The Importance of Craft (and I’m not talking about the American Cheese slices!)
I think there is a common misconception among some adult readers about YA and MG – a misconception that all books in those genres are formulaic. I can say with complete honesty that I have read far more YA books that are innovative than not. Just like the generation they are about, YA books are cutting edge in all the best ways.
Which brings me to craft. We all have our own influences. Some people have MFA degrees (I have one in poetry.) Some people had an amazing creative writing teacher in high school who encouraged them to contribute to the literary magazine or to try NaNoWriMo. Some people came into writing through the amazing books they read. Maybe they tried writing fan fiction first as a tribute to these books. There are so many avenues that bring us to the place where we pick up the pen/open up MS Word.
Regardless, there are three rules or guidelines that I follow when writing – and I didn’t need an MFA degree to learn them.
1. Every word matters.
Some of my favorite lines from books are perfect because of one or two specific words that make them so memorable and make them resonate.
“I on my part give up the uncertainty of eternal rest and go out into the dark where may be the blackest things that the world or the nether world holds!” Bram Stoker’s Dracula
“Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.” Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
“The world of adults feels like a universe that has reached the end of its expansion and is inexorably collapsing back in on itself.” R.A. Nelson, Teach Me
2. Novels don’t have a specific form. They have a case, the cover, that holds the pages inside. Other than that, the format is fair game.
What do I mean? Here are some examples that I adore:
- Amy Reed’s Clean, where she switches in and out of various formats, including a confessional, stream-of-conciousness type of list that splays the whole page
- Ellen Hopkin’s books, which use verse of course, but also use different types of verse, different rhyming techniques, and lovely sounds
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula yet again, because he so deftly introduces multi-genre writing to the gothic prose era. There are journal entries, medical reports, articles, letters. It’s a masterpiece.
- Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, which slips in and out of the past and present in a way that makes everything seem relevant and full of momentum.
3. Your craft takes time and time doesn’t really end.
Maya Angelou (and Oprah) say, “When you know better, you do better.” I love what my books have become — the influence of my editors has been instrumental in creating a lovely, fun, mysterious, romantic, spicy story. However, since then, I’ve read a lot. I’ve written more. And my writing is getting better. I hope that kind of improvement never stops.
It’s been ten years since I graduated from my MFA program, but it’s taken those ten years out of school to turn me into a YA writer. You develop craft over time and through influences. It’s not self-made. It doesn’t grow on trees. It doesn’t strike you, like lightning. Those are inventions or ideas. But, it’s those ideas that you flesh out, that you worry at, that you meddle with again and again until you’ve managed to spit them out and turn them into something that matters.
It’s not the wheel we’re creating here. It’s the vehicle.