On the Perfection Practice Makes • Artistic Craftsmanship

Confession time: I have a problem.

A dialog problem.


If there’s anything I learned early on, it’s that the professional discovers his weaknesses as quickly as possible and moves to mend them. That’s why they tell you to never tell a poker pro if you discover their tell — they’ll correct it at the first opportunity.

That includes artists. The pros correct at the first chance.

Artistic craftmanship is a must, for tools are insufficient. In fact, the moment the artist stops refining his skills, his art decays.

As my beta readers worked (and keep working) through my current novel in progress, they kept critiquing the dialog in ways that echo the critiques of a long-term beta of mine. He often said that my kids are geniuses and my adults are idiots. At the time of writing this, much of my fourth novel is communicated through dialectic abstractions rather than something like real conversation.


At the same time, I’ve been talking with a counselor in Manhattan about some of the more traumatic things that happened to me and that I caused to happen over the course of my life. In the process, he’s getting me to admit (finally) that I tend to intellectualize my inner life, turning it all into abstractions rather than talking about it head-on.

Now before I go further, I’d like to mention two things. One is that I’m working on an article that I hope the staff at The Millions will like, but even if they don’t, I’ll still post it here in a few weeks. The article shows that whatever we encounter in a work of fiction, we do not encounter the person of the author. I’m not looking to argue the point here — that’s the article’s job — so let’s just say I’ve made that assumption.

When I say I’ve discovered this bad habit in my personal conversation and that it makes a clean counterpoint with a weakness in my writing, I doubt that the reverse can be concluded: therefore, fiction is memoir or autobiographical.

What is true, however, is that bad habits in life translate into bad habits in artistic craftsmanship. As I learn to express things simply as a normal person, I’m learning to do so in my fiction. And my dialog is improving.

But there’s also the practice side of things. McKee says it this way in Story ::

If your dream were to compose music, would you say to yourself: ‘I’ve heard a lot of symphonies… I can also play the piano… I think I’ll knock one out this weekend’ ? No. But that’s exactly how many screenwriters begin: “I’ve seen a lot of flicks, some good and some bad… I got A’s in English… vacation time’s coming…”

If you hoped to compose, you’d head for music school to study both theory and practice, focusing on the genre of symphony. After years of diligence, you’d merge your knowledge with your creativity, flex your courage, and venture to compose. Too many struggling writers never suspect that the creation of a fine screenplay is as difficult as the creation of a symphony, and in some ways more so. Fore while the composer scores with the mathematical purity of notes, we dip into the messy stuff known as human nature.

The novice plunges ahead, counting solely on experience, thinking that the life he’s lived and the films he’s seen give him something to say and the way to say it. Experience, however, is overrated. Of course we want writers who don’t hide from life, who live deeply, observe closely. This is vital but never enough. For most writers, the knowledge they gain from reading and study equals or outweighs experience, especially if that experience goes unexamined. Self-knowledge is the key — life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.

As for technique, what the novice mistakes for craft is simply his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, film, or play he’s ever encountered. As he writes, he matches his work by trial and error against a model built up from accumulated reading and watching. The unschooled writer calls this ‘instinct,’ but it’s merely habit and it’s rigidly limiting. He either imitates his mental prototype or imagines himself in the avant-garde and rebels against it. But the haphazard groping toward or revolt against the sum of unconsciously ingrained repetitions is not, in any sense, technique, and leads to screenplays clogged with clichés of either the commercial or the art house variety.

This hit-or-miss struggle wasn’t always the case. In decades past screenwriters learned their craft either through university study or on their own in a library, through experience in the theatre or in writing novels, through apprenticeship to the Hollywood studio system, or through a combination of these means.

McKee goes on, but that’ll do for now.

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As much as I would love to have a yogi master — a Stephen King or a Neil Gaiman or a Cormac McCarthy — take me under their wing, that’s not happening any time soon and probably never. When the pupil is ready, the teacher shall appear. And I might cave in a year or five and finally apply to Hunter College for an MFA under Peter Carey, but unfortunately I have neither the time or the funds for that at present.

Which, for me, means that my options are (1) cross-training and (2) study through the library. Those of you who have been here awhile know I’m a huge advocate of autodidacticism — of teaching yourself, of getting an full education for $1.50 in late fees at your local library.

If I’m being brutally honest?

I’ve been at this for ten years. I’ve sold stories. I’ve made a decent  chunk of money coaching other people who are a couple of steps behind me on the journey. All of that and more.

And I don’t have it figured out. Not even close.

So even though I’m happy to say I sold another story yesterday and even though the editor who bought it asked to see more, I worked on my craft before the dawn this morning. Instead of starting another story or working on my fifth novel or even prewriting that massive fantasy series I’ve always wanted to write, I instead stole a trick out of Hunter S. Thompson’s playbook.

I cracked open my copy of The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway and began typing the words:

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton…

Rather than work on any pet project, this season I’m writing The Sun Also Rises from start to finish. As I go, I’m making simple comments in the margins on passages like the following ::

“Hello, Robert,” I said. “Did you come in to cheer me up?”
“Would you like to go to South America, Jake?” he asked.

  • Jake’s lonely in this scene. He’s looking for legitimate company that will stick around. Robert’s looking for someone to make him start living his life, to help him initiate something good and honorable. They keep it up through this scene, two simple goals, and never talking about it head-on.

I’m making comments on every line. The comments are simple, but they’re illuminating as I ask ::

  • Why did you laugh at that? and
  • Why do you feel frustrated for him? and
  • Why are you angry?  and
  • Why did that work? and
  • How are they talking?

I did something like this two or three years ago for my friend who writes over at Kinnaston. He loved the book All the Pretty Horses and was having a hard time understanding the difference between personal, interpersonal, and external conflict. So I went through and highlighted each instance of each form of conflict through the whole of the novel. The exercise helped me too as I did it.

But writing Hemingway’s novel and commenting on it is extremely illuminating. Already up to 3,600 words and on Chapter 3 — it’s a great exercise to get me going in the morning.

In the end, they say practice makes perfect. That’s true of the elder and the younger alike — thus the picture of the old man and the young man both using the teeball tee.

We call the kind of perfection practice makes “craftsmanship.” Great works of art we call “well-crafted” — they have, through the practiced hands of their creators, reflected the big “b” Beauty behind the worlds. 

How are you working on
your artistic craftsmanship?


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cover image by surlygirl entitled
“papa and sam”

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