The Craft of Writing | Science, Art, Craft by Randall ‘Jay’ Andrews
Writing is a science; it is an art; it is a craft. I have worked with writers over the years to improve the mechanical side. Invariably, I meet resistance from writers who have the belief that their voice is somehow changed by the rules of grammar and structure. Some of you reading this, in the back of your mind, are holding your breath and taking a ‘wait and see’ to determine if you agree, because in every crowd is a writer who is sure their uniqueness redefines how writers should write. In truth, in the day of visual media, where the book is an arduous journey, the necessity to follow the rules becomes even more important. One hundred years ago, your pace could be slowed by passive writing because where would the reader turn? Nowhere. The book held the sole entertainment in the lives of most individuals. Today, if I pick up a book and the PACE doesn’t flow, I put it down. I have too many other things happening in my life to laboriously work through a book. If it has 100,000 words, I don’t expect to spend more than eight to ten hours reading it. How can that be done? Pace is merely the art of not letting two things happen, one, passive construction and other confusing structure, and two, meandering. When we communicate in person, so much of our storytelling is told by our expressions, so if we speak passively, it’s hidden by the animation of our presence. Even the use of confusing pronouns can be hidden by the gesture of the hands. “HE told HIM” can be shown by a finger pointed to and fro. Also, when we are in person with someone, we constantly meander. We will throw in how our in-laws are doing in the middle of telling someone a great tidbit about the rise of the Roman Empire.
Of course, all the rules of writing and how to create pace doesn’t do a writer any good if they don’t know the fundamentals of how to tell a story. Telling a story isn’t as easy as most amateur writers think, and yes, most writers are amateurs. Wait, let me take that back, OVERWHELMINGLY most writers are amateurs. They have no actual training. They decided one day they could become a writer by merely picking up a pen and jotting down their thoughts. They sat at home and painstakingly took four years to write that opus, and now are pissed an agent doesn’t see how great it is. When they are tested on their acuity, they take offense when someone says, “This isn’t very good.” The amateur does one of two things. They either shrink back into their back room and curse the world, or they lift themselves out of amateur status by taking courses, attending workshops, finding outstanding critique groups, or self-teaching themselves through outstanding books on writing. Hopefully, all of the above. A story is about a theme, a problem, and a solution. I will call out the ‘pantsers,’ no educated forum of how to write would suggest you start developing characters if you don’t have a story to tell. I couldn’t care less what you believe and how successful you are in developing a story this way, you would be MORE SUCCESSFUL If you had a story to tell first. Because then you would know where every sentence you develop is going.
That leads me to the merging of the two dynamics. If each of your sentences, based on knowing where the story is supposed to go, there must be a forward advancement of the story. How they are constructed plays a huge role in steamrolling the pace to an enjoyable ride for the reader. After all, you are writing FOR them, not yourself. Only when you can look at a sentence and KNOW why it doesn’t read well, can you begin the process of being a 21st century writer. Today’s writer needs to be CLEANER than the writers of 200 years ago, and guess what? There were some pretty clean writers back then. Today’s writer needs to be cleaner because the average reader has to watch reality television and it cuts into that time. If your book’s sentences read like wading through mud, even if your story is good, they will never finish it. I bet if you were in a plane going down in flames and you had to get the point of the story across in order to save the plane, you’d figure it out. You would cut through the superfluous crap and tell the story. Now, I’m not suggesting that. What I’m suggesting is knowing what’s necessary and what is superfluous.
Onward to description! From all my above blustering, you would think I am about to tell you to cut out description. And for most of you I am telling you to cut out description, cut out YOUR description. Let the scene develop, don’t laundry list what you see, and know when what you see isn’t important to the reader, or at least not important in narrative. Always tell the story and let the description tag along, not the other way round. If you write, “He was looking out at the badlands and saw nothing but rocks,” you are not writing a good sentence. (Also poorly constructed) If you write, “He traveled through the badlands, not a tree for shade could ease the heat of summer.” You have put the character on the move and given the reader a sense of desperation. (The pace and construction is much better as well.) Description is a necessary tool for the enjoyment to the reader, but it is also very misunderstood. Readers often want to live through the character so descriptions can often stand in the way. The greatest advice I can give, which was advice parted to me, is to point out the unusual, not the usual. Don’t tell the reader, she wore a white shirt, black pleated dress, blue socks, and brown loafers, and that it fit well with her long flowing blonde hair. Instead, let that description come through other means. “Sally, is that lint on your top?”
She picked it off and realized it put a black stain against the white. “Damn, I need to go change now.”
We now know the top is white.
“Sally, did you color your hair?”
“I just put a little red in.”
“Don’t do that, blondes have more fun than Gingers.”
We now know her hair color.
Anyway, you get the picture. Let go of allowing your narrative sentences losing focus on the story. All this goes to the science of writing, to the art of writing, and to the craft. If you are serious about writing, you will take a hard look at your work and see if the elements of a good book exist, and you won’t be discouraged if you discover they don’t. You will look at the work and find out how to make it better.
I hope this helps.