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.

(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.

How Do I Get Started Writing More Things?

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 advice?

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?