Craftsmanship: The Power of Finishing

Gray Rinehart of Baen Books has lately had a few particularly encouraging statements in his newsletter, which led me back to his blog. Check out Heinlein Was Right: A New Look At His Rules for Writing,  where he talks about the nuanced space between writing “the end” and refining the details.

Does “finish” mean get to the end, or exercise craftsmanship? That might depend on where you’re at in your writing life. And maybe you should give yourself some acceptance and patience on that front. After all, you can’t swing a cat out there without getting badgered by “should’s” and conveniently related fast-track products. Somebody has to embrace the moment you’re in. Might as well be you.

Craftsmanship and completion take time to become partners.

At first, writing craftsmanship is overwhelming. It interferes with completion. Or rather, our own floundering does. That’s why curmugeonly editors say “don’t hire me (yet)” and “write more things.” The more time we spend with applied craftsmanship — being mentored, reading well-written things, working on our skills — the quicker we become at skilled production. As our use of time becomes better, we become more willing and able to take time on the details of crafting, because there’s room for new challenges.

I love trades work. It’s a great way to gain perspective on the value of skill. I see this dynamic all the time with the people who’ve put in 20 or 30 years doing a specialty task. Their work is both fast and amazing. They’ve mastered the little details that make it go better and create a higher quality finish on the first try.

I’ve also been the indirect victim of poor tradespeople — not ones I hired, but clueless DIYers and previous homeowners who hired questionable contractors on the cheap. Likewise, there’s a high cost to written material constructed “on the cheap,” so to speak. It’s not a pleasing mental space to dwell in, and it essentially gets the workman drummed out of business.

Ugh. Not this again.

This is also something where online experts, public speakers, etc, tend to badger writers with morality tales about completionism. Write many things, but craft them. You must learn craft. Craft craft craft. Crrrrraaaaaaft. I don’t know about you, but I get ready to pull out the scissors and glue and craft someone a glitter-soaked paper middle finger after hearing that word too often.

Meanwhile, writers have been side-eyeing negative reader reviews of known sellers such as the Clive Cussler franchise, Twilight, and the Left Behind series for years (also Hemingway and/or Emily Dickinson, depending on what bores or annoys you) and asking what gives.

If something is actually not so great, why does it sell? If being great doesn’t matter, why must we work so hard on craft?

That’s kind of like asking why there’s a major contractor in the city who puts up cheap housing and manages to sell a lot of it. Because it satisfies on the surface. Accessing it involves very obvious and prominent channels. And also, it fits the buyer who just wants temporary sufficiency in specific areas.

Good craftsmanship gives you internal power.

Industry professionals are saying something helpful, not something discriminatory. When you don’t have an existing set of prominent channels to compensate for bad work, your work itself can open doors. You can carry that potential within you. No one can take it away. It won’t depend on coincidences, markets, networks… it can actually create them. Maybe not big, flashy Hugh Howey markets and networks, but deep loyalties within your own niche.

I remember when that first started happening to me at writers’ conferences. The conferences I attended were in the wrong market sector for who I’ve turned out to be as a writer. But, nonetheless, I found to my surprise that there wasn’t much I needed to say. All that was necessary was to give people a chance to see the work. Then the conversations started and the connections took root.

If you have to choose, carry the power of the craft inside you. I’m pretty sure that’s better than killing trees to make an epic pile of crap.

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(Side note: Under no particular compulsion, I freely admit that I’m enthused about Gray’s upcoming novel Walking on the Sea of Clouds.) If you like sci-fi, I strongly suggest you’ll like it too.

Stringing Sentences Into Paragraphs

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5 Active Scene Elements,
Plus One Other Thing (Okay, Two)

Once you’ve got your sense of honesty, a little organization goes a long way to helping readers along. You can look at the technicalities of experiential expression as about six empty boxes we can fill in, but that won’t matter if you don’t put things in them that matter to someone else.

Fiction creates a mental picture. Mere words have to compensate for all those things that occur wordlessly in the real world. But the toolkit isn’t very big. And of the few things we use, they divide fairly easily into internal and external components of experience.

The thing that doesn’t go over well with contemporary adult audiences is giving internal details from a non-viewpoint character’s perspective. But that’s entirely dependent on the readership. The younger the intended audience, the more narrative, the more overt explanations, and the more we include the perspectives of non-viewpoint characters, because kids don’t read implication. It’s a brain development thing. Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux illustrates this very well.

Even teen (especially early teen) brains don’t understand how to interpret facial expressions, and we cue them overtly on interpersonal interactions a lot more at that reading level. That may be partly why adults eschew it and react like the reading material is too basic or flat. It doesn’t leave enough room for the fully-fledged imagination.

Here are those five active scene elements. They’re considered active because they’re the tools we use to advance the character’s perspective and desires onward through the story.

The 5 active elements of fiction prose

1. Description

It helps to start any new moment with a brief description. Just a few general reference points will do, like a sweep with a movie camera. Otherwise, when your characters begin speaking and doing things, they’ll be doing them with no surrounding setting or atmosphere.

Description is the special darling, because if you give it from the character’s viewpoint, as indirect internal monologue, it’s internal. If you give it using narrative summary (the author’s voice), it’s external. That makes it a great tool for controlling the “zoom” on the story lens. The author’s voice is more distant, and the character’s thinking is more intimate. Transitioning between the two controls the emotional scale and intensity.

2. Dialogue

It also helps, according to acclaimed author Nancy Kress, to include some dialogue as promptly as possible. In a workshop of hers that I attended several years back, she mentioned that her work began to get a lot more requests from publication editors when she did this. If you read her current fiction, which is amazingly skilled, her use of dialogue drops you right into the moment and anchors you to the character.

What if your character is alone? Kress outwits that problem beautifully in the opening of After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. 

Dialogue is external. This is important. Implication and nuance in dialogue often require that we combine it with an internal technique, so we can see intent, and also the contrast between what’s said and the real thoughts behind it. This is because most of our meaning isn’t conveyed through syntax. It’s given through vocal inflection and body language, and those are lost when words go into print.

Do we have to tell the reader how the character spoke or what gestures they made? That can be useful with non-viewpoint characters, but nonverbal semantics are perceived subjectively, not factually. They have the most impact when shown from the viewpoint character’s perception, which may not be accurate.

3. Action

Action is external, rather obviously. It pairs well with dialogue or internal monologue, because those tend to express the character’s goals. Of course, we immediately want to see those goals acted upon, once we know them.

This is the part where everyone says to kill all the adverbs. Why? Because adverbs tell you how a thing was, not just what it was or did. They’re a summary tool.

Yes, that means you can quite properly adverbialize in narrative summary. You can also do it anytime the emotional tension or intensity is low, because generally we summarize that more and intense action receives more detail.

4. Internal monologue

This means the viewpoint character’s thoughts, so naturally, internal monologue is internal. There are two ways to express it: Exactly as the character thinks it (directly) in more of a silent-dialogue style, or by paraphrasing in more of a narrative style (indirectly).

5. Visceral emotion

This is the one you don’t want to use often, or there’ll be accusations of giving your characters some kind of dysentery. This is the maximum-intensity, “the adrenaline punched him in the gut” stuff. It’s really hard to do without resorting to cliches, and even harder to do without inventing really weird physiological analogies. It works best when used very, very rarely.

And a 6th: Narrative summary

Narrative summary is when the author talks for a bit (sometimes called authorial voice or authorial narrative), just to get you on to the next part, or to skim over something relatively boring but necessary. It doesn’t sound like the character’s vocabulary, but the author’s, and doesn’t suffer the restrictions of the character’s viewpoint. It’s a pariah in basic fiction instruction because, quite simply, it’s telling. It’s passive rather than active.

The Hunger Games trilogy is high in narrative summary compared to an adult novel, keeping in mind that Suzanne Collins had a lot of prior experience writing for even younger children. The author understands the psychology of communicating with kids. The distance of using authorial voice to step back from the character experience can shelter children and teens from the intense emotional impact the same story would have if told mostly with active scene elements. Alternately, that distance can be closed by telling the story in first-person point of view, which will also be narration-heavy.

And in terms of adult fiction, why write a whole scene to make one tiny point of detail? Actually, you shouldn’t. Scenes have a specific purpose in the story, and that’s not it. Sometimes telling is the right choice to get past the parts that don’t need more depth.

Very occasionally, authorial narrative can successfully be used to break point of view and carry the reader to a side event with another character, without changing scenes. As a writer from a time when authorial voice was more accepted, John LeCarre continues to achieve this very well in his later work, for example Single & Single. 

Narrative as rough drafting tool

Many people draft their first run at a story with a lot of narrative summary. They’re telling the story to themselves. That’s a great way to get it all down and figure out what happens and why. Later on, it’s fine to go back and replace the summary with active scene elements where they communicate the emotional experience more effectively.

The red-headed stepchild: Flashbacks

The advice out there about flashbacks is weird. This is because, when embedded within an ongoing scene, it tends to subsist in an odd limbo between internal monologue and narrative summary, and because it’s so easy to end up in extensive narrative summary rather than using flashback as indirect internal monologue.

If a flashback has to go long, then it’s not a flashback, it’s achronological plotting. Again see Single & Single

The short and simple is, if you learn to understand internal monologue and narrative summary, you won’t have a problem writing flashbacks. There’s nothing special, scary or mysterious about them. You likely have seen them done right and wrong, but if it’s hard to peg why, this way of looking at the elements of fiction prose may help clarify that.

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FOOTNOTES

For a deeper look:
Randy Ingermanson/Peter Economy, Writing Fiction for Dummies
Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer

Reading for reading’s sake:
Kate DiCamillo, The Tale of Despereaux
Nancy Kress, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games
John LeCarre, Single & Single

Stringing Scenes Into Story

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Story structure is what makes a practiced storyteller stand out from a strong prose artist. This, not prose quality (unless it’s really really bad), is what causes North American audiences to decide whether you’re publishable and readable.

It’s also the thing I have to help people with the most. The most often, and often the biggest mess.

When the familiar commercial structure isn’t apparent to the North American reader, you’ll tend to get feedback that the work is weak or not compelling. That means the feel of it –what to care about next, what to anticipate — is too difficult for the reader to discern. The pattern is also keyed to our expectations of how long to care about or put up with a given phase of the viewpoint character’s existence.

The many ways to learn story structure

If you’re okay with a bit of a road map to reference, some planning and outlining can really speed up the journey. There are even loudmouths who yell about this on the internet and pretty much call you stupid if you don’t. I guess it helps them sell their story structuring products.

Pay no heed to the man behind the curtain. There are many ways to get there.

If you write many things, and then write some more — most likely shorter things than novels — then structure, too, will start to happen for you. That’s how Stephen King became an “intuitive” writer who supposedly wanders off into an ether and finds ideas. By writing many, many things as a teenager, sending them to short story publication editors, and eventually — a long time later — beginning to receive personal rejections that offered advice.

So when he talks about a hidden world of ideas to be discovered in On Writing, he’s talking about the difference between the analytical mind, with its judgments and evaluations, which builds ideas through pre-selection, and the open-ended, suspended disbelief of the creative mind, which stumbles onto them through associative leaps.

He put in the time and built his creative mind. The technicalities of writing became a form of muscle memory. Because he’d always done it this way, he never had to become free to wander off into the ether and just find his ideas. But it takes longer to learn by feel.

Story structure is how the larger journey goes together.

King’s career approach worked well, back in an era when print could build a working career solid enough to lead to novels, and novels had editors who would fix any lack of structural understanding. We had kind of a dead era for short story in between the “death of print” and “rise of indie,” and now that digital publishing has gotten more sophisticated and accessible, more things are being revived and created again. Forms are always in flux when their distribution media are.

The short form is a great way to learn the ebb and flow of a storyline, whether you seek publication or put things up on a site like Wattpad (first, get to know the nature of the audience there if you want fruitful community engagement).

What’s this story structure? There are about eight major moments in the viewpoint character’s journey. Once you know what their names mean, you can try them out as simply as writing a paragraph or two for each.

For short story purposes, here’s what these eight key moments refer to. I’m describing them essentially in terms of the alternating paragraph patterns that cause a scene to move forward.

If you’d like to have these points for reference or scribbling on, here’s a PDF. Right-click and download.

1. Hook

A brief bit of situation-setting. The viewpoint character’s name, circumstances and surroundings.

You have two options: Write it as a reaction to something that just happened before the page began, or write a motivator and then a reaction.

It’s subtly harder to set the scene and explain what the character’s reacting to when you open with a reaction. Trying to set up description efficiently in the midst of internal elements takes a bit of practice, and there’s a temptation to use narrative summary to flashback the motivator that isn’t there.

If you know those problems, though, you can avoid them.

2. Inciting incident

The thing that draws the viewpoint character into an unfolding action. I say “thing” in order to deliberately be as vague as possible. It can be anything you want. Quiet and subtle, big and full of action and villainy.

3. First turn

The point beyond which the viewpoint character can’t back out of the conflict anymore. Screenwriting puts it strictly one-quarter of the way into the story, written forms allow it to flex more.

4. First pinch point

“Pinch point” is terminology that comes out of screenwriting. At 3/8s of the way through a standard Hollywood script, the antagonistic force will assert itself in a way that reveals its true threat to the main character.

For short story purposes, this could be a motivation paragraph that really sparks off the viewpoint character’s reaction.

5. Midpoint revelation

In the middle, key new information is revealed that moves the viewpoint character forward. That could include facing a personal demon.

Okay, that was like reading a newspaper horoscope or a fortune cookie.

A lot of things can happen here. But it is a turning point where the main character faces something triumphs, and moves (knowingly or unknowingly) toward another threat. You get to decide what that means to you.

6. Second pinch point

…Same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse. Mostly the point is that Our Hero’s efforts haven’t really fazed whatever he’s up against so far. It gives the audience the chance to glimpse how the new information of the midpoint and the antagonistic force (man, beast, nature, society or self) are going to interact.

7. Second turn

This is a key moment that moves the story into its final act. Here, the viewpoint character finally strikes a blow. Or the enemy gets fatally distracted so the hero gets a chance to start saving the day. A major disaster makes it seem like all is lost, only to provide the exact means Our Hero needs to begin executing a triumph. The main thing is this:

After this point, it’s all wrap-up. No new information or plot threads are planted. Everything that occurs must have been previously alluded to or set up.

From here, the third act proceeds to conclude the conflict, fulfill any remaining promises made to the reader earlier, and answer any questions raised.

In a short story, that could literally be just three things.

8. Denouement

This is a bit of conclusion to make it feel like an ending. Any final reveal happens here. It can be whatever suits your story. In short story, it’s often a sudden twist of perspective. Sometimes it’s a real mind-blower than makes you rethink everything set up throughout. Larry Niven is a master at this, and well worth reading.

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For a deeper look:

Dwight Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer
Hague and Vogler, The Hero’s 2 Journeys
K.M. Weiland, Structuring Your Novel (Disclosure: I edited this book, but receive no royalties from its sales.)

How Do I Get Started Writing More Things?

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Even this much advice is confusing.

Why do all the elements of fiction writing seem to conflict? How do they work together? To write many smaller things, do we have to choose between them? Try to cram them all in? It’s so much noise.

The answer is simply not to force technicalities upon an emotional experience. Follow the emotion, and the exceptions to the “rules” will be the right ones.

See? Did you really need even this much?

Fiction technique comes in layers that harmonize, rather than types of moment that constitute conflicting advice. Ignoring for the moment that this looks suspiciously like something mathematical, and therefore evil, consider this:

How story elements harmonize
How story elements harmonize

Think of the green wave as motivations and reactions. The blue wave is goals, conflicts, resulting problems (disasters), reactions, dilemmas, decisions. The red wave is scenes and sequels. And the navy wave is the major moments of the macro structure.

See how there are repeated points when they come together? Think of those as scene endings, chapter endings, and the conclusion of major sections of plot.

If you just write motivations and reactions, and let their events and feelings and consequences — the content you put in the empty boxes — accumulate some combined force, they’ll create larger moments that force the viewpoint character to change or die (metaphorically, as in an emotional or social extinction event, or literally). The big navy wave is not so much something that needs engineering as it is the pendulum of forced transformation, set in motion by smaller moments.

All you need to seek is the smaller moments.

In short story, these transformations can be reveals: twists that uncover new conflict and growing context until a conclusion is reached. Depending on its length, short story won’t be so much about goal, conflict, disaster, or scene and sequel, as moving through sharp moments of transformation. If it’s a bit longer, those scene tools may come in handy as prompts for what direction the motivations and reactions could take.

But it’s better to leave all that aside.

Don’t tell yourself what you’re going to write.

Think of how mystical Stephen King gets in his strategy to guard the creative mind from analytical intrusion. He talks in On Writing as if there are multiverses and creativity can somehow peer through the cracks and find pre-existent ideas and images. This is a metaphor for denying the analytical side of the mind access to the psychological “room” in which creating happens.

In Writing Alone and With Others, Pat Schneider simply advises not to tell yourself that you’re going to write a novel. Or anything in particular. Just write. If we’re thinking “novel,” we’re thinking about all these technicalities and hemming in the process with (over) analysis. If we’re thinking prose poem, we could miss a larger story.

Those are formats, and format is very much second to content.

Use the tools available as prompts, not rules.

If it’s time to come up with a goal at the start of the scene, that’s a prompt. It’s a leaping-off place from which the mind may wander. It’s not an imperative you have to track and enumerate, unless you want to start there and then write from an outline as a prompt. (An outline is just a series of writing prompts arranged in a widely-recognized pattern of psychological, circumstantial and emotional progression.)

Conflict is a prompt. It’s a word that allows us to be mindful of the broad, very generalized nature of what happens next. Friction might be a better word, because that conflict can be very subtle. We’re interested in conversations where the speakers fray each other, in lines of action where the outcome is in question. The human mind is captivated by the feeling of potential threat and sated by the resolution of that potential.

But if you’re sitting back analyzing these things, you’re probably missing the raw core of pure feeling. Pure hatred, pure shame, pure love, pure joy. Submerging into a moment and capturing an image that makes you feel is the main thing.

To find that moment, you can take Schneider’s advice and just write — as she urges, as fast as you can, without lifting the pencil from the paper (or perhaps fingers from the keyboard). Know the feeling and the image that sparks it all, and lay things down as quickly as possible in order to outrun the intrusion of analysis.

When you do this many times over, you’ll become able to see what the character wants, or whether that’s missing from the picture. You’ll be able to see what the friction (conflict) is — overt or latent. The disastrous consequences that propel things forward will rise out of the mist like pre-existent moments lost in the ether between universes.

What do you feel deep down?

What happens next?