Why don’t many writers master their craft? They don’t think there is a craft to master, and they don’t realize how difficult it is to craft a good work of fiction or non-fiction. At some point, if they get involved with a credible writing group or organization like the Florida Writers Association (or my local FWA group, the Reno Writing Clinic), the realization will hit home that there is a craft to master.
I remember going to the 2003 Florida Writers Association’s conference thinking I had mastered it all. After hobnobbing with fellow writers, agents, editors, and publishers, the rude awakening sent me home determined to fix my chasm-like deficit. In 2004, after a hard year studying writing, I returned to the conference thinking I had mastered the craft again, but went home realizing I still had a long way to go.
There is a certain satisfaction in every new thing the writer learns. Each new bit of writing knowledge will ripen the writer’s fruits-of-mastery.
Let’s apply writing to another craft: carpentry. And let’s pretend there is a character who interacts with this new want-to-be carpenter. We’ll call the interacting character CS.
Carp jerked to a sitting position in bed one morning. “I have a scathingly brilliant idea!”
CS sat up and yawned. “What?”
“I’m going to do something I’ve always wanted to do.”
“Go back to sleep?”
Carp shook his head. “I want to build my own house. It will be the house of my dreams built to my specifications.”
CS laughed. “So, what makes you think you can build anything?”
“There’s nothing to it. You slap pieces of wood together and fasten them in any number of ways.”
“But what do you know about carpentry?”
“What’s to know? I can hammer a nail into a piece of wood. I know how to use a level. I know how to measure with a measuring tape. It’ll be a cinch.”
CS yawned again. “Famous last words.” She plopped down on the bed.
In the world of special education, teaching the handicapped, there is a concept known as task analysis. Every special education teacher learns to take everyday skills and break them down into individual tasks ordering them sequentially. This is what writers should do to master their craft, not just grab pen and paper, or computer and keyboard and start writing.
Task analysis in writing does not deal with creativity—only the mechanics of writing. The mechanics are the tools, like the measuring tape, hammer, and nail for the carpenter. It still takes creativity to assemble the final product through the utilization of the tools; and creativity can only be developed and not taught. We all have a certain amount of creativity, and it must be exercised along with the study of writing mastery to increase both.
There is one big difference between carpentry and writing. In carpentry, there is a whole licensing aspect for becoming a master carpenter. There is an equivalent in writing—the MFA (Master of Fine Arts), however, if you want to be a writer, you don’t necessarily need an MFA.
A writer can study the craft of writing for years without being degreed. A reader doesn’t check the credentials of a writer. The writing speaks for itself. If the writer takes the effort to learn the craft and has the requisite, intangible talent, they will turn out well-written works. Many beginning writers don’t do that.
Most writers know how to write words, sentences, and paragraphs—so what’s to know, right? When Carp said, “I can hammer a nail into a piece of wood. I know how to use a level. I know how to measure with a measuring tape,” he meant that he had the rudimentary knowledge of how to do some individual tasks involved in building. I suspect we would cringe at the house Carp built?
If a writer masters the mechanics of writing, there are still the intangibles. It seems that not everyone is gifted with them—but they can be learned through study and practice. These include: shaping a plot; representing and manipulating the internal psyche of a character; the ability to jump from head to head during dialogue; tracking character movement and gestures; applying body language; building a scene to a climax; understanding the perspective of the reader; arriving at a logical, yet surprising conclusion in the story; and meting out the appropriate amount of exposition in just the right places.
So, be a good writer (a properly skilled writer) and realize that there is a craft to master; and that it will take some time and a great amount of effort. Oh—and when you do achieve a high level of mastery, you should be duty bound to pay it forward—because that is how you learned—through “writers helping writers.”