Fiction Craftsmanship

The Maryland Writers Association has invited me to do my presentation on fiction craftsmanship next Saturday at 1:00 p.m. at the Finksburg Library (2265 Old Westminster Pike, Finksburg, MD 21048). I’ve been preparing the presentation, and that got me to thinking about the subject.

I make a clear and precise distinction between creativity and craftsmanship (sometimes called technique). Both are required for successful and publishable fiction. Creativity can’t be learned; it’s inborn. But craftsmanship can. Even so, craftsmanship takes a lifetime of practice and learning, and it never ends—I’ll still be discovering new aspects of craftsmanship on my deathbed. And in my experience, it’s what so many young writers lack, and they don’t know they lack it.

The odd thing about craftsmanship is that it’s all but ignored in texts about writing. Early in my career, I took more than twenty classes in creative writing. Craftsmanship was only mentioned in passing. But every master writer has learned the craft to the point that it’s become second nature, always present, almost unconscious.

For me, the master craftsman in fiction is Hemingway. I profoundly disagree with his outlook on life, but nobody wrote better than he did. I still reread him from time to time just to study his technique.

So how do you learn craftsmanship? By reading, reading, and more reading. That means studying the way a fine fiction writer puts together her sentences and paragraphs and chapters; examining why sometimes a paragraph consisting of a single word can be a miracle; understanding the flow, word choices, sentence length that work. Then taking that learning and putting it into practice. That means writing, writing, and more writing.

It also means revising. I spend something like 10 percent of my writing time in drafting new text and 90 percent of it in revising. It means reading aloud what you’ve written and listening for the way the words, sentences, and paragraphs come together.

I know perhaps a hundred writers, most of them successful to one degree or another. Of those, perhaps three have what I call “the gift.” By that I mean the inborn genius for knowing how to put words together to create beauty. Two of those three are as yet unpublished. It’s because they haven’t mastered the craft. They haven’t inculcated in themselves the mechanics of fiction writing.

Until they do, their work won’t see the light of day in print.

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