Apprentice, Journeyman, Master

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]

I like the notion of ranks. Some people seem to find them uncomfortable, as if admitting that these people over here are more skilled than those people over there is somehow unfair or elitist. Me, I look at a ranking system and see achievements waiting to happen.

It’s been a good nine or ten years now since I first gave myself a “rank” in writing. (This is wholly my own decision, not imposed on my by any outside authority, which probably helps.) The idea came about because something had recently changed; I had written something that felt inherently different, inherently more, than anything I’d written before.

What was the big change, you ask? Well, quite simply, I’d finished something. See, for a long time I wrote one type of fiction: “unfinished novel.” All the basic skills that go into your writerly tool-kit, knowing how to put together coherent sentences and characters and plots, I had all of those down before I figured out the “finish what you started” skill. That one didn’t come until my brain coughed up two ideas that I knew, even then, had more substance to them than any story ideas I’d previously played with. So I stopped playing: I sat down and finished something.

I decided after I had done so that I was declaring myself a journeyman. What does that word mean? It means you’ve finished your apprenticeship, and are now qualified to earn a day’s wages at your craft. Because finishing what I started was the last basic skill I picked up, that first novel? Was publishable. I’m glad it hasn’t been published, mind you, because it’s already had one big revision and I’d like to give it another . . . but yes, I do want to see it on the shelves some day. The idea at the core is good. And it was a flip of the coin whether I would write that one first, or the other idea on tap; that one got written second, under the title Doppelganger, and went on to become my first published novel. Like I said: qualified to earn a day’s wages.

So what about mastery? Not there yet. I’m not sure what I would consider to be an appropriate transition, either; the creation of a masterwork, certainly, but how do you decide what qualifies? I’ll let you know when I find out.

I’ve noticed something else interesting, though. The first story I remember writing down was in second grade, when I was seven. After that I played around a lot with writing, dinking here and there, until those two Better Ideas came to me . . . when I was seventeen. (I spent about a year after my eighteenth birthday writing the first of them.) Since then, I’ve been writing novels, some of them published, some not . . . and then last year I wrote Midnight Never Come, where — to borrow a gaming metaphor into this tale — I “leveled up” as a writer. How old was I then? Twenty-seven.

I see a pattern here.

They say it takes ten years of dedicated practice to get good at something. I wonder if there’s more to it than that — if ten more years of dedicated practice will lift you up to the next level. Seems to be so for me, anyway, with the result that I’m really wondering what I’ll write when I’m thirty-seven. ^_^ I know I don’t consider Midnight Never Come my masterwork — I’m very proud of it, but not that proud — but maybe in another nine years . . . .