“Here is the secret to writing,” I sometimes imagine saying. Granted, I most often imagine saying it in response to total strangers who tweet (spam-style, to every person even vaguely related to publishing they can locate), or cold call the office, demanding to know “How do I get published?” or “How do I become a New York Times bestselling author?” or some similar question about publishing insta-fame. Often it feels that the unspoken expectation is not only a magic bullet of an answer, but also one that arrives in fewer than 140 characters AND, preferably, with a bajillion-dollar contract attached, please-and-thank-you. And these, I confess, are the moments when I begin to imagine putting a firm tongue in cheek and offering the secret to writing…perhaps for only three or four low-low installments of $29.99. . . .
But here is the thing: there’s no easy secret to writing, or to publishing success. I tell you this knowing it now means you’ll never pay me even a single monthly installment, but that’s okay. I’d rather that the world be full of good writers.
Yet as a world—especially as an ever-more-connected literary world—I think we’re perhaps all getting increasingly tangled in an accidental belief that there are secrets that worked for other books and writers, ones that will surely work for us too, if only we figure out the precise formula. None of us are quite sure what that formula is just yet, of course. But more and more, we suspect, it has something to do with some combination of Facebook fan pages/Twitter followers/Youtube celebrity/Amazon reviews/Hours lost on Pinterest/Indie publishing fame/Featured blog tours/Dynamic Pricing/Tumblr mastery/Website building/Playlist creating/Witty blog posts/5-star reviews on Goodreads/Postcard mailings/Book tours/A-hundred-and-one other exhaustive attempts to make the rest of the world, literary and otherwise, look-look-look at us, and our books.
And here’s the next thing: all of those tools truly can do good, potentially even great things for your writing career. I’m not saying you should eschew them. In fact, as an editor, I first discovered some of the authors I now publish and/or have under contract at HarperCollins via a variety of online homes, from blogs to writering forums to Twitter. And maybe even more importantly, I’ve discovered some of the biggest advocates of books I know online, too—some of them I’ve never even met in person and yet daily, these teachers and librarians and booksellers work to put my authors’ and illustrators’ books into the hands of young readers, to connect exactly the right book and the right reader to form the kind of book-reader bond that lasts across an entire lifespan.
So writing books is good. And finding ways to market and promote your books is good, too. Each of those things could be a post all its own (and probably is, via someone else here at WriteOnCon, in fact), but they’re not what I came here to talk about. Because there’s a third critical element to writing, one that balances out the other parts in a critical way. And I think it’s sometimes forgotten amidst the aspects of publishing that make media headlines or that are more quickly-gratifying, like insane productivity and the rapid-treadmill pace of getting more-more-more books into the market to satisfy fans, or the insta-hit of attention/sense of accomplishment that social media marketing can provides, whether or not any lasting effects follow that quick burst of satisfaction.
I don’t know everything about publishing, but after nearly a decade of working in it, I do feel pretty confident in saying this: if there IS a secret to writing, I am increasingly convinced that it has something to do with an author’s development of his/her craft. Ahead of all the other so-called, or so-imagined, secrets . . . craft.
What do I mean by “craft”? Well, there are some stunning definitions that delve into it here in excellent, articulate ways: some of them talking about wordcraft, others talking about the creation of physical objects of art, but all thoughtful and provocative. In much simpler terms, I’d sum CRAFT up as the work of writing, word by careful word—of shaping ideas into well-told stories, of transforming imaginings into narratives, of bringing characters and setting and plot, and all the other tools that belong to a writer, to a crossroads, where the reader may find something meaningful and true in their convergence—and as the deliberate way in which you chose to explore the story you’re telling.
Here is why thinking about craft matters: because it demands a consciousness, an active awareness, about YOURSELF as a creator. Craft isn’t about luck, or about the vagaries of the market, or about something as fleeting as a tweet or a blog post. It isn’t about sales or reviews or all the other things that distract from the pure value of the creative act itself. It’s something more solid and certain than any of those things, as solid and sure as hard work. And that work becomes a brick-like foundation that you can build on as often as you allow yourself to—a place from which to strive toward the writer you hope to be, while measuring the writer you’ve been, and challenging the writer you are today. Focusing on craft makes you ask and answer the hard questions of yourself : Are you growing as a writer? Is each character or plot or setting that you write more masterful, on some level, than those that came before it? Are you setting yourself new challenges (and meeting them?) with every book you write? Are you learning from your failures, instead of letting them limit or define you? Because, yes, a publisher can publish your books well. An editor can help you bring out the best in your work. Readers can embrace your stories. But only YOU can make yourself a stronger writer, a better writer, a writer whose craft demands the attention of everyone who comes to the work after you complete it.
Improving your craft isn’t sexy. There aren’t measurable metrics for it. People probably won’t ooh and ahh when you say, “Today, before I started my next novel, I spent three hours studying effective uses of setting to convey theme,” or “This month, I read two middle grade books out loud, so I could pay attention to the connection between language and voice as I work on my latest project,” or “Today I wrote a single sentence, or a single paragraph, or a single line, and it served narrative and emotional and thematic and symbolic weight, all at once.” Your agent can’t quote “hours spent on craft” in a pitch letter about your book the way s/he can with Twitter followers or monthly blog hits.
But all that’s okay. Because strong craft? It speaks for itself. It wows its readers. It elevates a story to something even greater than itself. Craft is like meditation, or prayer, or exercising. It’s mostly silent, and somewhat hidden, and deeply personal. Few people will notice that you’re working on it unless you tell them. But your self will be enriched by it, and your work will be strengthened by it. It’s a set of expectations that you can set for yourself, and if others (agents or publishers or booksellers or educators or critics or readers) eventually notice it, too, well, that’s well-earned gravy. Attention to craft is like the best possible kind of creative gift that you can give to yourself . . . that just might also help develop your career, too.
When you look up “craft” in the dictionary, it tells you that the synonym is art. Writers are artists. Publishing is the commercial side of that artistry, the business side. And it is an important aspect of artistry—the means by which art is shared with art-appreciators, or in this case, readers. But though much of it will always be outside of your control, it will eat up the whole of your brain alive if you let it, tweet by tweet, worry by worry, comparison by comparison, Amazon ranking by Amazon ranking. Which is no good at all, because when your brain is consumed by things outside your control, your art-making almost always suffers. The creative side of art, though, is YOURS. It is the part that is entirely within your control, and that knowledge, in a way, can temporarily set you free from so many other stresses of the publishing process. If you are going to become consumed by anything, become consumed by a yearning to excel at your craft, to working your way toward becoming a master craftsman, one whose art is putting words on paper in a way entirely unlike what anyone has ever done before. Hone your craft, recognizing that is the essential thing, the invisible thing; that it is art, at its essence.
I’m not, alas, saying that I know where or how you will find time to work so deeply; writers’ lives are stretched thinner and thinner—as are everyone’s these days, I suspect—between so many things that vie for attention. But here’s the thing (the last thing): consider all the time you spend learning the newest technological trick, be it Pinterest, or Tumblr, or Twitter. One day, so many of these sites will be like MySpace is now, a few years past its height. Vacant. Uninhabited. Devoid of meaning, no matter how much time you may have once invested in it. The world moves on from the momentary; but often art endures. And so we must remind ourselves that marketing and promotion should serve the art we make, the craft of writing itself, instead of the other way around.
Time spent on developing craft won’t ever go away. You will always be that much better of a writer because of it. Three weeks, five months, nine years from now . . . you will still be a better writer than you once were, because of the ways you pushed and stretched and grew as a writer. And that’s the secret, I think: paid out like a monthly/weekly/daily sort of dividend to ourselves, rather than to some secret-holder outside of us—the knowledge that craft sharpens the ability and instinct that drives us to write in the first place. That it is often the secret strength that supports the stories that endure, and that supports their creators, too. That craft is art in action; essential to creative sustenance, but often invisible, even to those who will admire its results. That craft is a place of important work, and deep worth, to dwell in as a writer.
Looking for practical tips on honing your craft as a writer? Visit Molly O’Neill’s blog, or share your own thoughts on craft in the comments below.
Molly O’Neill is an Editor at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. She edits both literary and commercial projects—everything from picture books to middle grade to young adult novels. She seeks vivid stories, original voices, and manuscripts with a strong sense of place—in short, the kind of books that keep readers thinking and imagining, long after the last page. Books that she’s acquired as an editor include Veronica Roth’s #1 New York Times bestselling DIVERGENT trilogy; the YA sci-fi INSIGNIA trilogy by S. J. Kincaid; Nola Buck and Sarah Jane Wright’s picture book A CHRISTMAS GOODNIGHT; Bobbie Pyron’s award-winning middle grade A DOG’S WAY HOME; and the forthcoming middle grade DESTINY, REWRITTEN, by Kathryn Fitzmaurice.
Molly’s been in children’s books for nearly a decade: before becoming an editor (her absolute dream job!), she worked on the Marketing/Publicity side of the industry, first at Clarion Books and then at HarperCollins. She blogs about editing, publishing, art, and life at www.10blockwalk.blogspot.com and tweets at @molly_oneill.