(Alexandra Burt is our guest author today. Born in Germany, she moved to Texas, married, and worked as a freelance translator. Determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations, the union never panned out. She decided to tell her own stories. Her books include Remember Mia and The Good Daughter. She is working on her third novel.)
I feel awkward telling my readers that growing up I never had an inclination toward becoming a writer. Too often I’ve heard of authors writing since they were children. Jane Austen is known to have flexed her creative muscle as a teenager, writing sentimental stories to entertain her family and Virginia Woolf produced magazines about family outings. Their early efforts prepared them for dozens of novels they would write later in life.
I had never written a single word until about seven years ago. Reading a particularly bad book, I thought I could do better as if armed with my love of reading was enough to write a breakout novel. I spare you the details. Let me just say it became apparent that much was to be learned and it took years to pen a story that was remotely well crafted, coherent, and entertaining.
If you want to write, there’s good news and bad news. The good news first: you can become a solid and successful writer without coming from any sort of literary DNA or being born with a pen in your little clumsy hand destined to take the world by storm. The bad news is that you have to put in the time and learning the craft of writing is hard work. Like… hard work.
I went after it with a baseball bat. Hours a day. Every day. I read, I enrolled in classes, studied books on writing, and I wrote. Every day. I still wrote badly and did so for a very long time. See, epiphanies and experience take time, no ifs, ands, and buts about it, but eventually my stories became coherent. What I learned along the way was that craft was nothing more than using the tools of the trade and we all know what a good story calls for: a hook, a compelling setup, a killer plot, thrilling beginnings followed by perfect middles, completed by satisfying endings. The tools of the trade are nothing more than the application of POV, tense, dialogue and action, narrative and exposition. All those tools at your disposal allow you to masterly lure the reader into the worlds of your characters.
But having those tools does not a book make.
A novel is like a wristwatch; there’s the rather unassuming case that houses the watch mechanism, a clock face, and two hands. Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But crack open that case and intricate parts and mechanisms become apparent; there are springs controlled by more springs, unwinding into a controlled and periodic release of time. A force is transmitted through a series of gears which oscillate back and forth and with each swing of the balance wheel the hands move forward at a constant rate. And in the background you hear a constant ‘ticking’ sound. Like a wrist watch uses a mechanical apparatus to measure the passage of time, a writer—unbeknownst to the reader—aligns the elements of an intricate story at a certain pace and in the end, if the writer times it just right, the reader will rejoice and give you their time and feel as if they’ve been in good hands.
But there’s more. There’s a part of writing I call art. If craft is execution, art is the design of the novel. If craft is the metal case that houses the watch mechanism, the clock face and the hands, the screws that hold it all together, the springs and gears, then art is the way you put the parts together, the way they connect with fickle timing, and the constant ticking in the background. Like every single component inside a watch, the individual parts must be assembled just right to tell time accurately, to produce that tick tick tick. It’s nothing you do overtly. It’s not like you sit down and tell yourself I’m going to produce a work of art. It’s just you telling a story the way only you can. So in a way you are your art.
See, you are all you have and if you are so inclined, take the leap and tell a story. Steady and balanced, combine craft and art, build something that causes a ticking sound in the background, alive like the beat of a heart.