chairs at the twenty remaining tables. We walked together upstairs talking. (This was in Binions and I went back to writing shortly after that tournament and have never had the pleasure to sit at a poker table with either of them again.)

So the key to stage four poker players, when playing other stage four players or good stage three players, is to make the other player think they understand and know what you have.


How Does This Apply to Stage Four Writers?

Simple and exactly the same.

Stage one writers only worry about the typing. The words.

Stage two writers are starting to worry about story, but still focus on typing and the words.

Stage three writers have expanded out to be aware of story and characters and they notice pacing and so much more. (Remember, stage three is a huge area that takes years to get through and most never do.)

Stage four writers could not much care about the words. Words are in the complete control of stage four writers and are only part of the tools the writer uses.

What is important to a stage four writer is what the reader is experiencing at any give moment in the story.

In other words, stage four writers awareness has expanded outside the words, outside the story, outside of characterization, and to what the reader will be thinking and feeling at any moment in the story.

Stage four writers understand what will hold a reader in a story, understand when a question needs to be answered and answer it a fraction of a second before the reader thinks it.

Stage four writers will not allow the reader out of the story, and so much more.

Just as I controlled Pham and Seidel’s thoughts on that table for a few hours, stage four writers control reader’s minds from word one of a story to the final word.

And often beyond.


(More on stage four in the next chapter)


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