I’m SO glad I didn’t know what I was getting into.
Mastering a craft is difficult. No one picks up a tennis racket for the first time and expects to play at Wimbledon. No one brandishes a golf club and expects to join the PGA tournament. Yet, for some odd reason, many people believe their first book should be a bestseller. Certainly there are exceptions to the rule….but…
The other 99.9999999% of authors will have at least one manuscript hidden in a file cabinet (real or cyber). Why? Because mastering a craft is difficult. Stupid difficult. Years and years and years of difficult.
It’s easy to get discouraged by the amount of time it takes. When that happens, I remind myself that all learning follows certain inherent patterns. (Remember Psych 101?) Even mastering the skill of writing falls along the lines of these established stages:
I Unconsciously Incompetent
II Consciously Incompetent
III Consciously Competent
IV Unconsciously Competent
In Phase I, you've written the beginning of a story. Usually about three chapters. And you LOVE your writing. The words are fabulous. Your best friend loves your work. Your mom thinks you're a genius. You ARE a genius.
This stage is Unconsciously Incompetent.
You’re still an amateur, but you don't know you’re an amateur. You don’t know because you haven’t placed your work before an impartial audience yet.
Every artist was first an amateur. Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Phase II, you receive your first critique, and it's devastating. Maybe you entered a contest and your scores were abysmal. Maybe you queried an editor and received a form-letter rejection. You realize you're not a genius. In fact, you have a lot to learn. You’re demoralized.
This stage is Consciously Incompetent.
You are an amateur. You have discovered your limitations. And the realization is overwhelming.
This stage can be difficult to breakthrough (see video below).
It’s okay, you’re not alone. That’s why forums like Seekerville are so important. Having a support group of fellow authors is invaluable.
Phase III offers some hope. Finally!
If you make it through the YEARS (yes, that's plural) of learning, rejection, doubt, heartache, pain and more learning, you will finally recognize glimpses of excellence in your work. It's still raw. But not as bad as it used to be. You've identified your weaknesses and learned how to exploit your strengths. You have a little success.
For authors seeking traditional publication, encouragements appear: Agents reply to your emails with requests for more chapters. Editors use words like 'promising' and 'revise and resubmit.' This is when the phone rings with a New York area code flashing on the caller ID-- and you don't whether to scream or cry.
You are Consciously Competent. You can write a story that sells, but it's hard work.
Somewhere during this stage there’s a good chance you’ll hit a sophomore slump. (I know, right? The good news just keeps coming.) Actually, the sophomore slump can be a couple of different things. The slump can be an extended period of time between a first contract and a second contract. Or the slump can refer to a lukewarm reception of a second book after a big splash with a debut novel.
Whether the slump lasts seven years, seventeen months, or seven minutes—this time can be agonizing. There is good news. Years of struggle will have prepared you for this setback. By now you realize there is no greater balm than working. So you keep working. And you keep learning.
(I had my own slump. I waited a year and a half before receiving a multi-book contract. You never know what’s around the corner!)
Consciously Competent is a stage of growth. Not fast growth, but a finer-tuned, more subtle growth. (I like to believe I’m in the consciously competent stage – which can be incredibly frustrating because the progress is gradual. I can do some decent work, but I’m painfully aware of how far I still have to go.)
Like Ira Glass said in the video: We get into this business because we have good taste. And because we have good taste, we realize the limitations of our own work.
In Phase IV, you reach the first level of mastery: Unconscious Competence.
You've contracted 30 or 40 books and sold a couple-hundred-thousand copies, if not millions, you've seen the market ebb and flow. You know how to ride the waves.
I've met these people. They're awesome. And they're the best teachers. If you’re extremely lucky, they make wonderful mentors.
That doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels,
(Remember the analogy of the athlete? Serena Williams is at the top of her game, but we still don’t expect her to win EVERY point.)
Writing wouldn’t be writing without the procrastination and the excuses. It’s the challenge of overcoming our worst selves when sitting down at a blank page that defines who we are. Paul Jun
Don’t give up because it’s hard.
Of course it’s hard.
Learning a skill is a process. Mastering a skill takes time. When we hear that a professional athlete spends hours a day practicing, we admire them. We should have the same admiration for individuals who work in creative fields.
Writing is never wasted. Practice is never wasted.
Sometimes the journey looks and feels like failure: Agents back out of representation, publishers fold, contracts are revoked. It’s frustrating. Use that fabulous imagination and envision yourself as a keynote speaker, regaling your audience with your tumultuous rise to the top…
Don’t feel bad because you have five manuscripts hidden away that will never see the light of day. Be proud! Serena Williams certainly doesn’t feel bad because she practiced so much.
You know what else Serena Williams has? A coach.
You have to be able to accept criticism to learn. As a friend once said, “Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but don’t be a rapist either.” If you’ve been knocking at the door for a while, step back, reassess, get a professional evaluation of your work, and then move forward. In other words, find a good coach, and then listen to that coach. Even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.
Self-publishing doesn’t bypass this journey. There are no shortcuts.
It will take you less time and less effort to do it the difficult way than it will to buy and try and discard all the shortcuts. Seth Godin
Life has a way of forcing us back to the beginning when we attempt to shortcut the process.
Most overnight successes take years of practice. Authors and athletes spend a lot of time out of the spotlight, toiling away in solitude, to become overnight successes.
I was 40 years old before I became an overnight success, and I'd been publishing for 20 years. Mary Karr
God has brought you to this journey for a reason. Respect the journey He has devised for you.
The hardest part is believing in yourself at the notebook stage. It's like believing in dreams in the morning. Erica Jong
(And don’t forget the power of friends and chocolate!)
Looking back on your own journey, what is the one piece of advice you wish you could have given yourself when you started out?
A wife and mother of three, Sherri’s hobbies include collecting mismatched socks, discovering new ways to avoid cleaning, and standing in the middle of the room while thinking, “Why did I just come in here?” A reformed pessimist and recent hopeful romantic, Sherri has a passion for writing. Her books are fun and fast-paced, with plenty of heart and soul.
Look for The Marshal’s Ready-Made Family from Harlequin Love Inspired Historical in February of 2014. Available now, Winning the Widow’s Heart.
Email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit sherrishackelford.com.
Sherri has a very special giveaway for a Seeker visitor who comments today- $10 amazon gift card and a pre-order of her February 2014 release, The Marshal's Ready-Made Family- two items to one winner. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.