On Writing,  publishing

Stages of a Fiction Writer: Chapter Three

(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 Three

As we move into stage three, it’s time I bring in the poker analogy I promised earlier on in the book.

As I said, I have always had cards in my life. I paid most of my way through college with cards, and also played professional poker for a time.

The definition of a professional poker player is a person who makes most of his or her money playing poker. I am now a semi-professional since I make money at poker when I play, but I make most of my money these days from my writing.

In fact, here in 2015 I don’t play much poker at all. Occasional trips to Las Vegas is all. I might go back more in the coming years. Time will tell.

But this poker analogy works very, very well. The stages of poker are almost exactly parallel to the stages of writing, and you don’t need to know poker to understand the analogy. Honest.

For this analogy, I’m going to use the poker game called Texas Holdem. (Yes, spelling can be Hold ‘em or Hold’em, but for this, I’ll use the simple spelling.)

Texas Holdem is a seven-card game to make the best five-card poker hand.

At the start, each player around a table (usually 9 at a full table) is dealt two cards down, so only the player can see them.

There is a betting round.

The dealer places three cards face up in the middle of the table. (All players use those three cards.)

Another betting round.

The dealer places one more card face up on the table.

Another betting round.

The dealer places the last card face up on the table.

Last betting round.

All players are trying to make the best five-card poker hand from the five public cards and the two private cards in their hands.


Stage One Poker Players

Stage one or beginning poker players often don’t even know a good poker hand or what beats what. They have no idea if the two cards that only they can see are good or not, and have no awareness of anyone else around them in any real fashion.

They might have seen a major player win with a certain hand on television and think that’s a good hand without knowing why or how to even play it.

The focus of a stage one poker player is only on their two cards in their hand.

If they think those two cards are good, nothing else matters.


Just as stage one writers only have a focus on the words on the page with no real awareness beyond the words.

If a stage one writer thinks the words are perfect, the grammar correct, all commas are in the right place, then the story must be perfect.

Of course, just as stage one writers find no readers, stage one poker players often have no idea why a pot with their money in it is awarded to another player. After all, they had an ace in their hand. Isn’t an ace good?

Yup, about as good as having all the commas correct in a story.


Stage Two Poker Players

When a poker player moves into stage two, they are still, just as writers, focused far, far too much on the two cards in their hand that the other players can’t see.

But awareness for the stage two player is starting to expand.

Stage two players can actually see the cards on the table and put them with their cards and maybe realize that their cards can’t win in some situations.

Stage two poker players still lose far more than they win, but their awareness and knowledge is expanding. It is a transition stage, just as with writing.

Think of a bubble of awareness.

In stage one, the bubble was over the player only and his two cards. In stage two, the bubble of awareness has expanded out to include the cards face up on the table and knowing poker hands and so on.

In stage two writing, the focus is still solidly on the words. But the awareness has expanded out to include character and story to some degree. But when in doubt, the stage two writer always falls back on the words, trying to rewrite to fix a story.

You see this a lot in stage two poker players in things like the following example:

A player has two cards in his hand that combined with three other cards face up on the table make a straight. A straight is a decent hand, right?

Sure, but not when there are four cards on the board that are hearts. (A flush beats a straight.)

And even though the player has no hearts in his hand, he will call bets thinking he might win. That’s like a stage two writer having a story fail and thinking if he just rewrites it, all will be fine.

The straight won’t win against a flush and rewriting won’t help.

The bubble of focus is still far too tight.


Stage Three Poker Players

I’m going to give the poker analogy before I start talking about stage three writers.

Think of the bubble of awareness I mentioned above. In stage three poker players, the awareness bubble has expanded to include everyone at the table.

Inside the awareness bubble, the player is watching what other people bet, how they play, what kind of hands they play regularly.

Often stage three poker players know or think they know what another player’s two hidden cards are, and act on that knowledge.

The stage three poker player still has a focus on his own two cards, but has no problem in throwing away his two cards at the hint of a loss, and just not even playing for many hands in a row if good starting hands do not appear.

Stage three poker players understand the game, can glance at the five cards on the table and tell you what the best possible hand is for those five cards.

Stage three poker players can win, sometimes more than they lose overall depending on what level of stage three they are in, and who they are playing against.

Many, many professional poker players never leave stage three playing level. They don’t need to. They are making a living.

So the awareness bubble has expanded out to everything on the table and the other people playing. Still some focus on the cards, but the cards are more of a tool that a stage three player can take or leave, depending on the game, the stakes, and the others playing.

Cards in the hand are still important, but not critical anymore.

However, a stage three player would never think of playing a hand of cards without looking at the two cards they have. (Keep that in mind in a future chapter.)


Stage Three Writers

Think of the awareness bubble.

In stage three writers, the awareness has expanded out.

Now the awareness is on telling a good story, on having an interesting plot, on doing great openings, on writing great characters, on getting a reader into a story and holding them in the story.

Words now are still important, but only in the service of the story and nothing more.

Words can be tossed away at will, just as cards are tossed away in poker.


Traits of solid stage three writers:

— They have command of many, many different tools of writing that come out of the words and use those tools when needed. They no longer focus on the words. They only use the words.

— They have a solid grasp of story, of character, and of setting. And are constantly trying to get better at all three.

— They understand copyright and the business and sales. In other words, awareness is off the words and out into the world.

— They are writing at a decent pace.

— They seldom rewrite if at all (in the traditional sense of the term rewriting). Early stage three writers will still rewrite at times to fix story, but middle and late third stage writers seldom rewrite.

— Late third stage writers have often been around for some time.


Third stage writers often can make a living with their work. There are lots of ups and downs, but if the writer can weather those early ups and downs in this stage and learn the business and keep learning how to be a better storyteller, they tend to last for a while.


Third stage is a burial ground for writers.

Sad to say that most writers who hit early third stage tend to stop learning. And that’s where they stop and freeze down.

Eventually, sales dry up, their publisher drops them, they can’t sell more books or their indie sales are not good, and they give up and go away.

Often stage three writers feel like they know it all, make a few sales, and just move on to other things because writing is too hard.

Or they accomplished their dream. No point in going on.

The history of publishing is littered with three-and-four-book authors who vanished. More thousands than I would ever want to try to count, sadly.

And indie publishing is not going to help this in any fashion. Early stage three indie writers are going to make a little money, have a market change kill their sales, and the writers will leave, not understanding that learning and sticking with it can get them up to a more sustained sales and craft level.

The awareness bubble keeps expanding all the way through the different levels of stage three.

For me, it took from 1984 when I crept into the lower levels of stage three and started selling until about 2005 to move through the levels of stage three writing and finally break through into the next level.

And during all those years I kept learning, experimenting, studying other writers.

Stage three writing is the place where writers sell. And if you keep learning storytelling, adding tools to your craft, and learn copyright and the business, you can have a nice, solid career for a few decades in stage three.

But to really stick around and become an old professional and a bestseller, stage four needs to be your goal.

(So back next chapter to talk about the levels of stage three.)


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