Friday, March 25, 2011

Stages in a Writer's Development

I don't know why, but beginning writers (and experienced ones, too) are often possessed--haunted, really--by the notion that we already know how to write. While few insist that this is something instinctive, that we were born with, there's a persistent and pernicious belief that "talent" will automatically produce great literature...or at least commercially successful work. I lay much of the blame for this on our education. We learned how to write in elementary school, didn't we? We turned in all those school papers, essays, book reports, didn't we? We write every day--shopping lists, emails, text messages, don't we? So how hard can it be to write a book? It's just a longer version of LOL, BRB, isn't it?

Even if we come to understand that professional writing, whether fiction or non-, whether mainstream or genre or poetry, requires skill and skill comes about through understanding and practice, all too often we don't give ourselves full credit for being able to grow. How often have I wailed, "I'll never get any better!" when in fact I am on the bring of a quantum leap forward in the scope and richness of my story-telling?

In his excellent book, Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight describes stages in a writer's development. The very notion is extraordinary, so let's not rush into the specifics. Assuming we are willing to work at acquiring and perfecting the skills necessary for good writing, we need to understand also that growth is not uniform. A larva is not a caterpillar is not a chrysalis is not a butterfly. Some issues may always plague us--our "writing nemesis" sort of stuff--but our focus will change along with our development.

Okay, what are these stages? I'll start with Damon's breakdown:

Stage 1: Writing to please yourself, mostly day-dream, self-indulgent stories. A lot of fanfic falls here. You really don't care whether anyone else reads it because you're your own audience.

Stage 2. You care about an audience, but your stories are what Damon calls, "trivial," that is, lacking in storyness, in emotional and structural shape. It occurs to you that you might need to learn something about what makes stories work.

Stage 3. Now you're writing complete stories or, as Damon puts it, "reasonable imitations," but still face serious challenges in terms of technique and execution. Often these weaknesses pertain to characterization or overall story structure/balance.

Stage 4. Working at a professional level, with reasonable control over all the basics. This is an open-ended stage because hopefully we never stop learning, never stop "pushing the envelope" for our work.

I'd like to leave you with two thoughts. One is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being at any of these stages...or remaining there if that's what you want to do with your writing. Most but not all successful writers have passed this way. You're in good company.

Secondly, just understanding where you are, looking around at the territory behind and ahead of you, can be immensely reassuring. It can help you analyze and focus on the learning challenges of where you are. I still dream up Stage 1 stories, but I know that's what they are...pure self-indulgence. Many times, ideas will leap out at me and say, "I belong in a real story." I know what to do with them because I've slogged through Stages 2 and up. If I didn't, if I were still a beginner, I'd look at that moment as a sign of readiness, an invitation to push forward, an impulse to take a step up that next rung of the ladder.


  1. I think I'm somewhere between stages 1 and 2. That's ok with me because I'm having fun, and I never want to feel as though writing is 'work'. Work isn't fun. Being on someone else's schedule (such as a publisher) wouldn't be fun, either. I want to write when I want and what I want. I want to have fun with it. So it's alright with me if I stay at a 'beginner' stage. I'm enjoying myself, and if someone else wants to enjoy my fantasy worlds, I welcome the company.

  2. That's a lovely place to be, when the source of your stories is your own pleasure and the "storyness" is just starting to take shape. Enjoy it to the fullest...and don't feel pressured to "move on" unless it comes from within!