Chad Grayson

The 5 Stages of an Author’s Career

The other day my writing group was discussing a post by Dean Wesley Smith, about five levels in a writer’s life. It was focused on their skill level, and while I found it valid, it also didn’t speak much to me. I started thinking about the various levels there are to a writer’s actual career (and I use the term loosely). There are five distinct stages to this, with a couple of bonus stages on either side.

Stage One – you’re still figuring out your process and not finishing things regularly. This is a very frustrating stage, because you know how these things should be turning out, but you don’t have the ability to bring them in for a landing. It’s usually because you haven’t figured out what works for you yet. Maybe you’re trying to pants but you’re actually a plotter. Maybe you’re trying to plot but you’re actually a pantser. You may need to go up several skill levels through formal classes or informal training. Or maybe you just need more practice. They say you must write one million words of crap before you’re producing anything worthwhile, and I’m not sure about that exact number, I do know it’s exceedingly rare that the first several things you write will be even adequate, let alone professional quality. This is frustrating, but it is a feature not a bug. This stage is over when you consistently finish things, and are, in general, happy with them. I was in this stage until I was 46 years old.

Stage Two – you’re putting finished pieces out there and getting feedback. This might be sending work out to actual editors at publishing houses and magazines, or you just send it to a critique group, or find another type of professional willing to look at your work. I feel like the feedback needs to be from professional or professional-adjacent people, not your best friend, spouse, or great aunt Mabel. People who, through training or experience, know how to get your work to the next level.

Stage Three – You’re at stage three when you’ve either sold something to an editor, or you self-publish something, and people who don’t even know you buy it. You’re getting some sort of renumeration, even if the work is a long way off from paying for itself. You are starting to build an audience. I feel like this is the stage at which it’s reasonable to start calling yourself a professional writer, but that’s just my opinion. This stage can last a long time, and some people never get past it, and depending on their goals, that can be okay. This is the stage at which I currently find myself.

Stage Four – The work is paying for itself. If you sold a book, you’ve earned back your advance and are starting to get royalties. Publishers are willing to publish more from you. If you’re self-publishing, your royalties are covering your expenses. Your business might not be making much of a profit, but you are solidly in the black. You may not be able to quit your day job, but at least this is not costing you money. A lot of even immensely popular writers end up here. There’s no shame in it. I mean, I would kill to be in this stage.

Stage Five – You’ve made it! Your work is paying you enough that you can quit your day job. It’s providing a comfortable, or at least adequate, living that supports you and maybe even some dependents. You may be rich, you may not be, but you’re definitely not starving. This is the promised land, and a very small percentage of writers ever make it here. But it is doable, if you level up your skill enough and make smart moves with your career.

In addition to these five stages, there are two bonus stages at either end.

Stage Zero – you talk a lot about your characters, worlds, and ideas for stories, but you never actually write anything. The biggest leap in all these levels is the leap between level zero and level one. Just getting words on the page regularly is half the battle. I think if you’re at this stage, you probably shouldn’t be calling yourself an actual writer, but that’s just me.

And then there’s Stage 5+ — you’re popular and successful enough that normies know your name, and your work regularly appears on bestseller list. You might even have been on Oprah or won some prestigious awards. There’s a wide range here, but this is the level of success above everyone else. Think Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Colleen Hoover, Sarah J. Maas, Toni Morrison, John Scalzi. Everyone wants to be here, and it’s possible to achieve this, but it’s kind of hard to make it happen on your own. It generally happens when you write the right book for the right audience at the right time. You can’t really plan for that, but you can be constantly levelling up your skills and growing your audience, so that you can take advantage of it when it does happen.

So, that’s my take on the stages of a writer’s career. Maybe they resonated with you, maybe they didn’t, but it’s an interesting topic to think about.

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