Story ideas require a latency time, to sit and stew and form in your mind. Whole manuscripts are better left fallow for a while, before coming back to them with the revisionist scalpel. But I believe a writer also needs to ferment, to age and mature their craft. Just like the tiny microbes attacking the complex sugars in a fine wine, this is not a passive process. Writers need to actively push their maturation forward, or they might write much, but learn little.
A while ago, I came across a blog posting by agent Rachelle Gardner, talking about the three things agents look for in order to say “yes” to a novel: Story, Craft, and Voice. This post resonated with me as I was searching for a way to push myself to the next level of writing.
Story was something that I felt I had a reasonable handle on, although I still struggle with endings and delivering on the promise of my premise.
Voice seemed elusive for the longest time. A muse would show up on occasion, sprinkle something resembling voice into my story, and then disappear on a vaporous wind.
I hate muses.
They never come when you call, and they mess with your head, alternately making you think you’re a genius or capable only of dreck. So, late last year I set out on a 50,000 word adventure in voice, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. Phase One of my discovery of voice occurred then, when I found that the frenetic, nearly free-form writing required by wild word output is conducive (for me) to finding an authentic voice for my characters. Phase Two of voice discovery came later, when I tried to amp up my craft.
Craft is beguiling. You think your craft is moderately acceptable, only to find later, after the fermentation process has matured your writing process a little more, that you are capable of writing oh so much better. I blogged before about my Tale of Two Pants adventure in discovering the mechanics of craft, and I highly recommend Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace: "How you begin a sentence determines its clarity; how you end it determines its rhythm and grace."
Having spent a lot of time writing non-fiction before ever attempting fiction (which is harder!), I felt like I had just enough competence in putting a sentence together to be dangerous. I could write something that was passable, possibly even good, and occasionally great, but not with any regularity. But if I were to be a writer, I needed to have a toolbox and to know how to use the tools intentionally, without mangling my manuscript. After a three-month intensive discovery of craft, I now feel more competent in putting those sentences together.
I now understand how to put your emphasis on the stress position of a sentence. I see the power of ending your sentence with a noun. And I feel competent playing with the delicate arts of breaking rules, splitting infinitives, and earning the trust of your reader through clarity.
But I didn’t expect that Craft would help me find, keep, and enunciate my Voice. Ah, Serendipity, we meet again!
I’m a long ways from being a fine wine (or writer!), but a year+ of writerly growth has taught me that I will continue to improve as long as I keep striving to learn.
Which of the three columns of craft, voice, and story is your weakest? And what techniques have you used along the way to improve them?