Art and Craft

World’s burning. Might as well write about writing.

Some of you know I’ve taken up drawing. I’d say “again,” since I did a little drawing years ago; but I was never particularly good, and I lacked the patience it takes to develop good skills.

I haven’t been displeased with my efforts, which have ranged from satisfying to absolutely heinous. I’m finding I can, with a tutorial, do a decent realistic pencil sketch:

Always watching…

but that I fall down a bit when color and other media are introduced:

Looks vaguely person-ish, I suppose

The sensible thing to do, of course, would be to stick with pencil, stick with tutorials, stick with realism. If my goal were to continue producing tutorial-based static drawings, that’d be a fine idea. Indeed, if my goal were to focus on training my hand and my eye, it’d be the right way to go. And sometimes I do, when I’m in the mood.

But primarily, when I’m drawing, I’m doing it to have fun.

There’s a lot of talk of craft in the world of writing. There are video series, web pages full of exercises, more books than you can fit on your Kindle designed to teach writing skills. The advice given is usually solid: the three-act structure, show don’t tell, skip the infodumps. But too often I see this advice (usually when it’s repeated writer-to-writer) taken as hard and fast rules, as if you can’t properly write fiction unless you adhere as hard as possible to some list of DO and DO NOT rules. Worse, I see rigid rules held up as cures for a piece of fiction that’s not working, as a substitute for taking a step back and looking at the piece as a whole.

Every writer, at some point in their lives, starts from scratch, with the barest understanding of language and no experience with rhythm, narrative, or voice. Some people begin digesting these things as soon as they learn to speak and to read; others come to it when they’re older, long after they’ve had linguistic norms fixed in their minds. An awful lot of these people, whatever their current skill set, approach writing from the same perspective: what’s the recipe? How do I do this? What are the rules that will take this idea in my head and get it on the page in a way that a reader will find compelling?

The more I write, the more I think there are no rules.

I mean, that’s wrong, and I know it. There absolutely are rules. English grammar is malleable, to be sure, especially in fiction; but if you wander too far from established norms your typical English-language reader is going to start getting shoved out of the story. Similarly, there are, in Western literature, a set of well-known narrative structures; successfully deviating from those requires a strong mastery of language and voice. If you’re going to break the rules, you ought to understand what the rules are–and why they’re considered rules.

On the other hand? There’s nothing like play to help you learn.

You want to write a serious literary novel with a non-linear, arc-free plot? Do it. You want to write an epic fantasy where every chapter is precisely 800 words? Absolutely. You want to write a story that doesn’t use the letter ‘e’? By all means. You want to write that 5,000-word infodump? Write it. Can I tell you it won’t work? I can say whatever I want, but it’s your story, your writing, your art. Skills are important. “Rules” can make decent guidelines. But the finished product belongs to the artist first. And the best way to grow as an artist is to play.

I’ll admit one reason I bang on about this is because I tend to write prologues. The general advice I see given to newbies is not to write prologues, and that drives me nuts. I mean, in one sense, I get it: infodump prologues tend to be used as crutches by writers who are still growing, and there are enough egregious examples in print that a lot of readers skip prologues on principle. But me? My prologues are there because they need to be there. My current MS gained a prologue quite late, when it became clear the webbing of the story required one.

I am never going to tell a writer they don’t need a prologue. I may tell them the one they have isn’t pulling its weight, but that’s because of the content, the pacing, the relevance to the story. It’s not because it’s a prologue. (And yes, I see people say “Just call it Chapter One instead,” as if it’s all about the label.)

Part of the issue, I think, is that for some new writers, the question “Can I do this?” is really “Can I (trade) publish if I do this?” And sometimes the answer is “Probably not.” If your epic fantasy is 500,000 words, you’re unlikely to find someone to represent you. (You might, though.) Indeed, if your epic fantasy is 500,000 words, you’ve almost certainly overwritten the thing, infodumped too much, meandered and dragged down the plot. (Maybe not, though.) Publishing, including self publishing, is an entirely different consideration than composing and completing a story.

The answer to “Can I do this?” is always “Yes.”

I’ve written a lot in my life. Millions of words. I’ve completed multiple novels. I’ve polished the hell out of four (five?) of them. I know my process pretty well at this point–although, true confession, when I’m in the middle of it I absolutely despair, every time. Revising a thing is a completely different exercise than writing it. Writing requires throwing things at the wall, trying on shapes you later reject, playing with narrative, point of view, character arcs. It means thinking “I can’t do that here” and deciding to do it anyway. It means wading in to the muck of storytelling up to your elbows, up to your neck, and slogging through until you come out the other side with some completed object. You might find that object is clean, crisp, nearly perfect; you might find it’s floppy and ungainly and threatening to pull itself to pieces in your hands.

That’s when revision happens. That’s when you step back, look at the whole, recognize what the bones really mean, what the story wants to be. That’s when you decide which of the rules you want to follow, and which you’ll keep ignoring.

Yes, skills are important. Skills are a toolbox, a set of art supplies. They give you options, and allow you to hone what you have into what you want it to be. Everyone will use these differently, even at the start. Each writer will gravitate toward different tools for their work. Some will stick with the same set, always; some will use different sets for each piece of work. Some will come to a story with exactly the right instincts, and use each tool with absolute precision.

The rest of us? We have to fiddle. Make mistakes. Smudge what we’ve done, destroy it, start over.

That’s how we learn.

The color piece I posted above was done at the end of May, from a reference photograph. I’ve done a number of versions since then. Here’s what I completed on July 27, after two months of smudges and false starts:

Not perfect. Not realistic. Not what I could have done if I’d stuck with pencils, and tutorials, and precision.

But let me tell you: I had so much fun.

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