Friday, April 12, 2013

Writer, This is Your Job

by James Scott Bell

Jill and James Scott Bell.
Jill is not the author in this story, btw.
Some years ago I was teaching at a writers conference in New Mexico. After lunch I noticed one of the conferees sitting at a back table, looking distressed. I went over and asked her what was up.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Am I ever going to get anywhere? I see all these people, they all want it just as much as I do. How do I know if I’ll ever make it?” Tears started down her cheeks.

I handed her a napkin for the tears, then took another and drew a pyramid on it. I divided the pyramid into six sections. Inside the pyramid are writers, I explained, with each section representing a different level of achievement.

The bottom, where most of the people are, is the realm of the “want to.” Or “I think I have a book inside me.” But outside of some scribblings, maybe a short story or two, perhaps an unfinished novel, these people never move on to the next level …

… which is where people like you are (I told her). Those who actually try to learn something about writing. Who buy writing books, go to conferences, take classes … and write.

Above that is the level for those who actually finish a full length novel. This is a great place to be. This is where real writers come from.

The next level holds those who write another novel, because the first one is probably going to be rejected. They do this, because they are novelists, not just someone who happened to write a novel.

Next are those who get published. Above that those who are published multiple times.

Sitting on top of the pyramid is a Wheel of Fortune. This is where the breakout hits come from. The wheel goes around and lands on a book like Cold Mountain. Or The Firm. Or Harry Potter.

No one can control this. No one knows how to guarantee a hit, or it would be done every time out.

Your job, I told the young writer, is to keep moving up the pyramid. Each level presents its own challenges, so concentrate on those. As you move up, you’ll notice there are fewer people, not more. And if you work hard, you might get a novel on the wheel, and that’s as far as you can go on your own. After that, it’s not up to you anymore.

The conference went on and I forgot all about this incident.

A couple of years later, I bumped into her at another conference. She told me that this conversation and the diagram had a profound effect on her, and that she was going to keep going, and was finishing her first novel.

Two years after that, she wrote to tell me she had landed a book deal. She is now a published author.

Writer, if you want to be published, if you want a hit book, don't worry about things you cannot control. Don't grasp at phantoms. Focus on the page right in front of you. Make it the best it can be, and build these pages into a book. And then another.

Keep climbing the pyramid.

That's your job.


James Scott Bell is a multiple bestselling author and speaker. Visit his website at www.jamesscottbell.com.

And as a thank you for James Scott Bell coming by Go Teen Writers and as part of our Support an Author plan, Stephanie bought a copy of The Art of War for Writers to give away. Enter on the Rafflecopter form below and tell us what level of the writing pyramid do you think you're on. US entries only, guys. Sorry!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

86 comments:

  1. This was great! Thanks for a great story. I hope to at least make to the level second to top, though a bestseller would be nice ;)

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  2. Wow. Great post, and a great reminder! One of the most anoying things to me is a person who doesn't know their place and acts like they're too big/small to do what they're supposed to do.

    Know where you're at and act accordingly.

    Thanks!

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  3. I remember having a thought very much like that woman's at my first conference. Oddly, a conference at which Mr. Bell was the keynote speaker...though I don't think I ever worked up the nerve to talk to him, LOL. Excellent advice! It's only through continually working that we can climb out of the crowds and find our dreams.

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  4. I'm not entering...but I think I'm on level of have-written-more-then-one-book. I'd love to jump up to the "published level" of the pyramid. ;) This is a really encouraging post! I really want to learn more and more about writing.

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  5. I'm somewhere between writing a full length book (I'm revising it now.) and learning about writing!
    Thanks for coming, Mr. Bell! Very inspirational! I had a thought similar to this a while ago.

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  6. This was very helpful. I am on on the level that has a completed book and has been rejected but not published. I had a stress out moment yesterday when I realized how many things I had to do. My mom says, "Aly, realize that you are writing two novels which for most people is a full time job, and you are a highschool student, and you prioritize family and God. You'll do fine. Just. Don't. Freak out." I just took a deep breath. I have hard days, but I am determined to get to that next level of that pyramid.

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  7. I think I'm...in between one and two? I'm still working on my first full length book that I'd count, because the only other "book" I finished was so pathetic and non-book like (it had no plot whatsoever, I just wrote until I decided it was done). But, I've also learned sooooo much about writing in the past year and I'm working on it all the time. :)

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  8. I've written one book and am partway through another. Which level do I fall on, lol? :D

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  9. Love that mental image of the different stages!

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  10. I think I'm on level one, which makes me want to work that much harder. :) I loved this post! It really inspired me to go out and write.

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  11. I just bought this book the other day after seeing it on this blog and LOVED it!!!! I read it in a day and a half. Probably the best writing book I have ever read and am going to get some of his other books soon.

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  12. This really inspired me when I read The Art of War for Writers the first time. Thanks so much for coming, Mr. Bell!
    I think I'm somewhere on level 3.
    Thanks so much for getting Mr. Bell here and for the giveaway, Jill!
    I'm not entering the drawing because I already have a copy of The Art of War for Writers. It's one of the two writing books I own because I love it so much. (The other being Writing the Breakout Novel.)
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  13. What an interesting visual tool. With 2 books published and 2 more in the works, I guess I'm higher on the pyramid than I realized. (It's easy to compare oneself with authors of 20 or more books and feel inadequate.)

    Thanks, James!

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  14. I am between 4 and 5. I have written a full length novel and am working through my second.
    Rebekah Gyger

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  15. I always love a bite full of doable perspective - one pyramid step at a time! I'm still working on my first novel at the moment, so I'm still technically at the bottom rung, but I have nowhere to go but up. ;)

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  16. I am on the level with having finished two novels probably. This was a great article!
    -Sarah Zakowski

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  17. I'm Between levels, finished one full length novel and working on others now! :)

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  18. Wonderful post! Very encouraging. I've been itching to read this book for awhile.

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  19. I think I'm in between the 1st and second level :) great post!

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  20. Wow, this is amazingly helpful. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I am between levels 2 and 3 - I've sort of finished a novel, and I'm doing everything I can to learn about writing. Including entering this great giveaway. :D

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  21. Hi! Great post. You galls and guy are always encouraging us aspiring writers:-)
    James, you've inspired me to keep climbing the pyramid!
    For yrs I was in the first tier, prolly since I was like ten yrs old.
    But just recently some real ideas, ideas that I can see taking place in my heart & on the page, are taking shape.
    I recently came across something called NANOWRIMO & this year I'm doing it!!! (Write a 50,000 word novel in a month) only I'm taking 3 months and after that I plan to write another and another.
    I recently heard one of my fave authors say that she had written 20 novels, before being published!! That takes loving the process, and that's what I'm learning to do :-)

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  22. I'm not sure if I'm on level 2, 3, or 4. I've finished multiple 50K or more novels (mostly thanks to NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo), but I've never gotten around to trying to publish any of them. I'm still trying to learn everything I can about writing.

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

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  23. I'm Level 1. Haven't ever finished a novel, unfortunately, but am hoping to this year! I loved this pyramid. Previously I had broken the levels into
    Level 1: Want to write a book
    Level 2: Started writing a book
    Level 3: Finished a book
    Level 4: Published a book
    Level 5: Sold a book
    But yeah. Thanks for making the pyramid easier!

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    1. I'm now Level 2! According to my pyramid, I'm on Level 3.

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  24. I'm somewhere between level 2 or 3. This was very helpful, thanks so much:)

    Layla.

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  25. I'm between the second and third levels. :P I can't bear to write another novel and I know that sounds terribly amateurish, but it's my baby.

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  26. I'm between the first and second levels. I've almost finished a full-length novel- probably just a couple more writing sessions and I'll be done. :) I'm so excited to move up the pyramid! Thank you so much for this insightful, and encouraging post!

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  27. I'm on level 4. I have completed the first draft of more than one book.

    ~Robyn Hoode

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  28. I think I'm somewhere between the first and second levels.

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  29. Awesome! I love James' books because they leave me with a sense of I can do this! I am somewhere between one and two, I know how to write a first draft but I haven't fully edited an entire book.

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    1. I hope to have a better edited book by the end of this year :) my main WIP is in the 6 week slumber!

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  30. Wow this is a great post! :) Very encouraging! Thank you for posting, Mr. Bell! :) I've finished several novels and I feel like I'm finally close to publishing worthy. :) So I think I'm level three.

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  31. This is an amazing post, and so inspiring too. I'm currently at the second stage, but am motivated to go on to the next level!

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  32. This was inspiring and I loved the pyramid diagram! ...I'm gonna go write now ;)

    <3,
    eden

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  33. I think I'm level 2? Is that where you try to write a novel and also learn about the craft? Or is that level 1? Anyway, I'm looking forward to finishing my novel and going on to the next level. Thank you, this is a great post!

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  34. I would say that I am between the 1st and 2nd levels, but am hoping to keep climbing!
    Thank you for the great post!

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  35. Replies
    1. Oh also in between the 1st and 2nd level and I'm gonna keep climbing!

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  36. Great post. I'm somewhere around level 3. I haven't been to conferences or had much specific training, but I've completed a full-length novel.

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  37. This was a very helpful post. Thank you! I am in level one climbing slowly to level two. I hope to finish one of my drafts in a few months. Yay!

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  38. I think, splitting the differences, I'm on level 2. I've never submitted a novel to puclishers or edited one I've written, but I've finished a first draft (that I had to basically throw out) I moved on and wrote more stories after the first couple failed, I've hugely improved the speed and quality of my writing since when I began and I've been working every day to learn about writing!

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  39. I like this analogy :) It gives each writer something to shoot for.

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  40. I'm either in the third or fourth level, because I've finished two stories and am working on more, but the first one wasn't long enough to be a novel, so... haha

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  41. I'm around the third level, I think.
    I've finished the first draft of a novel and have started revision on it, but I'm considering shelving it because I think that what with everything I've learned in the process, another novel I've started could have much more promise.

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  42. I've completed two NaNo novels, so it's good to know I'm moving up that pyramid!

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  43. This is so great! I'm on my fifth novel (once I decide which idea to stick with...), but only one is finished, and that one was scrapped a long time ago.

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  44. I've written multiple novels, but I've only finished about four (two in elementary school, one in middle school, and one now in high school) because I got sidetracked by other stories. I've been published in a short-story magazine, so I guess I'm up in the pyramid. :)
    Thanks for the great post!

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  45. I recently completed my third novel and am now working on my 4th, 5th and 6th at the same time :) And I'm trying to get published, about to go through the process of querying agents, so I guess that makes me in between 4 and 5.

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  46. Thank you for such an inspirational post, Mr. Bell! I'm in the process of writing my first full length novel and learning about writing...so I'm around the second level of the pyramid.

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  47. This is great! I think I'm in the 2nd level, although I have finished a short story or two. Thanks so much, hoping to gain enough confidence to actually try and get a book published. I think I'm afriad people won't like my books. :( On a lighter note I'm willing to learn all I can. Thank you again!!

    (MJ)

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    1. I'm sure your problem is not your writing, just your self-confidence. Remember: it's better to try, and fail, than to dismiss something as impossible and spend the rest of your life wondering... What if? After all (as said in the film Letters to Juliet), "what" and "if" are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side by side, and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life. What if? What if? What IF?

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  48. I wrote my first novel in November and am currently on my second- because I know that one was awful! I would say I'm the fourth level then. I really love writing and work to improve myself everyday! This post was really awesome too- thinking I'm going to draw a chart like that for my wall ;) thanks!

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  49. I think I'm in half-way through the third level because I'm motivated to continue my novel and am now on my editing phase.Thanks to all of Go Teen Writers and posts like this which continue to inspire my work as a teen writer. Without this motivation, I would be stuck on level 1

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  50. This is really helpful! I love all of the inspiring guest spots. I think I'm between the second and fourth levels, because I don't do man writing conferences or classes. I've written various drafts of two novels, but I haven't actually finished them yet. I've written the first drafts of three novels (two of which actually had a plot), and a second draft of one of those.
    Thanks so much for the post!

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  51. This post meant a lot to me. I want to be that. The dedicated writer. Not just a kid who tries to write a book - a real writer. One who doesn't just write, but HAS to write to survive, because I do need to write to survive. And I love writing. At this point in my life, I am unable to take a writing class, or go to conferences, because of certain reasons...but this post just inspired me to not go down without a fight. I don't know, maybe there is some hope out there. Maybe I might make it.

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  52. I love seeing all the different levels you guys are at. Keep at it, all of you! And you will move up! :-)

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    1. I'm going to add an "Amen!" to Jill's note. Be the tortoise, if you must, but keep plodding steadily forward. All forward progress is worthwhile progress!

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  53. Thank you for the pyramid example! The whole process is much less intimidating when you look at it like that. I think I'm in between levels, because I've finished a novel and I'm working on a 2nd.

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  54. This was super powerful. I can SO relate to the young woman in this post. I think I have those kind of thoughts almost every day. Thank you for helping remember that it's the page in front of me that matters. The next word that I write that counts. The story inside of me RIGHT NOW is worth writing.

    I think I'm in level three. I've written on novel, and though I'm still in love with the characters, I know that it's not probably met to be published. This next novel I'm working on has a little more potential I think. ;-)

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  55. i'm sad to say that I'm still at the bottom. I'm almost one up because I'm almost done my novel but I'm not done yet so at the time I am still at the bottom...
    however, I am going to keep climbing the pyramid!!

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  56. Well, I'm level 3. Finished one novel (maybe it's not even that, depending on what word count you need to qualify), and I'm trying to work on another, much longer one. After that... who knows? Can't wait to see where life takes me from there!

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  57. I must be somewhere near level 4, I think it is, because I've written at least 2 novels, and am working on one right now during Camp NaNo (which is the one I started for NaNo 2012). However, the other 2 novels are around 50k or so, so I don't know if they count as being full-length or not. I would think they are, even if they are not necessarily the same word count as other novels in their genres.

    Anyway, it's great to read a post by James Scott Bell. I have Plot and Structure, and I've gotten Revision and Self Editing from the library in the past. I'm so glad I bought Plot and Structure. It was recommended to me by a friend.

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  58. Focus on the page in front of you. The best kind of advice, really.

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  59. Hmmm. I'm probably on Level 2, because while I've finished two books, both of them average at 40,000, so that's probably not quite a full length novel. But still. That post was really encouraging! :)

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  60. That's a really awesome picture. I'm promising myself I will move up.

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  61. I really love this pyramid idea! I think I'm maybe between levels 3 and 4? Can it be possible to be between levels?

    I've finished writing two full-length rough drafts for books (one is about 85,000 words and the other it about 90,000 words, so they're definitely long enough!) and have started on a rough draft of a sequel to one of them, but... everything still needs a lot of editing before it's complete, so I'm not quite finished with writing them yet.

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  62. That's such a cool way to think of things...I'll remember that!

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  63. I really liked the pyramid idea! I think that so many of us get tired of being in the first or second step that it makes things harder to move on to higher levels. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  64. Thanks for the giveaway! I'd say I am probably in Level 2...

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  65. I asked for and received this book for Christmas - it ended up being one of my most favourite presents. I couldn't resist scribbling all over it, folding the pages down at the corners (which is something I normally don't do, but there were just so many gold-nugget truths that I didn't want to forget...)

    Anyways. All that to say - thanks for posting, Mr. Bell! (and I'm a huge fan of that book.)

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    1. And I'd place myself around level 4, having written more than three novels/novellas. (at least I think it's level four, if I'm reading it right.)

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  66. That is good encouragement/advice! I've read his book Plot and Structure twice. He sure has great writing advice and practical tips to really get you writing. Thanks for the super giveaway!

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    1. Hmm. . . truthfully, I'm probably still at level one. I've written a "complete" story, but it wasn't the word count of a novel. But I am continuing to work my way up!

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  67. I struggle with that too, that feeling that everyone else is after the same thing I am, but they are all ten times better than me. I often have to force myself to keep going, because I know I'm not going to ever "climb the pyramid" if I just sit around doing nothing because I don't think I'm any good. I am most definitely my toughest critic. :P

    Great post. :)

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  68. Kinda funny, James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure is what really pushed me into level two. =D I'm still there, climbing slowly but (hopefully) surely. That's life, eh? Gotta keep climbing!

    Thanks for hosting this giveaway! And thanks so much for the encouraging post, Mr. Bell!

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  69. I'm definitely at the second level - I write but I'm not even done one novel yet :(

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  70. I enjoyed this post! I think I'm at level three, maybe four?

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  71. Awesome post ^.^ I'm working on a novel but always still in the process of learning

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  72. I think I'm on the second level right now. Thanks for this post!

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  73. Thanks so much for this great post! I love the idea of the pyramid levels. I drew it out on a note and pinned it to my cork board so I can remember this when I'm feeling down. It's very encouraging, not just by reminding me to concentrate on the challenges involved with this next step, (and let the more advanced stuff worry about itself!) but also in refocusing my view off of only everyone "more progressed" than me; to instead include the whole, honest spectrum and see how I am actually moving through the stages in an upwards fashion!
    And, what a great story to share. My congrats to Mr. Bell for showing such a compassionate, helpful thought to her! (And then us. ;-) )

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  74. Oh, and I forgot to mention what level... I have completed several full length novels, so the publishing level is next up!

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  75. I'm in between level 2-3. I've written a full novel but it was aweful,and now I'm in the middle of writing my second novel. (Which I call my first because my first one doesn't count) :) I'm striving towards getting published though!

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  76. I'm either forth or fifth ... I'm self-published, so I'll let ya'll decide if that counts as published or not.

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