Before I get to the new series of posts about killing sacred cows of publishing, I wanted to just toss this idea out there.
For a while, I played at playing semi-professional poker, traveling to tournaments, and learning as much as I could from every source I could. (I have a full shelf unit of poker books.) And, as a writer, I liked watching people as well at the poker table, and I came to some conclusions backed up in different ways by different poker experts. Basically, boiled down into my words, there are four basic types of hold’em poker players.
Beginner: This player looks at his cards and that’s all that matters. Often they wouldn’t know a good starting hand, and any two cards suited seems to get this level of player excited. They seldom fold and couldn’t care what any other player is doing, or even what cards are on the board. They are always surprised when they lose.
Intermediate: This player knows decent starting hands, pays attention to the cards on the board, and sometimes even pays attention to other players, but more often than not just gets angry when someone is pushing a pot they want to draw at cheaply. They blame the dealer, blame other players, and want deck changes. They have no real idea what another player has in their hand and often think they should have won a pot when all the clues were telling them otherwise. These players are fond of telling you what cards they laid down that would have won.
Medium Professional: These players fold a lot, are often aggressive players, and know good starting hands. Their focus is still mostly their own cards, but they also can read a flop and have a good idea of what the other players at the table are playing. They win more than they lose and sometimes score big. They are sometimes hard to read, have a vast amount of patience, and can grind out over hours a decent living. Their focus is not only on their own cards, but a great deal on other players and what they hold. They can read some players and can sometimes win with bad hands.
Top Professionals: These players often don’t care a lick what their two cards are, except in showdown situations. Their only focus is WHAT THE OTHER PLAYER THINKS THEY HAVE. They play upper level games and love playing against other players who understand top play as well. They can seem to read your mind, and are fantastic at blocking any reads on themselves. Their table image is critical. They can shift gears instantly from aggressive play to conservative play as situations demand. Again, their main concern is what the other player thinks they have, not what two cards they actually have. It’s why beginning players watch a top player on television win with bad cards and think they can do the same thing at their local poker room. At this level, the cards are secondary in importance.
Now, take that over to writing and let me play through the stages of being a writer.
These writers are focused only on one thing: Writing a good sentence. To this level of writers, sentence-by-sentence writing is all that matters. No clue how to actually build a story or characters or pacing or anything else. Beginners think pretty sentences equal good writing.
This writer is still focused on sentences, but glimmering of story process is starting to come through. Often this writer does something naturally well and gets praised for it, but this level writer often gets lost and trapped for years in workshops, where people tell them about their sentences, about their grammar, about their syntax, and so on. Understanding story is just a glimmering on the edges and story has no focus to this writer. Writing is still sentences and heaven forbid you change viewpoint in a chapter or paragraph. This level of writer follows “rules” completely.
This level is starting to get “good” rejections. This writer is starting to understand some of the surface levels of story telling, that plotting and pacing and character voice and cliffhangers are involved beyond just sentences. But mostly the thinking is still just on sentences. This level writer might actually sell a story or two to lower levels, but has no idea what they did correctly in the story that sold. The major flaw with this writer is rewriting. They think that constant rewriting makes a story better instead of actually killing it. You hear these people tell you proudly that they have done a dozen rewrites on something. Of course, they have no idea in each rewrite what is better or worse, but they believe that rewriting always makes things better. Many writers at this level get frustrated and give up after coming close or selling one or two stories. They are also still very trapped by the rules of everything.
Young Selling Professional:
This level of writer has sold some stories, maybe even a few novels. These writers have all the basics of craft under control but often don’t understand that there are higher levels of craft learning yet to come. They are mostly out of workshops that focus on sentences, and their own focus is mostly on story. The good ones, the ones that will continue to move up, are understanding that you can never learn it all in the craft side of writing. They have learned or are starting to learn how to study writing, to get beyond sentences and really look at story structure, at pacing, at character voice, at cliffhangers, at openings and endings and even theme. At this level it is usually a poor decision or two on the business side that stops them, often agents who tell them to rewrite, often bad sales numbers on a book, or worse yet, someone ripping them off in some scam or another. But if this writer’s true passion to tell stories wins over the downturns, they will move onward because they have learned to study and just keep writing. This level of writer is starting to understand that not all the rules are good rules.
Professional Midlist Writers:
Writers in this group are often long term writers who have weathered a ton of business problems, who have kept learning about story and about craft of story, about character voice, about all the thousands of details that make up a good story well told. Often writers in this group have between 50 and 300 novels under their belts, and still love the art, still work to get better. Some are moderate bestsellers, others not. They have been making a decent to great living for a long time and will often tell a bunch of younger writers they were just “lucky.” No real luck involved. This bunch just kept going, kept learning story, and love what they do. This group tends to follow its own rules. I fit right in here.
Long Term Bestsellers:
These writers are the master of story telling, their books can get hundreds and hundreds of thousands of readers to buy them every book. They could not care about sentence by sentence quality for the most part, with everything they do focused on the purpose of moving a story forward and keeping a reader reading. Although some of them are fantastic stylists and it fits with their stories. They are mind control experts, able to make readers all over the planet think exactly what they want them to think at any given moment in their books. They understand completely that there is an audience and readers on the other side of the words and they know the expectations of readers. They know when a reader wants something and gives it to them perfectly. Not every reader will like every bestselling writer, but that just boils down to reader taste. The long term bestseller gives his or her readers exactly what they want. They are the masters of storytelling in all its art.
So, just tossed this in for summer fun. Starting soon a series of posts about killing the sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned.
Copyright 2009 Dean Wesley Smith