Every renown writer you love to read started out as a beginner.
This is so obvious, and yet it gets forgotten so easily since it’s the masterpieces that get remembered when we talk about our favorite dead writers…not the unpublished works and the weak stuff published early on (unless you’re an English major doing research or an obsessive fan).
Very often, people who are not artists or just starting out have this mental gap in their heads about the journey that an artist takes from beginner to master:
beginner———– > luck ————> master
Mastery and success are attributed to luck.
Well, there’s a middle phase that gets left out:
beginner ——-> apprentice ——> journeyman —> (95% hard work, 5% luck) ——-> master
The apprentice phase for writers is equivalent to the law school phase for someone who wants to be a lawyer. This is the phase where a writer often has to get on a plane to study with a particular writing teacher or to attend a national-level writing workshop. In old novels or movies, this was the point where the young artist packed up to move to an international hub for artists like Paris or New York City or London.
And then there’s the journeyman phase, where the writer has started to sell his or her stories, but there’s still so much to learn. This phase lasts for years to decades, or even a lifetime if the writer decides to stop learning and coast.
As for mastery, it doesn’t spontaneously happen. Don’t ask me why, but people seem to have a natural tendency to ignore the middle phase when they talk about a particular famous dead writer or fantasize aloud about how easy it would be to write a bestselling novel if they just had the time.
And yet it’s the hard work in journeyman phase that will make or break a writer in becoming a master of the craft.
I think one of the most valuable lessons a writer can do once past the beginner stage is to choose a couple of favorite writers (both living and dead) and read their early works.
So, for example, if you were a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte as a writer, you’d dig up a research book that had her unpublished first writings and probably also a copy of her first novel, The Professor.
Or how about William Shakespeare? Go read his earliest plays (researchers still fight about which play he wrote first, so I’d advise reading several). Then think about how we’d see him now if he’d stopped after those early plays and had never written anything more.
But make sure to also include some favorite recent writers who wrote over a long time frame, twenty years or more. For example, I went out and bought collections of the early published short stories of three recent writers whose later works I loved to read: John D. MacDonald’s More Good Stuff, Stephen King’s Night Shift, and James Lee Burke’s The Convict & Other Stories.
This turned out to be an eye-opening exercise for me as I read the unpublished early works of old greats (such as Jane Austen) and early short stories of favorite present day NYT bestsellers.
Their early works weren’t as well-written as their later works were. They’d gotten better at their craft over time. Big shocker, right?
Of course not.
But I’ve noticed a lot of my fellow Americans like to see their artists as the equivalent of Athena jumping fully formed out of the skull of Zeus. The arts are supposed to be “easy.” You have either “got it” as an artist or you don’t. No hard work, no sweat, no tears, no frustration, no years of dedicated study–as if somehow the arts are different from every other human endeavor.
So reading the early works of these various writers impressed upon me, at a deep gut level, how craft gets better over time as one works at it. Hmm, let me put it bluntly. A few of the early works “sucked.” A few seemed like they showed “no talent.” And yet these writers persevered and became masters of their craft. It would have been a terrible thing if any of these writers had quit during the early days due to a mistaken idea that it was impossible to improve in writing skill.
Every writer starts out a beginner. Where we go from there is up to us.