Thursday, May 05, 2011

All the World's a Stage: The Stages of a Writer

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of the reasons I like to share my experiences in the publishing journey is because when I was starting out, I was curious about it (still am) and enjoyed hearing what others had gone through. I figured if I understood the challenges, I'd be better prepared to overcome them.

I've read a few articles recently where agents/editors have talked about the vast amount of information out on the web concerning publishing, and how easy it is for someone to write and submit. And how this ease is putting writers out there far sooner than they might have tried if all this information and technology didn't exist.

Computers alone have raised the amount of queries tenfold. Someone who would never take the time to type out 60,000 words perfectly on a typewriter, might have no problem typing out 120,000 words on a computer, where editing is simple.

I've mentioned before about the rush to publish potentially hurting authors, because they jumped into the deep end before they were ready. But at some point you have to dive in and test the waters. How do you know if you're at that stage or still need the water wings?

So here's a breakdown on the stages of a writer, and what you might focus on in that stage.

Stage One: Hey, I Think I'll be a Writer
This is the newbie stage. You've discovered you love writing and stories and want to pursue this, maybe even as a career.

What You Might Focus On:
Writing. Put words on a page, play with language. Try any genre or style that interests you. Write a short story, a novel, do character studies, whatever strikes you. The goal here is to start flexing those writing muscles.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
Getting published. Looking at the end game here is kinda like being sixteen, getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, then wanting to enter the Indy 500. You might have the talent to get there eventually, but you need time to learn the rules and develop your skills to a professional level first.

Stage Two: The Hobby Writer
You've written enough that you know you really enjoy it, and start wondering if maybe you could really get something published. You show work to friends and family and they love it, reinforcing this desire.

What You Might Focus On:
Writing. By now you've probably figured out what genres you like and what your basic style is. You may or may not have found your voice yet, and that's okay. Work on finishing projects, whatever they are, to understand what it takes to complete a short story, a novel, a novella. Whatever you enjoy doing.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
Publishing (just like Stage One). Or getting an agent, for all the same reasons. You'll have completed projects, so you'll feel like "I have a book, let's publish it!" But again, this is just like getting your driver's license. You're probably not yet ready to get into a race car, even if you are an excellent driver.

Stage Three: Wouldn't it be Great to Publishing Something?
Now's the time to start looking at writing seriously. You want more from it than fun and family praise (and remember, there's nothing wrong with fun and family praise and you don't HAVE to go further than that if you don't want the pressures). You want to see your name in print.

What You Might Focus On:
Craft. Read books on writing, take classes, find critiques groups. Study books you love and analyze why you like them and why they work. Learn the terms. Point of view, narrative drive, sentences structure, goals, pacing, narrative arcs. Learn how to apply those terms to your own work. Understand the building blocks that go into a novel and learn how to use them to the best of your ability. Develop your voice and style. Enter a few contests if you like (just make sure they're legitimate).

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
Getting an agent or getting published (sense a trend here?). You're going to feel like you now know what you're doing, and this is when a lot of writers jump in with both feet (I did). While you might have learned the skills you need, you haven't practiced enough to really make your words sing. Crazy as this sounds, don't try to edit something to "perfection" at this stage either. Re-write all you want to apply what you've learned, but allow yourself the freedom to try new projects to use your new skills. Not only does this help you develop those skills faster, but it also puts the "if an old project isn't working, move on to something new" mindset into play. This will save you from sticking with a project long after you should have set it aside. (A very common problem with first novels)

Stage Four: This Year, I Resolve to Publish Something
You've developed your craft, found your voice, and know what it takes to write a novel or short story. You're serious about putting time and effort into this, and want to see if you have what it takes to go pro.

What You Might Focus On:
Now's the time for serious editing. Take your best project (or write something new) and polish it to the best of your ability. Read books on self editing, take more classes, find a better critique group if you've out grown the old one. Start researching agents, publishes, magazines for submission.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
Marketing your work, or making money. You haven't sold anything yet, so don't worry about websites or pseudonyms or how much money you might get. Right now, you're testing the waters, trying to see if you're ready.

Stage Five: Okay, Maybe I Wasn't as Ready as I Thought
You've sent out your work and gotten rejections. Some might be good, some might be bad, but most will be form letters. You'll doubt yourself and your skills. You'll feel like the publishing industry is full of people who only want bestsellers, trendy stuff, celebrity cookbooks, whatever is hot that year and not what you write. You'll feel like you can't get anywhere unless you know someone. You'll think you suck and should give up.

What You Might Focus On:
That none of this is true. You just weren't ready to tackle the pros yet. Take any good rejections you've received and study the suggestions for your work. Sit down and look objectively at your writing. Take the first chapter of your book and the first chapter of your favorite book and analyze them. See why yours is different. Understand why yours isn't working. Write something new. Gain perspective, emotional distance, and the freedom to start fresh. Re-read those old writing books and spot things you missed the last time, or have things suddenly click that never made sense before. (Or you thought didn't really apply to you)

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
Giving up. (Unless you realize that all this is more than you want and you had more fun as a hobby writer. If so, boot the publishing idea to the curb and do what makes you happy. That's what it's all about anyway) Don't lock yourself into the idea that you have to sell THIS book to make it. One book doesn't make you a writer. Writing makes you a writer, and successful writers know that if one project doesn't sell, another might, so just keep trying new ideas until one hits. While there's nothing wrong with revising a first novel and trying again, if it doesn't get anywhere the second round, set it aside and try something new.

Stage Six: Okay, Now I'm Really Ready
You've won your rejection stripes and made your mistakes, and now you have a novel you feel a lot better about. You groan when you think about how naive you were the last time and know this time will be different.

What You Might Focus On:
Learn the business, understand what agents and editors want. Learn how to write a killer query letter and synopsis. Read blogs, websites, magazines, get on newsletter lists, whatever it takes to give you an edge. Opportunities come up online all the time, and you want to be ready for them. Attend conferences, meet people and make connections. And of course, continue to learn about writing and polish your work to the best it can be.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
Your trunk novel. You gave it your best shot, but it's time to retire it.

Stage Seven: What's Wrong?
Your queries get requests for pages, but somehow they never turn into fulls. You know you have what it takes, but you just can't seem to get anywhere.

What You Might Focus On:
Time to get tough. You probably have one or two newbie hangups clinging to you. Too much backstory in the opening, stilted dialog, too much exposition, slow pacing, flat characters--something. Be ruthless and find out what it is that's holding you back. Understand that you might not like what you hear from your critique groups or beta readers, but don't ignore what they say. There's probably even a good chance they've been saying it, and you blew it off at some point. Look at old critiques to see if there's insight there. Find that issue and fix it.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
That's it's them, not you. Don't blame agents for not recognizing your genius or skill. Don't yell at them and say if they'd only read the whole thing they'd have loved it. Don't use a blockbuster bestseller that broke a rule as the reason why it's okay for you to have broken a rule. If you're not getting anywhere at this stage it's the book's fault, not anyone else's.

A huge word of warning here: This is where a high percentage of writers get stuck. They get bitter and angry and never take a moment to see what's holding them back. Don't be one of those writers.

Stage Eight: You're Almost There
You get requests for partials that turn into fulls, but never get past that, even though you get good feedback and agents praise your writing.

What You Might Focus On:
It's not you, it's the book. Something about it just isn't working (the market is flooded with that type, the story isn't original enough, it's good, but not great). Either revise and try again, or start a new project. You have the skills and knowledge to make it, so it's now about finding the right book and getting it to the right agent.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
The worry and stress. It's hard to keep trying and not quite making it, but don't let that frustration get you down. Learn to let it wash off you and keep on trying.

Stage Nine: You Got an Agent!
You've found that perfect match and you're crossing your fingers it sells.

What You Might Focus On:
Listen to your agent, discuss anything you don't understand or disagree with. Start building your online presence. Website, blog, social network (if you haven't already), whatever you're comfortable with. Make any changes needed before submitting to editors.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
All your old trunk novels you think will sell now that you have an agent. If they weren't good enough before, odds are they won't be good enough now. Don't worry about how much money you might make if you sell your book either. Dream away for fun, but understand that most first novels don't make much money. If yours does, rejoice even harder.

Stage Ten: Sold!
You sold your book.

What You Might Focus On:
The sheer joy of it. You've worked hard for this and you deserve to bask in your success. Now it's time to get serious about the online stuff, get author photos, bios, marketing ideas. Start preparing yourself for the real work. Up until now, it's be easy (really, it was). It's also time to start that next book, if you haven't already.

What You Shouldn't Focus On:
That you're done. There will be rounds of edits, comments, issues, all kinds of things for the business side, and being the "emotional artist" isn't going to work. Be professional, nice, understand that these folks know their jobs and want to help you.

One thing I can't stress enough is that it's okay to be at whatever stage you're on. Don't feel that if you're not at Stage Eight or Nine (or even Ten) you're behind or failing. Some people will even skip stages, while others will go through them a few times before moving on. This is all perfectly normal. Publishing is a process and a long one at that. Enjoy the ride.

What stage are you on? Which stage was the toughest for you? The easiest? 


  1. Ok I'm super excited you've been a bad blogger lately becuase it gave me a chance to catch up since I've been a bag blog reader :) However, I'm caught up now and first, congrats on finishing Shifter 2, second, I love this post on stages, so thank you for it and third, of course, is a question. In your Confidence post you mentioned something about being a good critiquer and that made me start thinking about whether you could do a post on what good critiquers should be doing. Not neccessarily the part about how to give it, as in, don't be mean, say something positive and make sure it's constructive, etc. But, the types of things to look for and pay attention to in someone's writing, etc.

    Basically, any tips for making myself a better critiquer since I'm sure knowing those things will help me when evaluating my own writing.

    Thanks as usual!

  2. I can identify with this. The first time I ever tried writing a novel, I wanted to publish it. (Needless to say, I didn't even manage to finish that one - I was thinking more about being published than about the story!) It's a tricky balance to get right, which is why I think blogs like this are so useful - it's extremely heartening to know that everybody tends to go through the same stages of development.

    (It's also fun to try and work out which stage you're at now :P)

  3. Great idea Shorty411! (as always). Sean Willis, I've been there too. I can clearly remember the first time I ever queried a novel. I was certain I'd get about an 80% partial request, and about half those would turn into full requests. I actually said something like that to someone in a crit group I was in. Naturally, I got all rejections. It wasn't so much arrogance on my part as naivete. I was so clueless! LOL

  4. I wish I could just skip right on ahead to that last stage.

  5. I was incredibly clueless myself, and naive, but a lady working at a local publishing house (that didn't do fiction) kindly pointed teenage me in the right direction.

    On getting WiPs done, I've found that it helps to have at least 1 beta reading the work-in-progress, with whom I discuss my goals and planning for the story, for a few reasons.

    1. If you aren't sure if a scene's working, they can check it for you right then and get you back on track before you skew too far off-course.

    2. If you're writing anything worth reading, they'll keep up with you on your progress, providing incentive for getting it done.

    3. If you can't remember the reason behind a story element and that reason will affect something you're about to write, instead of panicking and cursing yourself for your incomplete note-taking habits, you can call your beta, who will calmly remind you of that reason (or offer you some ideas of what that reason might have been) and laugh at you for freaking out.

  6. Hi Janice,

    Thanks for the straight dope. lol! Working my way up the stages, slowly but surely.

  7. The reason I liked the Boyscouts is because it was easy to check what level you were at and what merit badges you needed to advance. This writing this is hard. :P

  8. I also like the idea of a post on what to look for when critiquing. I am part of a writer's group, new to it this year. While I'm getting the hang of it, I have trouble with balance; submissions in my group are either polished and well edited, or the extreme opposite.

    I've definitely learned a lot about my own writing from critiquing work in the group. Every time I sit down to edit my 2nd draft, I apply new skills. But I get frustrated because there is so much MORE to learn. It will take me years and years to get my draft in decent enough shape!

    Maybe I should have a beta reader (besides my husband) sooner rather than later, as Carradee said.

  9. "t's okay to be at whatever stage you're on."

    Janice, that's the best advice ever.

    Shorty411 & Stephsco - The thing with critiques is to remember you are a reader, not an expert on writing.

    Look at other people's work from a reader's perspective, and do the same with your own. Write to impress your readers.

    Agents aren't interested in perfect prose. They want books that will sell.

  10. This is such a great post, especially for someone who's just at the first stage now. There's light at the end of the tunnel. :)

  11. You nailed it! Awesome post.

  12. Carradee: That's so nice that someone helped you out like that. Betas are vital in my opinion. I have am entire crit group dedicated to works in progress for that very reason. It's really helpful to get some feedback before you've done too much to fix.

    MDK: Awesome :) Hey, nothing wrong with slow. Better to go slow and be ready than rush it and crash.

    Michael: LOL yeah, I wish there were merits badges in writing. It's so hard to know when you're "ready" sometimes.

    Stephsco: Crit groups are great. I've learned a lot from critiquing other's work. It's easier to be objective, then you can double check yourself to see if you're making the same mistakes. And Mark has good advice about being a critter. I just happen to have a crit post and I'll toss that up for you for Friday's evening post.

    Mark: That's so true about being a reader. If the story doesn't grab you, how good the writing is won't matter. People have things to offer even if they're still in the learning stages.

    Jasie: There's light, just keep on walking ;) It can be a long journey, but as long as you have fun along the way it isn't so bad.

    Jay: Thanks!

  13. totally disagree

  14. I'm on Stage Three transitioning into Stage Four once I do more work on my main project.