f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Craft: It’s Not Just About Glue Pots and Popsicle Sticks Anymore

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Craft: It’s Not Just About Glue Pots and Popsicle Sticks Anymore

The best way to understand how something works is to build it with your own hands. Minus that, deconstruction is a good second option. Taking anything apart, bit by bit, offers fairly good lessons, if in reverse, of the nuts and bolts, the ghost in the machine. Millions of corpses have proven it in science and anatomy and in nearly any field, there’s an analysis that works backward, breaking things into bits and studying the parts. That’s what we’re going to do here over the next few entries.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take. I’m not sure if it’ll be uninterrupted, but I think it’s important to start the process. What you take from these entries is a completely different question. If you’re a professional writer or a talented amateur, they may be stuff you already know, if only intuitively. If you teach writing, we will be covering ground you probably are more of an expert on than I. If you’re a beginning writer, though, or without formal training, these will hopefully be of help.

Our model for this exercise is going to be Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. A comic book about writing and reading comic books, it has the distinct advantage of being able to construct and deconstruct its form all at the same time. (Visit here for a small example of his efforts.) We’re not going to be in McCloud’s book much because I doubt most of you can refer to it and it’ll be difficult to write about both his words and images, but I’ll be using it as a touchstone. It’s not cheap, so I’m not going to urge you to buy a copy of what may only interest you tangentially, but if you have the chance to peek through it (particularly Chapters 3-7) it’ll be worth it.

If nothing else, peruse Chapter 7, simply called The Six Steps. This is. McCloud insists, a path of understanding and execution of art shared by all artists, and I agree. It is a path of six points that one performs in order, but learns in reverse. (A disparity that, although McCloud doesn't state it, explains the grand amount of bad art in the world.)

The Steps are:
1. Idea/Purpose – Your inspiration
2. Form – What kind of art? In our case, the novel.
3. Idiom – What specific “school” or genre within that art form. In our case, the Christian novel.
4. Structure – The composition of the work as a whole. How it works together.
5. Craft – The construction of the book using the building blocks at your disposal.
6. Surface – The finished product, all nice and shiny.

Much of what this journal has discussed over the weeks is rooted in Step 3, Idiom. We are talking on an idiomatic level. (Not idiotic, wise guy.) However, as McCloud points out, artists learn the steps in reverse and we’ve skipped over 6, 5, and 4. (Does this mean I’m some genius who’s mastered those three steps? Yes. Yes, it does.)

The surface level comprehension is a dangerous one in book publishing. You know the saying that everybody has a story in them or a novel in their drawer? Yeah, that’s surface level. Anybody who’s ever read a novel, said “That’s easy, I could do that” and then finishes 20 pages, sees only the polish and finish. I don't really worry about that level here. You're all beyond it, I'm sure.

So instead, as the subject heading states, we’re going full steam ahead. To be frank, I’m not sure whether some of the principles we’ll discuss fit better in Step 4 or 5, but to me the two steps are very close together and sometimes intrinsic to each other. You ever hear the phrase, “workmanlike”? That’s somebody operating purely in Step 5. The mechanics are visible; there’s no real jolt on inspiration. Step 4 is home for the folks we call “good writers.” The line between them is blurry. But we’ll muddle, through. Tomorrow. We’ll start it tomorrow.