On Writing,  publishing

The Stages of a Fiction Writer: Chapter Two

(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 Two

Stage two of commercial fiction writers is again a stage we all go through. I was no exception, never met a writer who missed this one.

However, many writers can go through this stage quickly, often in a year or so. But at the same time, this is the place many, many millions of writers get stuck and eventually give up without ever reaching stage three and selling stories.

For lack of a better way of putting this, stage two is a transition stage.


The Major Traits of Stage Two Writers

— Focus is still solidly on the words.

— Writers are starting to see a change where the focus is shifting to understanding characters, plot, setting, and the other elements of a story. But again, the major focus is at the words and polishing to try to achieve characters, plot, setting and so on.

— Story is playing more of a part, but only slowly.

In other words, this is when writers start bringing their focus up and off the words and toward writing stories with real characters, emotional details, and so on. These are the early days of learning all this, but now the stage two writers are looking for answers, knowing that only focusing on the words no longer helps.


My Twilight Zone Magazine Stories

Now, as a stage three writer, later on, I ended up selling to the TZ Magazine and its sister magazine Night Cry. But something happened as a late stage one and early stage two writer to me with the magazine that bumped me solidly into stage two and then quickly beyond into stage three.

Back in 1981, the Twilight Zone Magazine started a new writer contest. At this point I had been a stage one writer for going on seven years, polishing and rewriting and thinking my work could easily win this new contest in this new magazine.

So I wrote them two stories for the contest. Almost an entire year’s output in six months for me at that time and I was convinced both would win one award or another.

That fall I got the responses: Two form rejections.

(In hindsight, that’s what the stories deserved because I had polished and polished anything original out of those two stories. They looked like everything else coming through the door to Ted Klein.)

But wow was I angry. I blamed everyone else and decided to quit writing. What was the point if my brilliance would never be found? I had given it seven years, after all.

Then one fine night at a science fiction fan meeting that was being held in my bookstore, someone said something about how Ray Bradbury wrote stories. And then another conversation came up about how Harlan Ellison had just sat in bookstore window and wrote a story that had won a major award without rewriting it.

So something finally clicked in my thick skull and I started finally researching how other professional writers actually did it.

Not how English teachers had taught me it was done, but how real professionals worked.

And then I found Heinlein’s Rules.

Now I have a lecture through WMG Publishing about Heinlein’s Business Rules, and at some point I might write a book about them. But at that point in the late fall of 1981, finding Heinlein’s Business Rules sort of snapped my eyes open.

They were from a book in 1947 and they seemed so simple. But Heinlein in the article said the five simple rules were extremely difficult to follow, which is why there were so many aspirants who wanted to be writers and why there are so few professional writers.

I was, after seven years, damned tired of being an aspirant.

So as a New Year’s resolution in 1982, I would follow Heinlein’s Rules. I would write and mail a short story per week following the rules.

No exception.

One year later I was selling regularly and I have followed those simple rules ever since.

Five simple business rules.

And I agree with Heinlein. Almost no one can follow those rules. Everyone can make excuses that sound perfectly logical for them so they don’t have to follow them.

But almost no one can follow those five simple rules.


Heinlein’s Rules:

1… You must write.

2… You must finish what you write.

3… You must not rewrite unless to editorial request. (Editors are people who buy things, not someone you hire, folks.)

4… You must put your work on the market.

5… You must keep it on the market.


The moment I started following those rules, I moved quickly from stage one into stage two and then by 1983, about a year later, I had moved solidly into stage three and was selling.

Why? Because the rules forced me to stop focusing on the words and focus on writing stories.

If you are not focusing on words, what else can a writer focus on? Answer: All the thousands of elements of storytelling, that’s what.


The Monster Problem in Stage Two

Where millions and millions of writers get stuck and then quit in stage two is right at the focus point. They start to focus on the craft of storytelling, but they can’t let go of the strong desire to only pay attention to the words.

After all, they ask, isn’t writing typing words?

Stage two writers in this stage still write with grammar checker and spellchecker turned on.

Stage two writers are in a battle in their own minds. They are aware of the need for story and great characters and so on, and are learning them by taking workshops and buying how-to-write books. But they cannot let loose of the intense myth that rewriting is critical, that every story must be polished.

So they learn character, then kill the story, learn great setting, then kill it by taking out character voice and so on, which is critical to setting.

To get out of stage two, you must slowly release the focus on words and realize they are just tools to use.


Carpenter Tools Analogy

 Your desire is to be a fine cabinet craftsperson. So you focus on learning how to use hammers correctly. All the different types of hammers used to build finely crafted cabinets.

You become an expert with hammers.

But you think that learning hammers, learning how to pick the correct hammer for the job needed is all that is required to building a finely crafted cabinet.

You have been told over and over (by people who don’t build cabinets) that to build a great cabinet, you must keep your hammers polished.

So you try to build a cabinet, but all you keep doing is when something goes wrong in construction, you go back and focus on your hammers and polish them some more. Must be the hammer’s fault, after all.

Sound silly?

Well, everyone in stage two knows how to write a sentence, has grammar and spelling under control enough to check spelling when a manuscript is finished. That was all learned in stage one.

So now put the words, the sentences, in your tool box and move your focus completely to learning construction.

You must learn to trust your tools in stage two.

You must let go of the focus on the tool and just trust that in the process of writing, the tool will be there when you need it.

That’s how you get out of stage two.

Ignore the typing, focus on the story, kill any idea of polishing.

And every time you have the need to go polish a story, just think of a cabinetmaker looking at his poorly constructed and designed cabinet and then polishing his hammers.

That won’t fix the cabinet.

And polishing your words won’t fix your story either.


Summary of Stage Two

Stage two is a transition stage.

It is when a writer takes the focus only on the words and polishing the words and moves that focus slowly to learning story and characters and setting and the thousand other basic details that go into being a great storyteller.

The writer is moving from someone who only pays attention to typing to paying attention to story.

Many writers take about a year to move from full focus on typing to full focus on story.

But many writers never learn to trust their tools. Many writers never learn that the tools are there and just need to be used when the creative voice wants to use them. And not thought about other times.

Millions and millions of writers quit right here in this stage.

I was almost one of them.


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