And Now, For a Break in Our Exercises . . .

September 6, 2006

. . .to talk about craft.

Recently, I was asked on a forum to explain what I meant when I said that, on days when the Muse fled and I’m on deadline, I relied on craft. I maintain that, if you want a career as a writer, you cannot attain that without writing only “when you feel like it”, nor can you get away without a basic knowledge of spelling, grammar, and structure.

If you miss a deadline and behave unprofessionally, there are several thousand writers just as good as you are who are more professional and will elbow you out of the limited amount of slots available.

The only time in your career you will have the luxury of “writing when you feel like it” is when you’re unpublished.

I define “craft” as having solid skills in sentence structure, grammar, spelling, etc. It’s knowing how to line up words on the page coherently. It’s understanding how to compose a paragraph, a scene, a piece of dialogue. It’s having the motivation to search for the information you need to back up your story rather than expecting other people to hand it to you or do your research for you.

With a basis in craft, you can make informed choices in the style of a particular piece. There are authors who break the rules all the time – but they know the rules, and breaking them is out of choice, not ignorance.

In the heat of a good flow, all those things can get in your way — especially in a first draft, where I believe one needs to get it out as quickly as possible in order to have something from which to work.

But on tough days, if you have working knowledge of your basic craft, you can literally build word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, dealing with the resistance, the exhaustion, or the Muse’s absence. Will it have to be revised to make it sparkle? Probably.

For instance, I recently had a slew of deadlines for articles. I’d done the research. I had the material. I didn’t feel any “spark” — in fact, I felt resistance. There were other things I’d rather write, there were other things I’d rather do — even as desperate as cleaning the bathroom.

However, this is a contracted, paid gig. If I want to maintain my hire-ability, I can’t miss a deadline, and I have to turn in something good. So, I sat my butt in the chair, and built the articles, word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence. It was tough. It was unpleasant. It was frustrating. But I did it.

My reward was, once I’d hit my quota, I could work on whatever I wanted.

The next day, I went to revise and — boom! Idea! Inspiration! I could add in the tweaks to make it sparkle, make it unique, make it worth what they’re paying me.

Usually it’s the inspiration first, the craft in the rewrite. But, when you’re feeling resistance, the craft will give you words on the page and you can go from there.

If I hadn’t met the deadline, I wouldn’t be hired again.

I don’t think art and craft are mutually exclusive, which is what too many unpublished writers believe. You need a balance of both. Without the craft as a foundation, the art can’t fly.


One comment

  1. Devon,

    You wrote . . . I don’t think art and craft are mutually exclusive, which is what too many unpublished writers believe. You need a balance of both. Without the craft as a foundation, the art can’t fly.

    That is an amazing quote, one I am going to have to revisit with you regarding permission to use it in a writer’s craft book I am putting the finishing touches on right now: The Fiction Writer’s Book of Checklists: A Comprehensive Guide for Revising, Editing, Assessing and Selling Fiction.

    I honestly think the resistance to learning craft has increased of late among unpublished writers. In many of the crits I have recently completed, especially in on-line forums, more energy is being wasted critiquing my critiques than on addressing the possibility the revision suggestions I’m offering might actually help a writer get their work published.

    We definitely seem to be on the same page regarding the subject of writers learning how to craft their fiction 🙂

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