With nearly two and a half years into my writing career, I needed some reference point to put my glorious achievements and wretched failures into perspective. Thus, I pondered upon the inevitable steps a successful novelist has to make in a writing career and because I am prone to look at life as if it were a role-playing game, here is my take at a wordsmith’s leveling system.
My first thought was that not everyone can be a writer. There is one characteristic you must have to even think about a writing career. You have to be driven by a thirst for new stories and knowledge. Learning new things is at the core of becoming a good writer. But let’s start at the beginning. First of all you need to become a:
Storyteller – more a natural predisposition, than a conscious career step, but I argue that you need to put in quite some work to become a storyteller. Your constant hunger for new stories is preset, but it is your will to pursue that hunger through books, games, films or human interactions, that allows you to become a storyteller. If you are one, your mind works in less obvious ways than the society expects. You are a bit more perceptive and you have a bit more insight into other people’s motives. You connect facts into long event-chains and are more aware of causality. Most importantly: you can make a story out of anything around, be it a spot of oil on the motorway, a bandaid on your classmate’s cheek or a night out. People with those skills were always special and throughout centuries they became bards, philosophers, clerics, scholars and also, if they were stubborn, also writers. If you decide to hone those skills by practice, you are likely to make the first conscious step in your writing career and become an:
Event Storyteller – a step not only short, but sometimes even skipped by the more introvert writers. However, when telling stories inside your head is not enough, you seek a way to tell stories on a regular basis. You come up with some jokes, then you throw a play for your parents, a stand up comedy show for your friends or become a gamemaster for a few role-playing games sessions. Usually you write down some notes before your event (if any) and throw them away as soon as you finish, but every now and then you think a particular story would be worth saving. If your passion continues, sooner or later, you start collecting your notes, poems, plays and other written texts to become a:
Private Writer – usually not a long-lasting step either, but it bears great significance, because by now you already made a choice, that you like writing and prose is your medium of telling stories. You also made a choice between fact and fiction as your main area of interest. Many writers stop here regardless of their skill in the craft. They keep writing for their whole lives and become famous authors posthumously, when someone finally sees their work and is able to appreciate it. On the other hand most of us feel an urge to show our work to someone and become an:
Amateur Writer – a great stage of learning the craft and conquering our fears. You are an amateur writer, when you write mostly short stories and experiment with their form and structure. Your friends and family are your audience, but you probably have a blog too. The decisive characteristic of an amateur writer is make no money with his writing and treating it as a hobby. Again, many writers stop at this level and may write for fun for their whole life, sharing their work only with their loved ones. For most of us a time comes, when we feel our work is so good it needs to be shared (and cherished) by many more. (That does not mean amateur writers are not skilled in the craft .Remember there are a lot of great amateur writers out there before you start being judgmental.) And so you become a:
Published/Self-Published Amateur Writer – you sent a piece of your work to a competition, you self-published or get published after being approached by a start-up publishing house. There is no difference in skill or experience between this stage and the previous one. You still write for fun and the only change is some money in your pocket you earn on your hobby from time to time. The money makes you think and you realise writing might be a cool way to earn a few bucks on top of your wage on a more regular basis. Thus, you become a:
Semi-Professional Writer – for the first time you think of your writing as a career. You start writing regularly and promoting your work. Multiple social accounts join your blog becoming your multi-faceted internet presence. You still have a day job other than writing, which makes you most of your monthly income, but you try to cut back on overtime and focus on your new career. You dream about the day you will tell your boss to stuff it and hope it will come as soon as possible. Finally, if you’re a good writer, a decent marketer and/or generally a lucky bastard, a day comes you find your writing income high enough to quit your day job and and be your own boss as a:
Professional Writer – being a professional writer is a bit like purgatory. You know how great it will be once you can afford to write only your own stories, but for the moment you have to write mostly other stuff to pay your bills. By now you have a solid set of skills and a working knowledge of the craft. You write full-time, which means you work more than most. There are upsides though. Your hours are totally flexible and you don’t need to get out of your pyjamas to go to work (it’s good to go that though). If you make it this far, it’s usually just a matter of time before your cumulative work allows you to concentrate on your specific genre. Sometimes it takes a few years and sometimes a few decades, but sooner or later you become a:
Creative Writer – This is nearly it. Your genius and determination elevated you to the top. Not only you make your living by writing, but also by now you only write the fun stuff. You don’t have to slave away writing marketing content for products you don’t believe in and write those boring articles, essays or press releases. All you do now is concentrate on your work. Of course you still need some external clients, but your work is strictly creative now and what’s more it is all in your own name. You write your next novel and double as a screenplay writer for a movie or a video game. Again only time separates you from being an:
Author – The end of the line. You make enough money from your books, you don’t need to write anything else. You still can if you want to, but it is your choice. By now you’ve written millions of words and published a few novels. You’ve been in the business for a decade or two and maybe you have another decade or two of active work in front of you. There is only one thing to look for now – a legacy. Thus, you start your each new book with hope it will be a masterpiece (you will learn what makes a masterpiece next time)…
Having said all of the above I must admit three years in the writing game is too short to make a difference, although I must admit I had to overcome the language barrier as well (English is like a second native language to me, but still it took me a year to start writing as well as in Polish).
If you are just beginning your journey as a writer, stick to these few guidelines (details coming soon):
- Make sure you have enough money to get by:
- keep your day job until you make at least half as much from your writing.
- work part-time until you can really afford to stop.
- never rely on your savings.
- Never invest in your book more than you can afford and what is really needed:
- professional cover and editing are a must.
- self-publishing can be professional for free (beware of swindlers).
- agents should work on commission.
- Improve your workshop:
- be open to critique
- expand your knowledge
- learn the trade (how to…? articles coming soon)
- Keep writing 🙂