Friday, April 30, 2010

GUEST POST: The Fermentation of a Writer

Susan Kaye Quinn is at-home-mom, environmental engineer, rocket scientist, writer, elected official, and the proprietress of Ink Spells, where she discusses her adventures in motherhood, writing, and the best books for children ages 8-12. She is getting ready to query a middle-grade science fiction novel called BYRNE RISK, and is digging her way through the second draft of OPEN MINDS, a young adult paranormal story (no vampires!).

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?


L. T. Host said...

I would probably say craft, but voice is a close second. I seem to have little trouble with story.

I improve myself by reading. A lot. Studying someone else's turns of phrase and perfectly edited grammar and spelling are easy ways to learn things by rote. And even though things tend to come out jumbled sometimes, that's what revisions are for: rearranging the words so they all make sense.

Great post, Susan, thanks for guesting for us!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@L.T. Thanks for having me! I agree completely about reading having a huge impact, which is why I keep struggling to find time for it, even when the writing is calling my name.

Matthew Delman said...

Uncovering a good story has never been a problem for me. However, finding the character's voice takes several rewrites before I get it correct.

As for craft? I think I'm pretty good at that too.

Cynthia Reese said...

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.

See? This is EXACTLY why I fired my muse. All she wanted to do was sit around in feather boas and munch on bon-bons all day long. Drat her. :-)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Matthew I'm glad I'm not the only one that struggles with voice. Although there are some characters that are easier for me than others.

@Cyntha I want one of those hot male muses that forgets to wear a shirt around the house and thinks I'm Shakespeare's daughter, only sexier. Oh wait. Then I'd never get any writing done. ;)

Adam Heine said...

I hate muses.

Ha! Yes!

You hear that, muse? I don't need you! I can rip off the plot of Pirates of the Carribean by myself. Thank you.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I think the story is the hardest in the first draft, then voice, and finally craft in the final revisions.

I've never seen a great explanation of voice- you know it when you see it. Perhaps it's the most elusive of the three.

Great post!

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Adam I'm pretty sure the muse stole that plot anyway. Muses are thieves as well as scoundrels.

@Stephanie I think you're right about the order of things. And I think a lack of definition of voice is terribly frustrating for new writers; this is where the art comes in. Very confusing for a left-brained person such as myself.

Ruth Donnelly said...

I love your thoughts on muses (both in the post and the comments, LOL!) I think craft is where I need the most work... sometimes I see intuitively that something works/doesn't work, but can't articulate why. I'd like to be able to use techniques more deliberately and consistently.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Ruth I'm sure the muses are forming a hunting party for me, as we speak ... :)

I felt much the same way about craft, as though I could get 80% of the way there on intuition. It's the last 20% that makes the difference, though. I can't recommend Williams' book enough, but plan on spending some time with it, and having a work to practice on. Best of luck to you in your writing!

Margo Berendsen said...

This was such a helpful post for me to read. I feel like I haven't grown recently as a writer, and I keep blaming it voice - oh yes I know how elusive that is! And that fickle muse that wafts a hint of voice your way, then disappears, poof! Your discovery that working on craft helped you with voice, too, was an AH HA moment for me (and I agree, the intense writing during NaNoWriMo encouraged voice too)

BTw, I'm write MG too. Always glad to discover another MG writer out there.