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Basics | The Six Stages of Writing

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I mention elsewhere that I am the product of two writers. This gave me an invaluable edge in learning what it takes to be a writer. Not from a teaching standpoint. As I say elsewhere, you can be taught elements of the craft, but no one can teach you to write. As far as the craft goes, I was stubborn enough to need to figure it out for myself. Which was fortunate as many writers just do as their soul commands and struggle to communicate how exactly they put their words together. But as far as I can tell all writers, regardless of education, go through the same six stages of writing: Discovery, copycat, garbage, reluctant experimentation, blind success, and mastery.

Phase One: Discovery

Writing is never as sweet as when the lure of the muse first takes hold of us. I was nine when the ember first took light in my heart. My mother was a teenager when she started. Some people don't realize they can't avoid being a writer until they are adults. And for each of us it is something different. For me I had read Tail Chaser's Song by Tad Williams. It was 400 pages, rich and complex and it sparked within me the desire to write my own novel. So I started. It was called the fish bone harp, who knows where the story meandered to, I was very young.

For my mother she became so immersed in books she loved she just had to try writing one. Others have written little stories for the hell of it, and like an addict craving their next fix, they've stayed with it.

The discovery period can last for a few years if you are young. I spent most of my junior high school years writing stories that went nowhere - just keeping myself entertained and not really worrying about finishing because the thrill of slinging sentences together was enough. Until high school wherein I finally actually tackled a novel and slammed right into the next phase.

Phase Two: Copycat

Once the romance is over and we struggle to write longer and longer stories we slip right into phase two, most not noticing at first. These works may seem original to us at creation, but upon second look they are a subconscious rip-off from another book. Too many people give up on being a writer or writing because they can't find anything original. Fortunately my mother told me to keep writing. I'll get through it. Unfortunately, so many people are under the foolish impression you need to steal to create that they get stuck there. Or don't have the encouragement to push through it. Either opinion is a road block only made worse by phase three.

Phase Three: Garbage

Overlapping with the copy cat phase this period pretty much spans the great deal of your learning years. What you write is dire in some ways. The sentence structure may be good but the characters fall flat. You may have a great imagination for stories but have meandering plots that go nowhere. As you write the words you may be well aware of how truly dreadful your work is, only making the struggle to create that much harder but you must push through. And don't forget these years carry hidden gems and the work should be saved not deleted. Just lock the folder if you're embarrassed by them later. This phase also overlaps with the next, indeed it lasts quite a long time.

Phase Four: Reluctant Experimentation

At some point you need to focus, as is mentioned elsewhere. But when you do you may find yourself writing draft over draft over draft of the same story with characters that shift in every version. The plot meanders, the motivations are cloudy. You don't really like what you are doing but this is really an exciting period because this stage allows you to play with words as a sculptor would with putty in his hand. It probably still looks like garbage. But slowly your style and voice is beginning to emerge, you're gaining insights into what you care about in a story and what you don't. It's during this time that if you are going to read books to give advice they will be most useful. Any earlier and you won't understand them, any later and you won't need them. This is also when having an ear for the language is most essential because if mere sentence structure is a struggle you will not get past this phase. And this is truly a difficult phase because you see original work begin to slip onto the page but you just can't get it out the way you want it. But when you emerge the victor at stage five it's worth it.

Phase Five: Blind success

Some people stay at this fifth stage their entire careers and there is honestly nothing wrong with it. They can write good stories, they have confidence at least a third of the time, (You never have 100% confidence in your work) and likely they've sold a few books. If you plan to self publish this is the phase you could start at. Blind success really means you've managed to forge through the other phases to create original works but have no conscious awareness of how it works, what it is you are gluing together, even what the strong elements in the stories are. Your writing just works. It's satisfying to reach this phase. And I didn't get to it until I was thirty-one. The fact I had been struggling with the same story since I was fifteen made no difference. It still took me years to get to the point that what came out was worth reading. Usually we know when we have things right because we have written (or are writing) the type of book we would love to read ourselves. Some lose the "I don't know how I just do it". And learn what really makes them tick as a writer. Then they have reached the final phase.

Phase Six: Mastery.

It can generally be agreed upon that writing formulas are an anathema to creativity. But if you write enough with the right kind of awareness you will get a sense of your own rhythm. You'll know the tempo you keep. When things happen. Whether you have several climaxes, do your stories always come in series etc. That is when you have command over your writing. It does make it easier in some ways. If you know how your pacing works then you can plan for it in your outline. If you understand you need to do an x amount of work on a shitty first draft then you don't stress over the crap as much. But in general while scene sketching becomes more fun, writing is still difficult. It can still be a painful process to labour over words. But once you've found your way to phase six you at least have confidence that eventually you will get something good out of your efforts.

It's worth noting that having mastery is not the same as being considered a master artist. But you need the former before you will hear a hint of the latter. It also doesn't mean you stop growing and evolving as an artist. It really means you have a kind of quiet command over what you do and how you learn. You don't get to this point overnight. It's a decades long process and anyone young who feels that comfort has been at it a very long time.

Let me stress this again. Having a sense of mastery is a private element of personal success. It does not necessarily mean others will think your work is good. It is not the same as cocky arrogance that fills you with a sense of your own genius. It is simply maintaining control over your own creative process.

Do I have a sense of mastery? Yes. I wouldn't have created this website if I didn't. Do I still have a lot to learn? We all do. Am I a master artist? Well I would need to have something out there for review and then it still wouldn't be up to me. So no. Do you see the difference?

To put it cleanly, mastery is knowing how to recognize when the magic is working, and with any luck, how to spark it in the first place. But no matter how comfortable you are with your own process, you will still have days it all looks like shit. That's just part of being a writer.

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Last updated May 6th, 2017

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