The Writers’ Journey: Want to be a Master Writer?

Excerpt from Kristen Lamb

Mastery, to the casual observer, appears seamless and effortless… BUT…

Everyone Begins Somewhere

Many of us decided to become writers because we grew up loving books. Because good storytellers are masters of what they do, it’s easy to fall into the misguided notion that ‘writing is easy,’ which explains the mountains of crappy ‘published novels’.

It also explains why non-writers can so easily dismiss what we do.  As if the only thing keeping them from turning out the next Game of Thrones is ‘finding the time’ and not a matter of a crap tonne of training and work.

Act One—The Newbie 

This is when we are brand new. We’ve never read a craft book and the words flow. We never run out of words to put on a page because we are like a kid banging away on a piano having fun and making up ‘music.’ We aren’t held back or hindered by any structure or rules and we have amazing energy and passion.

But then we go to our first critique and hear words like ‘POV’ and ‘narrative structure.’ Critique members return samples of our opus, haemorrhaging red ink. It’s in this moment that we learn maybe we’ve not yet achieved mastery.

In fact maybe, just maybe we’ll see we don’t know as much as we think we do. Also – winces – we might become aware we are not so ‘naturally gifted’ that we get to skip all the training and the hard stuff.

It’s during this period we might also grow keenly aware of why so many famous authors drank…a lot. Or went crazy.

Act Two—The Apprentice 

The Apprentice Phase comes next. This is where we might read craft books, take classes, go to conferences and listen to lectures. During the early parts of this phase, books likely will no longer be fun. Neither will movies. In fact, expect most of your family to ban you from ‘Movie Night’. Everything now becomes part of mastery training. We no longer look at stories the same way.

The Apprentice Phase is tough, and for many of us, it takes the all the fun out of writing. The Apprentice Phase is our Act II. It’s the looooongest, but filled with the most growth and change.

It’s the span of suck before the breakthrough.

There is a darn good reason WHY not everyone can do what WE DO.

Writing is TOUGH

Many new writers will shy away from craft books because they fear ‘rules’ will ruin their creativity. Truth is? They will totally ruin our creativity, but only for a little while. Eventually we realize that rules were made to be broken. BUT, the difference between the artist and the hack is that the artist knows the rules and thus HOW to break them and WHY and WHEN. We start to see rules as tools.

We want to become so immersed that we can write blindfolded. We instinctively feel what needs to happen where without having to say ‘Oh, this is a scene, and this is a sequel.’

As we move through the Apprentice Phase and we train ourselves to execute all these moves together – POV, structure, conflict, tension, setting, description, dialogue, plot arc, character arc – it eventually becomes easier. In fact, a good sign we are at the latter part of the Apprentice Phase is when the rules become so ingrained we rarely think about them.

We simply write.

Mastery Has a ‘Feel’

We’ve read so much fiction, watched (and studied) so many movies, read so many craft books, heard so many lectures, and practiced so much writing that all the ‘rules’ are now instinctive and, by feel, we are starting to know where and how to bend, break or ignore them.

Like anything, there is NO substitute for DOING. Reading, taking classes, studying cannot replace crap writing without practising until what we write isn’t crap.

At the end of the Apprentice Phase, writing is now starting to become fun again, much like it was in the beginning when we were banging away on the  keyboard. Like the fighter who instinctively knows to arm bar an opponent without conscious thought, we now find more and more of the ‘right’ words and timing without bursting brain cells.

The trick is sticking it through the Apprentice Phase long enough to engrain the fundamentals into the subconscious. This is how we get ever closer to mastery.


This is where we all want to be. We all want this on Day One, but sadly, I believe this Day One Master is reserved for only a handful of literary savants. Mastery is when we return to that childlike beginning. We write with abandon and joy and, since the elements of fiction are now part of our DNA, our literary marrow, what we produce isn’t the off-key clanging of a neophyte. It’s actually a real story worth reading.

Granted, it isn’t all kittens and rainbows. Masters have a lot of pressure to be perpetual geniuses. The best writers still pick up craft books, refresh themselves in certain areas, read other authors they enjoy and admire to see if they can grow in some new area. Masters seek to always add new and fresh elements to the fiction.

If we love and respect our craft, we will always be learning, so we will continue to dip back into ‘Apprentice’ to refine our art even further.