• Kacen Callender

WIP: Craft Is Not A Dirty Word

Work In Progress Blog Series: Craft Is Not A Dirty Word

I’ve recently decided to take a major step away from social media, but during these times of isolation, social media had been a major coping mechanism for me—if I ever felt the tendrils of anxiety and panic for the state of the world, I would jump onto Twitter, many times to share updates on my different novels’ various drafts, or works in progress (WIP). I found I really enjoyed sharing updates on my writing and ideas and my thoughts on craft, so I’ve decided to give blogging a shot as a way to share updates on different manuscripts (and at times, my life), and what I hope can be a helpful tool for other writers… and in exchange, I'll have another distraction from—well—everything, and will have a sounding board that might help me see my own first drafts even more clearly.

For my first post, I’d like to begin by saying: craft is not a dirty word. I’ve been in many situations over the course of my career where different authors seem to imply that craft and the study of craft is pretentious, something that’s limiting, and something that “real” authors (whatever that means) disregard. Rules? Pah! Forget rules. We’re creative people. We can’t be bound by rules. (Or so I imagine some people might be thinking.)

While I think it’s valid for people to throw craft books out of the window—that’s their decision, no one has to do anything—I think it’s equally valid for me, and anyone else, to want to study craft. I think that craft can foster tools of creativity. Some children love to paint outside of the lines in their coloring book; I've always loved to paint inside of them. That doesn't mean my mixture of colors wasn't as creative, inventive, or nice to look at. Don't get me wrong: craft isn't "paint by the numbers" where writers plug in their plot points to different beats (which likely only gives them a flat story in the end without heart or depth); craft provides explanations for why one reader might be pulled along on a journey with a book that they just can't put down, versus a story that just doesn't seem to be going anywhere, or doesn't seem to have any point. (That sounds harsh, I know, but I think that's the greatest question any writer should be asking themselves for their own work in progress, and a question I ask myself constantly: what's the point of this story? What am I trying to say, and how do I hope it will impact lives? If there's no answer, then readers will probably be left asking the same thing.)

I love breaking down some of the elements of the greatest stories of all time. Maybe it’s the Virgo in me, who knows, but I think it’s interesting to study a favorite and/or commercially successful book or movie and see how these stories tend to fall in line with different teachings. (And a brief tangent: “commercially successful,” and wanting to earn a living as an author, isn’t a dirty thing to say, either. It’s possible to write a “book of your heart”, something that means the world to you, and find ways to make it exciting, marketable, the sort of book a reader just can’t put down. I want to strive to write both a book of my heart, and one that is exciting to the reader. These don't have to be two separate things, as I think a lot of writers are trained to think.)

I have a mental checklist in my head whenever reading a book or watching a movie. I see the different beats that various craft books have described, and interestingly, many stories are mind-blowingly amazing, and they usually do meet different craft plot beats from some of my favorite models. Being able to study the beats of my favorites, according to the teachings of different craft books, helps me look at my own work carefully—to break down why a portion of the book may or may not work.

It's interesting that so many different forms of writing—essay writing, screenwriting, and so on—depend heavily on craft, on a set of rules; but for fiction writing, for whatever reason, authors aren’t considered artists for wanting to study craft, to learn about the rules of building a story and learning how to best entertain their reader while providing characters that help the reader feel, reflect, grow, learn. I absolutely think it’s valid to not study craft books if that’s what a person decides; but I don’t believe in the invalidation of authors who do want to study craft.

So, writers, if craft is your jam, that isn't invalid and that isn't pretentious, and hopefully this Work In Progress blog series can be a place to check out another author's process as I work on different novels in many stages of development.

Right now, my favorite go-to books on craft are: Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody and Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I’ll probably refer to both a lot as I share updates on my different WIPs.

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