The mark of a pro is they make whatever we want to do look easy. From running a business to playing guitar to wicked cool Kung Fu moves, masters rarely seem to even break a sweat. Same with authors. With the pros? The story flows, pulls us in, and appears seamless and effortless.
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 acts (stages) in this career if we stick it through.
Act One—The Neophyte
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.
Woodleywonderworks Flikr Creative Commons
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. We also finally understand why so many famous authors drank…a lot.
Act Two—The Apprentice
The Apprentice Phase comes next. This is where we might 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 all the fun out of writing. The apprentice phase is our Act II. It’s the looooongest, but filled with the most growth and change. It’s the span of suck before the breakthrough.
I’ve studied other forms of martial arts, but I am relatively new to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Right now I am in the span of SUUUUUCK. When I started as a neophyte, I “seemed” to do better because I just muscled my way around on the ground and being naturally strong? It worked…against an equally green opponent.
Moments before Kristen gets her tail kicked….
But it also wore me out and gave me more than a fair share of injuries. I had to learn technique. Technique looks awesome when Coach does it. It looks easy on theYouTube videos.
When I do it? Eh…not pretty and NOT easy.
Right now, I’m losing most of…ok, all of my rounds, which is tough on the ego but easier on the joints. I’m focusing more on “rules”, finesse and drilling the basics because I know that in time? It will pay off. Right now is NOT the time for me to try and be “creative.” There is also NO substitute for time on the mat.
Same with writing. Many shy away from craft books because they fear “rules” will ruin their creativity. Truth? They will, but only for a little while .
Eventually we realize that rules were made to be broken. BUT, the difference between the artist and the hack is that the artist knows the rules and thus HOW to break them and WHY and WHEN. We start to see rules as tools.
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’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 bend, break or ignore them.
Like anything, there is NO substitute for DOING. Watching Ronda Rousey videos is a good idea for understanding ground-fighting, but it can’t take the place of mat time. Reading, taking classes, studying cannot replace writing crap until we don’t write crap.
At the end of the apprentice phase, 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 fighter who instinctively knows to arm bar an opponent 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 ingrain 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 Day One Master 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 now part of our DNA, our literary marrow, 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.
Portrait by Yosuf Karsh via Wikimedia Creative Commons
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. If we choose to try a totally new genre, we might even be back to Neophyte (though this will pass more quickly than the first time).
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. Embrace the Day of Small Beginnings—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 as a Master and Few Remain Permanent Masters—Every New York Times Best-Selling Author 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.
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? Write with the abandon of the Neophyte then edit with the eyes of an Advanced Apprentice or Master .
Back to Jen now:
My Neophyte phase is well behind me and I’m solidly working my way out of the SUUUUCK part of the Apprenticeship. Some storytelling skills are ingrained deeply and flow out of my fingers, others put up a fight. But it’s so nice to know I’m not alone, and to be learning and progressing with each story I write. Thanks, Kristen!
What about you? Where are you in your writing career? Leave a comment below and share your journey!