Friday, August 27, 2010


By Darrell James

Nearly every fiction writer I know has one or more failed novels tucked away in a drawer someplace. Novels that were at least somewhat inspired in their concept at the time, but were perhaps poorly executed in their craft. I have two, plus an original screenplay.

The first is a thriller titled The Walking Man featuring a homeless vet as the stories main character. The second was a crime tale titled Law Dogs Don’t Chill, featuring a cop who is trying his best to retire but who just can’t seem to put down the cause. And then there was the screenplay First Hostage, that I pitched as something akin to “Die Hard meets The Hunt For Red October.”

In their essence, all were conceptually pretty good, I think. But in looking back now, it becomes obvious that I simply hadn’t yet acquired the skills to pull them off. It took several more years before my first short story was published and longer still before Midnight offered a book deal on my Del Shannon series of mystery/thrillers.

All this—the work, the learning, the development, the patience—took place over a period of some ten to fifteen years. So, it raises the question:

When do you know when you’re good enough?

Elmore Leonard once said, “I never really became a writer until I stopped worrying about what my mother would think.”

In the beginning, I believe, a writer (or for that matter a beginner in just about any field of endeavor) starts perhaps with a dream to become a success. But short of that dream there is little skill to back it up.

I’ve had it defined for me as four stages of learning one goes through to be a master at anything:

Stage One—Unconscious Incompetence: You don’t know what you don’t know.

Stage two—Conscious Incompetence: As you grow you start to become aware of how little you do know.

Stage Three—Conscious Competence: At this level you begin to realize you abilities and take confidence in them.

Stage Four—Unconscious Competence: The Master. Your skills are so honed you can accomplish them blindfolded.

We all dream of reaching Stage Four, to be a master of the art. To be the Jack Nicklaus or the Peggy Fleming of our chosen field. To fly completely in the zone. To acquire the rewards that come with being the best there is.

I spent quite a few years (I think most do) working and studying and practicing my way through stages 1 & 2 as a writer. My wife, Diana, would tell you she believes I reached Stage 3 somewhere in 2006. I had just written a short story called Something Heavy When You Need It. I had given it to her to read and critique, as is our custom. When I came downstairs a short time later, I found her crying over the manuscript. She would say she knew at that very moment that I would one day be a success.

To me, I think it came sometime later. In 2007 I wrote a story called Trust A Dead Man To Keep A Secret. The plan was to submit it to Deadly Ink for their Deadly Ink competition. I remember writing that story with a certain confidence. A feeling that I knew (somehow knew) that the story was good, that it would stand up strongly against the other stories that would be submitted. I believed—in writing it—that I would actually win. And did!

That wasn’t arrogance talking, believe me. I was still questioning much of what it would take to become a successful writer. But there was a certain confidence that I had going into it. Confidence born of experience. It was further affirmed a year later when my short story The Art of Avarice, appearing in the anthology Politics Noir, became a finalist in the Derringer Awards. And again earlier this year when Midnight Ink offered me a book deal for Del Shannon.

I have a long way to go to reach Stage Four, I know that. And maybe it’s at that level where the idea of “natural talent” comes into play. You either find the zone or you don’t. What I do know (what I have learned) is that with hard work and a willingness to persevere you can accomplish almost anything.

I ask earlier, “When do you know when you’re good enough?”

I think the answer is… You just do!

What’s your take on it? When did you begin to realize your craft as a writer? And if your specialty is in another field, when did you first know you were truly getting the job done?

Leave a comment. I’d really like to know.


E. B. Davis said...

I'm just approaching Stage 3, so I can't answer your question. I've had two shorts published, which has increased my confidence level--a much needed adjustment. When I queried my second novel, I was asked for partials, but no takers, so I'm working to increase my craft skills for novel writing while hoping that the best is yet to come. Thanks for the insight. Until you're published, I think there is always doubt.

G.M. Malliet said...

Somehow this reminds me of the famous John Lennon quote: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." I don't think I'm there yet. And if I get there, I probably won't notice.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I'm not sure I'll ever hit Stage 4, but I hit Stage 3 shortly after Ghost a la Mode was published. It wasn't until then that I realized I could write just about anything with skill and confidence. Being able to succeed out of my comfort zone was the doorway to Stage 3 for me.

Keith Raffel said...

Interesting, Darrell. As for me, I never have any idea of whether my work-in-progress is any good. Never expect to either.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

I could go back and make changes--some radical--in every book I've written. My rule now is that it's ready when the beginning has a good hook, when the middle keeps moving, and when the ending resonates--not so much with complete resolution of every theme and subplot, but with a sense that characters have achieved (most of) what they were there to do, have made some kind of peace with that, and know it's time to more in a new direction.

Beth Groundwater said...

My works in progress are always absolute dreck--or at least that's what I think while I'm writing them. During the process of writing every rough draft, I berate myself for ever thinking I could write. But then when I go back and start editing to prepare chapters to submit to critique group, I find bits that aren't so bad, and they tell me other bits aren't so bad, and my confidence starts coming back. I really think the only way you can know how good your writing is is to get other writers to read it and give you their honest opinions.

Darrell James said...

E.B. it sounds to me like you're there.
Carolyn- I know what you mean, I want to go back and edit even after it's published.
Beth-I start to feel like my work stinks when I've been away from it for a while. When I go back I find, hey, this wasn't so bad after all.
G.M., Keith, and Sue Ann- You guys were born "there".

Kathleen Ernst said...

I was a slow learner, mostly because I wrote in a vacuum for years. I knew I could finish a book, but I wasn't taking classes, learning about the industry, etc., and so my work wasn't improving. Once I started getting thoughtful feedback I started making progress. Level 4? Oh my, I can only dream!

Carol Grace said...

How can we judge our own stuff? I can't. For me it's all about sales. Who was it said, "Show me the money!" It's great to be an artiste, but here's to making a living writing books.

Cricket McRae said...

Really interesting post, Darrell. Level four would be a wonderful place to live. I tend to bounce around the other three levels. When I write a first draft I try not to pay too much attention to how good (or bad) it is. Then I come back after and see where it really is good -- and where it stinks. I am confident at that point that I can recognize the difference and fix pretty much anything, so I'll count that as stage three.
Hearth Cricket

Alan Orloff said...

Put me in the group who can't tell whether their own stuff is any good. I just wait for other people to tell me--one way or the other!

That Author Guy said...

Striving to be better is what keeps writers from becoming stale and boring and makes the challenge of writing fun. Watch out for any writer who says s/he has reached level four. Unless of course her name is Nellie Harper Lee. She reached level four. She knew it. And she quit. Nowhere to go from there. Sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm still at stage three and expect to be there for a long time;)

Diana said...

I think I'll forever be at stage 2, I'm always conscious of how much I don't yet know. sigh...

Darrell James said...

Valid and true comments, everyone. I think every now and then it's good to stop and consider where you're at with things. But, in the end, progress is life, it's ongoing. Maybe, only a future look back in time can say for sure what you've accomplished.

Vicki Doudera said...

The skill of writing is definitely something one hones constantly. I think I got very, very good at writing magazine articles -- especially at making boring assigned topics interesting -- but I never mastered the art of the personal essay, a genre I love. Penning a mystery is more fun than most types of writing, nevertheless it is work.

T.S. Richardson said...

Great insight, Darrell. Writing is almost like climbing Everest. Level one is so warm and cozy inside the tent. Venturing into two is painful and ego-deflating, yet we must make the arduous journey from the base camp to summit three. Don't think I've reached it yet. Level four is for the masters, whether the Sherpas or repeat climbers who don't require oxygen masks. It's natural and all the reflexes are there after years of practice or amazing genetics.

Also, I wonder about Leonard's quote. My interpretation (without context) is less about style than content, like having your mother read sex scenes or the inner thoughts of psychopaths that you penned. It's best to not worry about moral judgments and write what best serves the story. That's my bible-belt background speaking.

And finally, I don't know if it is by design, but you posted at 12:01am for the Midnight Ink blog!