Apprentice, journeyman, master

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 . . . .

The funny thing about these metaphors, though, is that they work for some people and not for others. Do any of you think of yourselves as apprentices or journey(wo)men or masters? Where do you think you leveled up? And is there anything to this ten-years thing?

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  1. 1. C.E. Murphy

    I have in fact had pretty much this exact conversation with my family. They have a different definition of apprentice/journeyman/master than I do, and generally seem to feel that somebody making a living at their craft (as I am) is pretty much by definition a master of it.

    I’m much harder on myself. For me mastery comes in flashes: there are moments in THE QUEEN’S BASTARD where I hit master-level work (in my own ever so humble opinion). I suppose to my mind, in order to be a master, I would have to feel that I was hitting that level of craft consistently in everything I do.

    The problem with that definition, though, is that the different series that I write all expect different things from their structures and stories. The Inheritors books (Queen’s Bastard & the forthcoming PRETENDER’S CROWN) are politically complex, emotionally rich, descriptively lush, and they do what they’re supposed to do. The Walker Papers are fast-paced, funny, and action-oriented, and also do what they’re supposed to do. The Negotiator Trilogy falls between those two in style and storytelling, and, again, do what they’re supposed to.

    Literally because of what they are I don’t think I would ever consider the Walker Papers to be on the same level as the Inheritors’ Cycle, but that then seems a bit unfair to myself. If I’m writing something stylistically different and consider that to be the master-level work, does that mean I can’t consider myself a master at my craft because only one of the things I’m producing hits that level?

    If to achieve mastery I have to produce a masterpiece, then I’d actually consider myself a master. I have a young adult novel (not yet published) which I feel is not only the best thing I’ve ever written, I would be entirely content if it *remains* the best thing I’ve ever written. I’ve become a much better writer since I wrote it (and it needs revising), but it is the one thing I’ve written that does exactly what I want it to from beginning to end and never hits a false note. As far as I’m concerned, it’s my masterpiece, and I’d be willing to present it to the guildmasters any day. :)

    I donno! I think this is a *very interesting* question, and I can’t wait to see how other people weigh in!

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Catie — Interesting. I don’t think I could personally use that definition for a masterwork (by which I don’t quite mean the same thing as a masterpiece, though I’d be hard-pressed to put into words what I do mean), because I can’t imagine staying that satisfied with something. I mean, this time last year, I would have been content for Midnight Never Come to remain my best book ever. But that would only be true if I died before writing anything else, in which case it would be me saying, “well, at least I didn’t end on a disaster.” Less than two months after finishing it, I could already see places for improvement. It’s really hard to conceive of writing a book I wouldn’t later want to fix, or at least outdo.

    I think in some vague way in the back of my head, a masterwork is a piece the hypothetical guild could take and put in a gallery with things done by people they’ve already acknowledged as masters, and you wouldn’t be embarrassed to see it there. I can imagine that, for some people, an award might do the trick: win the World Fantasy Award, frex, and you’re up there with the masters of the genre. But I’m not sure what it would take to make me feel I’d arrived there. (It’s possible I’ll never feel that way, and also possible that’s a good thing. Stay hungry, keep sharking.)

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I doubt I’ll ever feel like a master. i see bits of mastery here and there in my work, but I think maybe because it always feels like such a struggle and I always do so much revision, that clearly I *can’t* possibly be anything like a master. But then, I’ve only got six books under my belt. When there’s 20–who knows?

    I wonder if the masters of fantasy ever felt like masters? i wonder if Guy Gavriel Kay, who I consider a master, thinks of himself as one?

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Diana — Yeah, that’s kind of what I mean. Especially since it’s easy to think that “master” = “done improving,” which certainly wouldn’t be a good thing for one’s craft. You’ve always got something more to learn. But is there a point at which you start to feel like those people you admire are your peers? If so, I’m still a long way from it. :-)

  5. 5. Chris Coen

    I think that journeyman-level work might equate to getting all of the pieces right, and master-level work is where the work has that little extra spark that makes it come to life. It’s a skill that takes a long time to get right for most folks, one that some people will never master, and one that even someone capable of it might not always get right.

    And may we all never stop learning. >:-)

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Chris — Hmmm . . . what constitutes “coming to life”? I’m curious to know what you mean by that. It sounds like you’re thinking of something more than just writing a book that engages a reader, or even gets them excited about the story, but I’m not sure how to pin it down more specifically.

  7. 7. Alyc

    One of the things I think is useful about this metaphor, but that you don’t really touch upon, is that the apprentice/journeyman/master rankings exist (historically) in a social system whereby the advice, support, and critical commentary of your peers is a vital part of the process. That means that publication, commercial success, critical success, mentoring, and a host of other aspects of being a writer are part of the evaluation process of where you are. Masters are elevated to that rank as much by the regard of their peers as they are by the completion of a masterwork.

    Some people may find this intimidating or problematic. It means that in order to be a Master, it’s not enough to write something that for you is the Great American Novel–other writers and critics have to find it to be so as well. It means you can be a huge commercial success, and still not be considered a Master by the community. It’s a conversational and collaborative type of ranking system. Yes, it carries the potential problem of cultural gatekeepers who get to define “quality” according to dominant (or subversive) tastes, but it also opens the possibility of creating communities open to alternate perspectives on taste.

  8. 8. Mike Brotherton

    Well, it’s surely a continuum, but there do seem to be quantum leaps in my own experience. I’d written half a dozen or more crappy stories and then I wrote one that everyone in my writing group was suddenly interested in, and I was conscious of some of the reasons why. It was a story that I was really interested in as opposed to one I’d constructed in a more abstract way; the notion had excited me.

    I had another quantum leap after attending Clarion West. I realized that the quality of my writing had improved dramatically, and it was suddenly very easy to see what was wrong with bad stories. My own, and other good but not quite publishable stories, was harder to discern but I had a clue.

    Finishing a single, coherent novel was another big one, as was slogging through the revisions.

    I know a few writers I’d consider masters, and it’s a bit shocking to hear them say that every novel is different and still a struggle, and that they succeed with some books but not others.

    Maybe “master” is there for us all to aspire to, no matter the accomplishments in the field.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Alyc — you’re right about it being (in origin) a social system. I think I approach it here as a personal one because we’ve become so leery of that kind of judgment, of saying “these people have the right to decide when I’ve arrived and when I haven’t.” But I’m at least evaluating myself in relation to that system: I decided I was a journeyman because I was pretty sure I was qualified to publish something, as measured against my community. (And it turned out I wasn’t far off; the community in turn said, “yeah, sure.”) I think it’s an especially good point for the master thing, though — kind of what I was getting at, bringing up awards — the sense of having earned the right to stand among those people as a peer.

    Mike — “punctuated equilibrium” is the phrase we’re looking for, I think. Not so much stasis in between as gradual change, and then sometimes you have those watershed moments where you can tell you’ve passed some kind of threshold. The other day I likened it to reaching the top of the mountain you’ve been climbing, versus starting your way up a new one (which is where I am right now).

  10. 10. Chris Coen

    By “coming to life,” I mean a story that absorbs the reader fully. A journeyman can get the elements in the right order, but a master can make stories live and breathe.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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