Helping Writers Become Authors

The 7 Stages of Being a Writer (How Many Have You Experienced?)

If life is a journey and writing is a lifestyle, then we know writing itself is not a destination but a discovery. Some of the stages of being a writer are momentous, life-changing, and unforgettable. (Outlines, story structure, and character arcs were like that for me.) Other discoveries blur past, lost in the hustle and grunt of our forward momentum. But they’re every bit as formative and important.

This spring, I find myself at what feels like a mountain peak within my writing journey. It isn’t the final peak by any means. I can see many a misty mountain looming in the distance. But it has provided one of those rare moments in the writing journey that allow the writer to turn back and look down upon the road so far—to realize I have grown, I am not the same writer I was when I started. Indeed, I’m not even close to being the same person.

That’s exciting. Even better, it’s encouraging, because it means the boulders we all trip over, the mosquitoes we all have to swat, the bears we sometimes have to run from—they don’t last forever.

7 Stages of Being a Writer You Must Overcome

Today, I want to take moment to look back over some of the stages of being a writer that can be the biggest obstacles in the first leg of the artistic journey—and show you how you too can navigate past them on your way up the mountain.

1. I Am a Writing Genius!

Some of us are wise enough to skip this gem altogether. But most of us (*raises hand*) start out writing with the blithe mindset that this is easy, this is fun, and my stories are really, really good. I believe this is actually an incredibly valuable starting mindset, since it prevents discouragement from setting in until after we are well and truly hooked by the addictive nature of creativity.

How to Overcome This Roadblock:

As blissful as this particular bit of ignorance may be, remaining entrenched within it will take the wheels off your writing journey right here and now. You know you’ve taken your first step into the larger world of writing when you come to realize, first of all, that you don’t know anything, and, secondly, you then begin to know what it is you don’t know. You realize there is much to learn about the art and craft of writing a powerful story, and you begin your life’s pursuit of diligently seeking it—sometimes joyously, sometimes painfully, but always doggedly.

2. I Feel Guilty for Taking Time to Write (and Then I Feel Guilty for Not Taking Time to Write)

I still remember the agony of indecision in those early years when I started taking my writing seriously. I felt guilty for sitting at my desk instead of doing more “productive” work. I felt guilty for wanting to write rather than ride my horses. I felt guilty for telling people they had to leave me alone during writing time. Sometimes I even felt guilty just because it was a beautiful day outside and I was inside.

And then when I gave in to my guilt and didn’t write, oh boy, there was that whole other wave of guilt to deal with.

Last week, I received an email from reader Cassie Gustafson who perfectly summed up this plateau in the writing life:

I find myself feeling guilty because I’m not writing (which is the worst!), or feeling guilty because I am and have to ignore friends/cat/hubby/social engagements owing to a deadline, or feeling guilty because I didn’t start early enough in my day.

How to Overcome This Roadblock:

This is where the rubber really meets the road, people. If you’re really going to be a writer—if you’re going to make this whole creative lifestyle thing work—this is where it either happens or it doesn’t.

For me, the turning point was a moment in which I found myself angry that family and friends weren’t taking my writing and my writing time seriously. But then it hit me: why should they take it seriously when I wasn’t? From that moment on, writing became a priority in my life. I set up the same daily writing schedule I’ve followed ever since: two hours a day, five days a week. With few meaningful exceptions, writing is first—come rain, shine, holidays, or illness.

Make this commitment and from that moment on, you are a writer.

3. Maybe Writing Really Isn’t Worth It and I Should Quit

Hey, just because you’re now a writer doesn’t mean this gig is suddenly easy! Some of us will face this conundrum many times in our writing journeys. For me (so far), it was an unforgettable one-time epoch.

The spring after I finished what would become my second published book Behold the Dawn, I faced down a quandary of the soul: Am I really meant to be a writer? Is it really a worthy lifetime’s pursuit? Is it what I’m meant to do? I stared into the black maw of this question and all its implications and came this close to giving it all up.

How to Overcome This Roadblock:

Let’s be honest: maybe you won’t overcome this one. Maybe you’ll decide that no, writing isn’t worth it, and you’ll walk away. And that’s fine. As R.A. Salvatore says:

If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t quit, you’re a writer.

I believe this is an important question for every artist to ask themselves at some point in their journey. Creating is about sticking your fist down deep in your soul, ruthlessly clawing at whatever you can find, and then dragging out to be shared in the shocking light of day. If you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing that, then you really should spend some time contemplating the nature of your commitment.

Take a walk into the dark night of your soul. Whatever you find, you’ll be a different person when you come out, and if you decide to keep right on writing, then what you find will fuel your art for the rest of forever.

4. I Can’t Read Other Writers Because They’ll Influence My Voice

The struggle for authors to find their own unique “voices” can be an all-out, feathers-flying, banty-hen kind of a fight in the early years. Most of us don’t even know what a “voice” is, much less what our voice is, so we do a lot of flailing around, trying to find it. Sometimes, within that fight, we become fearful that reading other writers will somehow warp or contaminate our own fledgling voices.

How to Overcome This Roadblock:

The problem here is that reading other writers is, in fact, the single most valuable way to find our voices, to absorb the rhythms of great storytelling, and to learn by example from the best of the best. John Dufresne says it eloquently in The Lie That Tells a Truth:

Don’t be afraid to be influenced by any writer whom you admire. We should be flattered if anyone notices a similarity between our little story and, say, a passage from Melville. If you aren’t influenced by the masters, then you may only be influenced by yourself.

5. I Must Religiously Follow All the Rules (Except That’s Too Hard, So, You Know What?, the Rules Are Obviously Formulaic Cockamamie Created by Talentless Hacks, So I’ll Just Ignore Them, Phew!)

Way back when we overcame Roadblock #1 and realized all the stuff we didn’t know, it actually seemed pretty exciting—comforting even—to discover there was a method to the madness of writing. But the “writing rules” can get overwhelming fast. Some of them don’t make sense right away. Some of them don’t work at all until we come to subsequent understandings about other storytelling principles.

As a result, many writers seesaw back and forth between obsessively observing all rules to the absolute letter of their perception—and then getting frustrated, deciding “art” isn’t supposed to governed by “rules” anyway, and chucking them all out the window.

How to Overcome This Roadblock:

If you follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ve probably noticed that on Wednesdays I always share a post from the site’s archives. I started with the blog’s very first post and have been slowly working backwards, post by post, through what has become a very large backlist. I’m quite happy to say I no longer agree with everything I wrote back then (which is why a number of posts have been deleted or extensively rewritten).

One of the subjects I’ve decidedly changed my views on with time and experience is the value of “the rules”—which is to say, the foundation of established wisdom gleaned from centuries of humanity’s storytelling. I love the rules! Indeed, this entire site is dedicated to sharing those “rules.” But with time has also come the equanimity of approaching those rules from the larger understanding of where they apply, where they don’t, and where it’s okay to experiment.

In short, this isn’t actually a roadblock you “overcome.” Stick with those rules, keep digging away at your understanding of the bigger picture—and eventually, their importance, their (I might even call it) kindness, and their exciting possibilities will put to rest both the obsessiveness and the frustration.

6. Other Writers Are Getting All the Breaks—And It Makes Me Sad/Depressed/Jealous/Angry

The art of writing is uniquely suited to make us feel unworthy. Not only are we baring our souls on the page for everyone to gawk at, we are also working in a field in which monetary compensation is decidedly the primary yardstick for “success.”

What this means, of course, is that in the early days when we’re not making any money, getting any publishing deals, selling any books, or otherwise getting anyone to pay any attention to us whatsoever—we will almost inevitably fight the little green-eyed monster as we watch many, many other authors reach the milestones we aspire to.

How to Overcome This Roadblock:

The first thing you must do is come to peace with your own priorities and your own explicit definitions of success and failure. Do not judge yourself by someone else’s yardstick. Understand what you want to achieve with your writing and, more importantly, why.

During the publication of my first two novels, I struggled mightily with feeling like a fraud because they were not traditionally published—until I came to peace with what I wanted from my writing career rather than what I felt others might expect from me.

The second thing you must do is this: Keep your head down and keep working. Success only comes to those who make it happen. I look back on my writing journey and I am incredibly aware of the opportunities I was blessed to be given. But I also worked incredibly hard so I’d be in a position to take advantage of those opportunities. Don’t worry about what others are doing. It truly has nothing to do with you or the possibilities for your future.

7. I’ll Never Be a Good Writer

This is often the most tenacious belief any of us ever has to face. Perhaps it never completely disappears. We could fill a book with beloved quotes from other writers (many of them acknowledged masters of the craft) about their own doubts about their abilities, about their struggles with the simple act of getting words onto the page, about their depression when the stories they produced inevitability failed to measure up to the magic in their heads.

We don’t need any help doubting ourselves—but we get plenty of help anyway. Brutally-honest critique partners and editors leave us sitting dazed and wounded, staring at the litter of Track Changes in our manuscripts. Then the book comes out and the reviews start coming in—some of them positive, but many of them candid, angry, even cruel (and you will remember these comments far more than the positive ones).

It all hurts. And what hurts most of all is the dark belief, down deep in your heart, that it’s all true.

How to Overcome This Roadblock:

Just keep writing. The reason it hurts is that is true, whether to a small or large measure. In the beginning, your writing probably is pretty bad. Certainly what you wrote last year is likely to be worse than what you’re writing this year.

What is absolutely true is that you’ll never be a perfect writer. But you’re getting better. With every word you write, you are getting better. And I can promise you this: as time goes by and you increase in your understanding of the craft as a whole and your own body of work in particular, the sting of harsh critiques and bad reviews will wear off.

I used to get the shakes and a sick feeling in my stomach whenever I found a negative review of one of my books on Amazon. What if it’s TRUE??? Now, I can glance at them, accept the person’s right to his opinion, perhaps even grin in amusement, and forget about it almost instantly. At this point in my writing journey, I am no longer dependent upon the good opinion of others for my validation as an author or a person. It was a long road to get here (and indeed the road continues on), but it was worth every difficult step along the way.

Keep walking, keep writing.

Perhaps you now find yourself high enough on the mountain to look back and smile at the memory of all of these stops along your path. Perhaps you’ve only passed a few them so far. Perhaps you recognize the current battleground where you find yourself struggling, bleeding, and moving forward step by step.

Wherever you are in the stages of being a writer, remember the path leads ever onward and upward. Every part of the adventure offers its own challenges, struggles, and doubts. But every one of these challenges will find an exciting and invaluable resolution. I look forward to seeing you on the mountain peak, so together we can journey on to still greater heights!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are some of the major stages of being a writer that you’ve experienced so far? Tell me in the comments!

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