NaNoWriMo Tip #14: Is writing a craft, or an art?

Sargent in his Studio

It's a trick question: creative writing is both a craft and an art.

Those who master the “craft” part have taken the time and effort to hone the skills needed in order to push out the words in a timely fashion (just as you are doing throughout National Novel Writing Month). They use proper grammar and syntax. And of course, they know how to format a book manuscript (a one-inch border all around; double-spaced: and in  the header, the book's title / your name / page number).

They've also taken the time to learn the business of writing. By this, I mean that they:

(a) Have critique group. Every author should have access to other like-minded writers who meet at least once a month in order to read each others' pages and help each other work through plot holes; and

(b) Listen to what others are saying about literary agents who are actively seeking manuscripts.Then they research these agents to assess which of them will be the best champions for their stories. (Broad hint: it is those agents who are already selling stories similar to yours, and have established strong contacts with the editors who love those types of stories.

Writers who are good craftspersons follow each agents' specific rules for querying. (One agent may ask for a synopsis and 50 pages of the manuscript, whereas another may want to see a full manuscript from an unpublished author.)

At the same time, these authors break rules, too: they aren't shy about introducing themselves to agents at a networking event or industry party, because they know that a little face time–coupled with an intriguing one-liner about their book–will get them an immediate response, like: “Sounds interesting! Email me your manuscript, and be sure to put in the subject line that we met here….”

(c) Listen what others are saying about publishing houses and their various imprints. Who are the editors, and what are they buying now? Are cozies selling well? Have zombies peaked? Is Steampunk holding its own? Is YA aging out?

Here's the bottom line: even if you are a Nazi grammarian, or are the best networker in the world, if you haven't embraced the art of creative writing, it won't matter how many agents you query, or how many editors' desks your manuscript ends up on–

Because everyone is looking for the next great book, and that ain't yours. 

Unless you are an “artist,” too.

Authors who are artists recognize a wonderful “what if” premise for a story, when they run across one.

They know to create a story arc, with a “got to keeping reading this”  beginning, a rachet-it-up middle, and a climatic as well as satisfying ending.

Their characters seem so real that you want to love them, or despise them, or hang out with them — forever.

Their dialogue makes you laugh out loud, or gasp, or cry.

If they describe someone, your mind's eye can see him immediately.

The art of writing is what makes a book great.

Your book is great, too. But you'll have to challenge yourself once again: both as a craftsperson, and as an artist.

Once NaNoWriMo is over, take the time to review your manuscript for craft issues. Do you have too many typos? Do you know when to use a comma? Is the document formatted correctly? Have you researched the best agents to send your manuscripts (Multiple submissions are okay, and most accept online submissions as well).

After you've got the craft side down, you're ready to sculpt it into the work of art it should be.

This means making the effort to rewrite your plot holes, your unrealistic dialogue, or peripheral characters who don't move the story forward (let alone in any direction).

The artist in you will make sure that readers can empathize with your hero. They have to feel his pain.

Your narration must be potent, intoxicating your readers to stay within the world you've created for them, here on the page.

To do all this, both as a craftsperson and an artist, you can't just read over your manuscript once or twice. You'll read it at least four times. That should take four weeks, with breaks in between (otherwise you'll go cross-eyed and hate the sound of your own writing voice.)

Then, by January, you should query agents with a boffo letter that will have them intrigued.

All agents appreciate craft. But they live to sell art.

So you have to get it into the agents' hands. You can't be a Van Gogh: that is, afraid that agents won't love it as much as you do. How can they, if you don't let them see it?

You've got to be a John Singer Sargent—that is, someone who proves himself in public. (something he was doing since his very first submission was accepted in the Paris Salon in the late 1870s), You must be spectacular in your craft. More to the point, you must be a steady producer. One novel won't do it.

More on query letters in a future tip…

PICTURE: John Singer Sargent in his studio. His paintings, both his portraits and landscapes, are revered and timeless
His most famous (and infamous) was Madame X.
Sargent had the chops alright. But unlike some painters of his time, he knew his art was also his business, and he made money from it..




I've got a question for you, and be honest: As an author, do you consider yourself a craftsperson, or an artist? Tell me why…

Happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie