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Art, Craft, and process. A small rant.

Elsewhere on the internet, some discussion about art vs. craft.

Bruce Bethke on talent vs. craft

I understand that there are people, like me, who want to write novels for a living. This makes sense to me, because obviously, that's what I do, and I like to think of myself as reasonably sensible (comments about the accuracy of this should be offered with very careful consideration. I'm just saying). Bethke's post makes sense in that context. If you have deadlines and you have bills and you need to meet the former to pay the latter, you need to be able to bridge the chasm between your inspiration and your ability to intellectually bulldoze your way through the murk. You need to be able to write when you do not feel like it because if you have enough days of not feeling like it, you will miss your deadlines and people will be Very Unhappy about it. You need to be able to storm the fortress of ideas and starve them out by lobbing things at said fortress at every miserable and conceivable opportunity.

Does this mean I've never missed a deadline? Well, no. As it happens, I have missed deadlines, often because the books are longer than I thought they would be. I'm getting better about that, honest.

But at the same point in time?

I don't think that the only writing, or the only writing that counts, is the narrow wedge in which I work. We all write; not all of us write for publication. People who don't write for publication often still write for an audience; their audience appreciates their work. It's a perfectly valid choice, and I don't think it's a waste of time (especially since I read a lot of writing that isn't, and I enjoy it, and well, I enjoy it.)

Some of us who do write for publication don't make a living from it. Does that mean the books that are published are somehow innately less valuable? No. Oddly enough, when I pick up a book, I don't know what the advance paid for it was, I don't know what the print run was, and I don't know where it debuted on bestseller lists because -- as a reader -- I simply do not care. I realize this all sounds incredibly selfish, but I just want to read the book.

Does it mean that, if you can't produce to schedule, the work you've done in the past doesn't count? No. Does it mean that the authors who are never, ever going to be fast writers are somehow innately less serious about their work? Not remotely; sometimes they are way more serious about the work itself, because the need-to-eat will often cause us to send books out the door that we'd sit on and obsess about perfecting otherwise. (I send a book out the window when I cannot stand the sight of it. Seriously. I want it to be someone else's problem for a while.)

There is no value judgement in anything I'm saying here. What I'm saying is what I always say, but, you know, slightly differently. Authors need to figure out what they need to do write their stories, and frequently they need to figure this out for every individual novel. If what an author needs, if an author's process requires, that spark of inspiration, it's part of their process, and as we all know, process differs greatly between writers.

It doesn't make them less of a writer, although to be fair, that is not quite what Bethke is saying -- I just feel the need to state this very clearly at this particular time. It makes it hard to make a living writing, but writing is not just about making a living. A lot of what I say or I think about writing has, at its base, the whole writing-as-career paradigm, because they're my thoughts, and that's what I try to do. But it is certainly not the only valid approach to writing, even for publication; it's certainly not the only reason to write.

And the fact that you can't produce thousands of words a day, on cue, does not invalidate the writing you've done in the past. It doesn't make it less beautiful, or less true, it doesn't diminish the value of the story that you've already told, and told well.

Just as no two writers have the same process for finishing, and often one writer won't have the same process for more than a couple of books, no two writers have exactly the same reasons, if they can even detail them at all.

And I think Bethke misses that particular boat, in that particular post. I think he fails to understand the difference in process, because it is clearly so unlike his own.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 29th, 2008 01:11 am (UTC)
You know, it's funny. When I'm hanging around (virtually or otherwise) with the adult SF community, all the advice seems to be about how to get practical, get down to business, be methodical, focus on craft and churning out pages.

Then I'll spend time in the children's book community, where it's all about writing from the heart, writing the books only you can write, trusting your own messy process, accepting that things can't be rushed, and so on.

The reality is probably that both these things have a place, but the dichotomy sometimes can give me a bit of mental whiplash. :-)
Mar. 29th, 2008 02:33 am (UTC)
We should all be quite thankful that so many writers differ as they do in terms of process, motivation, skill, and work ethic. It makes us appreciate some writers more than others, and certainly for differing reasons.

There is so much good writing that is not being read and sometimes it makes me rather sad to imagine the reasons why.

Well said.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 03:33 am (UTC)
A fellow friend of mine told me as recently as today that they couldn't make themselves work on something or the resulting piece would be shitty.

To be fair, a lot of my early writing was like this, and it was crap if I worked when I had no inspiration. Honestly. Pages and pages and pages of crap. And in between those pages, pages that weren't crap, which mugged me, and which I had to write.

In the perfect world? Entire novels would be pure inspiration. The amount that this would make me happy cannot be put into words. It would be all the joy of writing, and none of the gloom.

But I understand, with some distance, that that inspiration was entirely a state-of-mind, and that with effort, and a few months of writing total crap, I could steamroll my subconscious into allowing me easier access to that state-of-mind. But the process of steamrolling was enormously painful.

And I also understand that for some processes, it's not possible, at least not the way I did it. I grew up in a loud household, and there were always demands on time, and background arguments, so I don't need a quiet place to write from. But I know other writers who desperately do need that, and if they can't get it, they can't write.

Then again, I don't think she wants to be a professional writer, but still... shouldn't we at least try to overcome that obstacle there?

Well, not so much. If there's no drive to be a professional writer, there's no reason not to write for the sheer joy of it, really; for the moments when it is all joy and creation.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 02:52 pm (UTC)
> But I understand, with some distance, that that inspiration was entirely a state-of-mind,

Elizabeth Bear says that, at the end of the draft, she cannot tell the difference between sections she wrote on fire, when the words wrote themselves, and the sections in which every word was inscribed in blood and tears.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 04:20 pm (UTC)
It's an excellent thing; her point is that the words that you sweat for are just as good as the ones that are a gift.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 03:50 am (UTC)
"Well, that's something that needs to be worked on, doesn't it?"

It can be helpful to write, even when you don't feel like it, if you are one of those people who needs to move forwards. If I accomplish a little every day, even if it's crappy and I have to throw it all out, then psychologically I can feel better about what I'm doing. If I don't write, and days go by, I get more and more mired in inaction, and that kills me.

Not everyone is like this; for some people, it's more demoralizing to write when there is no 'inspiration,' or whatever you want to call it (mental hamsters all at warp speed!) and have the results be significantly less than desired. If you don't have to feed yourself with the proceeds of your writing, no editor is waiting with a stick for your work, and you're happy with what you're getting under those conditions, then I have to say that it's not really an obstacle.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 04:05 am (UTC)
Inspiration can come when we're in the mines, slogging away, absolutely: but not only then. I think that most of us realize that inspiration is something that it is nigh impossible to control. We can put ourselves in situations where inspiration is more likely to strike, or have rituals (within reason) to make that happen (coffee HERE, chocolate HERE, iPod HERE, children OVER THERE...), but, in the end, there's an emotional component that must be in place as well.

It sounds to me that your friends who can't write, or feel that they can't write, until the inspiration comes back need that element of fun, or that dizzy high, to make writing worth it for them. If it's not there, then what's the point? That's a choice.

(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
But we can't always get inspiration, and my point was that some people need to realize that inspiration isn't necessarily always going to be at your beck and call. If it is, great, more power to you--but realistically, there are times when inspiration leaves us, and... I think, with practice, if we do at least try to write regularly to hone our brain matter around the writing area, then we won't be crippled.

Yes, this is all true -- but it's a lot like work, and if writing is the thing you do that is not work (i.e. you're not paid for it, and you don't want to make a living at it), there's no real reason to do the work if you are not in the right frame of mine.

If you want to write for a living, everything you say is not only true, but necessary, imho. But not everyone will have your goals or your reason for doing the work and flexing that particular set of muscles -- nor is it a bad thing, if they don't.

If, otoh, they are all talking to you about wanting to make a living as a professional writer, then yes. But if they're not, it's probably not really helpful to what they are trying to do.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 05:02 am (UTC)
You're right, though, about if it's not professionally, it's not a big
deal. But isn't it weird sometimes to see someone with that much talent
and be supremely good at writing, and they don't want to ever try to
publish anything? o_o;; It boggles my brain, but I guess whatever floats
your boat.

One of the best writers I knew in University just stopped writing. It made me weep. I asked him about it at one point and he smiled and shrugged. "I have nothing I really want to say." Just that. So... I guess, yes, it boggles my brain, but more in a selfish way -- I wanted him to write because I liked to read his writing, and I liked the way he looked at the universe, because it was so different from the way I could. I felt it as a loss, as a reader.

And yes, if people are asking you for advice, because they want to write professionally it's an entirely different thing; I wasn't certain, because you seemed to be talking about fanfic writers, many of whom do want to write professionally for a living, but many of whom don't.
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 29th, 2008 02:41 am (UTC)
Would I like to sell something that I write? Yes.

Is it necessary for me to sell what I write to pay bills? No.

Will it keep me from writing if I never sell what I write? No.

How fast do I write? Not very.

Why do I write? Because I have stories to tell.

Do I care if they are liked? Of course, but only to the people who actually get to read these small attempts.

Am I glad that others write? Oh boy, am I glad that you and others write such good works.

Thank you for your efforts, care and friendship.
Mar. 29th, 2008 04:40 am (UTC)
I find Mr. Bethke's post annoying (but then, I find some of the blogs he links to in his side bar extremely annoying, so I shouldn't have expected much).

Most annoying is the idea that "writing as art" means sitting around waiting for inspiration. I know, he knows this one writer, see, who's artisic, but totally blocked! That's practically evidence in support of his theory!

My wife is an artist. She paints, mostly, and when it's time for her to work in her studio, she works. Some of that time is spent thinking. Some of it is spent tearing her hair out.

But the great majority of it is spent mixing colors and applying them to canvas (or wood or whatever).

It's fake rah-rah working-class crapola that artists get to loll around all day on a couch waiting for a reason to create, while good, honest folk who want to write just roll up their sleeves and get to work, by Gum!

To that I say: PhlbtbPhlbtbPhlbtbPhlbtb!
Mar. 29th, 2008 05:27 am (UTC)
I always go back to Kipling: "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right!"

If a writer realy wants to make a living from writing, he'll knock off this silly fiction crap* and concentrate on nonfiction. To make a living at nonfiction requires a relatively achievable list of traits:

1. Put words together serviceably.
2. Come up with moderately interesting article ideas.
3. Meet your deadlines.
4. Don't be a prima donna about editing.
5. Have sufficient social skills to not put off editors.

Any skills above that are gravy. I say this as someone who has several friends who make a living as journalists.

To be a fictioneer who makes a living, however, requires at least one more element: the "magic something" that makes an editor fall in love with your story. That's the hard bit, and it has a little to do with talent, a little to do with craft, a little to do with timing and luck. It's the bit that an author really can't control or easily learn, and even writers who have it will occasionally lose it.

*meant ironically!

Edited at 2008-03-29 05:29 am (UTC)
Mar. 29th, 2008 10:44 pm (UTC)
I think it depends on what you're writing, to some degree. I write non-fiction for work - articles, book reviews, interviews, that sort of thing. When my editors are on my case I need to deliver; I have a word-count and a deadline.

On the side ( in the moments stolen from other commitments and work) I write fiction. That delves into my worlds, my characters and my plots -- and for that kind of writing I -do- need the inspiration to strike, to get it -just- right.

Maybe, because they are my babies, I simply feel that those words of fiction have to be immaculately, undisputably perfect -- not something I'm churning out to meet a deadline.

Apr. 1st, 2008 02:33 am (UTC)
Another first time responder, by way of a mutual friend.

An adage to throw around: "Shaken, not stirred." An easy description of the checkpoints of bad writing.

A reader who is "shaken" can't add the ends up and is confused, lost, and frustrated. They focus on following the mechanics rather than the story and the art is irrelevant.

A reader who is "not stirred" adds the pieces together and decides that they don't care.

There is a bare minimum of craft, and the dictionary and the manual of style that Mr. Bethke endorses *help*, but this reader will overlook a misplaced comma or two or even a minor plot hole if I find the story as a whole compelling.

Editors can generally fix punctuation. They can rarely fix boring.
Apr. 1st, 2008 03:24 am (UTC)
An adage to throw around: "Shaken, not stirred." An easy description of the checkpoints of bad writing.

I like this, but I will say that it's also partly a reflection of the reader and the text; if the two are mismatched, there is going to be a disconnect, and the reader will often not find the work compelling, even if other readers clearly do.

Actually, I started something that got too long, but will post; I don't think Bethke is wrong; I just don't think he's seeing the whole picture.
Apr. 1st, 2008 04:03 am (UTC)
I completely agree with the connection between text and reader, especially for comedy.

I'm not much of an authority on the craft of writing, sadly, since my own expectation is that the primary way to get better at said craft is to "just do it" and I rarely do.

I'd like to think that it is tightly related to the craft of reading, which I have, err, some experience with, but that's an assumption.
Apr. 1st, 2008 04:17 am (UTC)
I'd like to think that it is tightly related to the craft of reading, which I have, err, some experience with, but that's an assumption.

I boggle at the idea of writing when you don't read, but that's me, and I do know writers who don't read much at all in the same field that they're writing in when they're actively working; they read similar books between books, or different types of fiction, or non-fiction.
Apr. 1st, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC)
I guess most of what I write could be qualified as SF, but most of what I read is books that I didn't read for the English major (Hemingway, Ibsen, etc...) and nonfiction (Machiavelli, biology, etc...).

In all likelihood, reading "the competition" is necessary if you're interested in selling a work, since knowing what your readers are buying is an insight into whether a publisher might be interested in what you have to say. Grated minds think alike*, so you also have to be aware if what you planned on writing "has been done before".

*On the frappe setting they don't think at all.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )