Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Importance of Craft (and I'm not talkin' cheese food!)

I mentioned craft in yesterday's post and it looks like I'm not alone in my belief and expectations when craft is concerned. Not that I thought I would be. But I think there is a common misconception about YA and MG - a misconception that all books in those genres are formulaic or cookie-cutter. In fact, I can say with complete honesty that I have read far more YA books that are innovative than not. Just like the generation they are about, YA books are cutting edge in all the best ways.

Which brings me to craft. I'm one of those authors with an MFA. I had the good fortune to study with some of the best living American poets. My MFA is actually in poetry and I didn't write a lick of fiction until years after I got my degree.

Why does this matter? Well, we all have our own influences - our personal graduate programs, college-affiliated or not. Some people had an amazing creative writing teacher in high school who encouraged them to contribute to the literary magazine or to try NaNoWriMo. Some people came into writing through the amazing books they read. Maybe they tried writing fan fiction first as a tribute to these books. There are so many avenues that bring us to the place where we pick up the pen/open up MS Word.

But having an MFA in Poetry has influenced me to believe four things about crafting a good book.

1. Every word in every sentence matters.

This one is a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because, well, every word matters. I read and re-read what I write. I labor over sentences and word choice. I can not tell you the number of times I spent hours, if not days, thinking about one sentence. That's why it's a curse. Getting bogged down with something that small can prevent you from writing, from moving forward. However, don't confuse small with insignificant. Some of my favorite lines from books are perfect because of one or two specific words that make them so memorable and make them resonate.

"I on my part give up the uncertainty of eternal rest and go out into the dark where may be the blackest things that the world or the nether world holds!" Bram Stoker's Dracula

"Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones." Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

"The world of adults feels like a universe that has reached the end of its expansion and is inexorably collapsing back in on itself.” R.A. Nelson, Teach Me

2. The way you use your words to write and communicate creatively are not necessarily the way you use them to write and communicate normally.

This one's interesting. I consider it a rule because, as a teacher, I am forever re-teaching students about what the rules are about writing. Yes, you can use "and" or "but" to begin a sentence. In fact, sometimes you can use a fragment or a run-on to prove your point. But how one communicates creatively is not always appropriate for professional or scholarly writing. I don't just mean this in a "text-speak" way, but also in a diction way.

The word "tongueing" is a really good example. Chuck Palahniuk used this as a verb in Fight Club - something along the lines of "a sore in your mouth that would heal, if only you would stop tongueing it." I butchered that, I'm sure, but I don't have the book with me. Anyway, tongueing is not a word I'd put in a grammar exercise for many reasons - but I'd LOVE to have a reason to write it.

The point -- sometimes you make words do what you want when you're using them creatively.

3. Novels don't have a form. They have a case, the cover, that holds the pages inside. Other than that, the format is fair game.
When I first started my MFA, I believed in the narrative poem and I tolerated the lyric. I was definitely a follower of Whitman, not Dickinson. However, fellow writers and an excellent poet, Mary Ann Samyn, opened my eyes to the use and exploration of white space. What the heck is it there for if not to write in? Some great examples of using the white-space or playing with genre and fictional expectations are:

- Amy Reed's Clean, where she switches in and out of various formats, including a confessional, stream-of-conciousness type of list that splays the whole page

- Ellen Hopkin's books, which use verse of course, but also use different types of verse, different rhyming techniques, and lovely sounds

- Bram Stoker's Dracula yet again, because he so deftly introduces multi-genre writing to the gothic prose era. There are journal entries, medical reports, articles, letters. It's a masterpiece.

- Justine Larbalestier's Liar, which slips in and out of the past and present in a way that makes everything seem relevant and full of momentum.

4. Your craft takes time and time doesn't really end.

It doesn't take thousands of dollars of student loans to figure this one out, but it did for me -- you are only as good as you are. Maya Angelou (and Oprah) say, "When you know better, you do better." I love what my forthcoming book has become -- the influence of my agent and editor have been instrumental in creating a lovely, fun, mysterious, romantic, spicy story. :) However, when I first wrote it -- the first draft and the subsequent drafts -- well, they weren't great. Since then, it's been a couple of years. I've read a lot. I've written more. And my writing is getting better. I hope that kind of improvement never stops.

It's been eight years since I graduated from my MFA program, but it's taken those eight years out of school to turn me into a YA writer. You develop craft over time and through influences. It's not self-made. It doesn't grow on trees. It doesn't strike you, like lightning. Those are inventions or ideas. But, it's those ideas that you flesh out, that you worry at, that you meddle with, that you continue tongueing (YES!) again and again until you've managed to spit them out and turn them into something that matters.

It's not the wheel we're creating here. It's the vehicle.

How about you? Anyone else have craft-related insight or something to add? Comment! :)

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