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Craft Vs Mechanics: What Are Their Differences?
ChuckWriting
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Craft Vs. Mechanics: What Are Their Differences?

There is a misguided notion floating about that craft and mechanics in writing are one and the same. That couldn't be further from the truth. When one begins to dissect the two, the clear differences emerge. It suddenly becomes exceedingly clear what is craft and what is mechanical in any given genre or form of writing. What then, if they are not interchangeable entities, are craft and mechanics? It is a question each writer has to discover the answer to for themselves if they ever hope to attain a better understanding of writing and their growth as a writer.

First, let's look at the mechanical side of writing. This is how language is put together on the page so that it is understandable to the reader, whomever they may be. It is the rules one uses to convey their story, essay, or news article in a way that anyone with a fluency in the language can understand. All languages have their own set of rules to accomplish this. It is what allows human beings to have understanding of critical information at all.

Grammar is a key component of mechanics. It is how the sentences themselves are structured upon the page. If we were to write without these rules, the meaning would be lost upon the audience we intend to target. Grammar tells us how these sentences give meaning to our thoughts. Thoughts are fleeting, translucent, and mechanically messy. When organized into sentences, and then into paragraphs, finally the true idea is allowed to emerge. Each sentence, by rule, should be a single complete thought.

Punctuation is also included within the mechanics of writing. It is how a sentence is began and eventually ended. If it is a statement, the period is the common mark to end the sentence. If it is a question, the question mark is the most logical choice. The exclamation point is often reserved for the most excitable or important of statements. The comma is used to split two dependent clauses from one another or give the reader pause. The semi-colon, much misused by the amateur, is to connect two complete but closely related thoughts. These marks, symbols on the page to accompany our words, intensify our words meanings: the sentences that make up our ideas. When used effectively, the message reaches the reader without difficulty.

Word choice is often another component of mechanics, the homophones often being tricky to the beginner writer. They're, their, and there are the most common mistake. Knowing the difference can help a writer grow and evolve into a better writer, one that conveys their ideas in a logical manner with the impression that they actually know what they are talking about. Mechanics are crucial in all writing forms; they are the skeleton upon which everything is built. That being said, they are but one component used in a writer's arsenal.

The tool box analogy is often used in writing classes and workshops. A writer has a mythical tool box, one of imagination and style. In that tool box, they have the aforementioned tools of grammar, spelling, and punctuation with which to convey their ideas, thoughts, and stories. Without them, their writing will miss most of their audience, be ignored and forgotten.

What else, then, is in this tool box? That is, in the realm of creative writing, the element of craft. Craft is transient, and unteachable. It is subjective. What one considers to be an excellent story or poem or play might be awful to another. Craft is only hindered by the imagination of the writer in question. The skeleton of a fictional piece may be its mechanics; its flesh will be its craft.

The main question, then, becomes: what is craft?

Craft is a number of elements such as character, image, voice, and setting. Each element has its own merit, its own meaning, and its own place in the realm of creative writing. Remove one from the equation, and the story will fail and fall flat to the reader. To take the imaginative idea to the page and fulfill each is a difficult task indeed.

Take character, for instance. The first question any writer beginning a story has to ask themselves is this: what does this character want? Without the character having a desire, there can be no story. The character must want something, be it simple as wanting to sit down or as complex as wanting their forbidden lover. The writer's job is to present this character's desire at a level of intensity that impacts the reader, causing them to care.

Janet Burroway, in Imaginative Writing, provides the skeleton for forming a character: “You will have the makings of a character when you can fill out this sentence: (name) is a (adj.) _____-year-old (noun) who wants _________”(88).

It is in the wanting of a character that a story is born.

The most memorable stories have the most memorable characters. We remember Gone With the Wind not for the wide sweeping epic telling of the South during the Civil War or the effects of Reconstruction upon its landscape. We remember Gone With the Wind because of Scarlett O'Hara and the tenacity of her character to prevail, overcome, and fight against those who stood in her way. We remember her for her foolishness in pursuing Ashely Wilkes when she truly desired Rhett Butler all along.

We also remember Hamlet in Shakespeare, not because of the underlying issues of his psychological state, but because of his desire for complete revenge. He wanted revenge so utterly and as we follow the play to its tragic conclusions, part of us desires the same thing. His intense want pushes the story along, gives us reason to care, and a need to see what happens next. Without Hamlet's desire, the play no longer is successful.

In turn, Beloved, from Toni Morrison's novel of the same name, simply wants to be acknowledged by the mother that killed her. The racial context, the exploration of slavery as an institution, and the difficulty of coming to grips with these issues are portions of the text, but it is Beloved we connect with. The succubus of Beloved is so powerful because she wants so intensely. If we removed the character of Beloved from the story, it would lose so much of its impact. It is her wanting that gives the story its meat.

Second, image is what appeals to the senses. When we put these things upon the page, we are talking about the five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. It is what helps to place the reader into the story being created. It is, next to the character, what makes the writing vivid. The employ of the five senses on the page breathe life into a fictional work. We can experience the fantastical, the imaginary, and explore unknown worlds via these senses in ways we cannot in technical writing.

Image and the senses also play another critical role in creative writing. Often, the best advice is simple: show, don't tell. It is the concrete, significant details that will make the story flow and connect with the intended audience. Significant details reveal meaning. They will lead the reader to an understanding of what the story is about. These details give us another reason to care about what it is we are reading. Exclude these important details, and the story will suddenly become flat and uninteresting.

Janet Burroway, in Imaginative Writing, illustrates why imagery and significant detail is so crucial to the art of fiction: “this book has begun by insisting on imagery because it is so central to literature and also because many beginning writers try to make their, or their characters', emotions felt by merely naming them, and so fail to let us experience those emotions” (9).

Without proper use of imagery, we cannot pass along the judgments unto the reader. Details will provide clues into what is happening, the merits of the character, and how we should feel about all of it. Should we like or dislike the character? Should we feel a certain way about the situation, and if so, why? What is the main objective the author is trying to convey here? As writers, we must ask ourselves these important questions. We must put ourselves into the reader's shoes and answer these very questions for ourselves first before we can answer them for the reader.

Images are just as memorable for their effect on the reader as the character's want. We remember a story for its imagery. We remember the vividness of certain passages in the works we read because they have placed such a lasting image within our mind. We remember The Haunting of Hill House because the imagery of the house is so powerful it lingers in the mind:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone (Shirley Jackson, 3).

The breadth of an image can paint such a vivid picture in our minds that it makes our heart race and our blood flow. When we encounter such images, we know we are inherently reading something well written, something good. We will have hit pay dirt, as a professor of mine would so eloquently put it. It's images such as this that stir the emotions:

Hugh concentrated on his crusted eyes, forced all he had into opening them. And after a supreme effort, the stuck lashes parted with little crust-breaking sounds. Blue instantly flooded into his old gray eyes. There was an unusually clear sky overhead. Yellow light was striking up into blue. That meant it was morning. If rust and pink had been sinking away under blueblack it would have been late afternoon. Also, a few birds were chirping a little. That proved it was morning. Birds never chirped in the late afternoon in August. At least not that he knew of (Fred Manfred, Farming Words, 17).

The next critical element of any story is the point of view. The perspective with which the story will be told will influence its scope, breadth, and intimacy to the reader. It can be as impersonal as the omniscient third person to as intimate as first person. It can draw a reader in to the character's inner thoughts or give us only the surface of the story. Point of view can give the story its bearings. It is with point of view that we shape another layer of flesh onto our story.

There are several points of view to choose from. There is first, second, and third person. First person is typically described as the “I” perspective and we are told the story through one person's intimate point of view. Second person actually addresses the reader in the form of “you,” placing the reader directly into the story. Finally, third has its own divisions: omniscient, limited, and objective. The necessary distance for the author telling the story will determine the point of view.

One point of view will work for a story, and yet not for another. If, for instance, one were to rewrite a published work in a new point of view, the possibility is very likely that it would fail. The point of view used was chosen for a particular and deliberate reason. It fit the characters and the imagery chosen for the story. To change it would change the story's entire meaning and perspective. Certain details would no longer match or be rendered obsolete. Other details would, in turn, become significant.

Take for instance, the novel Threads by Nell Gavin. The main character, Anne Boleyn, a historical person, is presented in the first person. This intimate level of point of view is absolutely necessary to connect the reader to this controversial figure in history. We are brought into her inner mind and begin to care deeply for the things that she might have cared for in life. The fictional account takes us into a realm of possibility that would be limited if we were to place it into the omniscient or third person limited. Put it in either of these perspectives, and the novel could shift to lean towards Henry or other historical figures found at his court. It's the first person point of view of Anne that gives us the sympathy to connect with her instead.

In contrast, The Grapes of Wrath must be written in the omniscient point of view. Its breadth and subject is too grand for a narrow perspective. To understand the magnitude of what Steinbeck is presenting to the reader, we must be able to see and know what the narrator knows at all times. It provides us the tools to properly interpret the novel in the way it was meant to be read. Its social commentary would have lost much of its effect if had been told from the perspective of one single individual experiencing the Great Depression. We would not recognize it for its gritty realism or regard it as important if the point of view had been different.

Consequently, neither of these perspectives would have worked for the fantasy series the Belgariad/Malloreon by David Eddings. For this, we must experience the story through the third person limited. We can jump from one character to another, but we are limited by whichever character we are following. We begin the series with Garion, and we experience everything through him in the first two books. It is through Garion that we learn what the story will be about, what dangers lurk for the heroes, and what the quest will ultimately be. When he learns something, we as a consequence, learn as well. If Eddings had put it into the first person or the omniscient, we would have been locked into one singular point of view or told too much too soon.

Finally, setting is as important as character, imagery, and voice. It is the anchor for the other three. With no setting, there is no location for the story to take place in. We will have no way to use our five senses to present vivid writing to the reader. Setting gives us a place and a time. It lets us know where in relation we are. Setting does not, however, simply tell us when and where the story is taking place. It can also set the mood and let us know how to feel about the action taking place on the page. We can see that much more clearly what is happening and why when we are given the description of the places our characters live in.

The Lord of the Rings fantasy series relies very much on setting. Middle Earth is brought to life on the page in painstaking detail and it remains with the reader long after the book has been put down. Mirkwood forest seems to leap off of the page and into our collective minds. We can see the Shire. We have no problem envisioning Shelob's lair. The imagery of the setting is so vivid that we have a sense that we have personally visited the lands of Middle Earth.

In the novel Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken, we can envision quite clearly the vaudeville stage as it must have been during its hey day. Yet, it is not why the setting was ultimately chosen. It is in juxtaposition to what the story is about: the rise of a friendship and its slow, eventual death. The setting is a metaphor, a way for McCracken to set the mood of the story. We are drawn into the story because of this parallel demise of both vaudeville and friendship.

Now that we've established what both mechanics and craft are, though, then what is a writer to do?

Good writers will approach any work of fiction with craft first and foremost in mind. They will take all of the elements discussed above and build their story carefully. They will consider all of the elements not as singular features, but as a whole. They will consider how each fit together and why, what will work and what will not, and who their intended audience exactly should be.

Crafting good fiction takes into account that it is a trial and error process, that several rewrites will be necessary to capture the correct characterization, image, voice, or setting. It may take a few attempts to discern the correct mood. It will take time to find the character's voice, if one should use dialect or not, what point of view fits the character. It will take effort and exploration of the character to find what that character truly wants or needs. The good writer will investigate the setting, especially if it is exotic, through research, or if fantastical, through careful thought and imagination. The good writer will add and cut images as necessary to fit their work. All of these elements working together in concert will help the story reach the reader as intended.So, then, where do the mechanics come in? In the revision period, of course. Those that focus too heavily on mechanics in the early stage of craft can become extremely frustrated or bogged down. Too focused on where a comma should be placed and when can pull a writer from their imaginative mind and into their technical at the wrong time. The time to go over a manuscript and check for double periods or wrong homophones or badly placed commas is in the revision process---preferably after not reading the work for at least a day.

The good and great author separate themselves from the amateur or inexperienced writer by the amount of work they put into their craft first, and their mechanical polishing second. A good writer will wish to make their work as accessible to the reader by making sure that they've crossed all their t's and dotted all their i's so to speak. Mechanics are what will make the story flow easily without difficulty, but it is the subtle skeleton one should never have need to notice. If one is reading to notice the errors, they have also turned their technical mind on as reader and are missing the writer's message.

Ultimately, those that favor mechanics or craft alone are missing the entire point concerning the creative written word. It is a happy marriage between the two. To do both well is what will make one great. However, it is also said in the writing community that the rules are learned so they can be broken. Once one knows the rules, the way things work, they can then turn them upside down, topsy turvy, and make writing itself fresh again.

The rules are tools, just as craft is a guideline to follow, but there is one inherent truth to creative writing that still remains: it cannot be taught. It must be learned, and one can only do so through trial and error, experimentation, and yes, even breaking the rules.

 


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