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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Let's Not Forget Craft

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling author of 27 books. She is best known for her Seatbelt Suspense®--fast-paced, character-driven suspense with myriad twists and an interwoven thread of faith. She also writes insightful contemporary novels, often laced with humor. Her awards include the ACFW Carol (three times), Inspirational Readers' Choice, the Inspy, Christian Retailer's Best (twice), and Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice. She loves to interact with readers on Facebook
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This year as a traditionally published author turned indie, I’ve been blogging on Novel Rocket the first Wednesday of every month. So far my posts have focused on how my switch-over has gone. (It continues to go very well, indeed.) This time I have a message for all us novelists, particularly myself and my fellow indies: let’s not forget craft.

In learning all I need to know about this new indie life, I’ve been reading blogs and joining groups of indies. These smart people have taught me a lot about pricing, and file conversion, and places to advertise, and layout, and covers, and on and on. I’ve participated in discussions on these topics and many more. But recently it hit me—I see little to no discussion on the craft of writing fiction.

Perhaps we’re all studying quietly on our own. Perhaps the blogs and groups weren’t intended to discuss craft, focusing instead on the business side of being an indie author. But I can remember not that many years ago when on my own blog, and others’ blogs, and in groups—we discussed how to write. So I do wonder if we’re losing that focus.

As an author of 25 traditionally published books, I first had to work for years to raise my fiction writing skills to a publishable level. Now that I’m an indie, I don’t want to succumb to the temptation to stop studying the craft just because I can publish whatever I want. For indies who’ve never been traditionally published it’s even harder, I think, because there were no forced years of study and rewriting. It can be all too easy to hit that publish button before the book is ready.

A few of the books I own on writing fiction.

No matter how our books are published, trad or indie, we novelists should have a thorough understanding of story structure. That’s our foundation. The protagonist’s Desire that pulls him/her through the book, the conflicts that arise against that Desire, the layout of basic three-act structure, the building of conflict toward crisis, climax, and ultimate resolution—these need to be our building blocks. We should know them backwards and forwards. Knowing them well leads to an understanding of when and how to break the pattern if the story calls for it. We also need to know dialogue (with an understanding of subtexting), and beats, and symbolism, and chapter hooks. How to use backstory effectively, and speaker attributes, and descriptions and deep characterization, and character motivation, and building one scene upon another. And on and on.

The more I’ve studied and worked at writing fiction, the more I respect the craft—and the more I realize how little I know. Writing memorable fiction isn’t easy. (Well, maybe it’s easier for you than for me. I’ve always struggled with how hard it is.) In fact, I’ve come to see that when it gets too easy, I’ve probably become lazy in my technique.

Selling well as an indie isn’t just about knowing how to market and price books. Bottom line, it’s about writing good novels that people talk about. I don’t want to let go of that focus as I work to learn everything else I need to know as an indie. And I urge all you indies out there not to lose that focus either. Keep studying the craft. If your books aren’t selling, maybe it’s not just the marketing. Maybe you need to learn more about how to write. If you are already selling well—what new techniques might you learn about writing fiction that would help you sell even better?

And trad pub authors, you’re not off the hook here either. I know your publishers are pushing you to do more and more marketing. In the midst of all you must do, don’t forget to study the craft.

If you’ve attended a helpful writers’ conference, or read a good book on writing fiction, or taken an eye-opening online course—let us know in the comments. We can all help each other on the craft side just as we do on the business side of publishing.

12 comments:

Henry McLaughlin said...

Brandilyn,
Thanks for the great reminder about the importance of craft. We have to keep learning and getting better no matter how we publish.
Good books on writing fiction:
I recently read Steven James' Story Trumps Structure. Insightful and challenging.
I'm re-reading Elizabeth George's Write Away. I enjoy how she drills down into the writing process.

Terry Whalin said...

Outstanding topic, Brandilyn and much missing in the articles and blogs that I read these days. Writers need to practice their craft in the short form as well as writing full-length books. I'm talking about writing short stories rather than novels. I'm talking about writing magazine articles rather than nonfiction. Then writers can practice and learn craft of storytelling and writing on a shorter form rather than a lengthy book. Too many people want to begin with books and have never learned to write. Thank you for this terrific insight.

Ane Mulligan said...

You're singing my song here, Brandilyn. And I'm tickled to hear you say it's hard for you. Sometimes I sit and stare at my screen, thinking, "What's next?" But if I do, I go back to one of my craft books and refresh myself on the part of story structure, or whatever's bothering me. And I can't wait for the next WF book from you!!

Brandilyn Collins said...

Thanks, Ane. PITCHIN' A FIT will be available around the end of next month.

Michael Ehret said...

Craft, craft, craft ... can't say it often enough. Especially as more and more are choosing an indie route (not that I find anything wrong with that...).

Ian Acheson said...

Great post, Brandilyn. Like Ane, I smiled when I read your comment about how hard writing a novel is. It is isn't? So many elements to juggle.

Perhaps you have yourself a potential new income stream - teaching indie (& others) the finer elements of craft.

Jan Thompson said...

Good article, Brandilyn. Oh I agree! While some indie authors might "rush to publish" and skip a few steps, other more seasoned indies know that implicit in the longevity of their careers is the art of writing itself. Not only craft, but also storytelling. I remind myself that indie novelists, for example, are first storytellers before they are indie publishers. Without a story and the proper craft to deliver that story, all the best marketing will not sell the book, which is why most books don't sell. Craft, anybody can learn (all they have to do is read everything James Scott Bell has written, for example), but to be a good storyteller, that is something special.

Ron Estrada said...

It is my biggest fear, that I'll put a book on Amazon and I'm not as ready as I think I am. Going indie makes the journey harder, not easier. We don't get agents and editors to offer changes and advice. However, the most active group I've found, Christian Indie Authors on facebook, is made up of a lot of familiar faces. Most of these writers have been at it for a decade or more. When a brand new writer tries to join, she is always advised to to the hard work, just as if she were going trad publishing. You are right, though, we should spend more time talking craft. It's easy to get carried away with the business end of things. Since I volunteered to host a little pre-conference get together for the CIA on Wednesday night in St. Louis, perhaps I'll make craft our main topic of conversation. It's in the sports bar downstairs. Maybe I'll see some of you there.

Elise M Stone said...

I have to agree with Ron. Most of the writers I know who have chosen to go indie have studied writing craft for years. We may not discuss craft per se in the groups, but I know we've talked about writing craft books we've found useful and the necessity of editing, including alternatives to hiring a professional editor when you can't afford one.

I like Dean Wesley Smith's idea of learning craft. Every time he starts a new book or short story (and he's both trad and indie published over 100 books and countless short stories), he also sets himself an aspect of craft to practice as he's writing it. There's always something new to learn.

Jan Thompson said...

Ron, thank you for the shout-out re: CIA. Yes, we emphasize 3 main things: indie book production (including writing/editing), publishing (to as many avenues possible), and promotion (to sell well). We have both present and future hybrid authors as well as pure indies in the CIA.

Wish I could be at the ACFW conference this year but every year it's coming closer to me so maybe next year I'll finally make it there. In the ACFW a lot of writing craft is emphasized. I highly recommend it for all Christian authors. I'm in it! :-)

Autumn Macarthur said...

Excellent reminder! I've been writing as a hobbyist since my teens, writing seriously with a view to publication for six years. Studying craft, doing workshops, reading all I can, listening to authors further ahead of me on the path, being critiqued, critiquing other writers work. It's been an intense apprenticeship! And it never stops. Which is good! I don't want to reach some "there" where I think there's nothing more to learn. That's a sort of spiritual and intellectual death, and not what God designed us for.

Judy said...

What an outstanding post! Thanks so much. It's easier, I think, to flit around "marketing" than to study and improve as a writer. I must always focus on that and your insight is much appreciated. I pick up a favorite book on writing as I start each project and consider how to improve. It's tough! Judy Christie