Wednesday, 30 November 2011

C is for Craft

Mozart was a genius. His talent flowed without apparent effort. But Mozart had to learn his craft before he started composing. Same with writing, but the road to creative writing craft is less clear cut than learning scales and arpeggios.

Now, you don't have to have creative writing tuition or read shedloads of How To books to learn craft, and there are plenty of people out there who have successful writing careers without a single bit of formal teaching. What those people do is what writers have done over the past hundreds of years: read.

Most writers (all writers?) are fervent readers. Read, read, read and unconsciously you pick up a lot of craft techniques. There are other ways of learning craft techniques. Most writers (all writers?) are listeners and eavesdroppers. Most writers (all writers?) are curious about people and the world around them. Most writers (all writers?) are communicators - that's why so many have early careers in professions like acting, teaching, journalism.

For some writers, reading, listening, communicating etc is enough. For others, formally learning craft - whether from a book or a teacher - is a short cut. By craft I mean techniques such as:

Chapter ends and pacing, to control the reader experience.
Ways to heighten tension eg sentence/chapter length, action
Using action to enliven essentially passive description
Dialogue as a tool to convey character and characterisation
Language to add interest and colour to prose
Editing skills
Reading aloud to learn about rhythm and cadence
Knowing when to dramatise and when to summarise

Find yourself a teacher who can and will teach craft (not all creative writing teachers can or do). Failing that, read some books. My favourite book on craft technique is Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Flair, talent, the stuff that Mozart was made of is something else. You get born with that. But we can all learn craft and, while we may not all be Mozarts (I'm certainly not) we can all be damn fine writers.


Sally Zigmond said...

That book is my very favourite one, too. I recommend it to everyone.

Philip C James said...

I was right. You're a serial alphabetist!

Thanks for the tip on the book; must look out for it after I've finished the two I'm reading at the moment.

One of those books I find most suitable for keeping in the loo, and not for that reason but because it can be dipped into in small, er, digestable chunks while one is waiting is

How Not To Write A Novel

by Mittelmark and Newman, which gives the Don'ts rather than the Do's (illustrated by, thankfully, specially crafted examples, not direct quotes).

Patsy said...

I'm no genius!. I do read, listen and communicate as much as possible (and am incredibly nosy) I agree these things do help with my writing.

Sarah Duncan said...

Me too Sally. I think it's great.

Phil, you've found me out. I think How Not to Write a Novel is a very funny book, and the examples are brilliant, but I think it's one that you almost need to know the do's and don't before reading it.

Patsy, being nosy is an essential part of being a writer. (And it's such a good excuse too.)

Jim Murdoch said...

There are too many writers out there—poets especially—who just think they can write using instinct or something like that. Some of us are luckier than others, we have natural talent, but talent, like an IQ, is only the start. An IQ only indicates a person’s potential. If he does nothing but sit on his arse day in and day out how clever is he really? I’ve just written a post about geniuses. Just because someone is a literary genius doesn’t mean that everything they produce is a work of genius; it is simply a work by a genius and there is a difference. I truly despair when I find writers—but especially poets—who think that craft, form and technique are dirty words. Picasso was an artistic genius who went his own way and made up his own rules but have you seen what his work was like as a kid? The kid could draw but that didn’t mean his dad didn’t make him practice and practice until he was better than his old man.