(This post originally ran on The Heroine Addicts in January, 2013, but I'm re-posting it here because now that I'm nearing the end of one book and the start of another, I'm thinking about this again…)
Often when I'm asked by other people to describe a writer's life, I use analogy. I tell them writing is a craft, and that like any craftsperson, a writer starts rock-bottom: as apprentice to the masters.
Like a cabinet-maker learning how to craft a chest of drawers, the writer takes the tools in hand, and learns the use of them, the tricks of them—the way to make a smoother-sliding drawer, to make the joints dovetail more neatly; how to polish and to decorate the piece until it's pleasing to the eye. Learn these lessons, and you'll make the upward climb of any craftsperson, no longer an apprentice but a journeyman, at work upon the masterpiece that will, in time, admit you as a worthy member of the guild.
That masterpiece is not, as many think, the greatest work you'll ever make—it's just the first work you produce that's at the level of the masters who have trained you. You still have new techniques to learn (and to invent), and if you are creative and work hard enough, you might just reach the level where a person only has to glimpse a chest of drawers to know that it was made by you.
Erle Stanley Gardner, a master of the craft himself—creator of that father of the modern courtroom drama, Perry Mason—once advised: "The beginning writer should write all types of stories for all sorts of markets until he has found his particular niche in the literary world. The veteran writer who would keep from going stale must take a fling at new slants, at new angles."
Because that's the challenge, isn't it? Once you've found your niche, as a writer—once you've learned to make that chest of drawers—what then? How do you keep the work from going stale? Sometimes a cabinet-maker tackles this by also making chairs, or desks, or bookshelves…but what if even your best bookshelf isn't quite up to the level of your chests of drawers? And what if chests of drawers are all the public really wants from you?
With every book, I like to push myself beyond what I've designed before; to try, as Gardner dares me to, new angles.
With the book I’m writing now, for example, I’m juggling not two but three voices in my dual-timeline story, and one of those voices is male—a point of view I haven’t written from since my first (and mercifully long-out-of-print) novel.
I'm never sure I've got the proper tools to do this sort of thing. I have to rummage round to find them, or make new ones, and I definitely have to learn new skills, but that's all part of what, for me, keeps writing so fun and exciting.
But it’s always a balancing act, trying to learn my craft better while still giving readers the things they love best, that they’ve come to expect.
As a reader, do you like it when writers try new angles? And as a writer, what keeps you from going stale?