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Writing is like a clock... what?

I've been asked many times what attracted me to crime fiction and the answer is easy enough; I didn’t choose crime fiction, crime chose me. There's always been a 'trend', my favorite movies were full of suspense, the books I loved kept me on the edge of my seat, and a crime happened to be at the very center of each and every story I wrote. After that much murkier waters are exposed: how do you write a thrilling crime book without giving away the twist?

A mystery novel reminds me of 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.

The playing field is pretty level: 26 letters and 14 pieces of punctuation and with those you can remake the world. Any world you want. Standard issue for every writer, if you will. You tuck those lovingly in your backpack and start marching. While you’re on your way, you’ll meet fellow writers and you get to talking. There will be heated conversations and intense exchanges when it comes to talent versus craft, fierce exchanges even. Eyes tear up. Rowdy voices boom, coffee spills, fists hit tables.

Let me simplify it for you: Generally, (apart from geniuses) people are not born with an innate talent for writing. Some are however born with a passion for storytelling and they dedicate their lives to learning the craft.

Now the proverbial good news and bad news: On one hand you can become a solid writer without originating from any sort of literary DNA or being born with a pen in your little clumsy hand destined to take the world by storm, on the other hand you have to put in the time and learning the craft of writing is hard work and it takes years to pen a story that is remotely well crafted.

I went after the craft with a baseball bat. Hours a day. Every day. I read, I enrolled in classes, studied books on writing, and I wrote. Every day. Badly in the beginning and for a long time but soon my stories became coherent. What I learned along the way is that craft is 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, forcing them to look through the eyes of the victim or the killer.

Craft is a formula, calling for a set-up, plot points (crisis, climax, resolution) culminating in a final twist, and a hero we can root for. 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.

If craft is pure 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 what is the art of the watch? Art is in the way the parts are put together, the way they connect with fickle timing, and the constant ticking in the background. Being a writer, what exactly is your art?

It’s what you do and how you do it. You are art. Your art is the way you choose to be in this world. Your writing is your art, the books on your bookshelf are your art. Your art is the character you came up with out of thin air, the personality you created with depth and motivation, fears, and nuances and complexity. Your art is the way you style your sentences and how you re-purpose words.

As for myself, art is also work space arrangement and collecting physical items for inspiration. I amass objects that are part of the story I’m working on; a plastic Tinkerbelle, a 1930's Columbia Encyclopedia edition, sand and shells from a beach, a brooch from an antique shop.

Art is also any habitual ritual you perform before you put words on paper; Alexander Dumas ate an apple beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris every morning. Short of snacking in the shadows of famous monuments, please indulge in pre-writing rituals to your heart’s content. Pavarotti’s booming tenor, a jog through the park, the scent of Bergamot tea; it all makes for great conversations at book signings.

It’s okay to be weird, no one’s watching.

(c) Alexandra Burt

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