There are three stages to the writer’s life. It is the rare writer who has the chops or the maturity to give their own skill and craft the time and breathing space needed to evolve. Few make it to the final stage. There are plenty of beginners who believe they’re at the end of the process. So how do you know where to situate yourself as a writer, or how far you still have to go? How can you move from one stage to another?
The best framework to illustrate the developmental stages of writing is the industrial-age process leading toward master craftsmanship.
Merriam-Webster defines it as one bound by indenture to serve another for a prescribed period with a view to learning an art or trade; one who is learning by practical experience under skilled workers a trade, art, or calling; an inexperienced person: novice.
The longest stage, this is where most fledgling writers are worn down and quit, or become stuck and don’t know why. From beginning to end, apprenticeship could take years or decades. The length and uncertainty of this period is the reason writers are told not to quit their day jobs. Ten or twenty years might not even represent the halfway mark.
Apprentice writing is the most derivative, expectedly so as the writer searches for a master to emulate. Apprentices will choose anyone as master – even themselves, whether through lack of knowledge or sheer hubris. Choosing the wrong master or taking advice from the wrong person can cause the writer to falter in development. This can happen over and over, slamming apprentice writers right back to the beginning of the learning curve, or trapping them in a vortex that prohibits forward movement.
It is during the process of apprenticeship that the basics of writing and storytelling must be learned. Those who fail to learn the rules in the mistaken belief that the rules don’t matter, or that they are too talented to bother with them as they move straight to stream-of-consciousness or non-linear writing or some other experimental or cutting-edge style will never become masters. This is akin to building a house without a foundation, without framing. It’ll never be more than just a pile of bricks no matter how prettily they’re arranged.
This bears repeating. Without learning the basics of writing and storytelling, neither journeyman nor mastery levels can be achieved.
That means sentence structure, dialogue, paragraph development, chapter progression, tension, grammar, plot, narrative, characterization, metaphor, symbolism – all these facets of writing become micro-stages of learning the craft. Writers must develop tools to hone skill, but they must also develop an eye for knowing how and when to apply them. You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what they are.
Some writers are published in this phase. A very few show a spark of talent but lack great skill, and a supportive publisher or editor might nurture the writer’s career toward its full potential. This is rare. Most writing published in this phase is at the lowest end of the scale in terms of quality and reputation.
Begin with the basics. Learn how to write and what makes great storytelling.
Again from Merriam-Webster: a worker who has learned a trade and works for another person usually by the day; From the Free Dictionary: One who has fully served an apprenticeship in a trade or craft and is a qualified worker in another’s employ; an experienced and competent but undistinguished worker.
The journeyman has chosen – consciously – a worthy Master. Or Masters. Their sights have been set clearly to a point on the horizon. The purpose of their creative effort has been challenged, met, and resolved. There are no illusions, and no delusions. At this stage a writer knows that above all else writing is work, and practice.
The steepest part of the learning curve, this is where the journeyman detaches from writing derivatively and begins to seek out a distinct voice. Storytelling is no longer a mystery; the journeyman understands the mechanics and logistics of the craft and can now play around with style, form, structure, and composition while at the same time realising that each movement away from the basics represents another learning curve, and another, and another; that at each stage he/she becomes apprentice all over again – but at a higher level with a more practiced skill set.
The journeyman is a tactician, not a strategist; a builder, not an architect. The journeyman can work with the components of the craft but is lacking the practice, art, or genius to harness and unleash either its intrinsic magic or his/her own.
Journeymen are also learning about the industry in which they toil: who publishes, who edits, specialities, quality of product, how to present work, how to establish a reputation.
Many journeyman writers are published in this stage. Most published authors are journeymen. Plenty of award-winning writers are functioning at this stage. Their skill is fine-tuned enough in one component or more of the storytelling process but not all. Some are so adept at plot or characterisation or other elements of narrative that the books are page-turners, weepers, but when the story is over so too is the bond between reader and narrative. Characters evanesce. The story has no staying power. Poetic elements, in hindsight, can become cloying, a mental nausea after dining on fatty lyrical cream puffs instead of a balanced literary meal. There are few ideas big enough to give a reader pause; rarely do they change how we see the world or ourselves. The story, more craft than art, is a moment that has passed. Despite this, readers are likely to be excited about reading the next book for the promise of an immediate pay-off.
The majority of writers never advance beyond this stage.
Merriam-Webster: an artist, performer, or player of consummate skill; from the Free Dictionary: a worker qualified to teach apprentices and carry on the craft independently; a person who has complete control of a situation; an original.
Only Masters join the elite guild of their craft – or for writers perhaps the Canon. Masters can call up the wisdom of the ages. Something in their writing taps into the universal. They are the innovators. Their vision gives permission to all who follow, including future Masters. The writing is magic, the narrative powerful, and the undercurrents touch the heart of the eternal. The Master is not a figment of an era, even while a product of one.
They require no advice or approval to practice, stretch, or reinvent their art. They’ve already paid the price.
Characters become household names or types, or at the least are memorable. They are as fully developed as living beings. Opening lines bear a stamp of immortality. Phrases and paragraphs are quotable, and quoted. The Master’s writing defines not just other writing but who we are as individual cultures, people, civilisations. In both big ways and small we see ourselves through the Master’s eyes.
The Master was once an apprentice, then a journeyman, either in the public eye or in the shadows; a genius, quickly ; or a methodical talent, slowly. No stage has been ignored. Her or his place in the guild has been earned in small, agonising steps, with the basics of storytelling and writing craft, and with time.
The only aspect of mastery that cannot be practiced, learned, or taught is genius.
The rest is a level playing field open to anyone willing and able to do the work. There is no cheating.