Friday, January 17, 2014

Lessons in Craft

Have you read a good book lately?

No, really read it—for structure, impact, word choice? That's how writers learn how to improve their craft. Good writing is more than a set of skills lying on the desk, waiting for you to pick them up and create a masterpiece. It's anything but.

There are tools to help construct good sentences, frame articles with just the right story arc, conduct interviews that contribute meaty bites to your work. Good tools make good work. But you have to know what to do with them. And that's where craft comes in. To my mind, craft is a combination of tools, inspiration and sweat.

It takes longer to read a book while trying to absorb lessons in craft. It harkens back to courses you may have taken that involved analysis. You're looking for the sound of the words, their impact, and their hints about what's really going on, what a character is thinking despite what he's saying. Craft goes beyond the written word, exposing tone and truth. Better writing also makes your book a more valued experience for writers. For example:
 When is the story taking place? Is it all in the present tense, the past tense or is it switching? Does the timing add to the story's impact? Do you like to read it?

Sure writers these days jump into the future and tease us with their leaps of fantasy, but that's not something new. Faulkner could tear narrative structure to shreds and produce a wonderful study of family history and pain.

A source to help: "The Mind of Your Story," Lisa Leonard Cook.
Point of view is the toughest task masker in writing. Many writers struggle to stay within the voice of the person who is narrating a scene. If that's an all-knowing narrator, the job's a little simpler—but not always. Who's talking, and how much does he or she know? Is it a very close, first-person narrator? Several characters, in sequence? A diary? Is it necessary for more than one person to narrate the story in order for readers to experience it fully? Who is telling it best? Do you end up understanding a character better after reading his or her own point of view? Is the narrator being truthful—some lie, or deceive themselves. POV is tricky and requires some study.
A source to help: "Writing Fiction Step by Step," Josip Novakovich

Notice the voice of each narrator, and what kinds of detail that person brings to light. Are the words he uses negative? Notice the world he surrounds himself with, or how she reacts to each situation. Analyze how they differ from each other, because you'll want to do that when you write. There's a world of information in each character's response to the world. You may dislike some of them, or find them untrustworthy. You may, as in "Gone, Girl," the novel by Gillian Flynn, find yourself not trusting anyone in the end. Or, it may be that you will only understand that character when the ending is revealed. Keep a notebook and record what you observe, especially if you want to use the technique.
A source to help: "The Making of a Story" Alice LaPlante

Dialogue can't be wasted with unnecessary comments ("How's the weather, Jeb?" "Oh, I dunno, Mack.") Everything has to have a reason for being. Mastering dialogue means mastering flow in a story. These days, writers don't use multiple "he said" and "she said" references as often as they used to. Although readers mostly fly over such references without being bothered, notice how writers do it. Sometimes, it's as simple as this, from T.C. Boyle's "Talk Talk", a novel:
           "I'd love to, but—"
           "But you can't afford it. Because you don't have a job. Right?"
           She dropped her eyes. Used her hands. Right.
It's clear which character is talking, but a whole lot of "said" is not required.
Notice whether the writer even uses quote marks when characters speak. Is the dialogue clear to you, or not?
A source to help: "Revision and Self-Editing," James Scott Bell

There is so much more one can learn through reading carefully, with an eye to style and technique. In future columns, I'll pursue this area more deeply. In the meantime, there are other good source materials on the subject, including "Scene & Structure," by Jack M. Bickham and "The Power to Write," by Carolyn Joy Adams, "Stein on Writing," by Sol Stein, "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner. There are so many good books out there that will help you to understand the art of writing. But you will learn a great deal simply by reading carefully. Give it a go.

Ann Connery Frantz

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