Monday Motivation: Art is the daughter of artifice
Are you getting better as a writer? Are your characters leaping more assuredly from the page? Are you learning that what happens between the lines is just as important as what happens on the surface of your text? Are you remembering to manipulate – or, let’s be a little more diplomatic, are you remembering to massage your readers’ expectations?
The question of improvement is a thorny one. Because we’re always writing in the moment wrestling with problems of expression and drama.
Open your bottom drawer and take out the first twenty pages of the novel you abandoned a decade ago, and examine it. What do you think? Your “voice” might still be perfectly apparent, but almost certainly you’ll note inelegancies and instances of clumsiness that you know you wouldn’t commit today.
So take a moment to congratulate yourself on the progress you have made.
But a larger question concerns deliberate improvement. What can you do today that will guarantee that next year’s writing will show continuous progress?
Well, of course you could always enrol on one of our courses, either to hone your general skills, or to focus on a very specific one that you’re concerned about.
But more generally, I believe you have it in your hands to make these improvements without necessarily seeking outside help. And how do you do that?
Imagine that you’re struggling with that perennial problem of introducing a new character into the narrative. It can sometimes seem insuperable. If you make too much of an issue of it, then you’re suggesting to your reader that the character in question will play a major role in the story going forward, which is not your intention at all.
But if, on the other hand, you don’t tell us something about her, then she’ll be a pallid stick figure whose presence can only be explained in terms of the needs of the plot.
You want every character in your story to show vital signs of life – and of an existence beyond the boundaries of the story.
Well, perhaps you’ve read an essay by James Wood, who talks admiringly of a short story by Guy de Maupassant in which he writes: “He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.”
Lovers of de Maupassant point out that though that is all you know about the red-whiskered character, it is enough. That single line of description tells us three things: that he is a gentleman, that his red whiskers are remarkable and that he behaves in just one situation in a predictable way, that tells us a great deal about his arrogant assumptions.
And so you realise that in just a few words you can evoke a character sufficiently to imbue him with life and vitality. It’s a little trick that you can perform in your narrative, now. And when you need to do it again, you will have the memory of a successful performance, and you can rattle it off again.
You pick up these tricks through reading, and noting how other writers have dealt with a variety of issues. You sometimes stumble on a more efficient way of solving a problem yourself. Take note of it, remember it for next time.
Remember that art is the daughter of artifice – and artifice is, essentially, the deployment of a range of little tricks, like these. Master them one at a time, and you’ll increase the fluency and the range of your writing.
PS – I’d love to hear what you think. Let me know in the comments section.