Art vs. Craft (Writing Theory Thursday)

One of the hardest things in the world to balance as a writer (other than time – that one’s a killer) is the tension between art and craft.

By art I mean authenticity, rawness, real-ness.

By craft I mean skill, polish, and style.

The truth is that they shouldn’t be in tension, shouldn’t be in conflict.  A writer needs both.  Even a writer whose only goal is to entertain his readers needs both skill and a genuine sense of fun, suspense, fear, etc.

For a writer who’s still entertaining thoughts of inspiring, questioning, or broadening the minds of her readers, the two both have to be there.  It’s simply non-negotiable.

It’s also a lot easier said than done.  Regardless of whether that tension “should” exist, it does.  It is very hard to focus on specific tasks and sub-skills (like character voice or sensory input or short sentences) while simultaneously “writing in your own blood” (to paraphrase Nietzsche).

I don’t really have an answer, here.  Looking at my own work, I think it may be a matter of keeping that tension alive, forcing yourself to be honest and vulnerable while you write.  Eventually, if you write enough and identify areas that need improvement, your writing will improve.

Craft requires practice, and focused practice.  And that’s not necessarily easy to do.  It requires us to master our authorial egos, recognize that this particular book or story may not ever shake the foundations of the literary world, honestly assess what we’re doing wrong, and try to do better the next time.

But all this is for naught if we lose our honesty, vulnerability, and conviction along the way.  “What good is it if a man gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” Jesus of Nazareth famously said.  I might add, “What good is it if an author gains technical skill and financial support, but loses his voice?”

The Short Story Challenge: Part One: Embrace the Suck

Having been hit by The Attack of the 50-Foot Conscience, I foundered on the rocks of releasing my next work, a novella called Toward Darkness (book one of the Red Lands series).  In case you didn’t follow the link or read my previous post (as if), here’s the tl,dr version:  it became clear to me that every work, not just Blood for Blood (which I previously got all emo-angsty about -link) has a message, whether I try to write one in or not (this doesn’t just apply to me, and it doesn’t just apply to preachy ‘message-stories,’ but everything that’s coherent enough to have any kind of point at all).

About mid-May I hit a point where I was a little burned out in fiction writing, which isn’t surprising, considering I averaged 2,000 words a day for the first five days of May, which included working full time and traveling on the weekend.  That sort of burn out tends to inspire introspection and reflection in me, both good traits in a writer (in a person, period).  Unfortunately, it pretty much put the brakes on my fiction word count (that little meter hasn’t moved much after the first week of May).

I’ve still been writing.  I’ve written quite a lot of nonfiction (in fact, I have enough blog entries for the entire month of June already written).  I outlined a short story, with a premise that reflected my general beliefs.  I even hand-wrote a couple of hundred words of dialogue, and planned out the character voices of the major characters (their general speaking patterns and the attitudes that inform the way they talk).

But every time I sit down to actually write the story, I find something else to do.  Once, I just blamed fatigue, and got nothing done.  Most other times I end up here, writing about writing, like I’m doing now.  Except right now I’m not “supposed” to be writing the short story.  I actually sat down to write this blog entry because I had a bit of an epiphany tonight:  the reason I’m having so much trouble sitting down and writing this short story is because I’m scared.

You see, I’ve never written many short stories, and most of the ones I’ve written have either been flash fiction or garbage.  What’s the difference between flash fiction and standard short stories?  Flash fiction is short enough to survive the lack of a well-developed plot.  How much plot can you really do in 1,000 words?  Characters, ideas, imagery: those things are enough to carry flash fiction, much like poetry.  A good plot is good, but not absolutely necessary in flash fiction.  On the other hand, a standard-length short story lives and dies by its plot, just like everything else does.

And plotting something that short is just hard.   I mean, how do you do a well-developed plot in under 7,500 words?  It seems like a magic trick to me: I’ve seen it done, and I’ve even had it explained to me, but I’m not 100% sure I can pull it off.

I haven’t written a short story in – um, since I started this new phase in my writing, back in 2008 or 2009 … and actually, it was a good while before then.  It’s probably been five years, and the results back then weren’t exactly stellar (to be fair, five years ago none of my writing was worth reading).

So, um, yeah;  I’m scared.  But I’m going to do it anyway.  The words came to my mind (though I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of them), “You’ll never be good at anything as long as you’re afraid to suck at it.  You’ve got to do it to get good at it, and you’re going to suck at first.  So do it.  Embrace the suck, and get on with getting good.”

So that’s the plan:  Embrace the suck, and get on with getting good.