What’s All This Nonsense About Craft?

I’ve been writing for over twenty years and in those twenty years, not once did I actually read anything about how to write a story.  I knew nothing of character arcs or conflict. Or 3 act structures or black moments. I didn’t know why characters need goals and why the hell do they need motivation anyway?

Basically I just wanted to write my stories, man! Who needs craft? That was for people who didn’t know what they were doing because I sure as hell did, right?

Wrong.

My troubles began after I got feedback from an editor and she started to work with me. I was excited because she loved my writing and thought I was in for an easy ride to publication city. I was an idiot. Her revision letters soon taught me that I knew nothing. Less than nothing. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I didn’t understand. Rejection followed rejection because although my writing was good, my stories continued to suck because I had no idea how to decipher her editorial feedback. And I started to realize that although I had the ability to write a good story, I didn’t know how to construct one.

Which is the long way of saying this: writers need to know craft.

If you want to build a house you have to know what foundations are, yes? Where the windows go. The function of a door. You can’t just throw up some walls, cover it in pretty paint and call it done. Because you’re going to get some editor coming along, poking at your house and telling you that your foundations are shaky, you’ve got the door in the wrong place, and your plumbing isn’t connected. And then, if you want that house solid, you’re going to have to figure out 1) what a foundation is, then 2) why is it shaky? And lastly 3) how to fix it without tearing down the whole house and starting again.

Then you’re going to have to build that damn house again.

You may, if you’re exceptionally damn lucky, sell your first book without knowing a thing about how craft. You might have fluked your way into the right book at the right time with the right editor, by some miracle aced the revisions and edits you had to do, and have published your first book. That’s great. Have a cookie. But guess what? You’re going to have to write that book again, and again, and again. And not every book will be the same. And without knowing your craft it WILL be hard. Because when your editor comes back with a list of what’s wrong with your book, you won’t know what they’re talking about or – worse – how to fix it.

Yes, learning it is a bitch. It took me a whole year to figure out how to construct a character properly and while I was doing it, my writing became wooden and horrible. But then it all kind of fell into place and it became more natural. And it was WORTH IT.

So. Persevere. Put up with not understanding and thinking it’s all too hard. Work through it. Because when you get that publishing contract and you understand at last what the editor is trying to tell you, you’ll think it’s worth it too.

Five Craft things you need to know:

  1. Character: most important of all. You need to know their background, their personality, their goal, their motivation and their conflict. So all of these things slot together into a wonderful whole that will drive the plot of your book (if you’re writing character driven genre books that is. Still important if not).
  2. GMC: Goal, motivation, conflict. Learn these. Yes, go on, learn. You’ll thank me later when you’re on the NYT Bestseller lists.
  3. Know how to write a synopsis: yes, they suck and no one I know likes writing them. But I still have to do ’em for my publishers and unless you’re self published, so will you.
  4. Pacing: This is whether the action in your book moves fast or slow. Too fast and people can’t catch their breath. Too slow and people get bored.
  5. Plotting. I know, I know, I’m a pantser, I don’t plot. But I’m now starting to see how plotting might actually be useful to me – especially now I’m writing a series. I’m actually learning this right now!

You can get craft books on these kinds of things. Or you can search the interwebz for blogs and advice. Or you can join your local writing association, go to conferences and do workshops (which I found the most useful).

Now go forth and craft excellent stories (while I figure out this plotting business).

PS. If you  have any particular craft questions or I’ve missed something, leave me a comment. Might do a blog post on various different stuffs

9 thoughts on “What’s All This Nonsense About Craft?”

  1. Thanks Jackie I am beginning to see what I need to do is learn my craft, joining a writers’ group, joined RWA and you are so right, I have ideas and just write but you do need to know your characters inside out, where they are going and why. I am learning, it has taken my brain this long to catch up and finally feel I could go somewhere with this something I have been doing since 16 which helped with my dyslexia etc, however most of all I love writing. 🙂

    1. Hey Jan, yeah, those organizations can give you lots of support too, not just craft stuff. Definitely re the character stuff – in fact for me, that’s the most important part. You’re amazing, btw. Keep writing!

  2. Thank you so much for this! As a former pantser who is writing her first novel using an outline for NaNoWriMo, I feel your pain. I am not looking forward to doing a synopsis or query letter, either. I’ve taken classes and have a good foundation in basic crafting, but those things that are necessary to sell a manuscript–query letter, synopsis, pitch, etc.– make me break out in a cold sweat. Explaining my hooks, trying to mask a lack of publishing credentials, and having to outline exactly what I’ve done from start to finish is more than a little intimidating. It’s kept me from submitting for years. Any resources on these areas is greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Erica, ugh, yes, I break out into a cold sweat when I think of synopses and pitches etc. I don’t know of a single writer who doesn’t to be honest. But sure, I can do a post on synopses/pitch writing – at least share what I’ve learned. 🙂

  3. I have a love/hate relationship with the Alpha hero! I’m always worried mine aren’t Alpha enough. I think I’m starting to get better and learn little tricks (change his questions into definitive statements, have him be decisive instead of waffling on a decision), but I think I still need help. ;=)
    Maybe it’s hard to give advice on something that is more instinctual, but I’m always interested in what writers have to say about their take on the Alpha male, especially when it seems to come naturally to some people where truthfully, I think I tend to write women in pants and have to go through the book and give them a sex change 😉

    1. Jill, a lot of what I do is instinctual but I DO love writing alpha males. I shall do a post! They are a most misunderstood kind of beast IMHO…

    1. Hi Jennifer, you know I’ve never actually read it. I find reading craft books doesn’t work for me but having someone explain it does! Weird…

Leave a Reply to Jennifer Hayward Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *