Monday, 5 May 2014

A Writer's Craft

The word craft deliciously has three shades of meaning that work against and undercut one another.

1) A skill or ability, especially when applied to a creative art involves an attention to the detail of aspects of the work
2) A skill or ability used for deceit, acting with guile
3) An occupation, trade or guild of a group of workers with special, defined skills. Often such membership is exclusive and used to keep others out

All writers and all artists pursue their craft. Honed by long practise and learning from experience, sometimes augmented by formal teaching of elements of the craft. Books and other sources of advice abound on the craft of writing. The craft is deconstructed and laid bare and the student can take which elements they will and forge them into their own individualised method of writing.

When you try and encapsulate the elements that make up the craft of writing, you are normally offered the axions of plot, character, conflict, arcs, setting, relationship. story development, transitions, point of view, dialogue, themes, metaphors, language, endings and so on.

Now these are all worthwhile elements to consider, but what the writer must remember is that they are only organising principles. They form the armatures around which their material moulds and shapes itself to form the whole. As soon as one regards these elements as a hierarchy, that say character or plot is at the apex of the pyramid and everything else issues from there, I think a great deal is lost to the work. Privileging any one aspect over any other risks exposing the craft's mechanics instead of the work emerging organically and all of a piece.

For example, if you the author is sat there contemplating the nature of the conflict at the heart of the book, or what the conflict is at the heart of every significant relationship the book deals with, then the book veers towards a central axis of conflict. Of course conflict in relationship is both important and an every day reality, but it does not define all relationship. The peril of ensuring that there is conflict in every relationship is that is becomes a device, it reads artificial and formulaic.

Or what could be more fundamental to a novel than its story? The story it's telling and how that unfurls over the pages to the reader. Well nothing of course and yet... Any novel plunges its reader into a world that is initially unknown and the opening pages help orient the reader in this strange new world, or maybe locate them within the familiarity of a world they do in fact recognise from their own knowledge and experiences. Beginnings are important, because they help hook the reader, but they are all in a sense random, until the reader finds their feet. The reader is pitched into one specific environment out of an almost infinite array of possibilities. As the reader progresses through the chapters, we have the bulk of the novel lumpishly described as 'the middle'. Even if there are lots of swooping changes of direction and wild arcs for the reader to follow, this is still just the meat of the book as a largely undifferentiated block. Why? because it all is leading up the the end. The payoff, the twist, the redemption, the tragedy, the denouement, or whatever the author has in store for the reader. Now there are books that eschew beginning, middle and ends for their story structure, but these are few and far between.

Ah but you may cavil, it's plot that allows the gradations of story structure. Character development, themes and metaphors all break up the monolithic blocks of print. And indeed they do, but one mustn't just regard them as spacers dividing up elements of the story in the same way as the human skeleton acts as armatures and spacers for our muscle and tissue. Each is a rich facet of fiction that brings much to the reading table in its own right. Additionally this is perhaps the point where you begin to see how some of theses elements overlap with one another so that it is not possible to say where say character ends and language, metaphor, dialogue begin, since each of these does more than merely feed in to how the character expresses themselves, they ARE character.

I don't privilege any aspect over any other in my writing. By doing so I think I avoid formulaic writing. Rather the novel emerges more organically. Do my novels tell stories? Of course they do, but it isn't necessarily their primary purpose. Do they contain characters? Well save for a couple of my flash fictions which contain no characters at all, yes my books have characters. Well actually I'd say they have Voices, for character is beset with predetermined theories of how we are constructed (to wit the psychology canon) and Voice embodies the elements of speech, metaphor, point of view, language, value system and the like, all through the words provided by the author for how the voice expresses itself. Do my characters embody conflict? Probably, though it's never anything I consciously think about while I write and certainly it's not something I ever use to drive a scene. If the character organically is beset with some conflict, be it with others, or with themselves, then that is a situation I have arrived at, not one I have set up from the beginning as a destination point I have to reach within the writing.

Perhaps all this is merely a slightly different emphasis and shade. A variant position on amy spectrum that contains all of these fundamental building blocks of the craft. But that I think is my divergence, I don't see them as fundamental. Yes they are all or mostly all present, but not highlighted, not in the foreground of my thinking when I sit down to write. I think ultimately craft is whatever the individual artist has arrived at for what works for them. For me, approaching writing with these elements as a hierarchy is both exclusive and also artificial in the sense of guile or archness in the craft.


lesley said...

I've never regarded the elements of the craft of writing, as you put it, as a heirarchy but I do see them as fundamental, and I confess I cannot write at all if I don't know where I want to send up.
It's not that the writing is constrained in any way, more that I like to work out where I'm going before I start. I give myself complete freedom in that process, but I don't start writing, as such, until the destination of my story is well known. Maybe it's just lazyness. I hate rewrites!

I enjoy telling stories, and that is always my purpose when I write, whether its an explanatory piece or a piece of fiction, I think of it as a conversation with my reader. There can be no rights or wrongs here, its just a question of what works, but your idea seems quite different. When you site down to write, what purpose do you have in mind?

Sulci Collective said...

I think for me when IO sit down to write, there is a literary conundrum in every piece that needs to be solved, to be teased out. How does this story want to be told, what language is required, what images and metaphors, what is its theme, what voice is necessary to convey the story to the reader. I am usually asking myself a question stylistically as well as these questions about the piece as a whole. Why am I telling this story, in this way? I usually only solve these along the way. I don't know if that helps at all?