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.

Stringing Words Into Sentences

Voice comes from honesty.

The hardest thing about starting to write is finding your honesty. Not just telling the truth as you see it on the surface of your mind, where we lie to ourselves.

Honesty becomes a way of life on the page eventually. The easiest way to get there is to trigger emotions so strong and immediate that you have to say exactly what you feel deep down.

For a lot of people, that involves a detox from institutionalized writing. Five-paragraph essays. Being forced to write about the weather or how great your mom was on a sheet of pre-printed lines. Being forced to engage with basic literacy before you were developmentally ready (maybe your motor coordination wasn’t there yet, or your reading comprehension had a schedule of its own that said Oh yeah, well eff you to the institutional timeline). Or being corralled into limited, educational-agenda-based forms of expression that had nothing to do with what really interested you.

That’s why Pat Schneider’s breakout creative writing technique begins with detoxing from various aspects of our early lives. Her exercises tap into our experiences of injustice, shame, and disappointment, and perform strategic lifesaving surgery by excising those inner barriers onto a page. First, courage. You have to get rid of the fears about exposure that you didn’t even know you were dealing with.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Clear expression and topical engagement come from feedback.

One reason I’ve heard for hiring an editor (or for seeking feedback in general) from a few different people is this: People will read total crap, so their feedback may not mean anything.

Oh, thank goodness. That’s a fantastic starting place. But you’ll need to come back to it when you get your first negative review, okay? Also, good luck with that!

Feedback doesn’t teach creative writing technique in the technical sense. Practice teaches technique. But feedback teaches you about being interesting and being resonant.

People will ignore you when you’re not interesting and not honest.

People will read you when you’re connecting with what matters to them in a way that rings true.

And finally, it teaches you where you’re not communicating clearly, because someone will pipe up and say, “I have no idea what you mean by this! I’m confused!” Beta readers and critique groups or partners are excellent for pinpointing the places where we didn’t say what we thought we said.

I’ve found blogging is also great that way, because then you get to try again in the comments. You can even start an argument about it, which is definitely not allowed in critique groups, at least the better ones. There might be some cage-fighter crit groups out there.*

I don’t know. But I do know you can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.

Strong writing comes from personal literacy.

I touched on this in my initial post here. A lot of people who are just fixated on the shiny aura of “writing a novel” are also very unimaginative. For starters, they can’t imagine a “serious” (ping me on my “serious writing” rant sometime) writing form other than the novel exists. For another, they’re much too busy imagining having their name splashed on the cover of a novel to imagine a good story. But when do we get to the cover with my name on it!? Are we there yet???

The truth is, many people don’t read well. I have in past chalked it down to impatience, based on the lack of reading my reply emails coherently. These days, I also suspect a general literacy problem in the Now We’re Seriously Adulting population of people who are past their twenties.

As children, and teens, and trailing into young adulthood, we’re encouraged to read stories of wonder. But there’s an agenda. Wonder is only allowed when it Promotes Literacy In Children. Once that task is completed, we drop the habit of seeking out thoughts and expressions that amaze us. It’s not “useful.” It “wastes time.” We start skimming everything. We lose imagination.

Constraining ourselves to a grownup sense of wonder, atmosphere and importance is another invisible wall that prevents honesty. It kills voice. Seeking out your favorite themes in other forms and places will help you realize what you really need (not just imagine you want) to communicate, and how many ways there are to communicate it.

You can’t get that from an editor, only from going and doing it.


*We’ll talk about critique etiquette another time. Short version: The number one rule is to say “thank you” and move on without further comment, taking what works for you and leaving the rest.

For a deeper look: Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others.