Actually, the topic is phrased as: People always say they want to take their writing to the next level. Well, what are the levels, as you see them?
It's a really good question. I think we're trained - by school, and job performance appraisals, and so forth - to regard the work we produce in terms of levels. Ladders to climb, milestones to reach, levels of income, acclaim, and success. But is that really valid with creative endeavors?
I'm thinking no.
At the same time, however, we absolutely want to progress, to grow and do... more and better.
I've been doing a fair amount of mentoring, largely for SFWA but also answering questions for aspiring writers informally, and I find myself having the same conversation with all of them. At some point, I end up asking them to list out what they want from their writing careers. This is because my answers to the questions they ask - on whether they should try for this workshop or if it's time to look for an agent or countless other choices - all depend on what their priorities are.
Basically, there's no one career path for a writer. There are tons. And whether you prioritize making money to earn a living at it, whether you want to create ART (in capital letters), whether you want to win big awards, and so on, all of these things require different priorities.
So I ask these younger writers to make a list of the various categories:
They can add more, but those are mine that I came up a long time ago, to categorize my goals for my writing career. Then I ask them to list goals in each category. So they might look like this:
- earn $70K/yr at least
- Write books I'm proud of and love
- Win the PEN/Jerard award
- Honor Grandmother & Papa's lives
- Great agent for both fiction and nonfiction
So, I I know I'm not really addressing the question, which is really more craft-based. For that I'd say leveling up in my craft is pushing myself to write things I think I can't, to go for more complex and deeper-reaching stories.
But I also think that levels come in many forms, and what those levels are to each of us is tremendously personal. Maybe that's why we put this so vaguely, calling it "leveling up." Always reaching and growing, no matter what form that may take.