On Writing,  publishing

The Stages of a Fiction Writer: Chapter One

(Every day 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 One

There are four basic stages of commercial fiction writing that are pretty clear. For this book, I just number them one through four.

I kind of think of them as places where writers live.

Basically, I’m an early-to-middle stage four writer. So is Kris. And we’re working to get better all the time, as we always have.

Writers start in stage one and eventually work up into stage four if they keep learning and don’t quit.

These stages will often have traits that carry over from one stage to another.

The lines between the stages are not dark and concrete, but are transitions that often take time to cross.

All of us, without exception, go through the early stages of fiction writing. No way around it.

And often writers can spend decades moving through a stage.

Or get stuck and have their career end in a stage.

So another way to think of this is like a journey.

A journey without an end point.

You never arrive, you never know it all as a fiction writer. Learning continues.

The key is never stop on the road. Keep moving and learning.


A Chess Example

To try to understand some of what I am talking about in coming chapters, keep in mind chess. Those who have never played chess, or only played a few games, might know the moves of the pieces. But they can watch two chess masters and not have a clue what the masters are doing. The game is played on other levels than the prescribed moves of pieces.

When a beginning writer looks at a long-term bestseller, it is impossible to see what that writer did for book after book to get millions of readers every book. The books are just words, put into sentences. Right?

How hard can that be?

And chess pieces are just game pieces that move.

Just keep that in mind.


I Want to Jump Ahead Some Stages

Well, no. This question always comes up. No matter how much a beginning writer wants to get lucky and hit with some top selling books, which does happen, the skill level doesn’t jump ahead.

We all go through the stages.

No matter how much of a hurry the writer might be in. And stage one writers are always in a hurry.

Now, that said, paying the price in the stages, the learning required to move through an early stage, can come from other places.

Often nonfiction professional writers can make a jump to professional fiction quicker. They might not be in the same stage with their fiction writing as they are with their nonfiction writing, but they can move quicker and start higher because they have “paid the price” in learning in nonfiction.

This also applies to those who started off writing plays, those writing for Hollywood, those coming out of advertising writing, and so on.

For those, the early stage or two were learned in other areas.


Stage One Fiction Writers

I went through this stage. We all start in stage one. I was no exception, never met an exception who didn’t have a stage one period in one area of writing or another.

So what is a stage one commercial fiction writer? How can we spot stage one fiction writers?


Stage one writers believe fiction writing is sentences and grammar and punctuation.


That simple. The focus is sentence-by-sentence only.

Early on, all of us went through this. I was stuck in this period for seven years, from 1974 to January 1st, 1982.

So what are some of the major traits that make you a stage one writer? Here are four major areas that might tell you if you have stage one issues or not.


1… Rewriting to Excess.

The term many stage one writers use is “polish” when talking about this extreme rewriting.

Think rocks, folks, to understand this. You find a beautiful rock on the beach. It has color, it has sharp corners, it is unique. It drew your attention, after all, and made you pick it up.

So you are a stage one writer. You get home, toss that rock into a rock polisher, let it run with a bunch of other rocks, being polished down until finally, when it is finished, it is smooth and round and looks like all the poor other rocks you tossed in there with it.

With excess polishing of a story, you grind down any thought of originality, any possibility of author voice, and make the story same.

Sameness is dull.

A stage a one writer’s entire focus is on the words.

Stage one writers think that polishing the words makes for a better story. That is the belief. It is wrong, but it is believed by millions.

Again, we all started there.


2… Extremely Slow.

Even though stage one writers are in a hurry to be successful, by the very nature of stage one writing, of focusing only on the words and not story, stage one writers produce very little, if anything.

And that fits the myth that writing slowly meaning writing better stuff. (That shows no understanding of how the creative brain works. None.)

In the seven years I was stuck in this stage, I managed to produce two highly-polished short stories per year. And I was pretty focused at writing. Of course, all the stories were dull, no voice, no originality.

I had polished all that out in rewrites.

For seven years, I listened and tried to learn how to write from people who didn’t know how to write creatively. I listened to every myth. There wasn’t a myth I didn’t buy into and try to do.

I was very, very slow. And I felt happy to get those two “perfect” stories out every year.

By all the myths, I was doing it right. Sold nothing. Had no career.

Of course, for stage one writers, it’s always someone else’s fault that they don’t understand their perfectly polished story. Or it is some marketing thing now in indie that isn’t working, and so on and so on.

Stage one writers always have an excuse for nothing selling.

Stage one writers believe they produce perfect stories and won’t let anything but perfect out the door. So, of course it has to be someone or something else’s fault their perfect story doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Of course.

And yup, I was no exception to that.

Seven long years.


3… Peer Writers’ Workshops.

Stage one writers tend to be in peer writer’s workshops. And they often tend to write for the other members of the workshop.

They let someone who hates commas influence their work, or someone who hates too much setting up front change all their work.

This is like having ten different English teachers feed myths at you all at once.

Death of any good storytelling. Total death.

And stage one writers tend to listen to suggestions from their workshops and then try to “fix” their story to make it better.

Yeah, writing by committee always produces great art.


There are “workshops” done by professionals, like the online workshops we do at WMG Publishing or Superstars done by Kevin J. Anderson or workshops done by Dave Farland, to name just three. If you find a workshop that is taught by someone who has been writing books for thirty years, those have value.

At our coast workshops, we don’t let the other writers attending even speak about stories, even though most of them are selling professional writers. The only opinion that matters is the long-term professional instructors.

And we never let anyone teach who hasn’t had a career in fiction writing in one area or another.

But peer workshops that are only full of stage one writers often will continue for a writer into early stage two before the writer finally goes, “that’s silly.”

I was attending workshops up into stage three, but only for quick audience reaction and learning business.

I never once tried to rewrite a story to the suggestion of a workshop. I at least managed to avoid that trap for myself. About the only one I missed along the way. I never found a peer workshop in my first seven years, thankfully.

And by the time I was into stage two and three, I mailed stories to editors before I ever took them to a workshop. That’s why I learned that advice from workshops often kill stories. I sold a bunch of the stories that workshops told me sucked.

Luckily I mailed my story and didn’t listen to people in workshops other than as a general audience reaction.


4… Concerned Only About Typing.

Stage one writers have no idea at all about the look of a manuscript and how it relates to the story being told.

If they were taught in English class to put a paragraph every five lines, they do that. If they were taught that subject sentences are the key and can’t do a paragraph until you get done with the subject sentence, they do that, having paragraphs that can often stretch for a page or more.

The idea of characters is not really formed for stage one writers, although stage one writers give voice to characters, but no learning about how to really do characters.

Stage one writers do character sketches ahead, thinking that’s how it’s done. And they mostly outline everything to death and follow their outlines because that’s how it’s done as well.

Pacing is an alien concept that might as well live on Mars.


Stage One Summary

Stage one writers have a focus only on the sentences, the grammar, the polish of a manuscript.

They give lip service to better characters, endings, and so on, but will spend ten drafts getting that “perfect” first line because they heard somewhere that was important.

All writers live for a time in stage one, or live in it while studying in other areas such as plays or nonfiction.

Some writers, with luck, go through it quickly.

Some of us, me included, take longer.

I really wanted to believe the myths that English teachers were teaching me. Desperately I wanted to believe them.

And I did, for seven long years.


But Dean, Didn’t You Sell Two Short Stories in 1975?

Yes, I did. I was writing poetry at the time and selling it.

For my poems, I would struggle and rewrite a major “important” poem to death, work on a second one sort of, and then do a fun quick knock-off poem and then send all three poems out together.

I always sold the knock-off.

I never sold a poem I had worked on and rewritten. Thirty-some of the knock-off poems sold and I never caught a clue. My “good poems” didn’t sell, and I stopped mailing poems in early 1976 to focus completely on fiction.

Well, somewhere in 1975 was when I first decided I wanted to try fiction.

So I wrote a quick story on my typewriter. One draft. Mailed it, no rewrite. (I had not yet bought into all the myths. I didn’t know them, to be honest.)

Then I wrote a second story. Also fairly short. One draft. Mailed it.

Both of them sold right out. I had let the rough edges stay, my voice stay, my originality stay. Editors liked them and bought them. Go figure.

Then, because they sold and I wanted to get better, I started learning the myths. And I started down into rewriting everything to death and writing slowly and focusing only on the words and sentences.

And seven years later I hadn’t sold another thing.

For seven years I never put that together. Either with the poems I sold or with the two stories I sold. I was blinded by myths. Completely.

And that’s why I do the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing books. To help writers speed up through stage one.


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  • Prasenjeet

    Writing my first fiction novel, I thought I was a stage one fiction writer, discounting the 15 other non-fiction books I had published. When I read your description of Stage One and Stage Two writers, I just couldn’t relate to them. I was puzzled. Then I read about stage three writers. I was happy to know that I am an early stage three writer because my concern is always the story and never the words. I consider myself poetically challenged and I want to learn to be an entertainer and NOT just a storyteller.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, nonfiction books often get you past the focus on words and into telling stories.

      Now, learning all the stuff on how to be an entertainer and storyteller instead of a writer will get you through Stage Three and to the top level. Keep having fun and learning.