Writing As Workmanship

Last week I finished my second novel this year, an about 90.000 word follow-up to the previously posted Historian’s Crusade. Why is that important besides padding myself on the back? Because when I told it to a friend, who is also my editor, that within five months I had finished two novels, we got talking about output. Not so much about artistic quality, but just the general output level.

You see, for the previous three years and more, I had been tainted by NaNoWriMo and the idea that every story that needs to come out of me needs to be a masterpiece. I talked about this before in one way or another, how NaNoWriMo just encourages bad writing habits. Sure, you’ll have a 50k word novel in four weeks, but you can basically throw it away and start again. I don’t really like the idea of working in multiple drafts that way. Once my story is out, I prefer to wash my hands of it, clean up mistakes here or there sure, but I don’t tinker with the narrative anymore. Because I just know that if I start doing it, I will never stop. That hurts your output.

As artists of any field, I think we all too often want to put quality over quantity. And while that is a generally good attitude to have that will smother the next 50 Shades of Grey right in the cradle, it also stops you from experimenting and working on more. A painter could paint five works in his lifetime or 50, one better than the last. Rather than languishing between publishing any new work, or just finishing it, one could instead get it over with. Whether or not it’s good isn’t up to you anyway, that’s up to the audience. Art needs an observer to even be worthwhile. 

So that got me thinking again: does that mean writing is just another form of craftsmanship? If you try to make a living out of it, it probably is. Especially in this day and age of direct publishing. It might just be the way to go when you want to become popular. Considering how fast the turn around is for these works these days, writing shorter and more books is not only the right choice for monetary gain, but might also be the right choice for your creativity.

Think about it: how often do we hear that certain writer’s manuscripts have ballooned once again? George RR Martin’s latest book is five years behind schedule and up to 1500 plus pages. Wouldn’t it be better for either his own sanity and the fans if he had posted them in shorter installments every couple of years? What good dose a book do that takes ten years to publish? There are a couple of authors that can get away with it, but it’s not like they enjoy it themselves. They get pestered by fans or chastise themselves for being so slow.

The more I think about the situation that Martin faces and my own success this year with just monotonously hammering out a couple of thousand words a day with occasional editing in between, the more I do come to the conclusion that it might be the better attitude. It ties back to my earlier post about accepting failure. You can prolong it all the way you want, create great art, or you can move on, take the time that gets freed up from extending manuscripts and pondering your own craft to experiment some more and have fun.

In the end, it’s all about workmanship: the likes of Steven King turn out a novel or more a year and can thus experiment much more with the format and content, be more topical, or get around to the dozen ideas they had in their heads for years. Meanwhile a George RR Martin writes a decade and a half on a barely finished novel that had to be split up into three volumes. Never mind the argument that you are letting your readers down, you are completely tying yourself to a singular series or book for a good chunk of your life. If you are not fast in turning over a series that follows a point you want to make, you are eventually coming to an impasse where the books either don’t reflect your views anymore that you wanted to communicate in the first place or people start losing interest in you. Something like Game of Thrones has inspired an entire generation of fantasy novelists that have all started since and completed in the two decades since. Now the Song of Fire and Ice has become a relic out of time. A great relic, that I will cherish the next installment of, but a relic nonetheless. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to get into writing. For all the nobel efforts you want to put in, the points you want to make, telling a worthwhile story is paramount to communicating that.

Just a thought though.

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Author: Alex

Full time student, part time "writer" of things.

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