On Writing,  publishing

Stages of a Fiction Writer: Chapter Four

(Every day or so 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 Four

Almost all writers reading this will be in stage three.

If you see yourself in stage one, all focused on the writing and polishing of words, you can move quickly out of that once you understand the location you are stuck in. And then start making changes.

Change your focus to story. Stop polishing. Let your voice come through.

And stage two is the transition stage from the focus on polishing to the focus on story and characters and so on.

Stage three is huge. It would be like crossing the United States and Australia combined. It’s a ton of territory and a lot of things to learn. At one point someone suggested I try to break stage three down into levels and I just sort of laughed and shuddered at the same time.

Stage three is the learning and focus on story. On becoming a better storyteller.

I do entire workshops to try to help people move forward in just small areas of stage three such as character voice or depth or pacing or cliffhangers or ideas.

No way to break down stage three because one stage three writer will have a certain few skills mastered and be poor at others, while the writer sitting next to them will be poor at the skills the other writer has mastered.

Both writers are in stage three.


Expanded Awareness

As I detailed out in the poker analogy of stage three poker players being aware of everyone at the table and how they play, stage three writers are now gaining more and more awareness of story and business at the same time.

The bubble of awareness is just slowly expanding to include more and more skills that it takes to be a great storyteller and make money in this business of telling stories.

And the skills of sentence-by-sentence writing are more and more just taken for granted.

Sure, things like learning depth is a sentence-by-sentence skill in many ways, but it goes to the focus of story and character and reader reaction.

Understanding what a fake detail is might be down in the words, but it goes to story and character as well as reader reaction. What is learned in the basics of sentence writing in stage three all goes to service of story.

But the awareness bubble (for most writers) has limits.

And that is the problem. The best way I like to describe this problem is that a writer walks into a huge lobby area of a building. As you first enter the building (or stage three) you have no idea at all that there are fifty or more stories of the building above that large lobby and the shops and stuff around the lobby.

The awareness bubble does not move past that one level. Writers just can’t see the upper floors, and often don’t even know they are there, let alone how to find a staircase or an elevator. They don’t even realize they should look for one.

Writers at this level often stay in the lobby, happy with a few sales here and there.

Or they slowly become aware there is more above them, more things to learn. And these writers start looking for that staircase upward.

There are lots of flours of stage three above them. But sadly, most writers I have seen make the lobby and that’s where they stay, eventually just drifting off into history.

My entire point of this book is in hopes that someone reading it is stuck in the lobby and realizes that they need to look for a staircase upward, that they need to get back to learning and studying other writers.

How do you find a staircase or elevator out of that lobby? By learning and studying and becoming aware that there are better writers out there than you.

And then studying them.

To find a way out of this huge lobby, you need to stop thinking that all long-term successful writers just got lucky and can’t really write. Start asking yourself what is Cussler or Steele or Patterson or King or Oates doing right?

Get your taste out of the equation and study.

The staircase doors will start appearing.

And what is even more amazing, once you start climbing upward, you see things that you didn’t even know existed. And the more that happens, the more you realize you really didn’t know jack about telling stories.


How to Tell if You are In Stage Three?

Pretty simply, actually.

— Are you focused on learning story, learning character, learning depth, and on and on and on?

— Are you starting to have some success selling? Either indie or traditional.

— Do you have more than one or two books out?

— Have you cut down the number of rewrites, or found a better way, and want to get to the next story before you are almost done with the last one?


Death Spirals in the Lobby of Stage Three

There are three really, really common problems that early stage three writers have. In fact, I would say these two problems are the death of 95% of all stage three writer’s careers.

It’s like the writer gets into the lobby, looks around, and then turns and leaves.


Problem #1… Thinking that only original plots sell.

If you think this, wow do you need to really learn story and the history of story and so much more.

But the best way to do that is just stop thinking this and worrying about this. If you think all ideas are hard to come by and all need to be original, just take the Ideas online workshop that I do at WMG Publishing and I’ll save you from this death in six short weeks. I promise.

I can hear the voices in your head saying, “But… but… but… I must have great ideas…”

That’s your critical voice trying to slow you down, stop you, and if you let it, you are doomed from this one problem alone.


Problem #2… I don’t need to learn that.

This is a thought pattern that gets nasty very quickly. It starts bringing in time and money and day jobs and so on and so on. This also is your critical voice trying to stop you or slow you down.

Critical voice only has one job and that’s to stop you. Thinking you DO NOT need to learn something, anything, or practice something, is a golden road for your critical voice to stop you.

Learning never stops in this business.


My suggestion is this: If you hear yourself say, “I’m good enough in that area to not worry about it now.” Then notice you said that, stop, and focus on that area. Learn it, make sure your critical voice knows that every time it attempts to pull that trick on you, you will go learn what it is trying to keep you from learning to improve your skills and selling.

“Good enough” is deadly in writing.



Problem #3… Patience and lack of long-term perspective.

The thinking goes like this: I’ve been at this long enough. It’s not working. I’ve spent three years or five years or whatever at it. I need to walk away.

Or even more stupid, sometimes I hear this expressed this way in the indie world: My friends are all selling better than I am. I only made 300 sales last month, I’m failing, I’m going to quit.

The door to the building is that big wide thing with people streaming in and out.

All long-term professional writers have learned to not be insulted by some two-or-three-year writer who proclaims they should be selling better than anyone. Or one of the one-or-two-year writers who got lucky with the right book at the right place and started selling quickly and think they are god’s gift to writing.

I have worked since 1974 at this writing thing, learning and working and writing millions and millions and millions of words. When some three year writer tells me I don’t know how to write, or proclaims they are a better writer than Patterson, I just smile and turn away because I know they are already halfway out the door.

Harsh? Yes.

Not fair? Yes.

This is a business. This is an art that takes decades to learn just the basics and you never learn it all. If you think you don’t need those decades of learning because your English teachers told you that you had talent, then all I can say is “Goodbye.”

I know that all beginning writers are in a hurry. I know that. I was as well.

So I suppose a true indication that you are well into stage three is that you understand the time needed to learn your art and business.


I hope you are not in any of those problems at the moment, or if you are, you can snap out of it, get back to learning, and expand your awareness to the fact that there are levels of writing you just can’t see yet.

And then have the desire to see those new levels. After all, you made it through the first two stages. You can go higher and farther.


The Secret to Working Through Stage Three

Just tell the next story.

Do your best on every story you write, keep learning, keep practicing, and then just tell the next story.

Get that story you just finished out to sell to readers in one way or another.

And then just keep learning and tell the next story.

Make writing fun.

Make learning fun.

Make telling stories fun.


(In the next chapter: Starting to reveal what is up above that lobby.)


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