Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

27 Mar
Craft? What’s that? – The Grumpy Writing Coach

Part of a series of articles for the new writer

Writing Craft? What’s that?


     Hello, it’s me, your grumpy old writing coach, pressing my arthritic fingers to the keyboard in order to destroy your new writer aspirations of fame. It’s my only remaining hobby, but that’s okay, because it’s also a service to humankind. If I can talk you out of writing I’ve saved you long boring nights at the computer, and I’ve saved many, many editors the annoyance of having to read your crap. Plus, I sleep better knowing I’ve destroyed someone’s dreams.
     Today’s lesson is: your writing sucks. Please feel free to respond with poison-pen letters. I find a day without one depressing.
     Okay, on to the bashing. You’re a creative person, or you wouldn’t be interested in writing fiction, so let me start with a thesis:
          1. Creativity without craft is nothing.
          2. The craft of writing fiction is taught in damned few high schools.
          3. It therefore follows that you have no craft.
                    Therefore: You are nothing.
     The world is filled with people who have not a shred of creativity, and require none. The cabinetmaker who’s spent decades honing woodworking skills, but who builds only tried and true designs, enjoys well-deserved acclaim. The doctor who treats you with care, compassion, and knowledge is a prize. The technical writer who produces readable and concise manuals is the ideal employee. Even the hack writer who turns out mindless, formulaic drivel gets by with no creativity. But: Picasso, with creativity but without craft, would have been a cipher, useless. The Mensa member driving a taxi because learning craft in some field is beneath him or her, is a taxi driver, no more. Picasso was, first, a fully competent journeyman artist. Adding creativity to that platform yielded a map for the less creative to follow.
     Take the tightly disciplined writing of the journalist, add a bit of genius, and you have Hemingway. Take John Smith without craft and you have “John who?”
     The vast majority of people suffer from having gone to grade school. They’ve been taught how not to write fiction by people who can’t. Worse yet, they’ve been tested to be sure they’ve not accidentally done something right. Finally, patted on the back for being ignorant, they’re turned loose, secure in the belief that they’re ready for a career in storytelling—a celebration of the blind leading the blind. And if you, as a member of that great mass of “they” go into education you have the honor of perpetuating that stupidity.
     My point should be obvious: Writing, like any craft/profession, is complex, arduous to learn, and is the horse your creativity must ride. The good news is that it’s fun to learn—as much as I hate to admit that anything is fun.
     Okay, so you stink at writing, your mother stinks at writing, and your friends do, too. And it isn’t going to get better with time and experience, I’m pleased to say.
     Why? Because no matter how hard you throw an egg down the damn thing still breaks—and always will until you begin to work on the real problem, in this case craft—or lack of it.
     New thesis (not because I’m trying to prove a point, I just like to be argumentive): People don’t read because they like the story, they like the story because of what they read.
     Ask anyone why they open a book and you’re going to hear, “For the story.” That’s a lie. They read for the misery, the suffering, and the disaster heaped on disaster. They read for the blood. They wallow in suffering, and a really good murder has them drooling. Try selling a story in which a nice guy meets a nice woman, has a nice courtship, lots of nice kids, and a pleasant retirement. See if anyone wants to pay to read that.
     But take the husband and give him a secret career as a spy-chaser. Let his wife catch wind of it after more than a decade of thinking him a mild-mannered salesman, and you have the makings of a story in which their teen aged daughter ends up suspended from the nose of a VTOL fighter-plane staring at the pilot and saying, “Daddy?” Isn’t the plot of True Lies, more fun than, Mary and John Grow Old Together? Except… if Mary has a lover, who is really…
     So why do we read? To worry, of course. To be interesting, a book has to be more fun than our own life. It has to be more dangerous, too. If we decided to try a bit of spying we would probably end up looking like a colander and leaking gore—and maybe radioactive blood. Not exactly the most desirable outcome.
     But by becoming Ian Flemming’s Agent 007 we can not only take absolutely insane risks, we’re guaranteed to live through it—even if we die. With a book in her hands the mousy bookkeeper who has come home to an empty apartment and a boring life can romance the man who in life wouldn’t even notice her. She can put on the skin of the woman she only wishes she could be, and live the adventure that would leave her quite dead in real life. With a book providing the wings she can fly!
     Okay, now that I’ve demolished your dreams of selling that manuscript you’ve been typing I feel a little better, so I’ll go see what’s in the fridge, or maybe taunt Dog-Breath for a bit. When the happy mood fades I’ll come back and maybe annoy you some more. Till then, an assignment:
     The setup: Our lives are an unending chain of linked events. You have stimulus, followed by response, which causes the next stimulus, which causes…
     The task: Take a look at your writing and ask yourself if every single act by your characters—every thought, movement, and decision—is a response to some stimulus your reader will be aware of before the act occurs.

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Author’s note:
     These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.

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