Writing Process: Writing With A Craft Goal In Mind

February 26th, 2009

Note:  This post originally appeared on my blog.  I’ve made a few minor changes.

I’ve written a lot of books.  Traitors’ Gate (due August 09 USA with Tor Books USA and early Sept 09 with Orbit Books UK) will be my 19th published novel.  That’s counting The Golden Key, the collaboration I wrote with Melanie Rawn and Jennifer Roberson, but not counting the two early unpublished works which are unpublishable and will remain that way because they’re also really embarrassing.  Hey, I was young once, too.

That’s not my point.

My point is, that I continually strive to improve as a writer.  I want to write better books, not worse ones.  I want to get more disciplined, not more lazy.  I want to hone my craft, not become dull and stagnant.

So obviously, this being my goal, I work to make each book better than the ones that came before.  I use the usual methods.  I try to recognize and repair my weaknesses and continue to play to and heighten my strengths.  I attempt to keep an artisan’s eye on repetitive flaws so I can get rid of them or at the least lessen their impact on the text.  The things I’m good at, I remain alert about so I don’t get sloppy.  I try to push myself.

Many books ago, I decided that one way to push myself was to choose a specific craft goal for each book as I was writing it.

By that I do not mean that I only work on one craft element per book.  I’m always working to build on what I’ve learnt before.

What I do mean is that with each book I pick a specific element or trick or device or thing I think has been problematic, and flag that as my craft goal for that specific novel.

I wish I had kept a list all this time, because I’ve forgotten what my various goals were for the different books, and it would be interesting to trace the progress of my goals.

They might have been things like:
1) work on narrative drive, on trying to make the narrative implacable

2) channel emotional intensity in interactions (don’t keep emotional distance)

3) focus on making all third person description of landscape and other people’s reactions fit the particular pov, that is, would be the things the character would notice, which will change with each pov shift

4) tailoring details to fit the tone or intensity of each scene

With Shadow Gate, the goal was:  cut extraneous verbiage and make every detail and digression count.  (This is a huge problem for me.)

With Traitors’ Gate, I worked on two specific goals.

The first was specific to this particular novel and would not necessarily have been applicable to any given novel I had written or might write, in that I had an extremely complex plot with multiple pov characters that had to be layered down exactly the right way and at the right time to make the plot work AND to make sure I completed this plot in this volume, because I was very very determined that this not become a four volume trilogy.  So in a way, that goal doesn’t quite fit the “craft goal” model as it was too specific to the book in question.

The second was to work on how small character actions and movements (literally) are handled within scenes.  I wanted to emphasize using them to point and intensify character interaction in a way that would create and enable the emotional impact received by the reader.  I admit that during the period I was writing Traitors’ Gate I was also watching the first four seasons of the HBO series The Wire, and I was pretty heavily influenced not by the content but by the execution of that series as I thought about how I wanted to write and execute scenes in Traitors’ Gate.

Again, it’s not that I don’t do these things or attempt to do these things as I’m writing all my books.  But I am not a perfect writer;  I make lots of mistakes, and if I were to try to focus to that deep a degree on every problem I have with every book I write, I would lose my grasp on all the threads.  By giving special attention to a single specific craft goal for any given book (without losing the usual awareness of trying to write the best book I can), I think it helps me really knead that skill or device or element down through my process so I can more readily continue using it in subsequent books.

9 Responses to “Writing Process: Writing With A Craft Goal In Mind”

  1. Asakiyumeon 26 Feb 2009 at 4:33 pm

    This is fascinating–your idea of focusing on one particular problem and tackling it is a great one, and I love how you’ve articulated some of the possible problems–emotional intensity, for example.

  2. cedunkleyon 26 Feb 2009 at 10:13 pm

    3) focus on making all third person description of landscape and other people’s reactions fit the particular pov, that is, would be the things the character would notice, which will change with each pov shift

    This is something I am concentrating on in my writing. I’m working on a combination of narrative voice and description based upon what the POV character would notice.

    In essence, not only would a 15 year old squire and a royal duke notice very different things about their surroundings, the narrative of how they describe what they pay attention to would sound very different from each other as well.

    Three writers come to mind as excellent examples of this:

    George R. R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Karen Miller.

    All three manage to capture this in their writing vividly.

    Of course, I’m also, like you mentioned, working on improving all aspects of my writing, but I think it does help to highlight some particular aspect like any of those you mention in your article.

  3. Madeleine Robinson 27 Feb 2009 at 1:55 am

    I love number three–it may take me my entire career to nail that one. One of the best exercises I’ve ever had was to write a media tie in book about Daredevil, a superhero who is blind but whose other senses are preternaturally developed. Since I tend to write a pretty tight third person, and 90 percent of the book was written from his POV, that meant that every time he walked into a room or met someone I couldn’t describe anything visually. What did he smell? How many heartbeats could he hear? Could he tell someone’s level of fear or anger or arousal by scent or heartbeat or quaver in the voice? Could he tell that the woman he’s talking to is a fat, bleached blonde with COPD by the scent of peroxide, the creaking of floorboards, and the scent of tobacco and the almost soundless rales in her breath?

    It didn’t always work, but every time I sat down to write I had to think specifically about perceiving the world without sight.

  4. Kate Elliotton 04 Mar 2009 at 1:59 am

    Asakiyume,

    I’m both an “instinctive” writer and an analytical writer, a strange combination. But it does mean I think about specific narrative elements that need work. Like, say, emotional intensity. And sometimes I have to deliberately aim at that to make sure I don’t gloss it over because I’m dealing with so many other things.

  5. Kate Elliotton 04 Mar 2009 at 2:01 am

    I haven’t read Abercrombie and it’s been some years since I read Martin (specifically the third ASOIAF novel), but I definitely agree about Miller–she does very deep third pov.

    Mad – is that Daredevil book available? That sounds completely fascinating. In fact, I recently read a book – a romance of all things – in which you get through several chapters (alternating female and male pov) before you realize that the female is blind. It’s brilliantly done (naturally the opening scenes are 1) in a prison and then 2) at night). I had to go back after the revelation and see how she did it. It was seamless, actually.

  6. [...] encouraging (although you glass-half-empty people may not), but Kate Elliot re-blogged a post about Writing With A Craft Goal In Mind over at Deep Genre. It’s nice to know that those who we respect, those who have done this and [...]

  7. Chris Johnstoneon 16 Mar 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I’ve heard Edmund R. Schubert of Intergalactic Medicine Show give similar advice, although it was aimed more at new writers in the context of short stories.

    I haven’t heard anyone put the advice in the frame of a novel, and to be honest I’d never thought about trying it myself – a novel is such a big endeavor that focusing on a single weak point in style hadn’t occurred to me. I think you’re right, though. It can be dizzying, trying to keep a watch on everything at once, and it could help a lot to simply say, “Right, my weakest skill is [insert writerly skill here]. That’s what I’m going to pay some real, extra, focused attention to.”

    Also, incidentally, I really liked your little list of examples. There’s more than a couple skills there that I need to work at…

  8. addissonon 16 Apr 2009 at 11:22 am

    i like this post, i do this myself but i hadn’t thought about it. now i can make some lists and work on this a bit harder. thanks!

  9. Kate Elliotton 11 Jun 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Chris (this is a belated reply, my apologies),

    Since I almost never write short stories, I finally realized that I really had to frame my craft questions (for myself as a writer) within the context of the novel.

    Addisson, Good luck! The more I write, the more I enjoy revising.

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