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Art or Craft?
Is writing an Art or a Craft? Scholars far brighter than I have debated this issue over time. Like many philosophical issues, the answer is “it depends.”
Dictionary.com defines Art as: “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” It defines Craft as: “an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill.”
Craft is a tool to achieve Art. However, there is an implied perception that Craft may be learned (to some extent) whereby Art is a God given talent. Of course, both assertions are true to some extent but false in other examples. Anyone can learn the basics of writing just as they can learn the basics of how to hold a paint brush or how to finger the strings on a guitar. When I turned forty I took a year of piano lessons and learned that no matter how much I practiced, I would always be a terrible piano player (I was so rhythmically challenged that after a year of dealing with me, my instructor quit giving lessons for good.) There are also those people who can sit down at day one and automatically apply all of the elements of craft to achieve wonderful artistic expression without going through the painful learning process. I’m reminded of the scene in Amadeus when Salieri sees one of Mozart’s first drafts and is astonished when he sees few if any notes of correction.
Natural prodigies are frustrating for those of us who have to labor to learn enough craft to achieve even the smallest amount of artistic expression. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t soldier on.
The mission of a writer is always to entertain and enlighten. This mission holds whether a person is writing business letters and reports, poetry, fiction or a philosophical teatise. It’s just that the mix of enlightenment and entertainment may be different. (I guess there is a level of enlightenment achieved by reading Fifty Shades… but…)
Writing is like any Art form in that it is extremely beneficial to know the elements of Craft to sufficiently create Art. The Craft elements or rules should be looked at as guidelines to achieve the overall goal of the writing. A writer needs to understand the purpose of the writing to effectively address the reader.
We had a discussion at our area writer’s group last night regarding why we write. There were an interesting contrast in the motivations of each of the writers in attendance. A common theme, was the desire to express one’s self internally. Writing was described as therapeutic and a way of achieving self-actualization.
However, there were various shades grey pertaining to the desire to be appreciated externally. They ranged from wanting to make money as a writer (me) to just a glimmer of a desire to share work with others. Even those who denied any motivation for external acknowledgement still want people to read their writing – and to like it. Why else be in a group? Why else share?
It’s important for a writer to come to grips with these motivations as they will help identify projects, style and training. By definition, to someone who is internally motivated, rules of writing convention do not apply. Whatever you enjoy, you do. The more externally motivated the writer, the more cognizant he or she has to be of the rules of convention in the craft from a technique and genre standpoint. That’s not to say a writer can’t break those conventions, but he or she should be aware of what they are in order to break them for the right reasons. Conventions do not define the “right” or “wrong” way to write, they merely define the generally held reader expectations. (Hence, my frustrations with many of the “how to” books and some of the training a writer receives from MFA programs.) If a writer cares about the reader’s overall perceptions of his or her writing (external motivation), he/she must understand how the writing will contrast or compliment the generally held conventions.
That leads us to the age old question, “Is Writing a Craft or an Art?” That will be addressed next week in next week’s blog.
History and Bias
As I get through the halfway point of conducting my class on Lakota Leaders for the SMSU GOLD College, several of the class participants have commented that the “History” that I’m giving them is not one they had heard before, even covering the same period and events. I have heard of people (my father being one of them) who don’t like reading fiction because they only want to deal with “Facts”. In general, people think that the “Historical Facts” they read are the gospel.
The “facts” portrayed may be the “truth,” but the manner in which they are presented makes a significant difference. For my study of the Lakota Leaders, I used several biographies of each of the four Leaders I had selected. I found resounding differences in the recounting of the exact same events. The facts were generally the same, but different parts of them were highlighted and the roles of the individuals involved change dramatically.
When I gave this presentation out on the Standing Rock Reservation, this became even more of an issue in that some of the audience were well acquainted with the Legends about the four. By definition, Legends often contain strains of the facts intermixed with a story established to entertain and enlighten readers. It isn’t necessarily that they are “wrong”, they just overemphasize some things to make a point.
After I had done my research, the central theme of what I wanted to portray in my book emerged: “Four of the Greatest Leaders of the nineteenth century – Not Lakota Leaders – Leaders.” The way I chose to portray the facts, gathered from the variety of sources I researched, reflect that theme. If I would have had a different theme, I would have selected different events to recount and perhaps would have put a different emphasis on the roles the various characters played.
Therefore, I would maintain that the difference between fiction and non-fiction, between history and storytelling is not as significant as it is often portrayed.
I’m moderating a book group this week that read William Kent Krueger’s novel Ordinary Grace as part of the South Dakota One book program. To prepare for the presentation, I needed to go back and reread the book. I was taken by how different the experience of reading the book was the second time around.
I’m a fan of Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mystery series. It’s a somewhat formulaic series of twelve mysteries that take place in Northern Minnesota. There was a time in my professional career where I was on an airplane every week, and in the days before Kindle, I always brought two books with me for every flight just in case I didn’t like one. My intention in these readings was pure entertainment, something to make me forget the cramped seats, stuffy cabin air, over-important business travelers and overweight seatmates. I viewed it like watching network television sitcoms – brain candy. In that time I went through many of the most popular murder mystery series and I thought that Krueger’s series was certainly as entertaining as any. The fact that the action took place in Minnesota and I had seen him speak a few times was an added benefit.
At one of his talks he mentioned that one of his contract negotiations with the publisher was that he got to write a different book if he agreed to do X many more in the O’Connor series. I wished I had that problem.
The first time I read Ordinary Grace I was not particularly impressed. Krueger’s chops as a mystery writer were evident as his plot included a murder mystery, several red herrings and an eventual solving of the mystery. Perhaps that’s what threw me. I read it as a murder mystery, the same way I read the O’Connor series and was frustrated by the pacing. I gave it a B – and did not think it was nearly as entertaining as the books in his series.
Reading it eighteen months later, I got an entirely different view. Since I was going to be talking to a book group, I took my time and absorbed the whole book. What I realized was that the murder mystery is only a small part of the overall theme. In fact, one of the themes was that solving the murder didn’t really matter.
My mom asked me what the book was about and it took me twenty minutes to come up with an answer. At some time in the future I will write here about the themes of “death” and “grace.”
By the time I finished the second reading I realized how much I‘d missed as I blew through the book the first time. I’d give the book an A- now (I’m a pretty hard grader) and am very appreciative of how aggressive Krueger was in addressing complicated and intense themes. I had to have my mind prepared to read the book in depth and then take some time to think about them to get it.
It is kind of scary to think that I might have missed many more impactful books, because I wasn’t prepared to read them closely and then to think about them afterward.
I had the opportunity to spend several days in the hospital visiting my Dad this week. It’s a great place to evaluate yourself, your life, your wants and desires. That’s what writers are supposed to do, evaluate stuff and then compile it so it may be of value for others at another time.
Sitting here typing at 3 in the morning in my Dad’s room, it occurs to me that each of the people on this floor are going through one of the biggest stories of their life. Their world, and mine for the time being, totally revolves around the hour to hour vital sign checks, bits of information from nurses and the brief but always frustratingly uninformative meetings with doctors. At least once an hour one of the patients on the floor tries to get up and leave this world to rejoin the “real” life.
I heard of a book the other day called “The Shift” which covers one overnight shift of an RN. Hospital soap operas have been around as long as there has been Television, (even as a kid I remember ladies sighing for Dr. Kildare.) Unfortunately, the soap opera usually takes over the real drama. I wonder if the author of “The Shift” was successful in covering the day to day small dramas that an average person can relate to. It’s probably a good lesson for a writer to remember that, while most human beings are not going to be involved with a mass murder, nuclear accident or an affair in the supply room, we will all face the very real complication of death at some time. Even a few days of feeling really bad is a drama.
The glimpse we get at the TV news reminds us that the world goes on outside of the hospital room, but here in the silence of the middle of the night, it’s inconsequential. When friends and relatives send messages asking for information, it’s frustrating to relay the same little bits that we know time after time, but if the subject ever changes to something else, I ignore it.
There are small stories that are really big stories within each person. As writers, we have to remember to find them.
Incidentally, Dad was released last week to a “rehab center.” We will never call it a “nursing home” within his earshot.
One of the first classes I took in Graduate School was on Young Adult Fantasy Fiction. We read and evaluated 13 books. Since I had not read anything in the genre, it was a great opportunity to take a step back and evaluate the construction of novels in the genre. For my final project, my classmates and I evaluated each of the 13 novels on overall likeability and then evaluated component parts such as plot, storyline, characterization, setting and creativity. In short, we found that characterization in the novels was the single most important element in overall likeability.
When I take a step back and look at my top ten favorite books, the common thread is that I enjoy and relate to the main characters. The genre, plot, setting and styles vary widely.
On the surface, this is no surprise. However, when you look at the time and energy a writer puts into a novel, it is the plot that is always the focus. You have to drive to get the story (ie plot) out there. In a similar manner, when you consider how a novel is selected and sold to a reader, it is the story, plot and setting that are the most important components.
When you try to sell a novel across a table, it is very difficult to convince a reader that your characters are wonderful enough to get them to buy a book. Every writer tells potential readers that the characters are witty, imaginative and engaging. It does not do much to complete the sale.
In summary, a reader selects a book based upon a general understanding of the story, plot and setting, but loves a book based upon characters. One of the reason novels written in a series are so popular is that the readers already know and enjoy the characters.
I’m in the midst of drafting my third novel and find myself putting all of my energy in working through the storyline. Once I get the first draft done, I need to remember to go back and look at the entire work with a focus on how the main characters are developed and portrayed. Even though character development may not impact sales it is the primary basis for impacting the overall reader likeability.
Like most authors trying to sell books to the public, I frequently get questions regarding an idea someone wants to publish. It usually goes something like this, “I’ve thought of a book that I know would be great and sell like hotcakes but I can’t tell you anything about it or you’d steal my idea. How do I get a publisher?” I think the main idea is that if a guy like me can get a book published, just about anybody must be able to!
My advice is usually to get the darned thing done first. There are more unfinished first manuscripts out there than you can shake a stick at. Then I suggest finding an editor, hopefully someone with some experience other than correcting third grade English assignments. That will be a whole other column in itself.
Once a writer has a good solid product, the question is how to get it produced and available to the audience so it can sell like hot cakes. Essentially, there are 4 levels of publishing (the way I see it):
1) Being a famous celebrity and just putting any piece of crap out you want. You then cash checks and make appearances. If you aren’t famous to begin with, you will need to commit a heinous crime, perform a lifesaving feat, have a torrid affair with a celebrity or perform some other publicity rich act to make this work.
2) Medium / Large publisher. This is what we all strive for and there are many levels in between here. To hit this level, you probably need an agent and they reject 98% of what is sent to them. Nonetheless, I usually tell people to take their shot at the big time. There is a plethora of information on how to make your pitch stand out to an agent. A friend of mine wrote fifteen novels over eleven years and pitched hundreds of agents before she got signed on by a Random House imprint.
3) Small publisher. There are no upfront costs in producing and printing the book, but you will be doing all of your own marketing.
4) Self-Publishing. The concept is changing quickly. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a self-produced book and small publisher. A few years ago it was looked down upon in the industry, but now it fits some authors/books perfectly. It really comes down to a cash flow issue.
The economics of each method are different and except for #1, are pretty crappy. I always tell people that if you are writing to become rich and famous, you probably are better off studying lottery numbers as the odds are better.
We all tend to jump to the publishing decision too quickly without thinking through the audience. A writer needs to think about who will read the book. Then he or she has to figure out how those people choose what they read. That analysis sheds a light on publishing and marketing methods. For instance if a book has primarily a regional appeal and is going to be sold directly by the author, self-publishing may make the most sense. An author has to seriously consider if the subject matter of the book would ever been on the New York Times bestseller list.
Bottom line, get the damn thing done first. And don’t count on it making you rich.