This guest post on the writer’s craft was submitted by The Armitage Authors Network author Sarah Hawkswood. We thought it was the perfect way to kick off November as National Novel Writing Month and we thank her for writing this thought provoking piece. Best wishes to all of you who are participating in NaNoWriMo this year!
‘Everyone has a book in them’ is often said, but I think it is not strictly true, at least when it comes to fiction. Just as there are people who are tone deaf, and for whom music is meaningless, there are those who have no effective creative imagination. Such people do not read fiction because what is on the page is simply typescript. For them no picture is created in their head by the words before them. So do we narrow it very slightly and say ‘Anyone who reads and enjoys fiction has a book in them’? I would still argue that the answer is in the negative. Richard Armitage said recently in an interview that there are people who act and there are actors. I would say the same about people who write and writers, or, as I prefer to call them, wordsmiths. Why that term? Well, I think that creative writing at a level that can be considered publishable, has two required elements, which are ‘The Words’ and the means to craft them into poetry or prose, ‘The word(s)’ and the smithing. If there is one without the other then you are stuck. You can take as many creative writing courses as you like, and learn how to construct dramatic tension, good subordinate clauses, etc,, but if you have not got ‘The Words’ you lack the material on which to use those skills.
To me, a book, or poem, is like a pattern welded sword. It is not a case of hammering a bit of metal into a shape with a pointy end and sharp sides and there you are. It takes the the twisting and hammerwelding of the heated steel and iron rods, correct tempering, and a combination of strength and delicate skill to forge a pattern welded blade. In the Anglo-Saxon/Viking period, such weapons were treasured, given names. The wordsmith has to have ‘The Words’ as those rods, and the craft to create with them. ‘The Words’ are a gift, and an occasional curse too, since it is very awkward making sure dinner is on the table, or the tax return filled in, when one’s head is crammed with ‘The Words’ desperate to get out. If a person has ‘The Words’ then they may be able to develop the skills to work them into something which communicates not just on a literal level, but at one which is deeper, more visceral and emotional. It is most obvious in poetry, but is also part of prose.
Writing is communication. That sounds obvious, but one only has to see the appalling morass of gibberish that is put out, especially by official bodies, to see that it is often forgotten. This does not mean paring every phrase to the bone, but writing in context. The instructions for putting together that flatpack bookcase ought to be, and so often are not, simple, concise, and clear. The style of the writing has to be appropriate, to purpose, to pace, to period. Describing the couple enjoying a picnic and romance beneath the trees in a park should have a languor, a sense of savouring everything in that event, that in a fight or a chase would be ridiculous. There might be a single moment in the action when juxtaposing a more poetic image actually heightens the impact of the rest of the scene, but it has to be there for a very specific reason. As to period, try writing a paragraph and then writing it again in the style of another genre, or even another writer, and see what happens. It is utterly changed. I write in two different genres and two different styles, although I have certain ‘markers’ and traits. This is not just a change of speech pattern and language, but it seeps into the narrative element as well. What I find fascinating is that I do not make a conscious distinction, or ever find I have slipped into the wrong one. I think that is down to ‘world’. As an historical writer I step from the present into the past within my imagination, and everything from the smells, the sounds, the colours, the textures of clothing and buildings, to the way in which people form their sentences is different when writing my 12th century murder mysteries compared with writing Regency period romance. The only problem is when it comes to writing the synopsis of a period novel, because I find it exceedingly difficult to revert to contemporary style. In fact I have even had to have my husband rewrite a synopsis and ‘translate’ it, just because of the way the sentences were formulated when I thought about the characters.
In the old days before the microchip, I would have found writing very difficult, because I need to get what is in my head onto the page or screen with a flow. This meant scrawl I had trouble deciphering afterwards, and, in the era of the typewriter, a huge boost to sales of correcting fluid. The computer has been a great asset, because it is so easy to simply delete not only the typo but that phrase that sounds laboured, add that snippet which floods the ‘picture’ with colour and a luminescence that lifts a scene from the two dimensional and turns it into an alternative reality. This is not to say that every sentence is dissected and weighed word by word, because when the writing is going well the flow is such that the words have a momentum. However, I would recommend that a wordsmith always reads yesterday’s progress at the commencement of the new day’s work, not only to immerse themselves in the situation and ensure good continuity of fact and mood, but also to look at exactly what those fingers on the keyboard set down. There will be clauses, sentences, even possibly paragraphs, that jar, and that require alteration, or excision, and also, just occasionally, one can sit back and feel that glow from seeing a sentence that you know has its own intrinsic beauty from the way the words work together in a harmony that equates to a perfect chord in music.
To go back to Mr Armitage, I would suggest that writing and acting have many correlations, and not just that they are creative arts. For a start, most writers need other income, in the same way as most actors, although in the case of writers they tend to remain in a more permanent ‘day job’ rather than interspersing the creative craft with something to pay the bills. Secondly, there are those who emerge from their training and hit the big time through one brilliant role ( and a lot of luck). There are authors like that out there, as equally rare. Then there are the competent stalwarts whose face you recognise, but whose name is on the tip of your tongue. They make a living, and are more in work than ‘resting’. They equate with many writers whose names appear on library shelves with a few titles and inches to their name. There are also the ‘stars’, but not all stars are the same. Some achieve ‘celebrity’ and become a name in themselves, even though, if one looked closely at their ‘craftsmanship’, it might be remarkably average, or very limited. There are writers whose names are ‘famous’ enough to be larger than the title of their latest book, but it does not mean they write beautifully. Finally, there are others who are true masters of the craft, the Maggie Smiths, the Laurence Oliviers, the James Masons, whose brilliance goes beyond the transience of life, like the literary greats. One must add that not every role they ever played was pure gold, just as not every paragraph that Dickens or Dostoevsky set on paper, not every poem by Keats or Kipling, was a gem. I believe the day may come when Mr Armitage may be admitted into that thespian group, though I am certain he would say he is always learning, with much still to learn, and would not place himself among the elite. If you saw The Crucible, you know that he is way beyond ‘someone who acts’ and is very advanced as ‘an actor’. If he has inspired or unknowingly assisted in your writing, I humbly suggest you also strive to be as good in your craft as he is in his.
Sarah Hawkswood is the author of the soon-to-be-released mystery The Lord Bishop’s Clerk: A Bracecote and Catchpoll Investigation, available for pre-order on Amazon here. Learn more about the book at her website. Read her essay about her muse at FLY HIGH!, linked here with the kind permission of Maria Grazia.