Stages of Writing

>> Tuesday, February 20, 2007

After I'd been writing a while, maybe a year, I had a hard time reading because everything I read was so good. I was past the honeymoon period and had come to realize not just how much work and talent was involved in writing, but how much of that talent I lacked.

I was in the deep bend of my learning curve, struggling to get that grand vision in my head down to my fingertips. I found myself reading a book thinking, oh, my God. How do they do that? Where did they come up with that? How did they learn to write like that? And my Eeyore syndrome would peak: I'll never get there. That's just not me.

But the compulsive part of me pressed on. I wrote, I learned, I read. I took courses, attended conferences, and read some more. And, of course, I wrote and rewrote.

I got better -- almost impossible not to do when you work at something so damn hard and actually take the advice given you from those talented people in your writing world.

I started reading again with a fresh perspective. Oh, I like that. They did that well. I can do that, too. I'll just tweak it and do it in my own way, to fit my voice and my story. And I continued to get better. I broke some temporary ceilings in my writing, took that laboring next step.

Then I found myself at a stage where when I read, I find one of three categories of writer:

  • 1) The author who really shouldn't be writing. Their work would never sell if they were starting out in today's market. (There aren't many of those, I have to admit, but a few I've noticed.)

  • 2) The author who's a decent writer but has some major problems with their craft--they lack characterization or their characters aren't consistent or their characters are emotionally challenged (as in--they don't have any). Their transitions are choppy and pull me out of the story. Their pov is all over the place and I can't figure out whose head I'm in. Their craft lacks authenticity, originality, freshness.

  • 3) The author who is a true craftsman/craftswoman. They struggle to improve their work with each book. Strive to push their own limits. Don't settle for the common metaphor, but go that extra step and dig deep and pull out something fresh and perfectly suited to their character. These authors are character driven writers and their plot and conflict grow organically from there. These are the authors that I used to read with the I'll-never-get-their woes, who I now read with the I'll-get-there-someday perseverence.

It's the second category of published author that gets under my skin the most. I can't figure out the "why" of it. Why them and not me or my critique partner or that other writer I know whose work I've read and that is so much better than what I pull off the store shelf? I know a lot of good, even awesome writers who struggle day in and day out to get published and continually garner rejection letters. And I can say that I think I'm one of them without the intention of conveying conceit. I've worked my ass off to learn the craft, dedicated myself and sacrificed other things in my life to get there.

Robert Gregory Browne just released his debut novel Kiss Her Goodbye and recently taught a seminar at the San Diego Writer's Conference. On his blog he said:

"Later that day I did something else I’ve never done: ran a “read and critique” workshop in which participants read a portion of their work in progress then sat quietly while the rest of us critiqued the work. It was a wonderful hour and a half and I can say without hesitation that the participants were all talented writers. I was, in fact, amazed by the quality of the writing. As I listened I kept thinking, why don’t these people have book deals?"

It was nice to know I wasn't alone in my thinking.

When I get really frustrated and discouraged with this whole industry, I remember what Randy Ingermanson describes as writing stages: Freshman, Sophmore, Junior and Senior. Based on his descriptions (and of course my own evaluation of my writing) I judged myself to be a Senior. He's what keeps me sane (for the moment anyway):

Seniors are those few who are ripe to graduate. A Senior is writing excellent stuff. Explosive. Powerful. Moving. But still unpublished. Seniors are worried sick that those mean editors are never going to notice them, that they'll be submitting proposals forever. Seniors don't realize that the editors are watching them, hoping to see the perfect proposal that can make it past the committee. Seniors are closer than they think. There is nothing worse than being a Senior. There is nothing better than being a Senior on that magical wonderful stupendous day when your son is busy ironing the cat, rain is leaking through the hole in the roof that you could swear you patched with toothpaste just a week ago, and the phone rings. It's one of those cranky editors you sent that proposal to last year and . . . she wants to buy your book!

What stage to you think you're in? And how do you keep going in the face of the it's-never-going-to-happen monster?


Elisabeth Naughton 11:53 AM  

You always have such thought-provoking posts, J. ;)

Can you post the Freshman, Sophmore and Junior definitions? I think I'm a senior based off the definition you posted, but without the others it's hard to know if that's accurate or not.

That said, I think there are a lot of authors out there - that I interact with alone - who are on the verge of selling. At this point, it's not about talent or craft or even character anymore, it's luck. Are you hitting the right editor on the right day with the right story they need to fill that one shining spot? For me, it's really easy to get jealous of the "seniors" I see selling, but then I remind myself they had the luck that day. They hit the right person with the right story. Doesn't mean they write better than me. Doesn't mean it'll never happen. It just means I haven't been in the right place at the right time yet.

It'll happen. I believe it all the way down to my soul. You believe it too, or else you wouldn't still be here.

Joan Swan 3:04 PM  

That's a good outlook, E. I guess I don't believe in luck much. Maybe because my luck has never been spectacular. But it might be just that at this point. Although, I suppose my compulsive tendency to get even better can't hurt (except to drive me insane).

It's nice to know you have that certainty deep down -- helps me keep going when I don't have it.

Joan Swan 3:31 PM  

Here are the other definitions according to Ingermanson:

Freshmen are novice writers. They often have very fine content, but their craft is unpolished and they usually don't have any contacts at all. Most Freshmen are scared to death by the very idea of talking to an editor. Or they have an outrageous scheme for getting an editor's attention with the creative use of explosives and lingerie. Some Freshmen are simply astounded that editors aren't lining up to write checks for six-figure advances. But most Freshmen are convinced that they will never sell anything and they might as well give up. It's fair to say that all Freshmen are very confused. That's OK!

Sophomores have a bit of writing under their belts. They've improved their craft and probably also their content and they're starting to get restless. Just how long does it take to get published, anyway? And how do you write one of those book proposal things? And do I really have to meet editors? Does anybody ever actually get published by going to writer's conferences? Why can't those editors see that my book is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius and just publish the thing?

Juniors have gone even further. They've become strong writers. They've submitted some actual proposals at conferences. They've had an editor say those magic words -- "Send me that proposal." They've gotten that unmagic letter -- "We've studied your proposal carefully and it does not meet our needs at the present time." They now know a few editors. More importantly, editors are beginning to know their faces. Juniors are a frustrated lot. Their friends can't understand why they're not published. There is a reason, of course -- they're not Seniors yet.

Edie 8:19 AM  

Joan, this is an AWESOME post. I'm definitley claiming the senior position. It's going to happen, and I'm so hoping it's with this book. I do believe in 'luck', being in the right place at the right time. But if that hasn't happened--and it hasn't happened to me--we just have to write a book so great that someome has to see how fabulous it is and snatch it up.


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