I genuinely believe one of the better analogies I’ve ever seen for writing as a craft and art is the comparison to cabinetmaking. Maybe that’s because I’ve done both.
Technically, I wasn’t a cabinetmaker. But I did build furniture, with the goal of building fine furniture. I thought of myself as an artist of sorts, and wanted to learn the artistic things of furniture making, like carving and shaping and interesting case design. In short, to become a master cabinetmaker, someone who could sell furniture, whose art and craft is considered heirloom.
With writing, the goal is to become a master storyteller. Many of the desired outcomes remain the same: someone whose work is considered art at some level, someone whose art and craft is considered heirloom, someone who’s paid for their work.
And in both crafts, there are certain tools at the disposal of the craftsman. In furniture making, there are myriad tools for various tasks, from the general to the very specific. Some, like a table saw or a band saw, can serve many purposes by nature of their design. Others, like a dovetail jig for example, can only do one thing.
In writing, there are a lot of tools too. But those tools are words, sentences, scenes, and structure, among other things. (Don’t forget software! My favorite!)
In furniture making, there are specific techniques and methods used to create varying degrees of design execution. Dovetails are a type of joinery; it’s one technique. Another is the simple butt joint (hint: you don’t just any buttocks in furniture making despite the nomenclature). Still another is the dado joint, or the box joint. Those are all joinery techniques; I could rattle off a bunch more, but you get the idea.
In storytelling, there are techniques also. There are methods of creating character, setting, dialog, and overall story structure. There are points of view, perspective, and narrative techniques. Use of subtext is another (great) storytelling method. Knowledge gaps, pacing, conflict…all are techniques to tell a story.
As a new woodworker, I focused on the tools. I spent a ton of money I didn’t really have to get the best tools I couldn’t afford, and thought those tools were going to make it possible for me to craft great furniture. I’d process my materials through those expensive machines and on the other side of it, there’d be glue application and clamping, and the next day, voila! Fine furniture.
I got a rude awakening, to be sure. I’ll just leave it at that.
I learned, in short order, the fine furniture output came through tedium and attention to detail input. It came through practice and honing the craft. It came through learning to do it right, then doing it right over and over again until you don’t have to think about doing it right anymore.
The piece of advice I received, but didn’t follow, that would have best suited me was: “Make boxes. All sizes, different dimensions, different materials. Make them over and over again, then make more from the scraps (left over material) from making them. And make sure you can make the corners square.”
I didn’t take that advice. After all, I didn’t spend all that money to make boxes. I bought them to make artsy, Queen Anne style or Philadelphia style furniture. To make modern classic furniture. To make stuff with a price tag on it, stuff that doesn’t end up in a garage sale or compared to some big box furniture store’s product. Make boxes? Please!
So if something went wrong, if there was a problem with the product I produced, then obviously there was a problem with my tools. Or my clamps. Or my glue. Or maybe my materials. But it wasn’t the craftsman. It couldn’t be that.
As a new(ish) writer, I figured out the best tools make better products. So I set out to get better tools. My earlier attempts at writing were…um…let’s generously say they lacked in refinement. So I set about to make my tools better.
And by golly, I did make them better. They’re not the best tools on the planet, by any means, but I got better ones.
Then I started reading advice from so-called authorities on writing. I saw a lot of stuff telling writers to make their tools better. Sometimes, it tells them to make the techniques better, but most of the time the emphasis is on the tools. Or it said through better tools would come better technique. No one can even get to the technique if the tools are too poor to execute it, the “wisdom” said. (That last bit’s kind of true, btw. If you doubt this check fiction in places like deviantART.com.)
No matter how much I spent on my tools, if I didn’t know the proper way to set up those tools (this is the part no one in woodworking tells you about until you’re screaming in frustration), and I don’t know the proper techniques to accomplish what I want to do, I’m going to have very expensive firewood.
I wasted a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of money trying to figure that out while struggling to build furniture.
When the finished furniture piece wasn’t to my liking, or wasn’t perfect somehow, I thought better tools were the solution. At one point, I had three tools to do the same exact thing. (My wife still brings this up to this day.) I had specialty tools which only did one thing, because I thought the need was for better tools. They sat and collected dust until I could think of an excuse to use them.
Writers are told similar things early on. Get better tools. They’re taught to go and polish their work, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until it’s “perfect.” The focus is on the tools. Better tools will make the product better.
I got so stuck in this, and only recently learned how to get out. I only recently learned how to push aside thinking about the words and let them be tools, something I use to achieve my purpose. As a woodworker, I had multiple ways to do the same task, and I chose the one which suited my project, my needs, my purpose. As a writer, I needed to learn the same thing.
The words are tools. The tools which create the product. But they’re only one aspect of the craft. Yes, you need the tools. And the better your tools are, the easier plying the craft will be. But there’s more to telling a story than putting words into sentences, and putting sentences into paragraphs. There’s more to telling a story than the tools. Like most of the mega-band rock groups, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
But there’s one advantage to woodworking over writing: when the glue sets, you can’t do anything more with it. You have the product you have. Even if you get a new and better tool, which you think will make that same piece better somehow, you can’t go back to the piece and use it. It’s finished. Nothing stops writers from pecking away at their pieces, though. A common adage out there is, a story’s never finished.
When writers receive a rejection on their submissions, or sometimes just over the course of their writer’s journey, they tend to do what is commonly known as “polishing” the manuscript or story. They rework it, or refine it using new tools they’ve acquired since the original draft. In short, they get a new tool and think they should use it because that will “fix” the product.
I know this because I’ve done it. A few times. I have a story I wrote back in 2007 which is sitting on my hard drive in no fewer than four different draft stages, all “polishing” drafts to make the story “better” somehow. I don’t know if I can even deal with that anymore. I have a plan to make one last run at it, but if that doesn’t work, I might have to just give up on that and start over at “Once upon a time…”
I’m moving on in my writer’s journey, and I have to say, I’m very excited about it. I’m going to learn Heinlein’s Rules of Writing and work at implementing them. Most writers can’t (won’t?) implement them all and have a thousand logical-sounding reasons why they can’t. I know, because I’ve either used them or encountered them in someone else.
When I screamed about this stuff in the past, I was told I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m not in traditional publishing. When I pointed out I’ve been traditionally published three times, I got the response “But that’s non-fiction!”
A thousand excuses.
Now, let me be fair: I was a jerk about what I was saying at the time and that generated some of the defensiveness in others. And I probably shouldn’t have said those things (it had to do with self-publishing vs. gatekeeper publishing paths), at least not at that time, in that stage of my writer’s journey. Yes, I still believe in them, but everyone’s writing journey is different. All of them pass through stages though.
This point in my journey brings my desire to progress to a head. The only way I know to do that is to stop worrying about the tools I have. If I pick up new ones along the way, I’ll certainly be glad for that. But if I have to make do with what I have, I will.
And now it’s time to focus on the story and being a better storyteller. I don’t know what took me so long to get here.