The Five Stages of Becoming a Fiction Writer

I’ve heard many people describe their progression as a writer, and I’ve been surprised not by how different these stories are, but how similar. That doesn’t mean everyone goes through these specific steps or does it in exactly this order, just that these growth experiences are shared by a lot of people. Since some of these stages are tough to get through or somewhat embarrassing to look back on, realizing we’re not alone can be really validating. And while it may not seem like it at the time, I think each stage has something to offer.

1. Prewriting

You have creative ideas, and you like the idea of putting them together into a great story. Sometimes when you’re feeling especially inspired, you’ll jot down whatever comes to you. Maybe if it’s short, you’ll even get to the end!

But every time you try to work on something that takes more than the space of an afternoon, you run into the same problem: writing is hard work! After the initial glow of that fun idea wears off, finishing doesn’t seem worth futzing with those sentences or troubleshooting the obvious plot holes. You have other things to get to.

Maybe you still think that you’ll be a great writer someday. Or maybe you’re sure you’ll never be a writer; it’s too much effort.

If You’re in This Stage

You’re actually ahead of the curve! Most people don’t come to a site like Mythcreants until they reach stage 3 or 4. That could save you a lot of heartache later. And while I can’t promise that you’ll actually settle down with a nice story someday, many people move to stage 2.

2. Magnum Opus

You have it: the idea. This is no one-afternoon stand; this story will be the love of your life, your magnum opus. The idea is fresh and exciting, but more than that, it resonates with you on a deeper level. You feel for the characters, and you’re riveted by the fix they’re in.

You start putting words on paper, and soon the idea grows from a short story to a novel and then from a novel to a series. You find yourself investing tons of hours doing the work you never wanted to do before. You do it because you just have to make this story real. And after you do, it will be the next big thing. You’ll show everyone that you were made for this!

In the meantime, you protect your precious idea. It’s incredibly valuable to you, so it must be valuable to others. What if someone steals it? Gotta keep it secret; keep it safe.

If You’re in This Stage

I’m sorry about what comes next. As a consolation prize, may I offer you some articles on the basics of plotting? You’ll be happy you read them later.

3. Disillusionment

After working long and hard on your beautiful magnum opus, you showed it to someone else. Someone who didn’t think it was the cat’s meow. That someone was maybe a friend, an editor, or even yourself. Regardless, reality has come knocking, and it says your work is crap.

Maybe you hold on to hope a little longer. It isn’t that your work is terrible – that person just didn’t get it. The masses don’t appreciate true art. But eventually, you admit that you aren’t a natural writing savant and that your work is far from a masterpiece. This is a hard thing to realize.

If You’re in This Stage

There’s nothing wrong with you. The disillusionment stage happens because our culture lies to us about what being a fiction writer entails. It’s not some mystical journey that involves following your heart and muse wherever it takes you – it’s a profession that has to be studied like any other. You just haven’t learned it yet.

Sure, there are a few people who lucked out when their first attempt became a smash hit. But it’s probably good you aren’t one of them, or you’d be insufferable thereafter.

4. Learning

You’re going to learn all there is to learn, and then you’ll fix your magnum opus! You read books, visit websites, and attend workshops. Slowly you become aware of the problems in your stories. Unfortunately, everything feels the same except you now dislike your own writing, and that makes it difficult to continue.

You keep working at it, and eventually you notice that your writing is actually getting better. You even branch out a bit. You write some short stories or test out different perspectives and genres.

But whenever you go back to your magnum opus, you become discouraged. Your new writing is clearly better than it was when you put so many hours into it. The plot of your masterpiece is a tangled mat that you can’t seem to comb out. With dawning horror, you realize it’s time to put the love of your life aside. You say you’re just on a break, but everyone knows what that means.

If You’re in This Stage

The struggles you’re facing are growing pains. Before, you had blissful ignorance, but now you’re actually on your way to achieving a dream. It really does get better.

5. Rebirth

After kissing a lot of frogs, you’ve gained skill and confidence. You have more to learn – as you always will – but you’re ready to take on more challenging projects. Maybe after writing short stories, you’re ready to go back to novels. Maybe after writing in limited, you’re ready to go back to omniscient.

Writing isn’t like it used to be. It’s not deliriously chasing a dream; it’s sitting down every day in front of the computer. You know it’s not having a great idea that matters, but all the hard work and skill that goes into narrating it. You work to make each story good, but it’s okay if it’s not perfect. While the romance may be gone, now you can accomplish what you only dreamed of before.

If You’re in This Stage

Congrats! Keep writing and learning.

Many writers are lured in by unrealistic expectations. If we knew what we were getting into then, maybe we would have turned right back around and focused on accounting instead. But we didn’t, and I think that initial burst of enthusiasm enables many of us to climb a formidable learning curve. We may not have salvaged all the stories we wanted to, but thanks to those failed stories, we can do better today.

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  1. Dvärghundspossen

    This is related to number 3, but I had to learn that just because there’s an interesting background to your writing, it doesn’t automatically make the writing good.

    I can do automatic writing – like, not as in a supernatural thing, but I can “let go” of my hands and have them type even though I don’t consciously control them or really know what they’re gonna write. Probably related to my schizo mental illness. (Although I can only do this for short bursts of time, because it really brings on psychotic symptoms otherwise.) I used to think that because this is a weird ability (at least I think so? Maybe it’s actually common, IDK) then what I write in that state must automatically have value. I just looked up a file I had on my computer actually, some automatic writing I did a few years ago… Something about lying in mud and water with cold sunshine and crawling insects. IDK, it might be crap, it might possibly have SOME kind of poetic value, but it’s definitely not automatically good just because the process behind it was interesting (if it even IS interesting, IDK).

    I also used to try to write novels based on weird psychotic experiences I have had, but they always sizzled out into pure crap.

    My current novel though is basically
    1. Start, once again, with weird psychotic experiences and my old notes from when I was in a mental hospital years back, because I’m not giving up on the core idea of trying to do something creative out of this shit…
    2. Try to actually build a coherent world and coherent plot out of the material. (HARD!) Take pretty much ALL the Mythcreants advice and apply.
    3. Rewrite the whole thing multiple times because turns out it was still crap.
    4…? Hopefully I’m ACTUALLY in the finishing stages now, after which I finally gonna show the whole thing to my husband and sister for a start…

  2. Cay Reet

    I don’t think I had a magnum opus, though. I always wanted to write, even as a small kid. I tried writing my first novel when I was seven – in my first summer break. No need to guess what happened…

    For me, it was short stories I wrote for most of my teens – until a friend told me they were absolutely horrible (which they were, I can see that now – a good story does not equal good writing). In university (I’m German, we don’t do college), I started writing again and produced my first longer story (although I dare say it was only a novella). When I started working, writing went down again to the occasional smut piece. Then, a few years ago, I was inspired to write more again and wrote a large number of novellas, until my first novel came along (which I thought would be a novella, too). Since then I’ve been writing a lot, polishing my writing as I go along.

  3. The Rambo

    I love this!! Have definitely gone through each stage except 5. Cheers from #4!

  4. Passerby

    Didn’t have the Magnus Opum phase, either. I wanted to write since I was 9 or sth like that, but I was unable to get past the first few chapters of any of my ‘books’. I was never interested in writing short stories, either.

    I managed to finish a few projects in middle school (not that they were any good… but they had an ending) by pretty much treating each as a set of three tightly related stories (‘arcs’). They were still pretty short, but like. I was always told – even by actual editors – that my style is good/easy to read, but I had a problem with fresh – MY – ideas and the overall structure.

    Then I switched to English, started outlining, and can say with convinction that I had produced my first decent – not yet publishable level, but decent – book of 100k words only two years ago, during my first year of university (no colleges in Poland, either). TBH I mostly wish someone told me about outlining way back, perhaps my high school years would’ve been more productive… Unfortunately, there aren’t many creative writing resources in Polish, or at least there wasn’t any back then.

  5. Ennis

    I think I kind of followed this progression but because I’m stubborn as hell I just powered through 2 to 5 with the same story or “magnum opus”, throwing away hundreds of thousands of words to rewrite again using what I’d learnt. Basically because in my case I became a writer because I wanted to tell This Story in particular, rather than starting with the goal of becoming a writer and then coming up with stories.

    At least it’s easy to see how far I’ve come—I can just pull up the original version of a scene and cringe.

  6. Lyrica

    Still haven’t gotten to stage 3. Wish me luck…

  7. A Perspiring Writer

    What do I do if I’m just constantly bouncing between stages 2 and 3?

    • Cay Reet

      Keep writing, I guess. As you write more, you will learn more about writing. Your plotting will get better, your characters will feel more rounded and real, you wording will smoother and more interesting. Keep what you’re writing. Reread what you’ve written after half a year or so, while you go on writing. Compare what you’re currently writing to what you have written. See that there’s changes, that you get better. That will help you leave 3, hopefully. It certainly helped me.

      • A Perspiring Writer

        Another question: what do I do if stage 3 is caused by my own thoughts? What if, when I look back on my own writing, I just think it sucks and I don’t want to continue? (of course, Grammarly gives me a notification saying that that second sentence should be edited for clarity)

        • Cay Reet

          Look back at older writing. At things which you have written half a year or a year or longer ago. That’s when you see the difference in your writing and the progress you’ve made.

        • Kit

          Y’know, I read something a while ago discussing how people develop skills, and it claimed that someone’s ability in an area doesn’t rise steadily in a straight line as they practise, but instead rises, hits a plateau, and then rises again, which continues ad infinitum. When you’re on the plateau, that’s when you’re consolidating what you’ve been learning, and so when you look back on old works, they look amateurish to your eye when they didn’t before. Which is incredibly frustrating, but the fact you now see flaw is the sign that you’ve improved and are just about to hit another ‘rise’ section. Take some comfort from that if you can – if writing brings you joy, the worst thing you could do now is give up.

          (Also, ignore this if it works for you, but it might not be helping things if you’re writing using Grammarly all the time. You can always go back and run your work through Grammarly to help edit after you’ve written, but if you’re constantly taking suggestions while you’re in the writing process, that might be knocking your confidence – as well as your flow, since you’re always half in edit-mode.)

          • Cay Reet

            I agree. Write things down, create a first draft, then edit. Don’t try to perfect every sentence the moment you put it down. Let it all out – storytelling is more important than wordcraft, although both are needed.

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