I’ve had an intention for awhile now to blog about the craft of writing. Above and beyond anything that happens with my fiction, craft is an area of massive geeky interest to me, something I never tire of discussing. Crescit eundo is the state motto of New Mexico, and it means roughly, “It grows as it goes.” This is how I’ve experienced learning craft, for every time I think I’ve hit the heights, I see that I’ve only reached a level that allows me a view of still higher possibilities. So mastery really eludes me still, and is probably decades off, if I ever get there. But from here, I feel I can at least identify what mastery is.
This is my informal list of what I consider to be master moves in the craft of writing. I’m sure many won’t be represented here; this list really is about moves I’d like to learn myself. I may add more as I go along. I’m always discovering new things in this infinitely fascinating pursuit of better craft.
- Coin tricks, or slight of hand. Like a person who does coin tricks, a writer also must draw attention or focus to and then away from certain things. Sometimes a writer introduces X and then covers it up with distracting W, Y, and Z, only to spring X later, when it’s been forgotten. A master knows how to mention just enough distractions to throw the reader off the scent, without mentioning too many and becoming confusing or dull. That way, when the reveal of X comes, it’s not only a surprise–it’s an expected surprise. That’s because X remained in the subconscious of the reader, forgotten, but ready to be activated when the writer produced the right coin. (Writing has also been likened to a performance, or to performing magic, and I’m sure that comparison is equally valid.)
- Adding insights of depth. Using themes of depth. A writer can do this without being a master at it. A true master knows exactly how much insight will go over and how often. A true master might also double up the insight with another function, such as visual description. (Efficiency of that type is really more of a mid-level skill.) The true master knows exactly when to lower the blade, so that the deep insight comes across as meaningful and full of gravitas, not trite or preachy. Patience is likely the key here. This may also be a timing issue.
- Resonance. Resonance in writing is usually the natural and eventual result of repetition, which is a great mid-level tool on its own. But masters repeat and allow X to morph, playing with the meaning of X, playing with the form of X, letting X cross over with Y, until at last, a deeper meaning mysteriously emerges. This seems to be a case of letting go to let the thing become what it wants to be. I’ve done this one by accident, but I don’t entirely understand it, and I am eager to explore it further.
- Rule-breaking. There are oh-so-many rules on the ‘nernet these days that tell us how to use algebra to make a book. Which is all well and good at the newbie level, and helpful for the mid-level writer too. Beyond that, things get a little more quantum. The master starts to do interesting things like going against the rules because a better solution has become clear. The master finds ways to make going against the rules work better than following them. I’m sure it’s something that happens as a matter of course, and not because the master TRIED to do it. Again, it’s a matter of letting go, experimenting, going with hunches, seeing what happens. But generally speaking, it is often the case that the master can get a better effect by breaking certain of the rules than by following them.
- In description, a master might be able to describe the essence of an experience before actually identifying the experience, and yet the reader will still follow it.
- Forks–in stories, there are these junctures where the story might continue along those lines, and might not. This is a little different from an unfired Chekhov’s gun, because it’s more elaborate. An entire storyline might be introduced, and then abandoned, only to be picked up later. A less experienced writer might introduce such a fork, producing a lot of curiosity in the reader, and then abandon it and never pick it up again. But a master won’t do that. Generally, a master follows up, even if it’s sometime later when least expected (see coin tricks, above). Because the master follows up, the reader learns to trust the master, and therefore, the reader will follow that master anywhere. This is a matter of control–a master does not gesture toward any forks that will not be followed up. (In practice, this is a very high standard to achieve, and I doubt any writer gets 100% at this, but it can always be a good goal to have.)
- Exquisite control over point-of-view (POV). This is the wonderful skill to know how deep to go in POV with a character, and when to pull out and touch more lightly on only actions. When to give character thoughts by peppering them, and when to go deeply into character thoughts and experience. Also, WHO to do this with, since a true master will have enough control to get into the POV of other characters too, and will know how deeply to go. A true master can do this even when the book is in first person. How, you ask? Well, I’m no master. But I have observed that visions, framing stories within stories, and dialogue are three useful methods. There are likely others. The real trick, though, is knowing when to go in deep and when to skim the surface. That is where forms can come in handy…
- Forms–masterful use of them. Any pen monkey can use a glitzy form or pull a cute form trick, but there’s something different about a true master’s use of form. There’s a solidity and certainty and rightness–perhaps a gravitas–to a master’s form use. I can only say this results from heavy experience of what works. A writer cannot fake this. It is only going to come from layering of experience. A LOT of experience. Also, it’s difficult to describe this. It’s a know-it-when-you-see-it phenomenon. The cute permutations of form, often attempted by younger, “cool” writers, have a strained quality and a lack of solidity, like it is all form with nothing underneath to support it. They dazzle the eye, but do not draw you in deep.
- Deepening. This is my target master move, since it is related to many of the other master moves. It requires, I think, the ability to open up as a writer, as well as intellect or insight, as well as exquisite patience and timing, as well as POV control, as well as form experience. It means following a character’s POV deeply in intimate internal monologue–slowly, but without becoming boring. It means slowing down exposition to a crawl and still being interesting enough to keep readers in there. The ultimate challenge here is to strip the POV character to the essence of their being–very, very slowly–and to take the reader with them. Performed correctly, this deepening is religious or spiritual in its effect on the reader. (Yes, it is a very high standard. Possibly unachievable, but still fascinating to me.)
- Bonus master move. This one I’m not sure about, but it’s an idea I’ve been tossing around for awhile. Basically, this is writing on a level that affects reader behavior. It may not be master level, since a lot of ads could be said to do this. But I’m still intrigued with the possibilities. This kind of writing could cause fixations–especially with certain words or concepts. It could cause cravings for certain foods, or an obsession with the fully-realized world in the writing (fans geeking out, basically). It could be hypnotic, as some poetry or music can be, but in prose, this effect can build and build, attaining incredible power. This is writing that colonizes the mind, that creeps in and won’t leave. Could also be writing that gets readers really stirred up and moody, or produces copycat behavior. This writing pushes past the boundary of the page, and into the real world.
That’s my current list. I’m still excited to learn more about how these moves really work, because when they do work, whenever I encounter them, they strike me as so truly beautiful and masterful. They are such a pleasure to experience in reading, giving me so much appreciation for the author’s skill. I only hope that I will have time in life to learn a few of these moves, or get close. Of course, the way to achieve this is to read and to write a LOT. There is no substitute.