Art and Artifact

I often say that writing isn’t an art, but a craft.  That might be a matter of opinion, and frankly also a matter of how my brain classifies the two.

Crafts are things you learn how to do, with known techniques, and which are repeatable. Art… is when in the middle of all that a muse comes down and gets her hand in, and the whole thing is transformed and magical.

I’m actually not being metaphorical. Or not precisely. The problem you see is telling when you’ve  practiced and trained to such an extent that what’s happening is just the result of that; and when you actually got that extra oomph added in.

I don’t know how to tell you that.

I know how to help you with craft. Craft will get you through books with no art, better than art will get you through books with no craft. Though please DO note that sufficient art will get you through moderately successful novels with no craft. I’ve seen it happen. Might have happened to me a couple of times.

Dear Lord. If you’re going to trust in that, what are you going to do for an encore? walk the high wire at 22nd floor level for your first attempt.

And I have books I wrote entirely by craft. (No, you can’t know which) That was mostly because I was very ill and barely functioning.  For the others? Did magic come in? And if so when?  I don’t know.

It probably did.

I mean some of the books took turns I never anticipated, grew subplots I never consciously saw coming, and turned out deeper, more complex and more interesting than I first saw them as being.  And some, as I rushed into the climax fell into place as if by magic

Yeah, and some I sweated over every little interaction.  I have a final battle in my hands right now that’s making me scream and rotate the cat. (And the cat don’t like it!)

So… how do you increase the chances of some magic? of a muse coming down and kissing your fevered brow?

No guarantees, but I have found some things increase your chances:

1- learn your craft.

No, seriously.  Learn your craft. Learn your craft cold.  Examine your own writing and the writing of others.

Look, I have over 32 novels out.  Full size novels. With traditional publishers, which means they were all … approved at some level (usually proposal.)

I still buy how to write books.  I still read how to write posts.  Most of them are for very specific things.  Like “How to write action scenes.” Because that’s an identified weakness, and next book I don’t want to spend three days rewriting a battle, okay?

2 – Read in your field

Read a lot in your field. Read outside your field too.  For instance, if you read some actual romances, while it might not help you write a romantic subplot (that’s a different thing) you’ll stop being afraid your sf book is “really” a romance and that your readers will hate it because it’s “really” a romance.  (Trust me, it’s not. Or 99% of the time it’s not.)  Also if you read romance you’ll stop confusing it with erotica.  (Or not. some trad pubs don’t.)

Anyway, read a lot.  Who knows? You might use some mystery techniques in your science fiction.

3- Make yourself healthy.  As healthy as you can be.  Trust the snowbound author who can’t find her snowboots because snow came early this year.  If you’re not getting any exercise, you’re eating like crap, you have a cold, you won’t have the energy to write.

Writing takes a surprising amount of energy, particularly action writing.

4- Do something that’s not writing or reading.  Preferably something that doesn’t involve words. (Yes, sure. It’s research for erotica. There you go… Only that’s not what I meant at all.)  Most of what I’ve been doing when I have time is do renders for covers.  BUT that’s not all I do and as I’m trying to get a schedule organized, I’m trying to have time to sew, maybe watch some British mysteries, and definitely some “personal development time” mostly involving Great Courses.

Look, you can’t pull water from an empty well. And this well doesn’t fill by itself. You have to fill it.

5- And while on that: read something in your field you normally wouldn’t read.  No this isn’t “A year of reading no white males.”  That’s daft. Writers aren’t their skin color. And read one academic woman, read them all, regardless of skin color. (And they sound much like academic males, for that matter.)

The way I did it, just last week was ask a group of friends I trust, who have very varied tastes, for specific recommendations.  I’m, as it happens, reading a white male I’d never read. I’m not going to tell you who it is, because it’s embarrassing. I don’t even know why or how I overlooked him. Not really. Particularly since it’s someone I’ve met more than once.  I just did.

We get set in our routines and don’t look outside our preferential routes form here to there and back again.

I’m finding this little excursion invigorating.  Already, just due to the nature of the work, I’ve realized what I was missing from a started novel that stalled.  And it’s connected with an old piece of research and things are moving.

And who knows…. Perhaps the miracle will happen, and a muse will come by and finish this battle for me.

It could happen!

Or maybe I’ll take another three days to do the battle, but the next book will fly.

In either case, the point is to increase the likelihood of that.

Now you go and try.

30 comments

      1. As in, “I got four loads of laundry done, the grocery shopping done, dinner started in the crockpot, and… I still can’t figure out where the blasted protagonist is supposed to go next!”

        I could claim I’m not rotating the cat because it’s all necessary and productive… even re-organizing the pantry?… okay, maybe not.

    1. Alternately, vacuum the cat.

      No, I don’t know why it’s always a cat. Possibly because cats don’t tend to cooperate so you leave them until last. Donno.

        1. I don’t doubt it, but in general even showing up with clippers means the cat turning into a buzz saw. 😉

          But basically it’s just to say that a person has reached the point where there is no legitimately useful things left to do in service to avoiding writing and now you need to make things up.

          I have two little pins (may have given one to one of my kids) of a cat being vacuumed. Someone on rec.arts.sf.composition back in usenet days had them made up and a bought a couple.

  1. My cats rotate when I toss them outta the bedroom when they get bitey. They seem to enjoy it, and always land on their feet. Then bite me again. Crazy critters.

  2. One thing I like about romances that very few other genres do (that I’m aware of) is the bouncing between heads. As a practical matter, it’s really the only way one can do the “I’m into her, is she into me?” and “I’m into him, is he into me?” drama. It can be much more fun than just that.

    I do like some sort of notification or hint in advance, though. Chapter boundaries work well.

    I still haven’t figured out how April and Family Law keep sucking me in. How many times does one need to read a book to notice mechanics and not get sucked into the story? Maybe I need to try a different book. I expected to dislike Dancer, but it is great. What changed my mind? No idea(*). I’ll give that one a try after I finish the current series (Expeditionary Force), which I can’t decide if I like or not, but on book five, I don’t think the author much cares: I’m buying them.

    (*) I’m guessing that Kitchen/Ebsa was not foreshadowing, but a character refusing his bit-part and wanting more.

    1. Yes. nameless bit character who was supposed to walk on say a couple of lines and walk away, never to be seen again. Now he’s got a whole bloody spin off series.

      1. Ha ha, the bit character that takes over the whole fricking thing. Yes, this is where I live.

        They keep coming up and asking “hey, don’t you want to know what happens?” ~:D

      2. I had a character who was becoming prominent. So I killed him.

        The muse accepted that quite smoothly, but the main character remembered him so often that it was hardly a disappearance.

        That’s the work where my main issue is seguing over about eight years of growing up. I’m not good at jumps in time. (Indeed, I’ve had to go back and insert nights when the days got busy in books.)

  3. Art and Craft.

    I likened it once to pottery. If you set out to make a plate, you can make it all arty and cool and stuff. No problem, other than an occasional guest eyeing it uncertainly and wondering what’s under the next slice of turkey. But if you set off to make art . . . you probably won’t end up with something you can eat off of.

    I’m writing books for people to read. Not be forced to read for some inappropriate-for-the-age class. Of course if that ever happened, the analysis might be “The author is clearly deranged. They don’t let her run around loose, do they?”

    1. I like the pattern matching explanation enough that I probably overlook all of the other factors.

      But if creativity is a result of integrating information from different sources, if you aren’t adding stuff you eventually hit a point where you’ve looked at most of the comparisons you are naturally likely to make. So it makes sense that the creativity may die when you stop pushing yourself into new things.

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