Friday, September 4, 2020

Hard Craft – Cathedral in Your Head, Shed on the Page


Do you think about craft while you are writing? (how to construct good characters, settings, plot) Or do you just let her rip and worry about that “later?”


By Abir


Friday again eh? The good news is that my kids went back to school yesterday. I know, I shouldn’t be so glad, but I tell you, if anyone can benefit from an education, it’s my two idiot boys. Anyway, that’s not really relevant to the matter in hand, but I felt I should share it with you because we did agree there would be no secrets between us on this blog.


Well I’m pretty sure we did.


But let’s not worry about who promised what and when and for how much money, the important thing is that we deal with today’s question. ‘Do you think about craft when writing?


My first thought is ‘no. Never have, never will….’


But as with so many things, I find that my first thought isn’t really correct. In fact it's just plain wrong. While it’s true that when I start the process of writing a novel, I don’t give much thought to the matters of  creating my characters, I have to admit that over the years, I’ve learned how to make my characters better – more realistic, more human, more real. Like Dietrich on Wednesday, I’ve learned on the job. I’ve never been one for reading texts on writing great characters or on the topic of writing generally. They may work for others, but my concern is that I’ll end up following a template or a formula and that, to me, is the antithesis of the art of writing.


As for setting – I’d initially have said the same, but the truth is that when I set out to write my Sam Wyndham series, I made a conscious decision to set it in India, and in Calcutta specifically. With later books, the action moves to different locations such as the princely state of Sambalpore, Assam in the Far East of India, East London and, in a future book to Bombay. All of these have been conscious choices and all for the sake of making the books more authentic.


I’m currently writing a novel set in present day America. I could just as easily have set it in the UK, but I wanted to experiment – to get out of my comfort zone and set a book across the pond. America also offers such a broad and fascinating canvas and I certainly don’t regret the decision. On a more granular level, I have set certain scenes in certain specific locations primarily because those locations are visually arresting or interesting in some other way, so I suppose I do pay heed to craft, at least when it comes to setting, before and during the writing process.


And then we come to plot. I do plot. Weeks of thinking before I put pen to paper, then the creation of a two page skeleton which I then revisit when I’m halfway through the first draft. I’ve tried pantsing it and I just end up going round in circles, getting more and more frantic as to why my work is so awful. So I plot – and my plots are wonderful, magnificent beasts. My friend, the writer, Ruth Ware, once told me that plotting is like creating a cathedral in your mind, but that the problem is that when you come to write it, it becomes a shed on the page. She said she’d heard it from another writer, but I can’t remember who that was. In any case, I think that is absolutely true. I plot out my cathedral, then write that first draft which tends to resemble a shed with its door hanging off. The job of the editing process is to turn that shed into at least a greenhouse.


Finally, there’s theme. Again, I have to confess that the theme or the message of the book is vitally important to me. My impetus to write comes from the wish to shout about injustice – wrongs that need to be righted – and I think many crime fiction writers are the same. If a subject didn’t animate me, what would be the point in writing about it? I’d simply be going through the motions, and that would be boring for me and for the reader.


So. This question has really made me take stock. My initial flippant response of, ‘Craft? Moi? Ha!’ has been replaced with a ‘Well, aye ok, I suppose I do,’  and if I didn’t my shed would fall down.


Susan C Shea said...

Agree that some aspects of a story seem to call for more conscious craft than others - I'm with you on plot insofar asd I always seem to stumble around if I haven't challenged myself to thinking it through before getting dep in the weeds. By the way, I really enjoyed your talk at the St. Hilda's College crime conference.

James W. Ziskin said...

Great post, Abir. Interesting to look into your process. Whatever you’re doing is working!