Four Phases of Competence – Where are you?

Traditionally Challenged: Navigating the Publishing Labyrinth grit

by Greta Boris

The brilliant, elusive experts say there are four phases of competence:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: you’re so ignorant you don’t know what you don’t know (consequently you think you’re awesome)
  2. Conscious Incompetence: you’ve been humiliated into an understanding of how incredibly ignorant you are
  3. Conscious Competence: with a lot of work and concentration, you can achieve your goal (in other words, you’d better have a strong outline)
  4. Unconscious Competence: you’ve reached mastery (you and Steven King can wing it)

My Unconscious Incompetence Phase

The first time I met with an agent I had no idea what I was doing. (Which is not to say I’m wowing anybody today.) I sent an early submission into the Southern California Writers Conference in Irvine and received a 15 minute appointment with Jennifer Azantian  who had just started her own agency.

Prior to writing fiction, my background was non-fiction: a self-help book, magazine articles, and marketing copy. In all those disciplines, edgy and unique ways of expressing concepts is not only accepted, it’s expected. This is my way of explaining why I thought describing my novel as “cozy horror” was a good idea. It wasn’t.

Jennifer pointed out, very kindly, while I could call my genre anything I wanted on my own website, there were certain industry standards and “cozy horror” wasn’t one of them. In her estimation, my book was a thriller with supernatural elements.

My Conscious Incompetence Phase

I now had an understanding of how ignorant I was. When I started my second novel, I was determined not to make the same mistakes. I thoughtfully labeled the book a thriller, read a book or two about writing thrillers, and dove in again. But in this phase, I lacked confidence.

I knew what kind of books I liked: thrillers, domestic suspense, mystery, horror (light, cozy horror, not the gruesome kind) and literary fiction with dark themes. I knew what kind of books sell: anything with romance in them. That was my starting point.

I finished the second book and began the painful pitching process. On the encouraging side, I got a surprising number of requests for more pages or full manuscripts. On the discouraging side, most came back with some version of, “You’re a good writer, but the story doesn’t grab me.”


The book had it all. There was mystery, romance, a little literary navel gazing, and even some humor. Why was it being rejected?

Finally, I did the unthinkable.

Zara Kramer from Pandamoon Publishing sent me a very nice rejection letter after reading my full manuscript. I emailed her back and asked why she didn’t like it.

Within a few hours she sent me an email that unraveled my tangled brain. She said, “Your story has too much going on. Some threads read like a thriller, some a romance, some literary fiction. Pick one thing and do it.”

A light bulb went on.

I realized a book that has everything actually has nothing. If your book comes from the throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks school of writing, it comes from a place of insecurity.

I teased the suspense storyline out of the mess, developed it, and rewrote what I believe is a much better book. Zara Kramer had asked me to resubmit if I was willing to act on her suggestions, which I did. But whether Pandamoon chooses to publish this story, or not, I’m eternally grateful.

Zara Kramer’s advice moved me from Conscious Incompetence into what I believe is the next phase:

My Conscious Competence Phase

With much study, planning, and gnashing of teeth I can now turn out a suspense story that has all the elements required. This is not to say it’s going to win any dog shows like Gone Girl, or Girl on a Train have, but at least it’s the same species.

And, I’m hopeful. Maybe after twenty or so more novels, I’ll reach the unconscious competence phase and be able to wing it like Mr. King.

For those of you struggling through the same process, I’ve created a tool.

One of the things I did when I had my light bulb moment, was to go to the library and take all the recent books that won awards, or hit the bestseller lists in my genre and line them up on a table. Then I analyzed them.

If you’d like the worksheet I used to evaluate those stories, click here.

How about you? What phase of the competence cycle are you in?


Greta Boris, Director

Greta Boris Director

Greta Boris is the author of the Amazon Kindle bestsellerThe Wine and Chocolate Workout, a freelance writer, and aspiring novelist. She’s published articles on culture, health and entertainment for a variety of national magazines including Victorian Homes, Zombies, 50 Scariest Movies, Exodus, and Women of the Bible.

She’s currently at work on a domestic suspense series inspired by the seven deadly sins. She describes her work, and her life as a real housewife meets Dante’s Inferno.

*O.C. Writers is a member of Amazon Associates. By clicking the book links on this website, the network will earn a small commission from your purchase.

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