What Is Writing Craft?

I mentioned in my last post that one of the reasons I go to Mount Hermon is to learn. Writing is one of those skills that can’t be perfected. In other words, there is no “right answer.” When something works, it can hardly ever work again (because by the very nature of repeating what has already been done, it does not do what the original did, which was to be the first ever or the new twist of). Consequently, the real job for the writer is to continually improve.

If at some point in my writing career I think I’ve “arrived” when it comes to the craft, then I am most in danger of becoming stagnant. It’s interesting to me that a number of acquisitions editors recommend certain writing books. One editor a year ago referred to a well-know volume as his writing bible and says he re-reads it nearly every year. Yet the writing that seems to excite these editors is that which goes beyond the constraints of the norm.

The norm, I would suggest, is competent, concise, clear writing. Anything less has little chance any more. What with writers’ conferences offered across the country, online writing courses, mentoring groups, and freelance editors, more and more writers are capable and understand a great deal about the basics of writing.

But what we sometimes forget is that writing is a creative endeavor. Sure, we understand that the story is a creative endeavor, but so is the vehicle through which the story is delivered.

What is it that captures a reader’s heart, that brings him to tears or makes him laugh out loud? What keeps him awake long past midnight even though he needs to get up and go to work the next morning? What makes her want to tell her best friend, her mom, and her neighbor down the block about the book she read? What brings those characters to mind at the oddest times? What stirs him to excitement when the day approaches for the next book in the series to release?

You think I’m going to provide the magic formula to such stories? Well, here it is. There is no formula.

If “craft” is reduced to a list of do‘s and don’t‘s, the writing will acquire the taste of water.

Sure you can stretch the analogy and say we can’t survive without water. I’m talking about the taste of a colorless, odorless liquid. What will set our writing apart from all the other colorless, odorless stories out there?

Clearly, “craft” is something more than avoiding passive voice or steering clear of -ly ending adverbs or cutting away any backstory in the first fifty pages or avoiding speaker attributions in dialogue. Craft is the magic of writing, not slight of hand.

Can it be learned?

Published in: on February 28, 2008 at 10:14 am  Comments (7)  
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7 Comments

  1. Beautiful post, Becky. I think the depth of what you described requires a “no” to the question when applied to the heart. However, we all must learn the “craft” before our heart for writing and our call to it can be fleshed out. So . . . how’s that for ambiguous?

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  2. “If ‘craft’ is reduced to a list of do’s and don’t’s, the writing will acquire the taste of water.”

    Absolutely on target.

    Crazy, ain’t it, that we learn the rules so we can break them–but, if we want robust results, we must break them well. We can go back to books we’ve read and loved over the years, check out the newest bestsellers, and I guarantee the authors broke some rules (especially the adverb one, which I have just used in this parenthetical statement).

    Though I understand some people wanting a story to play out in a linear fashion–no flashbacks–I’m not sure if they even understand the function of a truly well written flashback. It provides depth to a story, a layer of history to a character, and changes a straight-forward plot into something more.

    How many of us go through our daily lives without a memory, only living forward? Of course, we don’t. Unless they have amnesia, why should our characters do the same? And even then, an amnesiac will be searching for–what else?–his memories, because they tell him who he is, where’s he’s been, where he belongs, where he was going before his memory fled.

    You asked if craft can be learned. I’m not sure. Some people say a writer is born, and others that a writer can be made. As a freelance editor, I’ve worked with several writers, and some “get” the concept of what makes a great story; others want to tell that great story but, even with advice and practice, they cannot quite reach it. And sometimes I doubt myself–do I know how to craft a good story? Doesn’t keep me from writing, though!

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  3. Becky –
    This really is a powerful post! I think you have captured the essence of anyone who writes…well, anything! I appreciate your wisdom!

    Oh, and let me share this with you…I must be growing in my understanding or appreciation of speculative fiction! Why? I’m reading The Restorer’s Journey and it is quite cool!! I may have to actually backtrack and get the first two in the series!

    Don’t give up on me!

    Kim

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  4. Hi, Becky and all who visit here. Interesting topic, one worth pondering. Being a biased English teacher, I’m convinced that anyone can learn to write well. By this I mean gramatically accurate sentences with meaningful words in their proper slots, and all that. So that part of “The Craft” is definitely there for the taking.

    But, like you asked, what of creating the story that impacts the world? That moves the reader to tears or scares the crud out of them? Can that be learned? Certainly there are writing techniques: suspense and mood building, character development, plot patterns, etc. These things can be learned to an extent.

    But I think it’s true that some people are “wired” –or– conditioned to create. Right brain dominant folks are usually more creative. Last born children or only children are often more creative in that they don’t have siblings to play with and so, they create their own entertainment. Growing up in a literate, literature-rich household certainly helps.

    Something that I think is critical to crafting a story that moves people is being a LIVER of LIFE. The best authors (IMHO) are the ones who have experienced the struggles of trying to survive a myriad of relationships while we coexist on this giant spinning ball of mud. Go places. Do things. Meet people. If you do that, conflict and hardship are sure to follow. And conflict (in its many forms and levels) certainly adds relevance to a book.

    My .02

    -Wayne

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  5. Hey, Nicole, I was ambiguous, too, until I came to the realization that the intuitive writers and the analytic writers may arrive at this third level of creativity in different ways, just as they arrive at a plot differently.

    Keanan, you’re right about learning the rules in order to break them. Often the best-loved books do the exact opposite of what writers are told to do. I know from my own experience, I tried for some time to slavishly adhere to every writer rule I learned, all because I thought that would make my writing publishable. What it does is make my writing bland. Truth be told, some bland writing does end up on bookstore shelves.

    Kim, I’m so glad you’re enjoying Restorer’s Journey. I haven’t read it yet but would certainly encourage you to read the other two.

    Wayne, thanks for your thoughtful comments—you inspired today’s post! 😉

    Becky

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  6. I know this is a day-old post, but I was really intrigued by Wayne’s comment. I never thought about the fact that the youngest child spends more time alone and may be more creative. I definitely fit into that category. All my brothers and sisters were 10 years older than I was.

    Here’s my take on this topic:
    I think grammar can be learned. Much like what Wayne said. But I think there is something else that transcends grammar. Storytelling.

    I think people can possibly be taught good grammar skills, and all writers should have that ability. And I think that these people could be strong writers of non-fiction.

    But I think that the ability to tell stories, to create something out of nothing, to give it life and make it walk and talk, is necessary. And I don’t know if this is something that can be taught. Trained, honed and perfected, yes. Like an artist learning to paint. But the artist still needed some inherent ability to “see things” even before they manifested on the canvas.
    🙂
    Merrie Destefano

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  7. Merrie, I’m with you regarding Wayne’s observation. I never connected the fact that I’m the youngest with my wanting to make up stories.

    I’m still of the mindset, though, that storytelling is an imitative skill (I think all of language is). I suspect the more we were engaged with stories early on, the more we acquire the skill to tell stories.

    What I think might be innate is the ability to pick out the unique—whether it be the unique premise, unique character, unique setting detail, unique plot twist, unique words, unique story structure, and so on. Some writers seem to gravitate easily to Something Beyond Average. Call it an artist’s eye.

    In music, some people are born with perfect pitch. In visual art, some people have a natural grasp of perspective or color. Writers just might have a uniqueness radar. 😉

    Becky

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