Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 22, 2014

Belt Rankings for Writers

Kathryn CraftKathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

We have just experienced the longest night of the year, when keeping hope alive is a real challenge for those with seasonal affective disorder, those grieving losses, or those writers experiencing the Long Night of the Pre-Published Soul. It is hard to want something for so many years, so intensely, while working toward a distant goal. The yearning can become downright painful.

Others are getting published, we notice. Our Facebook feed is full of them. At first we cheer heartily from the sidelines—it bodes well for us that people are still getting offers of representation and book deals and prizes!—but after a few years, we can’t help but wonder when our turn will come.

 If only the road to publication had belt rankings.

Watching my son rise through the rankings toward his black belt in Tae Kwon Do over the course of many years, I admired the clarity of the system. You knew exactly what to do to get to the next level. When you have completed the requisite tasks, a testing day is assigned when you get to prove your worth. If you pass, your mentor bows in respect and bestows the earned belt—and once you earn it, the belt is not taken away.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our journey as writers could have such well-defined tests and rewards on the way to the black belt of book publication, so we knew how we were doing?

I base the following on quotes obtained at the American Taewondo Association website. I love the descriptions here—as well as the following admonishment:

It is worth noting that achieving a belt isn't just a matter of "spending enough time" in a previous belt. In order to achieve their next rank, a student must demonstrate their proficiency in their current belt's techniques.

Hmm… Let’s see what the rankings can offer us.

White Belt

“Pure and without knowledge... As with the Pine Tree, the seed must now be planted and nourished to develop strong roots.”

We bring so much to the beginning of our writing journeys: a great story idea, life experience, college degrees, and perhaps even a career in journalism or another type of writing. Yet our slate is often emptier than we realize. We must humble ourselves for the journey.

 Orange Belt

“The sun is beginning to rise. As with the morning's dawn, only the beauty of the sunrise is seen rather than the immense power.”

Ah, that first intoxicating day we sat down to write. Look at all those black marks on the page, where previously there were none! Creating a character can be as exhilarating as giving birth; putting her in trouble breaks our hearts. And that turn of phrase! We are ablaze with the emotional intensity of creative writing.

 Yellow Belt

“The seed is beginning to see the sunlight.”

We start grasping the basics of the craft and its challenges. We want all the light we can get, and leave our lonely writing cave for workshops, conferences, and any other education we can gobble up.

Camouflage (Camo) Belt

“The sapling is hidden amongst the taller pines and must now fight its way upward.”

We look around and realize that everyone and her brother are writing novels, and seek to find our true place in what we now realize is a huge industry we must learn about. We seek our strengths so we can capitalize upon them; to define the type of story we are drawn to write; to develop our unique voice. We realize we will have to compete to earn our spot.

Green Belt

“The pine tree is beginning to develop and grow in strength.”

Our writing is developing power. The components of storytelling are beginning to work in unison. We see our shortcomings and seek the additional resources needed to rectify them. Dipping a toe into the competitive waters, we enter a few contests.

 Purple Belt

“Coming to the mountain. The tree is in the mid-growth and now the path becomes steep.”

Through critique partners, short story submissions, early agent queries, and other means, we discover that telling a great story and marketing it effectively requires a much steeper learning curve than we had ever imagined. We enter a forest thick with rejection, but if we can just push through, we’ll find we are high enough up the mountain to look back and see how far we’ve come.

 Blue Belt

“The tree reaches for the sky toward new heights.”

The air thins; many of our friends desert us by heading back down the mountain or self-publishing prematurely. Early supporters question our sanity. Keeping our sights on the summit will take inner resolve and discipline.

 Brown Belt

“The tree is firmly rooted in the earth.”

Now grounded in self-confidence born of craft and self-awareness, we can better withstand the storms of criticism. Knowing we will not backslide, our education will be greatly supplemented by reaching back and mentoring others through their early climb.

Red Belt

“The sun is setting. The first phase of growth has been accomplished.”

Our craft is firm but inflexible; we need to apply it over and over to gain the resiliency required of a working author by testing it on new stories. We must keep in mind that if we reach the summit the first question will be, “So what else are you working on?”

Red/Black Belt

“The dawn of a new day. The sun breaks through the darkness.”

It is time to put our writing to the real test. Those of us already submitting are starting to get positive feedback from in-person pitches and requests for pages from emailed queries. We have the skills we need; now it’s a matter of aligning with just the right advocate.

Black Belt

“The tree has reached maturity and has overcome the darkness... it must now plant seeds for the future.”

Black results when all the colors of the light spectrum are absorbed into an object. We have taken control of the colors and retained them, and our agent and an acquiring editor will testify to our preparedness and mastery. We have reached the summit—of this mountain. You know the mountaineering continues, right? This is only a first-degree black belt. There’s a second, and third, and…


If you are still within the longest night of the pre-published soul, give yourself a belt to honor the path already traveled. What color is it? What do you need to work on to earn the next belt?


Kathryn Craft, The Art of FallingKathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happyout May 2015.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Website: http://www.kathryncraft.com/


Photo credit by Lorena G at Dribble.


44 comments on “Belt Rankings for Writers”

    1. I thought you'd be one who could relate, Laura! I've recently met two women who have been working on their novels since the mid-1990s. Not constantly, of course, but if they had that next belt in sight maybe it would have been easier to stick with it.

  1. Ah, Kathryn. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could achieve a particular status (belt) and actually hold onto it? You know, sling it around our waist and never have it grow too tight or too loose? Some days, I feel as if I'm still back at the beginning. Other days, I wonder how many gray hairs my writing must have before it becomes what I want it to be.

    1. I hear you Normandie. Remember back when getting your foot in the door meant it wouldn't close on you? For those who have achieved publishing's black belt since 2008, the great fear is being stripped of the opportunity to advance due to an orphaned project or low sales.

    1. Thanks Tina. There are so many ways to get where you are heading that no two writers will have the same experiences. I realize I have walked a more social path, whereas other writers are self-taught and find their way on their own. But glad you were able to relate to some of it!

  2. If only, right? Belt rankings (of which I only learned how many there are by this post!) are so structured, definitive and clear, that working towards the goal of a black isn't anybody's guess. Meanwhile, writing is so subjective. What one person loves, another thinks is horrible. Thus, the conundrum of writing for publication.

    1. Donna the rankings at my son's dojo didn't include all of these. Camo belt? No—but I loved the metaphor for writers with that one so included them all. His instructor broke it down even further for kids, with "deputy" rankings for each belt so the rewards for hard work could be bestowed sooner.

      I agree that subjectivity in the industry is frustrating as hell—but thank goodness for it, right? That one attribute is the potential that makes room for us all.

      1. Ah! I see..., and yes, all of the associated comments to the belts - real or not, are such a good tool for anyone working to improve, while seeing how to go about it.

        It is true that subjectivity can be a good thing, otherwise stories might simply become cookie cutter replicas of each other, or everyone would be published as soon as they accomplished A, B, C, and D. While not knowing if we're hitting the mark with our writing can be a hair pulling exercise, on the other hand, knowing we'd taken all of the necessary steps and still didn't receive THE OFFER, would be even more frustrating. (IMO, of course.) 🙂

        1. This post is surely in the realm of fantasy—a "wouldn't it be loverly" sort of thing. It couldn't work, for so many reasons. That said, if you HAVE taken all the steps, and you ARE getting consistent critical praise for your work from unbiased, knowledgeable others, AND you have a plan for how to reach your target audience, you could be a great candidate for self-publishing. If that doesn't appeal, climb the mountain again with a new project. You will be a better writer for it, and you might be able to sell the first one later on. Offers of representation and publishing deals aren't always about skill, they are about whether the agents and editors think they can sell your work in this market. If that's a no, there's no reason to throw in the towel. It may be a whole new market five years down the road.

        2. Oh Donna, Kathryn has said it way better than i - take her advice! Don't give up. It took me 3 books and 417 rejections - but I promise, it was worth it!

          1. No worries. I'm not one to give up or even give in. 🙂 I just thought, wouldn't it be great to have such a clear cut methodology to follow, and made me reflect on the difficult path it can be, like driving a car at night with the headlights off.

            I'm very fortunate to have a great agent. I just finished a 3rd book. (first didn't sell, second didn't go on submission - although we discussed it) We're about to go on sub with it. Probably after the holidays. So, I'll be freaking out shortly.

            417 rejections? WOW. And now look, right???

  3. At first glance, I admit, Kathryn, I sort of scrunched my nose at the thought of rankings for an artistic endeavor. But the descriptions from the ATA are so lovely, and your descriptions of how they fit the writing life are magnificently apt (and also lovely).

    Not knowing where you are, and continuing to keep the faith (I actually sighed when I typed the words). It's the essence of almost anything worth doing, isn't it? I'll make a second admission: I've struggled mightily with this. In my heart I know it's necessary. And that I will persevere. So color me stubborn, I suppose.

    Thanks for a great post on the first morning of a new and brightening cycle.

    1. Vaughn, I loved your reply here. Every word of it, from nose scrunching to struggling to keep the faith to the brightening cycle: an entire arc, in three short paragraphs. Without a doubt, you have the heart of a writer, and that stubbornness will surely see you through.

      1. I second Kathryn's comment ... your response, Vaughn, is perfect! I actually sighed reading your words. 🙂

    1. If your comment was meant for my post, thanks, Michael! If not, don't tell me—the enthusiasm in your answer will get this Kathryn all the way through Christmas. 😉

  4. What a fantastic post to wake up to, Kathryn!

    I've been trapped at that red/black level for what seems like an eternity, but I believe in myself and this story far too much to give up. I continue to learn and improve while stubbornly following the advice once given to me by a writing professor: If you throw enough mud at a post, eventually some of it is going to stick."

    1. I shared this story with Jessica Topper in a side conversation on Facebook today and thought I'd share it here as it might inspire you, Kim. My older son was a deputy black belt when his father committed suicide. I figured that would be the end of Tae Kwon Do. But he rallied, and six months later tested for his black belt, knocking a front tooth loose in the process and bruising his heel so badly he failed to break the final couple boards. We had to have the baker who decorated his celebration cake add "almost" to "You did it!" We had the party anyway. A couple weeks later he smashed through those boards like nobody's business and got his black belt! I was immensely proud.

      Now to you, Kim, I say: "Kick it!"

  5. This was wonderful, Kathryn. Wouldn't it be nice to have a tangible sign of where we are in our writing journey and show it off? A belt, a medal, a pin, a bumper sticker? I think Vaughn said it perfectly, "Not knowing where you are and continuing to keep the faith." Isn't that what all writers do—at least those of us who persevere?

    1. Your comment Densie reminds me of a former church membership, where people received "perfect attendance" pins. "Keeping the faith" not necessary—you just had to show up. Once per month you were encourage to wear your pins, that interconnected—some of the older members had strings of bling hanging down to their hips. Can you tell I put no credence in perfect attendance, lol? If we're honest, we know if our hearts whether the work we're doing is just showing up, or if it has moved us closer to our goal.

      1. Here's hoping. I've got a new WIP that I'm outlining now so I'll be ready to start writing January 1.

  6. Many thanks for the great post, Kathryn. As a writer and martial artist, I couldn't help but be drawn in by your analogy. It's fascinating to see how my practice on the mat informs every part of my writing life, especially the perseverance part. As my teacher says, you just have to keep showing up, and you WILL make progress!

    1. Ooh, thrilled to hear from you about your dual experience, Suzanne! Curious: do you find yourself setting clear tasks to keep yourself motivated, such as those provided in the martial arts?

      1. Thanks, Kathryn!

        Yes, setting goals both large and small has definitely gotten easier. Seeing the tasks necessary to reach a certain point seems easier too. I've also developed better concentration. On the mat there's no room in your head for anything else, so that's translated to my writing. I actually get more done than I used to.

        Although it's nerve-wracking, my favorite part is having clear-cut opportunities to get tested! It's so nice to receive tangible proof (a new belt) of your progress, because so much of the writing process tends to be circular, with goals that can shift and change.

  7. Love this post on so many levels, Kathryn.
    I was sitting at the karate dojo Friday night watching my son's class and listening to the lesson the instructor was conveying to the kids (their next belt test is coming up in a couple of weeks). There are so many great lessons to be learned from martial arts!

    I've never seen a breakdown of the belts like this but it's absolutely perfect. And the Kathryn-spin on them is brilliant!

    1. I thought I recalled that you had a martial artist, Orly, and have no doubt that what you say is true. Lessons learned from my son's tae kwon do made it into my next novel for this reason!

  8. Kathryn, there is nothing like learning a physical skill to amplify the "slow-but-steady" nature of improvement. I'm not good at being patient. I tend to move on before I should rather than work and wait, especially when it comes to writing.

    However, after hip surgery this year, I COULDN'T move on. I couldn't even get up. 4 months of PT taught me a lot about how stretching every day really DOES get you where you need to go. Same with Crossfit -- who knew practicing a perfect plank helps you get to a perfect push-up, step by painful step?

    Thanks for the reminder about setting your own milestones to push you up the writing mountain, and accepting that these skills will be useful, even when they happen at a snail's pace. 🙂

    1. Interesting thing, about the snail's pace—it feels that way to you because you are forced to focus on one thing at a time. To those of us watching from afar, it was like WHAT? Cruella's gone already? Very proud to know someone who took on painful rehab and kicked it's a**, my friend.

      1. LOL. I didn't realize it looked quick from afar. 3 weeks of Cruella felt like two months, and 4 months of PT felt like a year. Like I said, I'm not good at being patient. However, when I went to see Margie Lawson on her mountain and actually did a climb in the Rockies, I felt like the Queen of the Mountain. In other words, the work is ALWAYS worth it. 🙂

        Thanks for your kind words and inspiration!

  9. This post took me back to my college days, Kathryn. I was taking both Aikido and Judo and neither sensei believed in any belt between white and brown. (I so wanted that green belt!) When my judo master finally pronounced me ready to attend the brown belt clinics in Little Tokyo I felt I had finally arrived. Got the brown belt, then it was,"What, you want me to go for the black?"

    Thanks for the reminder that consistent learning and practice is what makes a goal attainable.

  10. I'm a student of TKD (as are my sons). This makes perfect sense. I'm glad to see that I'm farther along the belt rankings than I thought! Thanks for this awesome post!

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