Yes, But WHY Are You Writing Fiction? Stages of an Author.
This post started by buying into another failure of a cheap writing course.
There are very few excellent writing courses. More very good ones, Far more barely decent ones, and tons of cheap ones.
You have to look back on why you personally opted into something that ended up doing nothing for you. It’s always an eye-opener.
I’ve almost always been a “why ” person. “How come” some things worked, or “how come” something broke. Too often, I’d tear something apart, replace the missing part, clean it up and oil it, then it would work when I got it all back together. Sometimes it quit just because it hadn’t been lubricated and there was too much friction. Seldom, it wasn’t worth putting back together at all as it was designed to fail – and had.
And people are like this. When you can help them find and understand why they are doing what they are doing, where they are going and why they chose that goal, then you often rekindle their original hopes. They then set off all happy and ready to go at it again. Or they pick something else now, which is more interesting and fulfilling.
The funny secret is that people are usually only aware of the next-greater Why they can follow. Like using headlights to see into the dark beyond their car, they only need to see so far to keep going.
Writers are this way. They have a journey. And they have a why they started out with. They are as good as they have studied and practiced. They know the next thing they have to master, the next stage to their journey out in front of them.
There are real stages to writing, as DW Smith mentions. He has four. I consider there are seven.
Seven Stages to Writing Excellence
First, the lowest stage are Readers. This is simply enjoying what you read. You have to enjoy reading to become a writer at all. Most people never make it to or past this stage.
Second are Beginning Writers. They are simply learning the habits and disciplines of writing. Of sitting butt in chair and hammering away at it. This is simply learning to put sentences and paragraphs and scenes and chapters. Few make it out of this stage. Most have only a “single story in them.” When they are done with that, they are done with writing.
Third are Regular Writers. They now start figuring out what they have to write and in what order to wind up with something that is a story. They write regularly. They have discovered more stories in them or around them that they can write. And these have to be crafted into actual stories, meaning their writing has drama and keeps your interest. They are writing regularly now and enjoy it. They are learning about genre and learn to write to what the market wants. These produce and publish regularly. And they are realizing they have to un-learn all they have ever absorbed as a writer, in favor of simply internalizing the basics and listening to their “muse” on what a good story is.
Fourth are Genre Writers. They are learning the subtle nuances of what makes great genre fiction, what makes great stories that sell well. They are studying the various reader expectations of the different genres, the conventions, the commonalities to all great stories. As with the stages below this, they are studying the books by the writer stages just above them in order to learn better. And they have now become fairly prolific, as writing is ingrained into their very being. Their speed is still limited to the amount of bad advice they’ve swallowed wholesale and never inspected. This is where the bulk of the writers are.
Fifth are the Breakout Writers. These are the blockbusters, the genre-bending authors who write so well, they can write in just about any genre they want. You see them routinely on the Bestsellers lists, because readers are now flocking to their books by the author, not the genre. At this stage, they have internalized the specifics and basics of writing and have proved what works for them. You seldom find outliners and re-writers at this stage. There are no “drafts.” They simply write flat out and are known for delivering a story which can be sent directly to press with few edits or revisions needed. (And of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The majority write straight ahead, revising and editing as they go, then ship everything they write. But they each have their own personal way of writing.)
Sixth are the Perennial Writers. A rare breed, their books become perennial classics which continue to sell well regardless of marketing. A handful of writers in each generation achieve this. The rest of their books may only rise to being “breakout” stories. But a few of them continue to sell regardless of time, or publishers, or marketing.
Seventh are the Immortal Writers. These are classics which are passed from generation to the next. Continually in print and in circulation for centuries. Not too surprisingly, these are mostly all religious books, although Aesop, Sun Tzu and Shakespeare can be counted in these. Lao Tze, Jesus the Christ, Buddha, Moses and a few other religious sources fall into this. Some books and their collections, like the Apocrypha and the Gospel of Thomas refuse to be edited out of existence. They just keep showing up. Forever.
Why These Stages, Why These Stories?
Chris Vogler (“The Writer’s Journey”) said that stories are alive. The best stories are immortal – they live forever. Because they each affect us in very personal ways.
Parables and Fables tend to populate that last stage. And those are stories which have drama and are told to illustrate a basic truth. It’s the moral of the story that’s the kicker.
Below this, the stories are interesting, entertaining, diversions from life itself. At the top, the stories ARE life itself. Or simplest possible descriptions of it, wrapped in a story or a koan so we can remember it. So we can live those ideals in our lives.
DW Smith had only four, as he is working constantly on mastering that fourth stage. At the point where he fully masters the stage he is working on, then he’ll see the next one up. And start working on that. Because all writing seems to be this approach. A human thing.
A person who reads, says to themselves, “I could write that.” And so sets out on his next journey. This was the start of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And he ended up writing multiple perennial classics.
Smith says that the Stage Four authors are writing for the reader experience, knowing that they control that experience through mastering their craft. They write for the effect they can create on the reader. Too true. Great fiction is like that. These stories transport you. They inspire as well as entertain.
Meanwhile, the higher stages beyond that don’t care about controlling people at all. They live without fear in their own lives or even in their own death. And so their stories come from the soul itself. The are the soul of humankind. The place where inspiration is recognized and fueled.
It’s then no longer about how many books you sell or are in circulation. None of these metrics count anymore. Not at that level. They are dealing with such a pure truth, even though speaking in parables and koans, that these stories are re-translated and re-interpreted every generation or so. And new ways of understanding these are always discovered, which keep them being re-published and re-discovered by yet another generation of readers and listeners.
These stories and story collections are so old, and their sources so distant, that the authors themselves are questioned regularly as even existing.
Only a handful of authors in this or our earlier centuries have approached this level. And the jury is still out on most of them. Our great-great grandchildren’s grandchildren will decide their fate.
One hint – it probably won’t be any of those “brand name” writers we currently adore. Because it has to do with the soul of the work. Our best perennial-selling works are typically one story per author’s lifetime. Edgar Rice Burroughs was an exception to this. Louis L’Amour was another.
The End Result of A Cheap Course
What brought this up was yet another cheap course I bought that failed to do anything for me. It only taught beginning students how to be hack writers, promote cheap knock-off stories, and host on a website (Amazon) that probably won’t exist in another decade. Stuff they’d later have to un-learn if they wanted to ever create even a “momentary bestseller” on Amazon.
That course failed to tell them that there was an actual craft to writing that they could learn. And the fastest way to learn real craft is not to study a pile of crap that you have to un-learn. Like any writing or English class ever taught. (At least beyond building a vocabulary and learning to type on a keyboard.) Grammar isn’t actually needed, oddly. Not the type of grammar they teach in those schools.
The secret to finding these out is to see how much de-construction they do to explain things. And if they have lists and list of rules to follow, and rules for the exceptions to the rules. Like machinery, the more complex the more likely something will break. Simpler is more robust.
You learn by reading, you practice by writing. Lots of both. What you study, what you love to read, is what you use to train your unconscious. To give you the stories that are real truth, that can become perennial bestselling books. And then go beyond that, way beyond.
Yes, go ahead and think me off the edge. Think that I am setting up windmills to tilt at. Straw men to knock down. You may be right. We’ll never know. Because anything you or I write now won’t be eligible for submission to the top ranks for a few thousand years after we are gone.
Until then, we can just do the best we can with each story we write.
Re-read everything I’ve just told you above. There is a more basic truth there than any of us would dare admit. This essay only brushes the tips of that truth, gives us only hints.
It is up to us to open our eyes to see, open our ears to hear.
And bring all these stories to life. The ones that are queued up and waiting on the extreme periphery of our senses, just for our inspired writing.
Just consider that.
It occurred to me that the stages above can be used as a scale. Then look up any course creator by where they are as an author. If they are at a stage below you, don’t bother with their books. Affiliate authors and marketers don’t make great authors, as a general rule (some exceptions, of course.) In general, you can tell by their non-fiction books (and/or cross-checked by their blog) how professional they are and whether they are worth buying the course. I should have done this with the course that inspired this post.
The author herself was not above Stage 3 (Regular Writers) a relative hack and earning income by ghost writing. She doesn’t know real craft and is pushing only what she knows, which is cranking out romances on an assembly line. It’s a decent living, but if you are interested in learning real craft, see my article on this where I’ve narrowed down 227 books to just 10. There are some great also-rans from the authors that didn’t make the cut. I was only interested in finding books which were in the Fifth Stage (Breakout Writers) to teach me what I needed to know.
This really is a great explanation for those books as well. Now I can see why I wasn’t going to learn from stages below where I wanted to study. Reading elementary textbooks in high school might be amusing, but only for so long.
It also explained why books I’ve recommended elsewhere in articles didn’t make this cut. Because they taught the mechanics of marketing, basically, not the craft of writing. Two completely different approaches. The point of that article was to answer “What Makes a Damn Good Book?” And marketing only helps to make a great book sell great. When marketing promotes a poor product, people find out quickly and sales plummet. Because there are no referrals, and reviews show the weak spots. Copywriting basics. (Oddly, that course author herself used to write copy for a living. Figures. Never mastered that, either. You can tell by the copy she uses on her own books…)
Caveat Emptor. Always.
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Also published on Medium.