Three Phases of Becoming a Master Author
Professional authors make our job look easy. That is the mark of a good storyteller. The work flows, pulls us in, and appears seamless. Many of us decided to become writers because we grew up loving books. Because good storytellers are masters of what they do, we can easily fall into a misguided notion that “writing is easy.” Granted there are a rare few exceptions, but most of us will go through three stages in this career.
This is when we are brand new. We’ve never read a craft book and the words flow. We never run out of words to put on a page because we are like a kid banging away on a piano having fun and making up “music.” We aren’t held back or hindered by any structure or rules and we have amazing energy and passion.
But then we go to our first critique and hear words like “POV” and “narrative structure.” We learn that maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do and that we need to do some training.
The apprentice phase comes next. This is where we read craft books, take classes, go to conferences and listen to lectures. During the early parts of this phase, books likely will no longer be fun. Neither will movies. In fact, most of your family will likely ban you from “Movie Night.” Everything now becomes part of our training. We no longer look at stories the same way.
The apprentice phase is tough, and for many of us, it takes the fun out of writing. The apprentice phase is our Act II. It’s the looooongest and filled with the most change. It’s the span of suck before the breakthrough.
It’s like when I first started learning clarinet and I had to think of SO MANY THINGS AT THE SAME TIME. I was new at reading music, and I had to tap my foot to keep the beat at the same time I keyed notes (which I keyed incorrectly more times than not). I had to hold my mouth a certain way, blow air with just the right force, pay attention to the conductor…and most of the time I needed a nap afterwards.
WHY did I want to play clarinet? I wondered this a lot.
But as we move through the apprentice phase and we train ourselves to execute all these moves together—POV, structure, conflict, tension, setting, description, dialogue, plot arc, character arc—it eventually becomes easier. In fact, a good sign we are at the latter part of the apprentice phase is when the rules become so ingrained we rarely think about them.
We just write.
We’ve read so much fiction, watched (and studied) so many movies, read so many craft books, heard so many lectures, and practiced so much writing that all the “rules” are now becoming instinct and, by feel, we are starting to know where and how to break rules.
Writing is now starting to become fun again, much like it was in the beginning when we were banging away on the
piano keyboard. Like the clarinetist whose fingers now naturally go to the right keys without conscious thought, we now find more and more of the “right” words and timing without bursting brain cells.
The trick is sticking it through the apprentice phase long enough to engrain the fundamentals into the subconscious.
This is where we all want to be. In fact, we all want this on Day One, but sadly, I believe this is reserved for only a handful of literary savants. Mastery is when we return to that childlike beginning. We write with abandon and joy and, since the elements of fiction are deeply engrained, what we produce isn’t the off-key clanging of a neophyte, it’s actually a real story worth reading. Granted, it isn’t all kittens and rainbows. Masters have a lot of pressure to be perpetual geniuses.
I believe most of us, if we stick to this long enough, will always be vacillating between the Advanced Apprentice Phase and the Mastery Phase. We have to to keep growing. The best writers still pick up craft books, refresh themselves in certain areas, read other authors they enjoy and admire to see if they can grow in some new area. Masters seek to always add new and fresh elements to the fiction.
The key to doing well in this business is to:
1. Not Despise the Day of Small Beginnings (thanks, Joyce Meyer)—Starting is often the hardest part. Enjoy being new. Enjoy that feeling because you will reconnect with it later because you recognize it.
2. Understand We All Have an Apprentice Phase—We will all be Early, Intermediate, then Advanced Apprentices. How quickly we move through these will be dictated by dedication, hard work and, to a degree, natural talent.
3. No One Begins a Master and Few Remain Permanent Masters—Every NYTBSA was once a newbie, too. When we understand this career has a process, it’s easier to lighten up and give ourselves permission to be imperfect, to not know everything. Many writers get discouraged and give up too soon because they don’t understand there is a process, and they believe they should be “Masters” right away.
Hey, I did.
We need to give ourselves permission to grow. If we love and respect our craft, we will always be learning, so we will continue to dip back into “Apprentice” to refine our art even further.
While I am a huge fan of social media and authors having a platform, I will tell you that mastery will only come with writing. Focus less on marketing and more on writing books. That’s what will make the difference, not some algorithm or Facebook ad.
Does this make you feel better to know this career has a process? Are you in the Act II span of suck and getting weary? What are you doing to remain focused? Which part has you the most discouraged?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of April, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of April I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!
Note: Due to Easter holiday/anniversary…okay video game marathon, I will be choosing March’s winner later in the week, so stay tuned.