Friday, 12 October 2007

Arts or Crafts

A few weeks ago an editor asked me to write ersatz source materials. Newspaper clippings, pages from tour books, maps, letters, etc. These were to be clues for an internet puzzle. Very important they be firmly anchored in sense of place, the setting of the movie was vital.

The IM exchange went something like.
ME: Where is the setting?
SHE: I thought you read the books.
ME: I was eight.
SHE: Northwest of London.
ME: Iceland?
SHE: Not that far. Get a copy of the Dark and Google the locale.

Eight days -- and a series of cries for help here and elsewhere -- and I delivered. Weeks later the site, scheduled to go live a month before The Seeker opened worldwide, is not fully operational. No explanation, but from the looks of things two-thirds of what I wrote will never see the light of day. When I told this story to an acquaintance who teaches literature, he replied: "Well, if you ever started taking your writing seriously, things like that wouldn't happen." I opened my mouth and then shut it again because I realized there was nothing I could say.

Ever hear of folks who wanted to be writers ever since they could remember? The ones who never imagined themselves not writing? They usually speak -- often at length -- in terms of passion or muse or callings and don't really expect you to understand. And you know what? I don't.

When I was a child I loved stories. I loved to tell stories and I loved to listen to stories and I loved to make up stories. I was a storyteller. When I was ten or twelve I was told that I should study and learn to write those stories I loved to tell. By the time I was in high school I was being guided toward literature classes and told to harness and home my artistic talent. I took a creative writing class that required each rewrite be critiqued -- and made clear that every story required at least three rewrites.

Somewhere in college I heard my first bit of heresy. Or read it, rather, in an article by Isaac Asimov, a prolific writer of both science fiction and fact. His career began in the so-called golden age of pulp fiction and extended over fifty years. He told the story of his surprise many years before when he attended his first-ever writing workshop and the person conducting the program pronounced "All writing is rewriting." Everyone else there then compounded Asimov's confusion by nodding knowingly in agreement.
As Asimov told the tale, he went to his friend Robert Heilein, another giant of the golden age, and asked him: "Do you ever rewrite?"
Heinlein replied: "Why? What do you do?"
Asimov said; "I write the story, go through it to correct any misspelled words and then send it off."
Heinlein snapped: "Why don't you just spell the words right the first time?"
Asimov's belief, one shared by Heinlein, Bradbury and several others of their literary generation, was that rewriting killed.

Heinlein had published his rules for professional writers. There have been some variations over the years, but the core gist is
1. Write
2. Finish what you start.
3. Mail what you write to a professional market.
4. Never rewrite except to specific editorial instruction.
5. If a story comes back, mail it to another market.

I shared this story with my lit professor and he tut-tutted. Those were not serious writers, he explained. Serious writing required patience and honing and study and rewriting.
Through college and more than a decade after I focused on being a serious writer. I'd listen to my muse, summon my artistic passion, and write. Then rewrite. Then rewrite. Then rewrite; polishing my every word and comma. I sent out about one, maybe three, stories a year.

Then I had the good fortune to be invited to the Oregon Coast Professional Writers' Workshop. I studied under Gardner Dozois, Keith DeCandido, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and others. I would have to say Kris taught me the most about craft, but Dean taught me all about attitude. (Dean Wesley Smith has written over eighty novels, but you won't find that many with his name on them. Dean is a ghost writer, the fingers that do the actual typing for several celebrities turned author. And he will die before telling you who.) Dean's version of Heinlein's rules is even more basic.
It's an attitude I try to live by.

Because once I embraced that simple concept, I was free. Free to stop worrying about correct, how polished, how literary my writing was and to get back to what I loved to do: tell stories.

I do not think I will ever, as my professorial acquaintance put it, take my art seriously. I take my craftsmanship seriously -- a well-told story is a well-crafted story -- but I no longer believe there is some mystic muse in the process. I appreciate the fact that the bit of advertisement you can not get out of your head is there because a craftsman wrought together the right combination of words to take root in your mind. He's a writer, with as much right to call himself a writer, without qualification, as Toni Morrison or John Updike. And while many would argue that an insurance ad with a story of a family surviving a flood is less significant than Song of Solomon, the chances are you'll remember what happened when the river broke through its levee long after you've forgotten why Milkman was afraid of the Days.

It has been a decade since I last thought of myself as an artist. I put together stories the way a woodworker carves a chair -- selecting the right pieces of wood, shaping them to fit together just so. Once the last piece is in place, there's no going back. It's done. All that's left is waiting for the right buyer to buy it.

So what are you as a writer? An artist wrestling with the gods? A craftsman working to construct the perfect tale? Has writing been your driving compulsion since you discovered the written word? Or is it something you do because it's fun? Do you rewrite, polishing each turn of phrase to razor sharpness? Or do you trust your voice and eye enough to tell you story once and move on?

When you write, who are you?


Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Craftsman, definitely. (Or, in my case, craftswoman.) Except on my blog, where I revise posts once if at all. For my novel, I know I write in stages, and the story gets better each time. For me, this process is fun; I feel like a sculptor, chipping away all the unnecessary bits of wood or stone to reveal the full story. (OK the analogy doesn't fully stand up, because of course I add bits as well, but it is still how it feels.)

And a quick apology to everyone I might have visited and commented on this week, and didn't - I'm so immersed in draft four that I'm not blogging much. I will come up for air at some point, honest - don't give up on me!

(Love the Heinlein quote BTW. Love Heinlein, in fact. 'Stranger In
A Strange Land' is my favourite.)

tim relf said...

Just found your blog... looks fascinating! If you wait until you get a sentence perfect before you move on to the next one, you'd never finish a book. The secret, I reckon, is to focus on the story and getting the pace of it right in the first draft. You can worry about the exact words in the second or third (or 14th!) draft.
Updike - now you're talking...

Fiona said...

Do agents or publishers have the time or inclination, these days, to point out what they feel doesn't work in a story though? Surely if you are an unpublished writer, you have to make your book as marketable as possible, before sending it out into the dark?
Would love not to feel I have to though:)

Rowan Coleman said...

Kevin I couldn't agree with you more! I, like you, am a story teller first, a craftsperson. I rewrite as I go, as a rolling process if something I think of later in the book requires me to recraft the earlier stages. The real beauty of writing for me is the thought of a reader enjoying what I have created, turning the page to see what happens next, laughing if they think its funny and crying if they think its sad. If I acheive that then I feel I've done my job well. Write. Mail. Repeat. I love that rule.

p.s I delivered my book this week to the publishers and as a consequence I wrote a tiny little blog. Cheeky I know to ask you to go and comment on it when I so rarely get round to other people's but if you are in the vicinity please do and I promise to get round to more of you blogs over the next couple of weeks. Rx

Flowerpot said...

I'm a bit of both. I tend to rattle through the first draft, whether it's an article or scene of my novel. I love the adrenaline rush of tat first draft, and write as I go. Then the next day I go back to it and each time I can always see ways to improve it. Then I move on. For me it's getting a balance. But I have to write; i fel utterly lost if I'm not.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I'm usually happy with my first draft but it still needs, if not a polish, a little dusting. If I re-write more than twice, I end up hating the story and scrap it.

NoviceNovelist said...

Thanks kevin - lots to think about here. I wouldn't know who I was if I didn't write and can't remember a time when I didn't write. I'm defnitely of the 'craft' angle and the more I write the more the process is dymystified for me and I like that. Thinking of it as a craft makes it feel achievable.

Rowan - stranger in a strange land is one of my fav all time books also!

I too must apologise for my lack of visiting blogs and I'm also having a break from my own blog - otherwise finishing my novel will remain a distant fantasy!

Kate said...

I think 'writing' and 'storytelling' are two different things. I'm a great storyteller (or so I like to believe). When ideas pop into my head magic happens, its when I go to write them down that I stumble. 'Writing', like anything, needs to be learned and practiced, I think. But, if I can write down the story in my head with the right words the first time, then great. If I'm stumbling over myself then I rewrite and rewrite until I've got an accurate written account of the vision I want to impress upon people. Having said that I actually find writing tedious and irritating. If there was a quicker way to put the stories in my head onto paper in a perfectly ironed out train of words without me having to sit down and arrange them all in the right order, then life would be ideal. Perhaps thats just the impatient Arien in me, though.
I'm glad that I'm not the only one that prefers to 'get it right' the first time. I tend to adopt that approach to all things in life, but if I'm struggling for ages with writing just one correct sentence then I'm not going to sit and agonise over it otherwise I will never ever finish. Nanowrimo last year forced me to get something written down without agonising over the perfection of every word used. I havent gone back and edited that manuscript yet, so I'm not sure that the 'just get it written' approach works for me. I'm going to approach this year's Nanowrimo with a lot more preparation done so that I can get the 'right' words written down the first time.

After writing all of the above, I did actually find myself re-reading it and editing it as I went. Perhaps I'm just full of crap and dont ever 'get it right' the first time. But then again I haven't pressed 'post' yet, so this still is the 'first time'.
*sigh*... I'm getting carried away now. Ignore me. Please.

Graeme K Talboys said...

I don't believe there to be any distinction between the two, to be honest. And we all approach what we do in different ways.

An artist has to be proficient in their craft, just as the craftsperson has to have an artistic eye. Otherwise you get dull, pointless cack.

Frankly, I think I owe it to the people who are going to read my stuff to make it as clear and enjoyable as possible (be it fiction or non-fiction). If that involves twenty or thirty re-writes, I am more than happy to do that; just as I am happy to get it down just right on the first attempt. The skill is in knowing when to re-write and when to leave things alone.

Besides which, what I put down on paper is rarely a 'first' draft as I work things over in my head.

[Two of the above paragraphs are exactly as I wrote them; two have been heavily re-written; two others completely cut because they were irrelevant.]

ChrisH said...

I'm really drawn to Heinlein's rules especially since, in the past, I've fallen victim to the 'artistic' attitude and spent so long thinking about the right word or sentence that I've bored myself to death and given up. These days I think of what I'm doing as something like throwing a pot; I start off with a huge, unwiedly lump of clay, get a rough shape together and then, when I can see what I've got - then I add the finishing touches. With the rewrite that's been requested by an agent, however, I've felt more like a mechanic - I've dismantled my whole story and there are bits of it all over the floor, plus some new bits - goodness knows where they fit - and I'm just trying to piece the whole thing together. I don't know what the answer is - I guess I'm not good enough to 'Write. Mail. Repeat' but, hey, it's all part of the learning process of becoming a writer.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I don't think of myself as either, but I think Graeme has pretty much got it down.

I write what I want to write, and I both write and edit for myself. Sometimes I write a scene exactly as it needs to be the first time and other times I go back and see that a scene needs work. When I reread some sentences they just don't feel right to me - like I could've said it better, explained it clearer, given it more oomph. *shrug* I think a piece of work is finished when *I'm* happy with it.

No muse here (although I do joke about one on occasion). It's just me. Neither craftsman nor artist, really, but simply writer. ;o)

Kate.Kingsley said...


I'm with Zinnia on the "sculpting" approach ~ I tend to bang it all down on the page then tidy it up afterwards. I get a perverse sort of pleasure from the clean-up operation!

Kate K

sheepish said...

I'm with chrish " big dollop of clay approach" at the moment and it doesn't look like a pot yet so I've still got a long way to go. It may not even be a pot it might be a bowl or a plate. I write what I feel and have to hope that at some point it will all make sense.
Many roads lead to Oz and you choose the one that suits you.

I have also been absent for a while, Rugby world cup fever has the upper hand at the moment, and tomorrow night will be a titanic battle. Normal service will resume soon!!!

Cathy said...

I think Graeme's reply was excellent. I have to admit that I find seeing the bigger picture and getting the first draft down the hardest, but I love playing around with the text afterwards. I think it comes from the fact that I originally studied modern languages years ago, with the inherent need to find the right style and words when doing translation work.

Caroline said...

I think that I bang and polish as I go along, making the first draft not really a first draft at all.
I'm rushing around today - but thought I'd pop in to say 'hi.'


hesitant scribe said...

Kate - I really know where you're coming from!

Who am I when I write? God knows - but something clicked tonight after two years of thinking about my novel... I finally know what it is going to be now - so I think a lot of writing actually goes on in the mind before it even hits the paper. I don't mean the individual words but certainly the shape of the thing, and it's mood. I think I need to learn to write it and mail it. That's going to be my new approach - just write it! Except I know I'll go back and fiddle endlessly because I can't seem to take my own advice!

Lane said...

Graeme has summed it up perfectly for me - 'The skill is in knowing when to re-write and when to leave things alone'. Absolutely.

I'm not a natural storyteller so the hard part is pinning that down first. How I tell the story is for me, the exciting bit and I'll revise that for as long it takes.


If I could get close enough I'd hug you! I popped to say sorry for not making coffee ( bit lax new girl forgeting it was friday but mia culpa!)and ,riven with guilt,alll ready to feel I was doing it wrong, only to find that I am not the only writer who writes and then apart from checking for spelling( oh the joys of dyslexia) does not, or very rarely anyway, go back to hack and hone.

My writing just arrives in my head,I dream the next chapter and re-jig as I go. I couldnt alter its course to fit in with some pre-designed plot if I wanted to. I have tried, I have tried putting characters in a certain setting but the stroppy things will not go where they do not want to and sit, like truculent children grumbling amongst themselves, arms folded, until I come back , give in and let them have their own way. I always felt I was cheating or just pretending to be a writer as I do not seem to follow the route others use for their art, ignoring what I feel in my bones, that there is no right or wrong way to do it, and that each have their own way and must foillow that .

Thank you for kevin you have lightened my day!

Helen Shearer said...

Hi everyone. Sorry I am so late. Yesterday was a crazy busy day and I've only now found five minutes to sit on my can and relax.

I am so relieved to hear that I am not the only one who compulsively rewrites. I write things once, tweak here and there then leave it for a week or so, go back and tweak again if necessary and that's about it. I'm not sure if this makes me brilliant or lazy but it's likely the latter. I find if I work things too much, I end up working the heart and soul right out of them. There's something to be said for meticulously crafted prose and for some writers, the pursuit of the perfect piece of writing has yielded some of the greatest works of literature ever produced, but I wonder how many great works of literature never saw the light of day because the writer worked it to death or gave up trying out of sheer frustration and wound up in a drooling heap in a rubber room.

I strive to achieve rhythm in the sentences. Some sentences come out with the right number of words and syllables on the first try. Others need a word added or removed to make them sound right. Once the rhythm is right, I move on. My problem is putting things together once I've written them because I tend to write out of sequence as ideas strike.

CTaylor said...

Sorry I'm late. I completely forgot to come for coffee tomorrow. I'll just have a slurp of the cold dregs if that's okay.

I really dislike re-writing (as shown by the slow 1st edit of my novel, but it also applies to my short stories). I like to get the story out in one go, tweaking a bit as I go.

Like Caroline my first draft was pretty complete when I finished it. There were no holes, no 'insert X here and delete Y there'. This edit is more about tightening up the prose, deleting repetition and sloppiness and re-writing the cliches that invariably slipped in.

Like Leatherdyke the more I rewrite the more I hate whatever it is I've written.

So what kind of writer am I? One that needs to write, one that gets a MASSIVE buzz after completing something and one that suffers HUGE self-doubt when editing. I love writing, hate editing and would rather ditch something and start something new than polish, polish, polish.

wordtryst said...

I'd never dream of just writing a story through and sending it out into the world. I don't actually rewrite much, but I tweak endlessly - a word here, a phrase there, entire sentences, paragraphs... Add here. Delete there. Rephrase over yonder.

Maybe I'm just retentive, but the mere idea of writing the way you do gives me the shakes. Different strokes.

KayJay said...

Hugely late! Been too busy banging and tweaking. (See previous posts, I'm not being saucy.)

Great subject and everyone's responses make for really interesting reading. However, I'm loathe to try and analyse what type of writer I am because:

I don't think I know yet


it might kill my flow.

(Actually, I do think about it quite a bit, but I haven't come up with anything I'm happy with yet. Back to banging and tweaking!)

Leigh Russell said...

I find once I start on the tweaking, I don't know when to stop. I think poem can be perfect, but prose is different. I might choose a different word or phrasing depending on my mood. So I find it's best to just write. As Henry Fielding, first English novelist, wrote (this needs updating but the principle is sound)
"To the composition of novels and romances, nothing is necessary but paper, pens, and ink, with the manual capacity of using them."
Basically, I just sit and write.

I'm not "precious" about my work and try to follow my editor's suggestions, but I never agonise over writing. It would spoil the fun! I have this idea that if I enjoy the writing, people will enjoy reading it. I've no idea yet if that's true, but I'm having a good time!