Art and Craftsmanship

One of the best bits of advice I’ve read about writing is from someone whom I cannot remember and it is, “Get out of the way of the words.”  The other best bit of advice is, “You don’t know what you’re writing about until you’re finished.”  That is from Mark Twain and I think I have the wording correct.  Either way both pieces of advice work hand in hand. 

When I first started to try and become a writer in college I resisted the idea of character and plot development beforehand.  I thought it stifled the creative process and screwed up my flow.  The more I wrote the more I understood why you did all that work.  You are attempting to internalize as much of the background of your characters and setting as possible so that you write almost without thinking.  In other words, to getting your conscious mind out of the way of the words as much as possible. 

For me the goal is to have a character driven plot.  I start with my characters.  This is a general sketch of the type of person each character is.  Sometimes, I don’t even choose sex or race at this point. Second, I need to figure out where my characters start emotionally and where they end emotionally.  Next, I try to fill in just enough of the characters background and history to make all of their decisions and actions logical to the story and their universe.  This is where I solidify sex, race, age, etc.  I’ll figure out their family situation, their job, as much of the general background as I can. 

Next, comes a basic outline of the plot.  The best way to think of it is a chronological listing of the plot points I want to hit leaving space to for the characters to help me find them. Then I work on the setting, again just trying to get a broad enough outline to make the physical movements of the characters logical.  At that point I might create a couple of new characters or change and/or combine the original characters I created for this story. 

Finally, it is time to write.  Hopefully, I’ve laid out just enough detail to let the characters move and grow on their way to their destination.  I want to know just enough to get me from scene to scene.  I think it was Saul Bellow who said writing a novel was like driving at night.  At night you know your destination but you can only see as far as your headlights.  The act of writing fiction for me is in part discovering things about the characters and setting as I go along.  That keeps it fun and interesting.

Twain’s bit about not knowing what you are writing until you are finished fits hand in glove with the getting out of the way of the words and learning about your characters as you write.  If you are discovering different aspects of your characters and setting as you go, you do not know where the journey will really take you until it is over.  That is why editing becomes just as important to the writing as the actual writing.  In fact, it could be stated that editing is the actual writing.  At the very least, that is the true craft of writing.  It is where you see the faint outlines of what you are actually trying to do and you cut and mold it into something worth consumption.  The editing lets you see into your own unconsciousness in away by showing you what you were actually writing about. 

This is the art and the craft of writing.  You start with the imagination to create a whole universe of people, places, and things that did not exist before (well maybe parts of them exist).  Then, you let the craftsmanship mold something coherent out of the raw clay that sprang from your mind. 


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