In writing, we tend to think about craft in categories: plot, characterization, dialogue, description, and so on. Like any craftsmen, such is our training. To learn the mechanics of technique, we must learn each technique individually, just as artists learn color and symmetry separately.
But craft only becomes art when those techniques cease to be individual disciplines. You can teach plot and characterization as separate entities, but can you build a successful plot without building compelling characters? Can you create compelling characters without testing their mettle through the plot? A master writer blends his techniques together so that they become completely indivisible, almost impossible to distinguish from each other entirely.
So where do we fall on the craft hierarchy? And how can we reach the next step? Are we the eager apprentices, still learning individual techniques? The journeymen who have transitioned from technique mastery to creating our first masterpieces? Or are we the master craftsmen, with scores of publishing credits to our names?
And why does it matter where we stand? I suppose the name we put on our progress doesn’t matter…but our mindset does. When we’re still thinking of craft as puzzle pieces rather than blendable matter like paint, we still haven’t mastered the craft. And that’s okay. Mastery comes with application. That’s why so many authors have a stack of unpublished manuscripts. Practice novels.
Still, there’s something to be said for categorizing techniques. Breaking them apart allows us to delve deeply into such topics as pacing and narrative, understanding them more fully. We can’t become masters of the craft without such knowledge.
Not only that, but even a master writer must go back to these basics now and then. A true master knows that improving your craft is a process that never ends—one which is built on the foundation of individual techniques. Have you ever loved an author’s first two books only to be utterly disappointed in her fourth and fifth? Review is essential. Technique is an ongoing study.
It’s all about balance. Plot, characterization, dialogue, description: we seek to balance them in our novels the way painters seek balance on the canvas. The individual applications of color theory, symmetry, proportion, shape, and light come together not as puzzle pieces, but as a unified whole.
The master artist uses technique the way he uses paint—he mixes those basic colors together on his palette. We must do the same on the page.