Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Does Creativity Trump All?

Kia Abdullah suggested this topic a few weeks back.

In her words: "Should writers know their dangling modifiers from their past participles or does creativity trump all?"

In my words: how important is creativity over craft?

And if your answer is "they're both important," what's the mix? Could someone carry a story through sheer storytelling creative genius alone or do they need some adherence to novel-writing conventions?






209 comments:

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Surly Jason said...

Some good, famous books pay no attention to rules of grammar or tradition--all that stuff is about making it understandable to the reader anyway ... so if it's readable without "the rules", then so be it. Creativity is less important than engaging the audience.

Alan Orloff said...

73 percent creativity, 21 percent craft, 6 percent magic.

Lori said...

Without creativity, you don't have a story. Creativity is what sets your work apart from others.

Lori said...

Surly Jason

I think that creativity IS the way to engage your audience...

Martha Brockenbrough said...

You have to know your dangling modifiers and your past participles. Words, punctuation, syntax: these the tools of the trade. If you haven't mastered this basic stuff, you won't have the control over the language that you need to excel. Creativity is important, too. It might look like insanity, though, if it's expressed in a fashion you didn't intend.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to have enough grammar so that your writing makes sense and people don't trip over it, but dangling modifiers and past participles are the things that copy editors are fore.

I've published over eight books and have four more in the pipeline, and while I have an instinctive grasp of these things, they aren't what I focus on when I write. And when writing dialog? It all goes out the window for the sake of authenticity.

Also, the older I get (am 45) the more I forget what those rules even are. And the more I write under deadline, the less distance I have with which to catch those errors.


So IMHO,it's important, but not the be all, end all, as long as you have a basic grasp of grammar.

Others will most likely disagree.

Karen Rivers said...

I think that it's rare that a story can rise above sloppy writing, or maybe just that sloppy writing gets in the way of a reader being absorbed into a story. I guess by "a reader", I mean "me" because there are tons of examples of writers who do not actually write good novels BUT tell captivating stories that succeed in spite of themselves and make me crazy.

Then there is Dan Brown, who is a pretty good example of how writers don't even have to use words correctly or honour basic rules of dialogue in order to make billions of dollars and engage millions of readers. So what do I know? Nothng, that's what. What was I saying again? I've forgotten the question. I get distracted by a crushing wave of self-doubt whenever I mention Dan Brown.

Anonymous said...

Hah! Kind of proved my point there, didn't I.

FOR, not fore, obviously...

Ink said...

Lori,

And without craft you don't have a very good story... and craft can set you apart just as easily as creativity.

I think you need a definite mix. And, um, I have no idea of the ratio. Maybe because it'll be different for every writer and every book...

Tricia said...

It is a combination of craft (30%) and creativity (70%) but 100% timing.

Anonymous said...

I'm with the creativity crowd. The same story has been retold since time began. Only the way it's told changes.

Mary Jo

Fran Ontanaya said...

It's a misleading distinction, since both are tied to intelligence and practice. It would be like arguing if dancing or running makes you a better athlete.

Susan Quinn said...

If there's anything that New Media tells us, it's that the story trumps everything. Stories - oral, written, visual - are what captures the imagination. As long as the story is accessible to the audience, that's really all that matters.

And thank God for editors.

Carol Benedict said...

I think it's rare for a writer to ignore the convential rules and still pull off a story that appeals to the masses. However, without some creativity, a grammatically correct story will fall flat.

My feeling is that an understanding of the basic principles of grammar and story structure will benefit a creative story just as creativity can make an academic topic sound interesting. The mix--maybe 70% structure, 30% creativity?

Those who are talented enough to thwart convention and create their own rules--such as Orson Scott Card with his Alvin series--still usually follow a pattern that a reader can adapt to, enriching the story rather than obscuring it.

SM Blooding said...

60% creativity. 40% technical knowledge.

This technical knowledge isn't just grammar; it's pacing, structural elements, weaving, plot layers, Voice, style, research every single tool a writer needs.

Creativity is far from everything. It just gets the ball rolling.

Would you like to hear that your surgean didn't want to learn anatomy?

No. So, what's the difference?

Oh, but wait. Alan is right. There is some "magic" to the whole thing, but, um, I didn't factor that in. Hmm...

Paige Bruce said...

Technique is probably more important than most people give credit to.

I think when you're just starting to take writing seriously, when you're first ready to set pen to paper for the first time, technique is 50/50 to creativity. You might have the ideas, but if you don't know how to get it down, then what's the point? This might be well before you're ready to write a good enough manuscript to sell.

Eventually, those writing rules get so ingrained into you though, that suddenly, you don't need to focus on them anymore. You have a natural flow to your writing, and that's when creativity really needs to take over. So at that point, I'd say 80/20 for creativity.

I had a teacher who once told me. "You have to master the rules before you can break them." Feels true to me. If you don't have that foundation of technical knowledge, you ain't going anywhere. Once you've got it though, you can do whatever you want.

Travener said...

First you learn the rules. Then you can break them. A book that follows Strunk's Elements of Style 100 percent 100 percent of the time is going to be a boring read.

Tim Susman said...

You need both. Creativity is critical, but a creative story that's unreadable because the author doesn't know basic rules of grammar or punctuation is like a beautiful cake in which the cook forgot the sugar. You want to like it, you want to keep eating it, but it's just too painful.

bookthingo said...

I think it's both. I think you can tell a ripping good story with serviceable craft. However, for a story to endure as a work of art, I think good craft is essential. To me, craft isn't about "novel-writing conventions". It's about the appreciation for and love of words and how they're used and what they mean. You can be creative and not write a story. Writing a story is about how you use words to express your creativity.

Fawn Neun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natalie Whipple said...

I had the ideas—the creativity. I'd had several agents tell me they loved my idea, but I didn't execute it well enough.

It wasn't until I learned to take that fabulous idea and truly polish it up that I got an agent to sign me.

So while of course good ideas are essential, writers can't underestimate the importance of craft.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

In my slush pile, sloppy attention to grammar almost unilaterally equals sloppy attention to working storytelling conventions. To me, it's like doing math problems without using the signs and expecting someone to understand what you're doing. I fail to understand why people view grammar and creativity as being at odds. They both contribute to the whole: hopefully a good story.

jjdebenedictis said...

A story lives or dies based on how good the storytelling is.

The prose only needs to be competent enough to be invisible to the reader.

Which is not to say a writer shouldn't strive to be great at both craft and art--but they only need to be decent at crafting sentences. They need to be great at the art of sweeping the reader up in a story.

Chuck H. said...

Obviously, since I remain unagented and unpublished, I don't have a clue. My personal opinion is that without creativity there's no story but if there is a story and it is told with total disregard for syntax and conventions, I'm not going to stick with it for very long. I'm going to go with 50/50. But like I said above, what the hell do I know?

Fawn Neun said...

First of all, I don't see "craft" as the grammar, spelling, punctuation. Those are "mechanics". Craft is structure, character development, plot progression, etc.

Creativity trumps the mechanics.

The English language has survived so long because of it's adaptability. The way we build sentences changes, our vocabulary grows and drops dead wood. English adapts itself to the people using it.

I'm pretty sure that my old and spiteful English teacher is rolling in her grave, but... if the way people use the language isn't reflected in the mechanics, then the story can't do its job of conveying meaning.

We no longer drive Model A's either, although we continue to take Sunday drives.

Craft is knowing the road, having a plan of travel and having enough gas to get there.

Creativity trumps the mechanics, I don't care about the vehicle.

Creativity ALMOST trumps the craft. If the ride is wild enough, I don't care that the author isn't sure how to get there, although I might feel a bit lost and angry in the end when I have to walk home by myself. At least it's an experience I'll remember.

All I ask is for the author to take me somewhere special.

MattDel said...

I'm with Natalie (and everyone with similar views) on this one.

Creative ideas are a great thing to have but, without the technical knowledge to execute them well, you fall flat.

My wife is fond of saying she's an "idea person" more than someone who executes the ideas. Which is fine, really, except a stellar writer needs to be both.

As with any rule though, there's always exceptions. Timing trumps everything.

Clarity said...

I think creativity is vital, absolutely but so is some measure of "truth", grabbing readers.

I am reminded of Salinger's little novel. That followed no conventions whatsoever, granted it was the "natural" voice of a teenager but still. Yes I think creativity is core, you can teach the rest I believe. Lord knows I need a few lessons in grammar.

Clarity said...

Fawn Neun, that was quite astute.

Bruce Pollock said...

In this highly competitive age, anything less than 110% craft and 110% creativity (with perhaps 88% good contacts) and you don't stand a chance.

Anonymous said...

We think in words. The very concept of "story" is tied to language. Therefore, in order to tell a good story, one has to have a good command of the language.

A very good writer said "there's nothing new under the sun." I.e. every story has already been told, more or less. It's HOW you tell it that matters.

Is that craft or creativity? I saw they are two arms on the same body.

:)Ash said...

I'm going to disagree with the majority, and say craft first, creativity second.

Without "craft", it doesn't matter how creative you are; you won't be able to write your brilliant story.

This is why having a genius idea isn't enough. The best idea in the world doesn't matter if you can't WRITE.

Francesca said...

The difference between a writer who breaks the rules knowingly and thoughtfully and one who breaks them because she doesn't know how to follow them is completely evident. The rules can be made to serve us, but only if we master (mistress?) them first. Otherwise, creativity isn't resting on bedrock but on sand.

Karen Rivers said...

I should have read your last blog post before mentioning Dan Brown. But honestly, he's the first person that came to mind when addressing the creativity vs. the "rules". He's a storyteller, full stop.

[Backpedal, backpedal...]

I don't hate Dan Brown, but I AM jealous (I am! I freely admit it!) and sincerely perplexed by his overwhelming success.

Anonymous said...

Oops, "saw" = "say."

(And we still do need editors!)

Scott said...

I just stuffed all the percentages offered here into a Ronco Number Cruncher™ and the answer appears to be 50/50. Whaddya know? ;^)

I think it depends on age groups, genre, plot-driven v. language fueled, and probably several other tangible and intangible criteria. Which leads me to believe the 50/50 is correct.

For my style, language and its correct usage is paramount to engaging the reader. My plots tend to be on the simpler side, allowing me to go deeper into characters and themes. But as a reader, if I want a page turner that burns like fast food, than I'm more forgiving of usage and such.

Have to say I find it curious how Dan Brown and possibly Stephanie Myer are pretty much the only two examples I keep seeing supporting the "throw the rules out the window" theory. Is that all it takes for us to drop the style books? Two popular authors?

D. G. Hudson said...

Creativity is the breath of life that we inject into a story. Adherence to novel writing conventions is secondary in my opinion, but is needed to ground the story.

IMO, the novel needs to have a good supporting structure, needs to have a good 'flow' between the various plot lines and needs to follow a well-conceived story arc. (and using writing rules about grammar and syntax, etc.)

So, creativity is indeed the major part of a novel, but it may collapse if the foundation is faulty.

Percentages for this would be 70% creativity, 30% support structure.

Mercy Loomis said...

You need both. You need creativity to make a compelling story, but you need craft to get that story across. I think they are equally important.

As for specific grammar rules, part of creativity and craft is knowing what your voice should sound like. There are no hard fast rules. Third person will use different grammar than first person. Exposition uses different grammar than dialogue. The English language evolves, so the rules we learned in school may not apply to the way we actually speak. And sometimes you can throw things totally out the window and still have it work - and in those cases I think it's still equally creativity and craft that pulls it off.

But you have to have both. You have to know the rules before you can break them in a way that will work. I've read pieces by people that simply didn't have the linguistic knowledge, and those pieces didn't work. The lack of craft strangled the creativity.

Mira said...

I like what JJ said:

"The prose only needs to be competent enough to be invisible to the reader."

When the author doesn't have enough command of the craft to avoid continually breaking the reader's trance, the story won't engage the reader. The author will 'lose' the reader.

For myself, I struggle with grammer. I have noticed that the more competent I become with grammer and the craft, the more confident and powerful I feel as a writer.

So, I guess I think a writer must be a Master at creativity, but can get by as a Journeyman of craft. But being a Master of the craft can only enhance the writing.

A well-written phrase is a joy to read, and has beauty in it's own right.

As an aside, Natalie - your new profile picture is gorgeous.

Kristi said...

Mechanics are important but can be taught. The intuitive knack for storytelling cannot be taught - although it can be honed. Therefore for fiction, I believe creativity trumps, but doesn't negate, mechanics.

Marilyn Peake said...

That’s a really great question! I think it just depends. It also highlights the reason why reviewers and people in the book business with backgrounds in grammar and literature are invaluable. Cormac McCarthy likes to leave out apostrophes in some of his words like "don’t" because he doesn’t like them, his books are published that way, and his writing is beautiful. Experimental novels do all sorts of stuff, and it’s great that we have them. I think if people know how literature’s supposed to work, they can produce books that bend the rules for a reason. And then there are those books that tell a great story, are nowhere near great works of literature, but lots of people buy them – I’ll have to force myself to say this, although I really do believe it: We should have those books, too, because they tell compelling stories.

Tina Spear said...

Yes, you definitely need both. Creativity is essential to create a compelling story, but without the craft to support it you're like a cook with his hands bound behind his back.

LitWitch said...

If I can't appreciate your creativity because your "creative grammar" is distracting, then you lose your reader. Certainly a proper, correct read which is dry and boring is...well...dry and boring, so that's no good, either. Be creative, but best do so clearly and cleanly. Know the rules before you try breaking them, IMO.

Elise Logan said...

I think Fawn Neun has an excellent point: craft and mechanics are not necessarily the same thing, though there is overlap.

But, to answer the thrust of the question: you need creativity because without it, you don't have an interesting story to tell. You need mechanics to make sure that your reader can follow you into your story. You need craft to make sure your story is readable. Of the three, craft is probably the hardest to learn (IMHO), but there are a number of writers with a strong instinctive grasp of the fundamentals of craft, so that evens out.

If you asked me to rank them, I'd say craft is more important than creativity is more important than mechanics. However, the weighting is really key. If you looked at it as if the "importance" were a pie, I'd say 50% of that should be devoted to craft, 30% to creativity, and 20% to mechanics. If you fail the mechanics, you start with a B-grade product, so it's all important.

Bane of Anubis said...

Depends on genre...

For commercial fiction, b/c lots of readers aren't grammar buffs, craft isn't necessarily as important (the story just needs to be readable and inferrable to the lay person).

Creativity's a bit overrated, methinks. Pacing, tension, likability, relatability... these are more important than creativity, IMO... of course you need some of it sprinkled in there, too.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Creativity's most important. If the story is good enough, I tend to not notice slight grammatical errors and the like, often only catching them on a second read. However, I do believe it's important to know craft before breaking conventions. Cormac Macarthy can get away with his lack of punctuation because he knows what he's doing. If you have no idea how to write properly...well, you're going to have to be really, really creative to cover that up.

Bane of Anubis said...

After reading through, agree with the craft/mechanics delineation Fawn established, and thus agree with Elise's breakdown.

Phyllis said...

The first thing that came to mind was the famous Edison quote: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

In my own words: Craft channels creativity. Without the rules and tools, the creativity can't shine through. You can't know you are any good without knowing the rules.

And with rules I don't necessarily mean conventional story-telling and grammar. But if you want to abandon these rules, you must replace them with new ones, and they become your craft.

Wordy Birdie said...

Both! Plenty of people have great ideas, but not everyone can execute them well, and some folk not at all. If your choice is between the careful writer with a great idea and the sloppy writer with a great idea, which would you choose, Nathan?

And breaking rules is all very well, but I think that like Picasso, for example, one has to first EARN the right to break them by becoming proficient in one’s craft. Otherwise, what really separates the gifted, unfettered, free-thinking writer with a new form of art from just another misguided hack who thinks his ‘avant-garde’ style is the next big thing?

Scott said...

Very well said, Phyllis.

Matilda McCloud said...

I think it's about 50/50. I might pick up a book because I like the premise, but I will put it down after reading a few pages if it isn't well written. Generally, however, I can't get through a well written book if it doesn't have a fresh or interesting premise, a decent plot, etc.

Suzan Harden said...

When the story's so darn fabulous the reader doesn't notice the bad grammer and typos, then you've got a winner.

Anonymous said...

If I don't speak Russian, it doesn't matter that the greatest poetry in the world is written in Russian; I can't read it.

IME, as someone who spends a great deal of time conversing in forums, when someone can't spend the necessary time to make their comments readable, and I have to devote all my brain power just to figuring out what your words are, I don't have any left to figure out their meaning, or any artistry that might be behind them. Doesn't mean you have to be an English major, but don't try to tell me "Ebonics" is a language, or that you "could of" done better.

- A. Mouse

Amy Baskin said...

If I don't have the tools to convey it, my creativity is in a box in the back of the closet, next to the moth balls.

Jade said...

Well, setting aside the issue of personal tastes...

Craft is the medium through which your creativity is shown. Know your waters before you play in them.

Paul Neuhardt said...

Creativity helps you create and tell the story.

Craft is what gets the story from the pages of your book in to the reader's mind.

Neither does well without the other. A book that is all craft and no creativity is boring beyond belief. A book that is all creativity and no craft is a jumbled, useless mess.

Writing that succeeds in spite of it's flaunting of craft does so because the writer was so well versed in the craft that she knew how to effectively break the rules. Without that knowledge, success is a fluke, not a triumph of creation.

Angela Korra'ti said...

One little grammar error or misspelled word will pull me out of the flow of a story. Maybe not for long, but long enough that I'll wince and have to wrestle a moment to regain the flow.

So yeah. Count me as in favor of both creativity and craft being required, not only for the writer, but for the editor and copyeditor.

Dara said...

I think creativity plays a larger role BUT here has to be some adherence to grammar rules. Otherwise you'd novels all in textspeak o_O

Dara said...

Good grief, perhaps I should have proofread my comment. It should say:

"I think creativity plays a larger role BUT there has to be some adherence to grammar rules. Otherwise you'd have novels all in textspeak o_O"

Tsk, tsk, hitting the submit button before I read...

Mark Trainer said...

I don't really think it makes much sense to set craft and creativity in opposition to each other, as though more of one means less of the other.

Fawn Neun, I agree that language changes and adapts, but that can be a good or bad thing. When words with distinct meanings (imply, infer) blur into something indistinct, I think something's lost.

I think that writing that mangles grammar in a way that suggests the author is not in control of it is not going to have much authority. When I see you can't make a subject agree with a predicate, I'm less likely to think you're going to be a great tour guide in your storytelling.

The creativity is ultimately what your work will live or die by, but the ability of the reader to appreciate that creativity might have a lot to do with how well you can express yourself.

Ink said...

Interesting, really...

It seems like a bit of a nature versus nurture question. Creativity, in some senses, is what you have - a talent and desire for story, for imagination. Craft is what you learn, what you acquire after hours and hours of practice. 10,000 hours, perhaps, if you want true mastery.

And yet the two are so tangled that perhaps they're indivisible. There is no story without some craft (as without shaping language it's merely an idea)... and no craft without a story, without something to say. Maybe craft is merely applied creativity...

Emily White said...

I'd say the ratio is 50/50. What good is your creativity if you can't make your story coherent? You could have the most original story idea in the world but if you describe it with horrible run-on sentences or in all dialogue with no tags, no one's going to be focusing on the idea.

A good book has a handle on both creativity and craft. And the best authors out there know how to break the "rules" at the best times. Amateurs just break the rules because they don't know any better.

Anonymous said...

When I type in MS Word I have a lot of green, squiggly lines running under my sentences. It appears I'm a bit of a fragmented sentence writer. But who cares? Those poor little discombobulated words often pack a lot of creative punch. But I do agree you have to know the rules in order to break them.

nicola said...

You have to know the rules before you break them.

Picasso didn't just start painting pictures of women with noses in the middle of their foreheads. He knew anatomy and painting techniques--knew the rules. Then he broke them.

Robert McGuire said...

What matters is the effect on the reader, and so how far creativity will carry a work really depends a lot on the reader.

Readers will be put off by things that don't sound right for some reason, even if they couldn't describe the grammar rule being broken. If a broken subject/verb agreement doesn't sound right, no amount of creativity will patch it over. (Exception: when the rule-breaking serves the plot or characterization, as in the use of slang, dialect, naive first-person narrators, etc.)

Conversely, there are plenty of grammar rules that, when broken, don't sound off-putting. (I happen to think dangling modifiers is borderline in that category. Ending sentences with a preposition is more clearly in that category.) When writers get away with breaking those rules, it's not that creativity has carried the day. It's that there is nothing to get away with -- the rule just doesn't matter in the reader's mind.

Terry said...

I'd love to say creativity trumps all, but you need some command of the language in order to convey your thoughts properly. That's not to say you have to overfuss over every comma.

But without creativy there is no story, or a very dull one indeed. It's maybe 80% and I like Alan Orloff's magic tossed into the mix.

I'm with Raymond Chandler on this:

"Everything the writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say."

Beth Brezenoff, Senior Editor said...

As an editor and a reader, I think it's both--but you HAVE to have both. If you can't have both, you better be creative and have a good editor who's willing to put in the time (and you'll need to let them). You can be a technically strong writer and write the most boring book ever. You can be a great storyteller with a crappy grasp on the bones of writing, though, and with the help of a good editor, still make a great book. (Unfortunately, most editors working at publishing houses don't have time for that.)

scott g.f.bailey said...

I think the real question being asked here is: "Do I, as a writer, really need to have facility with language, or can I just have good story ideas?"

I think that's like a carpenter asking, "Do I really need to know my tools and materials, or do I just need to have good ideas?"

People who don't like working on their craft (or mechanics, as someone here said) will say that craft is unimportant.

Nick Kimbro said...

I don't get this distinction between creativity and novelistic conventions. Does a writer not demonstrate creativity by working WITH novelistic conventions, howbeit in interesting and innovative ways?

Whirlochre said...

Creativity is a fine card to hold, but you have to know how to play it.

A great idea is no good if it's rendered unintelligible.

That said, I'd rather read something unintelligible than anything 100% Strunk.

Laurel said...

Creativity trumps everything, but it morphs into craft. Voice is what draws the reader in, whether consciously or not. I can't stick with a story if I don't care what happens to the characters. Voice is the amalgam of creativity and craft and an interesting voice requires creativity.

Voice is what makes the same old plots fun to read again. A mystery gets solved, a romance has a happy ending, quests through unpronouncable mythical lands end with the triumph of good over evil. We know what's going to happen. We only care because we're involved with the character it happens to.

P. Grier said...

My middle schoolers, each year one or two of them tell me that their style is, "creative" and imply that I am stifling their genius with my rules.

giggle.

You have to have mastered the rules before you know how to break them for effect. Now, that doesn't mean you have to know the names for each weird little thing, nor do you have to be an expert at finding all the typos, but you do have to have the rules internalized. Some people do this by memorizing the rules and some people just know what they are doing without being able to say what each rule is.

Remus Shepherd said...

99% of writing a good story involves creativity.

99% of publishing a story involves things other than creativity -- technical prowess being one of the major components. (But not the largest, by far.)

Anonymous said...

To be honest, most readers wouldn't recognize a dangling modifer if it slapped them in the face and stole their wallet. Over half read at an 8th grade level or less.

I'm guessing that popular books are popular because people can actually read them.

Marilyn Peake said...

Ummm ... I don’t usually comment on this blog before having coffee, but this morning I did. And I actually ended my comment by saying, "And then there are those books that tell a great story, are nowhere near great works of literature, but lots of people buy them – I’ll have to force myself to say this, although I really do believe it: We should have those books, too, because they tell compelling stories." Well, I still believe that, even after my brain has woken up from my first cup of coffee. Had I been more awake, I would have added that, even though I believe those books should be published, I don’t think they should win literary awards, I think people should be allowed to call them "trash" (although not in a query letter or in writers’ forums, for goodness sake!) and reviewers should feel free to give those books bad reviews even if they do make a lot of money. Ahhhhh, coffee ... I feel like my normally caffeinated self again. :)

Rick Daley said...

I had to dig for this, I came up with these formulas while ago:

Good Writing + Good Story = Published Book, Bestseller

Bad Writing + Good Story = Publishable Book, chance at mainstream success because most people can't spot bad writing

Good Writing + Bad Story = Publishable Book, modest success because most people can't spot good writing, but everyone knows when the story blows

Bad Writing + Bad Story = Waste of paper and/or time.

Phyllis said...

@ Scott

Thanks!

jonathandanz said...

I don't think these concepts are mutually exclusive. Reasonably good grammar and syntax are part of good storytelling. Sure, there are tolerances with regard to this, but it doesn't matter how good the story is if the reader trips all over the language.

up so many floating bells down said...

Coming at this from a reader's point of view, if something that I am reading has too many errors, I cannot get past them. No matter how intriguing the story idea is, I have often dropped a book after the first several chapters if an author continues to make the same mistakes. So, yes, please! craft is indeed essential! (well, at least for me.)

Marilyn Peake said...

Rick -

Great insight!

Polenth said...

You need a basic grasp of how language goes together, or you won't make sense. People won't get to see your creativity if they can't understand it. Once you're past the basics, creativity is the big thing.

There's also knowing the rules and knowing the technical terms for the rules. I don't know what most of those things are without looking them up, but I understanding the underlying rule. I'd just describe it in my own words.

Merry Monteleone said...

I think craft trumps creativity. I know a lot of writers out there probably want to jump through their computer at me by that statement. But what I notice is that writers almost always tend to be naturally creative. The ones that succeed work hard at the craft.

And for anyone who thinks, "Yeah but the rules aren't as important as a great story! Look at all the bestsellers that ditch grammar for voice!"

You're right. Voice trumps grammar... but first you have to have a mastery of the rules before you can competently break them.

Of course, that's only my 2 cents, someone else might have a nickel's worth of different opinions:-)

John said...

I would have to ask for a definition of the terms "craft" and "creativity".

Is craft just technically correct grammar and prose?

Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men did not have a particularly creative plot line. However, his display of craft in character development makes the story exceptional.

In the hands of an exceptional writer, even a mundane premise becomes a beautifully told story.

Is that craft, or creativity. What is the difference?

Amalia T. said...

Honestly, I think it's more about knowing what you're good at and recognizing your weaknesses than anything else.

If you have creativity in spades, but suck with the actual language and grammar, as long as you KNOW that, and are willing to a) get the help you need from someone who has that stuff down cold and b) want to not make the same mistakes over and over again, then I don't think the dangling modifiers matter so much.

That being said, if all you have going for you are dangling modifiers, you might want to make sure you get some assistance in the creativity department. Make your family tell you their dreams and turn them into short stories, or maybe write nonfiction or essays.

Knowing what you're good at trumps EVERYTHING. That's my two cents.

Laura said...

50/50 for the win. I really don't think you can have a compelling story without one or the other.

I've read creative stories housed within a mess of grammatical error. And it drives me crazy! I usually only make it 1/4 of the way before I decided that the story may be compelling and original as hell, but it's just not worth the struggle.

And if you're looking for an agent, it's definitely a 50/50 mix. We've all heard about the queries that get deleted after too many grammatical snafus.

Great ideas do not equal great literature.

AM said...

Execution is everything.

Sure, we have to start with a great story, but then we have to tell it brilliantly.

Marsha Sigman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa Iriarte said...

I teach language arts and creative writing, and what I tell my students is that you must demonstrate knowledge of a rule before you can break it effectively. Grammar rules that are randomly broken make a work look sloppy and unprofessional, not creative. I can always tell whether a rule is broken intentionally or because the writer doesn't know any better. Prove your craft, then play with it.

Marsha Sigman said...

Nathan, you have to stop trolling my blog for ideas.

My Sunday post was about this very thing.
Short version is:
I think if you have creative talent then you can improve it by learning more about your craft.

If you do not have talent or any storytelling ability...all the knowledge in the world is not going to help you become a writer.

mlsfleming said...

My mentor and I grappled over this. My prescriptive nonfiction is written as I talk, with incomplete sentence punch lines or asides after the sentence. HE HATES it. But he also knows the voice is a chat with my women friends. So . . .m

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mlsfleming said...

My mentor and I grappled over this. My prescriptive nonfiction is written as I talk, with incomplete sentence punch lines or asides after the sentence. HE HATES it. But he also knows the voice is a chat with my women friends. So . . .

Eric said...

Start with equal parts both, then feed out as much rope as you can to Mistress Creativity until she starts strangling old man Craft with it.

Watery Tart said...

I think the rules and grammar need to be good enough to not distract, or you don't get the story across. That said, that stuff can all be learned, assisted, edited... the creativity can't be faked, so I'd give a 90% creativity score on whether something is going to work or not. Though anyone in that 10th percentile on skill for the others definitely needs to become best friends with an editor.

Anonymous said...

Creativity trumps all.

But learning how to use language just makes the story so much better.

Sometimes a story is so good that the misses in language can't kill it.

For example, I have heard a lot of criticism of the Twilight series writing -BUT what a story!!!
Who cares about the writing when the story is so compelling.

Sometimes too much low-brow writing kills a story too -robs it of its romance and tension and beauty.

Writing is an art form and craft only backs it up.

I find it interesting that Stephen King cares so much about writing when he writes from and to and about a blue-collar audience.

I also have friends for whom English is not a first language and boy, can they tell a story!

I have also seen English professors write themselves into isolation using sophisticated wordsmithing and vocabulary use that maybe three people (other English professors?) would cluck their heads at admiring it. (i.e they write their would-be audiences right out of the book.)

Ialso just read a book that broke the rules (almost all tell, little show,all the telling from inside the characters heads, head hopping) and it was a lively good read and the author continues to successfully publish book after book because the books, the stories are magical, fun, relateable, interesting, human, and grow.

Maureen said...

Creativity is most important because that is where the uniqueness or the story magic comes from. But if it can't be told in a coherent manner the magic is lost. The difficulty with grammar is that it has such negative connotations. It is all about the rules and so many chafe against those rules or the manner in which they were taught. But I think, to a well-read and practiced writer, those rules have been absorbed so that writing makes sense. It's just when the folks talk about syntax and dangling things and gerunds that there is momentary panic because the definitions are forgotten. Luckily help is readily available through reference books, proof-readers, & copy-editors.

Anonymous said...

I also love what someone here wrote recently about how a free lance editor edited all the unique stuff out of a book and made it "acceptable" but no longer "exceptional."

Heather B. Moore said...

When you know the rules, you can break the rules, but until then learn to do it right.

Anonymous said...

I love what Rick Daley said:

"most people can't spot good writing"

ryan field said...

I'm with the people who said 50/50.

I also think that good writing is subjective. Different writers have different styles. And these styles appeal to different people.

Ulysses said...

Does creativity trump all?

No. Not all. A good story can make up for a lot of other shortcomings. After all, few of us read novels for beautiful language. We read for a compelling story, and if there's beautiful language involved then... wow.

But I don't think a good story will make up for grammar or structure so unconventional that it creates a barrier between the reader and the story.

Other Lisa said...

i don't think you can separate the two...or you shouldn't, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I agree with ANON 11:36. Proper grammar is far more important to fellow writers than it is the average reader. The same goes for the writing rules. This post needs to be aimed at the reading public, not writers who judge every book based on their literary standards. Avoiding gross mistakes is definitely a plus, but pretty words can bore an average person in no time flat if the the creativity isn't there.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi John,

I would have to ask for a definition of the terms "craft" and "creativity".

When I say "craft" I'm talking specifically about the craft of fiction writing, which includes grammar, as well as the particulars for fiction writing, such as plot, pacing, character arc, etc. etc.

Of course, I probably should have explained that, because I don't know if it's a universal definition or just one I have in my head. Fiction writing, to me, is it's own special brand of writing, different from academic or AP.

A non-fiction writer or, say, a journalist can excel at AP or academic writing, but not understand or excel at fiction writing.

That's just how I differentiate, like I said, it's not necessarily a universal term.

I think Steinbeck mastered craft and creativity both. From my perception, his creativity is in his ability to take what would be everyday and display it with such poetic impact. Every one of us confronts a million mundane things a day, it takes that spark of brilliance to turn those sections of life into cohesive storytelling that not only pulls in the readers' emotions but makes a larger statement on society as a whole - that to me falls under the creativity portion of events. The spark of something that can't be learned.

Here's why I say craft trumps it - if you don't put in the hard work to learn the craft of writing, the rules of grammar, the particulars to your chosen field, brilliance alone can't bridge the gap. Though I think that hard work and determination can.

Liz said...

Creativity can trump story construction, but better be a darn good storyteller. Even then, if your writing is so full of grammatical errors, might be hard for reader to follow your great story. I'd rather someone really read the words of my great story rather than skim for the next plot point.

There is one author I love but whose writing I sometimes have to reread to make sure I'm following. And in some books editing has been awful -- lots of obvious spelling, punctuation, grammar mistakes. Interupts flow of story. But I keep reading...

Laura Martone said...

There's no formula for greatness, I'm afraid. Sometimes, the craft shines through. Sometimes, it's the creativity. And sometimes, I'm not sure why something works... it just does.

nicbeast said...

You can teach a storyteller to write. I'm sure you can teach someone how to tell a good story.

Dawn VanderMeer said...

I think it's 55 percent creativity, 49 percent craft. The bigger question is whether or not writers have to be good at math. Hee! Okay, I was kidding.

My serious answer is that I don't know the mix, but you need a heck of a lot of both. Think of all the things that make us see improvement in our work. Many people can't sell their first novels, but they sell their second ones. Are they becoming more creative or honing their craft? I think upping one's craft can push a story from good to salable. The flip side is that we NEED the creativity for good storytelling.

I think "storytelling creative genius" implies someone is talented at both because a good storyteller knows how to hook a reader or listener, build tension, pace the story, make each character sound different--things people can improve through craft classes. If someone is a good storyteller, he or she can take grammar classes to learn about past participles or whatever. Can creativity be learned or just honed?

My best answer: we need plenty of both. :)

Ink said...

I have a little bit of a problem with how casually people throw around terms like "bad writing". Bad writing, in a craft sense, is not often seen in published books. Mediocre craft, okay. Poor writing in comparison with other good, published writers (and a few good unpublished writers), yes. But that's not bad writing.

Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown may not be great prose stylists, but that does not make bad writing. They may lack, on the craft side, when compared with Marilynne Robinson or John Le Carre. But they are far, far, far better than most of what's seen in submission piles. They're craft, if not beautiful, is effective, especially when you consider that things like pacing are elements of craft.

mlsfleming said: "My mentor and I grappled over this. My prescriptive nonfiction is written as I talk, with incomplete sentence punch lines or asides after the sentence. HE HATES it. But he also knows the voice is a chat with my women friends. So..."

But this is not an absence of craft... this IS craft. It's a specific style and structuring of language to create a particular effect.

Craft is what creates a particular experience, a very specific story rather than a general one. And if a story creates a specific and desired experience that many people want (and are willing to pay for) I don't think it can be called bad writing. It might have flaws that can be critiqued, but that's not the same thing.

Rick Daley said...

Thanks Marilyn ;-)

Really, though...it's all predicated on the primary purpose of the piece of prose you're pondering (sorry about that, been hanging out with Peter Piper).

In general, we will write either to inform, or to entertain. If we are writing to inform, e.g. non-fiction, then I think craft has higher weighting. I don't know about you, but I don't like it when people get creative with facts.

If we are writing to entertain, then creativity is critical.

WORD VERIFICATION: squit. I'm not really sure what it is, but I bet it's icky.

robin said...

I think it depends on the reader. Some readers can ignore less-than-stellar craft if the plot is complex and the pacing strong. Others prefer the strong literary element, and they get their joy from a perfectly crafted sentence. I do think, however, that a basic understanding of grammar will strengthen almost anyone's writing -- and expand their learning curve so that their creativity can reach more people.

Kristi said...

This is off topic but there's a great interview with Nathan today on the Guide to Literary Agents blog for those who are interested.

Mira said...

Well, this is interesting.

Some of this may be how we define craft vs. creativity.

I guess I see things like pacing and story structure and character development as a part of creative talent, rather than craft.

If someone has no idea how to pace, I'm not sure you can teach them how to do it. I think you can teach someone how to do it better, or someone can learn through practice to improve, but I don't think you can instill a knowledge of pacing in someone who doesn't have it.

I could be wrong there, though.

I'm also not sure exactly how important the distinction is - except that I think of creativity as coming from inside of us, and craft as external conventions.

But I guess my point is I think creativity is much more than just the story idea. It's about telling the story in a way that captivates people. That's an innate skill. I think.

Diana said...

When I am reading the short story submissions, if the writer grabs my attention and pulls me into the story, then I don't see the flaws. I choose the stories that do grab my attention and hold until the end. Punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, all of that gets fixed in the editing process when I am looking for it.

On the other hand, a grammar and punctuation perfect story that bores me ends up in the reject pile.

However, it would help me tremendously if writers would learn the rules of grammar and apply them to their stories before they submit them.

Grabbing the reader's attention trumps over all.

Rick Daley said...

I love what Anon @ 12:37 said:

I love what Rick Daley said

Sorry all, I'm feelin' frisky today ;-)

Q said...

I think that whatever a writer does, he had better be consistent about it. If he makes grammatical errors to make a point, he'd better make the same ones. If he's brilliantly creative in the beginning, he'd better be brilliantly creative in the middle and end, too.

As for strict conventions...it should be readable and make sense.

Terry said...

Marsha, After reading your comment, I stopped by your blog.

Very well done and I agree with you. Great analogy. A bit more water for me, please.

Ricki Schultz said...

You definitely need both.

Creativity is part of how you hook an agent; however, if you're unpublished, you should strive to make your MS impeccable in terms of grammar and the like because that can also help you hook an agent.

I blogged about this very issue last week (as a result of two posts--from this and another blog, actually).

I'll be finishing that two-part post with a focus on grammar/formatting/submission guidelines tonight. If anyone's interested in offering their two cents, I'd love to hear from you.

Thanks for giving us another great question to ponder!

Ricki Schultz
www.rickischultz.wordpress.com

Anonymous said...

60% story, 35% presentable execution (incl. grammar, syntax, spelling, formatting,presentation to agents/pubs), 5% luck.

~The Anonymizer

Jude Hardin said...

If a writer doesn't have the time or inclination to polish the grammar, punctuation, syntax, etc., of a piece, or hire someone to do it for him/her, then I don't have the time or inclination to read it. I think most agents and editors probably feel the same way.

wendy said...

Well, perhaps, the story verses craft equates to ideas verses how those ideas are presented. I've always thought that the way the ideas are presented is more important than the ideas, themselves.

I think we can take any ideas and make those ideas something ordinary through poor technique, or we can transmute those ideas into a thing of beauty and art with correct use of writing techniques like grammar puncuation, word choice, syntax,etc, that bring those ideas alive and make them shine. Correct use of writing techniques helps the reader to trust the author and suspend disbelief and to engage with the characters.

It's not what you say it's the way that you say it.

No publisher or agent will take a work seriously unless it's written excellently. The company's don't want to spend time and money on a poorly crafted story when there are so many others that need less revision. The exception is work written by celebrities with a guaranteed market.

Ink said...

Mira,

I think pace is entirely a craft element. Creativity may allow you to imagine a series of exciting events... but they won't be exciting to the reader unless the craft is effective. The exciting car chase might be bloated, slow and unreadable. Pace is created through the use of specific techniques that carry you through these events in an effective way. That is, craft.

To me, at least, creativity gives you events, characters and scenarios, and craft is how you recreate that imagined experience for the reader. It's craft that gives you a concrete experience, and that includes the pacing of a story. Now those techniques may come easier to some than others (and may be deployed with varying degrees of consciousness)... but they're still techniques.

I say that as someone who has written, shall we say, a few bloated stories in my time. And this was not a creative failing but a technical one, a failing that can be corrected through the proper application of craft and technique in the revision process.

Don't make me break out the T.U.R.T.L.E POWER to convince you...

Anonymous said...

What does The Lost Symbol have?

60/40? 70/30? 50/50?

what does harry Potter I have?

Marilyn Peake said...

Kristi, thanks for mentioning Nathan's interview posted on the Guide to Literary Agents blog. Wonderful interview with lots of great information! Your announcement came at a great time for me – I'm spending the entire day today updating my website and surfing publishing industry Internet sites. I don’t know if I’m more thrilled or intimidated at the HUGE amount of incredibly good writing available on the Internet. It’s mind-bogglingly (that’s actually a word – I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary) amazing! The supply is endless.

Anonymous said...

I think it varies by genre. Literary works place more emphasis on the writing than on the story,(to their detriment, if you ask me). Thrillers place undue emphasis on the story, less on the writing (The 41-year-old-initiate gazed down at the human skull cradled in his hands).


But there's no room for typos, run-ons, any of that kinda stuff found in a slush pile near you. If you're gonna say it, you've got to say it in a technically correct way, no matter how high- or lowbrow that way is.

reader said...

I want a writer that cares about the techincal craft of writing just as much as the actual story.

Think of how awesome Steph Myers books would have been if they had been edited well. I cringe for her because they've almost become a joke within the YA crowd as a list of things you shouldn't do: rambling on aboiut details that never come to fruition of anything important, promising battles that never occur, mentioning someone is sparkly a thousand times. I feel bad for the author, but I also stand in horror when I think of how little editing must have been done by the pub. Why was she allowed to get away with it when all of it could've been so easily fixed with one more go-around? Hell, I would've fixed if for her free of charge.

reader said...

"aboiut"

See, I need an editor myself! Ha!

PLA Anderson said...

I'm with the people who say creativity trumps all. In most cases you need structure and readability, but really, when it comes down to it, the general public will read just about anything that is creatively compelling. A great story rules. Even if it is all in text or even bullets... if it is thrilling, compelling and somewhat understandable, it will get read.
Just my opinion, though.

Anonymous said...

Underlying the breakdown is the fact that there are 2 pure kinds of "writers."

1) your idea generators or "storytellers" (these kind love to come up with endless story ideas, outlines, cool concepts, etc. But alas, not all of them can actually write, meaning oftentimes they are unable to execute on their own ideas. Many of these types are specifically driven by some personal interest, i.e. Robin Cook as an M.D. was driven to write medical thrillers, etc. They've got a REASON to write, and everything required of them on the road to publication is just a technical obstable they will figure out how to get past (assuming they have the technical writing skills, see #2)

2) your generic, technically able writers (these guys know how to write from a techically correct, Stunk & White standpoint, but they come from no particularly interesting background, have no specific interests developed over long periods of time that lend themselves to comemrcial writing potential, and so many of these types become your bandwagon writers. They figure, well, secret societies are hot right now, I know how to write--I can write like that bestseller, (even though I didn't come up with his ideas first), and so there is a glut of competently written but uninspired copycat books in the wake of every bestseller.

You can see an analagous situation in the photography world. There are photgraphers, like Ansel Adams, who make a statement with their work because of some underlying passion (i.e. environmental). Then there are your stock photographers just out to make a buck or a living, who will take a technically perfect picture of a roll of toilet paper to put up for commission sale on a stock photo site.

So ask yourself, which type of writer are you? 1 or 2? And whichever you are, the REAL quesiton is--do you have enough of the OTHER type to make your work commercially viable?

Anonymous said...

I don't think creativity trumps all. It is more important than craft, but only slightly. A unique combination of the two is what makes a good writer, and for each great writer the combination is different. I know that's not really specific, but if it was a strict mathematical formula anyone could do it.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that you get creative, do the best you can with your grammar and format, and then an editor helps get it ship shape.
Sure seems like that isn't the case, though. Does anyone edit once a book is in the system of agents and publishers?
So...I suppose it's more 50-50 nowadays. If an editor was an editor (ie: there was more money to go around for all to do their originally intended jobs) then creativity could trump form to more of an 80/20 ratio.
I have a friend who makes board games and he is creative as anything. He had to hire someone to keep him edited and going down "the right line." All at his risk of perhaps never selling his game. So I guess each of us has to hire someone if we can identify that we are not the english major types, but have a creative story to tell.

Kim said...

Hey, the way people speak nowadays doesn't follow many rules. Sometimes it makes sense to read a book in the fashion we speak. Dangle a participle if you want. The people who want to read that way won't care. It will "resonate" with them.

If you write a deep thoughtful novel, it might matter.

Rosie O'Donnell has many best sellers and her sentences are little fragments of thoughts. Seems crazy and obviously the famous part is what sells the books. However, her fans write to her with "You are a natural writer" type of comments. "Your work touched me deeply." Stuff like that.

There's a place for crummy writing, and it's not necessarily a bad place.

Ryan Potter said...

Although I've heard the words "dangling modifiers" and "past participles" before, I can honestly tell you I have no clue what they are and I really don't care.

Find the story and write it the way you see fit. That's what I did, and I have a debut novel coming out in less than 5 months.

Kristi said...

Marilyn - thanks. I take short breaks from writing my ms by reading literary blogs. I agree there's a ton of information out there. Also, I have swine flue and can't focus on writing today so I'm doing more reading than work.

Marilyn Peake said...

Kristi,

Wow, you’re really dedicated to the publishing world if you’re even reading today. Hope you recover quickly from the swine flu!!

LCS249 said...

I always found Susan Sontag particularly difficult to read specifically because of her ignoring all convention. She seemed to be 99% creativity and 1% ... the other thing.

Hemingway murdered grammar, but was gripping as an author.

Me, I'm an OCD about grammar. Alas.

LCS249 said...

Still allowing those annoying Anon comments, I see. No idea if they're one person or several ...

Sarah Scotti-Einstein said...

I am uncertain about why one or the other... it's like asking if a pie needs filling or a crust. It needs both.

That said, knowing the rules isn't the same as being controlled by them. It's your writing. Sometimes a sentence fragment is better than a full sentence. Sometimes not.

Jill Edmondson said...

You've gotta know what the rules are before you start breaking them...

Jill

mkcbunny said...

I think that rules can be broken to emphasize a creative vision, but the writer has to have a vision strong enough to support that approach.

Great storytelling and consistency of style are key if you're going to be a rebel. You can't just "be creative" and throw rules to the wind if you aren't good enough to carry the weight of an entire work in that manner.

Gilbert J. Avila said...

Would "A Clockwork Orange" be publishable today?

Wredheaded Writer said...

No, Nate, you are the decider.

A friend of mine who's a marvelous middle-grade storyteller has a learning disability that wasn't diagnosed until adulthood. Forget spelling and grammar - the rules just won't stick. But man, can she tell a tale.

I keep telling her she has a wonderful gift, and that there's plenty of retired English teachers she can pay to catch the technical errors. However it's tough paying a buck a page or whatever for proofing, and a critique group doesn't react fast enough when an agent or editor requests revisions PDQ. So as long as there are agents who will reject a manuscript on the basis of a single misspelling or grammar glitch (yes, there are such), then creativity and clerk-typist skills will be equally important.

So sadly, it's 50/50.

Jan said...

"The prose only needs to be competent enough to be invisible to the reader."

And that requires a serious bit of craft. You may not be able to verbalize all the "rules" but if you're not in control of your language and you're just vomiting up whatever comes out for the sake of creativity...you're going to crash and burn.

I think they're 50/50...and if someone forced me to put one ahead of the other, I would put craft. You only need a fair bit of creativy to bring something wonderful to the table, but you need a good bit of craft to bring it to the table in a way that communicates.

Copyeditors are great for spelling and sorting out the complicated use of the subjunctive. But if your lack of control is more attention getting than your content, you're hosed.

AndrewDugas said...

This is a foolish discussion.

Craft is the means for expressing creativity. Craft SERVES creativity.

AndrewDugas said...

@Gilbert J. Avila

Do you mean to imply that "Clockwork Orange" lacks craft??? If anything, it is a master work of craft.

Tight, controlled, well and evenly plotted, consistent of voice down to the usage of a jargon created by the author.

The question of whether a publisher would take it on today -- it really fits the time period in which it was published -- seems to have nothing to do with either craft or creativity.

So what's your point?

Nathan Bransford said...

Needlessly hostile, Andrew.

AndrewDugas said...

Sorry, I guess I just really love that book!

Apologies to Gilbert.

(Though I do hope he elaborates...)

Francy said...

Hi y'all/I am frustrated because I was bumped from my last answer for double-clicking/or censored/which is what I want to back-track about/recently I was bumped more than once from the New York Times blog for being not on target/but I was/it was because I was too personal talking about my body on a photo shoot of a cancer patient. The other times I think they couldn't read or understand me/I felt terrible and am against censorship totally. Now for todays' topic/and I hope Nathan doesn't censor/I think that creativity is sheer craft/all those little rules/but that imagination is the part which is very deep and brings the work of art to life. This mystical/magical entity comes from letting go of the rest/the intellectual part and conjuring a detail which creates empathy in the reader. No contemplation can deliver the writer to this visionary place. It comes with practise/indentifying with perhaps a detail recognized through observation through life's experiences and rememberances/the the symbol of the cardinal/this bird is drawn by homeless people/hung up by their beds/and the bird sound is emulated by them.

Anonymous said...

I'm a published author, represented by a well known agent.

I will say that one of the reasons I continued to get rejected wasn't because I had commas in the wrong places, it was that my stories weren't quite there yet. Once I realized that, I was able to focus on what really mattered, a meaty storyline that editors/agents want to sink their teeth into.

Yes, you should be careful of your grammar. Don't expect THEM to be overly excited about YOU, if you couldn't be bothered to send them the cleanest version possible.

Nevertheless, if it's a boring plot, all those neat, pretty words will still simply collect dust in the end.

Every day I make mistakes in my writing, but with each book I'm taking notes in the hopes that the next book can be just a little better, and so on...

Anonymously Yours :)

K. L. Romo said...

I think creativity is more important for the reader to connect to the story than form. However, lets me honest, in this business, doesn't salability usually trump all?

Courtney Johnson said...

I would think to say that craft doesn't matter is just...silly. People that think probably haven't ever read anything by someone with utterly atrocious grammar.

How can you be creative when you can't get across what it you're trying to say? Craft, grammar, style, all of it is a crucial form of the art form because it's based on language.

A painter can break all the rules of form because he's still creating something visual. Most viewers of that painting will still be able to get the meaning, even if the painter swirled his water colors in a previously unknown way.

It's just not the same with books, because language is a shared thing. In the same sort of way that you can't gain much from a book in French if you don't understand anything beyond Oui, nor can you expect to get much out of a book that blatantly ignores tons of style and grammar rules.

Sure, there are plenty of authors who break rules and some of them have even redefined the ways we think about those conventions, but they certainly don't ignore them completely.

Jon Robbin said...

Should you want a reader to finish what you've written, then by all means there must be some convention in your work. Creativity is obviously a must since most every storyline has been explored already, but I'm of the opinion that you needn't desert readability in order to have a creative work. After all,readers won't get your creativity if they're struggling at the same time to learn your language. Be clear as well as creative.

J.J. Bennett said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J.J. Bennett said...

Please say creativity is huge. If it's true, I have a chance at getting my book in peoples hands.

Jil said...

"Imagination is more important than Knowledge" said Einstein.
A person perfect at grammar, but with no creativity, will never write a good story. The person who can create but has poor grammar can learn to excel as a writer.

To me good writing is when the author gets the exact reaction from his reader that he sets out for.

Orange Slushie said...

jjdebenedictis, i think that's a matter of taste. i want more out of my fiction than that. my reading is focussed more on language than story. i do need a story, but too much suspense ruins the journey for me (makes me hurry - i want to savour the words) and pedestrian writing alienates me.

i have to agree with most of the comments today. we once wanted to sign up a novel that had both an original take on an idea and that special magic every slush pile reader hopes to find. but it was technically awful. the writer struggled with sentence construction, and had no idea what a paragraph was for; nor was he able to understand the story's structural problems. it really held back the magic. we tried to work with the author to get it up to scratch, but he just couldn't do it, he didn't have the tools and knowledge. in the end we couldn't take it on. editors will fix up grammar but the work must meet a basic standard first: editors can't re-write your novel for you. and if you can't write a coherent sentence, then you can't communicate your ideas effectively - or, in my opinion, sweep anyone up in your story.

Paul Neuhardt said...

You know, in re-reading Nathan's post, I think I would like to re-craft my response. I got caught up in the "creativity versus craft" debate and I'm sure that is really what he was asking.

"In my words: how important is creativity over craft?"

My answer, upon further review, becomes "Creativity is not at all more important than craft." Here is why I say that (and I do get to keep part of my last response, tee hee):

Creativity without craft produces wandering, meandering, incoherent and probably unreadable crap. Yes, I used the C word.

Craft without creativity produces stuff that probably isn't worth reading, but at least it doesn't grate on the reader's soul. It just bores her.

Creativity with craft produces everything from decent stories to really great novels.

Creativity with the craft to be able to flaunt convention deliberately and effectively is, to me, a higher mastery of craft than slavish devotion to the rules. It produces some stuff that might seem really weird, but it can also produce the things that make you go, "Wow."

So, how important is creativity over craft? I say creativity is useless without craft, while I can think of ways that craft can be useful without the creativity.

Just my $.02.

Orange Slushie said...

Paul Neuhardt, I think you are on the money

Justine Hedman said...

In my oppinion this question is purely dependant. It depends on what your story is about and who your audience is.

Say you're writing a book on How to Write... well, your grammer had better be bang on and your structure secure. You're audience would freak and refuse to read another book from you because it would prove you have no idea what you are doing.

If you are writing an unconventional or purely fictional story such as Dan Brown or Stephany Myers *chose those two because they were previously mentioned* then you have the chance to get a little unconventional with your writing because your readers won't be as tuned into the grammer as they are to the story.

Poetry is the same, if you are claiming to have writen a Sonnet, you best have followed the rules. If you are creating a poem for creativity, the sky's the limit.

For myself I would say that creativity is the most essential. I'm writing a fantasy... creative is the breath of life within my world. I use unconventional characters and creatures, some you'd have never even heard of. My plot is a series of twists and turns but overall, the original *or as original as one can get* story is what will set this book apart. Though grammar is important, it isn't as important as the story because I know the audience I'm trying to reach is about the storytelling, not the make up of it.

To put it simply: Know your audience and what is acceptable within your field. I also believe as afore mentioned by someone brilliant above *forgot your name sorry* you must also know the rules before you can break them. Don't go all unconventional because you don't know how to write, you must do it in a way that fits the story you're telling. Your story can only carry you so far, the structure is what makes it possible for your readers to follow. No matter how creative your story is, you must be able to communicate it to your audience in a way that makes sense. But really, what fun is it to read the same thing over and over again? You need a decent amount of creativity and craft for each project you're working on. Without either your work will not be published.

The percentage is completely dependant upon what you are trying to communicate and why. To put it simply: You must write something conventional or non, in a way that will please the audience you are trying to reach and you can't do that without structure, craft, creativity, originality, & a little bit of pixy dust.

Justine

Anonymous said...

The problem with creative grammar is we writers tend to mentally edit and revise while we read...Imagine how hard that'll be if all rules of grammar and puntuation are thrown out the window!

Poor grammar and puntuation are both distracting and irritating. So yes, you need both to tell a good story.

Laura D said...

You need to know the rules inside and out before you make the calculated risk to break them on purpose. It takes a master to acquire the new skill, and when they do it can be true magic.

Dharma Kelleher said...

I'm all for creativity so long as it doesn't interfere with readability.

Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake" comes to mind. It's unreadable. On the other hand, Elmore Leonard often plays fast and lose with the rules and still his work is very readable.

James said...

I've always struggled with creativity, not grammar. I learned to edit before writing, so I'll jump and say that creativity is more important. But does it trump all? Never. It's important to be able to convey what you mean accurately. If the writing is bad, but the story itself is gripping, I'd still read it.

Lucinda said...

Can a house be built solely from imagination?

Bricks are the creativity.
Mortar is the craft that holds the bricks together.

One without the other would result in an unstable house.

50/50, hand in glove, balance...

One more thing, toil and sweat, perseverance and passion can often make up for defects in materials resulting in much more than a house...a home.

JDuncan said...

As many have said here, the writing needs to be good enough to not trip up the reader. People will be impressed with exceptional writing, but you still better have a good story to go along with it. Poor writing will destroy a good story rather quickly in my opinion (like one page kind of quick).

However, even solid writing doesn't necessarily mean I will enjoy the story. Perfectly good grammar doesn't have much to do with the voice of the author, and they can be spot on with all of their participles and modifiers, but the voice isn't going to grab me for whatever reason. I just need to not notice the writing. I don't want my attention drawn to it. I want to get lost in the narrative, and that's creativity and the author's voice. The voice of the storyteller is perhaps the trump card for me. Writers with a knack for exceptional storytelling can make even ho-hum subject matter a compelling read. When I pick up a book off of the shelf, beyond an intriguing premise, I read a couple of pages for voice. If it doesn't sing for me, I put it back down.

Book of Matches Media said...

My music theory teacher told me that it was important to learn everything you can about your craft, because once you know the rules you can break them. Holding on to the old standards of novel writing may not help, but STORY TELLING is the essence of it - knowing how to effectively tell a story. Creativity comes in to play when you determine HOW to tell that story and what "rules" (if any) you choose to break. With a little knowledge in the mechanics of what it is you want to accomplish, creativity trumps all.

Now if anyone will know it exists... that takes hard work and a bit of luck! That's not to say that just because you haven't published a "novel" that you aren't a quality story-teller. Simply that we too often judge someone's merits on how many people have weighted in on the art with their opinion (whether that's fandom or hatred - press is press). Would The Beatles still be considered one of the greatest bands of all time if only a few people ever got the chance to listen to them? The fact is, there are only 12 chords in music (much like there are only so many plots to tell). The difference then boils down to the creativity in which one presents those chords/plots/characters/conflicts/so on and furthermore (the scary "unknown") in how people react to it. To think creativity is secondary to craft is frankly a recipe for uninspired craft.

Sure, you may have written "the next great novel", but will anyone pay attention to it, or is it all just what we've seen before?

Gilbert J. Avila said...

I meant that Clockwork Orange's made-up language forms and strange sentences would would make a first reader say "What the Hell?" Contextually it makes sense if I read it fast. I once likened reading it to running on a field of broken rocks; if you slowed down or stopped you'd trip and fall.

Jaleh D said...

In some regards, I lean more towards creativity. The story is what I remember after I'm done reading, not so much with the how it was told. After all, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax has a rambly beginning and wordy sentences, but the story is so enchanting that I go back to reread it time and again. Though I reread it less often than the stories which are also better crafted.

All the aspects of craft, such as vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and pacing, are critical to properly communicate the great idea. If I don't use the right words, I won't get across the meaning I intended, my characters drastically misinterpreted. (I just ran into that with one of my scenes recently. Very glad my crit group pointed it out, so I could fix the issue.) A single misplaced comma can change the meaning of a sentence. Without an understanding of pacing, the story will flounder or become too frantic.

Both are needed for memorable storytelling. Craft conveys the idea, and a story needs the idea to exist. Yin and yang.

Mira said...

Ink -

Oh my goodness me. You threatened the T.U.R.T.L.E. power.

Well. What can I say to that other than I can't believe how right you are. Right, right, right. How did you get to be so right? And brilliant? And did I mention, how dapper you look today? Very dapper. And right.

Okay, well that's taken care of. Phew. Those Turtles are scary. So, on a completely different topic, Ink, boy oh boy are you wrong.

Just kidding. I don't know if you're wrong or not. I'm not exactly sure what I think about this topic, although I do think it gives creativity short shrift to just delegate it to having a good idea.

For example, writing humor. I'm not sure you can teach someone to write humor. I don't know. I know, for me, it's either there or it isn't. And humor is all about pacing. It feels like something I can hone and improve, but for the most part, I already know the basics of it - it's inside of me.

Except when it isn't. And when it's not there, it doesn't matter how much craft I may have studied about writing humor or the mechanices of pacing. If it's not there, it's not there.

Or sometimes it's sort of medium-warm there. Like this post. But I can't force it to be more there than it is. No matter how much craft I study.

wgflorin said...

OMG...there is so much sh*t out here. I was trying to comment and found myself on someone named Alan Orloff's page. Give me a break. Do we really care if creativity trumps magic?

Anonymous said...

Hey, you (wgflorin), get off of my (our) cloud! Don't hang around...etc etc...can't remember the words.

Steve said...

A language such as English has many dialects. What we call "correct" grammar and usage is a dialect whose rules are formally documented and which is hegemonic among the educated classes. There are other dialects, which also have rules - but those rules are unndocumented and must be learned through exposure. Often expressions in vulgar or undocumented dialects are more effective at communicating a point then are the formal equivalents.

Double negatives are a really good example of this. They are so prevalent and difficult to stamp out precisely because they are effective.

Which of these conveys the point more effectively. "I have no money". "I ain't got no money.". Formally, the second implies having money, but nobody but a compulsive logician would be mislead as to the intended meaning. And if emphasis is intended, the double negative clearly works better.

The craft of writing is about communicating the story effectively to one's audience. This can involve "following the (formal) rules", following informal rules that break the formal ones, or, at inspired moments, breaking a rule conspicuously and deliberately for purposes of irony.

The important thing in all this is whatever mix of rule-following and rule-breaking you use to form your voice(s) MAKE IT WORK. You can write effectively or ineffectively and this has no necessary correlation with whether the (formal) rules are observed or broken.

-Steve

Anonymous said...

I love this thread.

Confession: I am married to a bricklayer. And an intellectual.

So, I asked him: what part of my novel makes it for you? The creativity or craft?

His answer: The story first. The craft almost equally, because he finds my style compelling.
But his personal favorite glue in the story were these wild passionate and moody components that were far and few in between.

Oddly, those components, were the purpose of the story (though I never have told him or another soul outside of the story).

Anonymous said...

This may be my favorite thread of al Nathan Branford time.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

With my daughter, I read each Harry Potter novel as each was released.

I grew with the author, learned to love her ability to write as it perfected in each subsequent book.

I did so love her story that I did not diss her stumblings as she grew and also came to appreciate her more as she matured.

I would not have been so rich, if she had not been published before she was considered "perfect."

Ink said...

Mira,

I agree... sort of. Ha!

I think your humour is an internal thing. The things you find funny, and the funny things you imagine... but making that humour work for others requires technique and timing. The dramatic pause, the reversal, the ironic tone, the diction... to me that's the craft of making humour work.

The trick, though, is that the creativity and the craft are hugely intertwined. What makes great craft, for instance, might be the ways in which we use it creatively. The application of craft can be as creative as the revelation of story. So where does one end and the other begin?

It's a bit of a moebius strip thing going here.

Ink said...

I do find it interesting how differently many people define "craft" here. So many people seem to simply define it is as grammar and spelling! Which seems strange to me.

To me grammar and spelling are not craft, they're tools, the carpenter's hammer and nails. The craft is the wealth of skill and experience the carpenter has developed through years of practice, through years of building things. Craft is how you build something, not the tools you do it with. And creativity is the beautiful design in your head you're trying to recreate.

My best,
Bryan

Anonymous said...

I think dangling modifiers are a poor example of knowing how to write, because those are not the fundamentals of knowing the craft of writing. Most people who read attentively and regularly will absorb the basics of grammar and writing craft. You can't express your creativity without that craft. I don't see it as x percent of one and y percent of the other. You need both, and you need to be as good as you can be in both... while at the same time squelching perfectionism, which can kill both.

Ro said...

The good news is that one could learn the grammar (iPhone app for grammar?), but creativity is the magic you are blessed with, it defies logic.
A few years back my writing guru said, "even a plumber has to be journeyman first, you think you are so special?"
Without creativity, you are not in the game.
Then, 75% of craft will get you noticed.

Amy said...

Undisciplined creativity--how can you break the rules if you don't know them? Picasso was an excellent representational artist, which allowed him to 'invent' new ways of seeing. He found his own way. And that's what we as writers must do.

It's like the people who ask about how often I get inspired to write. Jack London had it: “You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” You continue to pursue mastery of your tools, and then you let your inner child swing on the swings...and write well from that creative, free place.

And keep the club handy just in case.

Luke John Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Pollock said...

To elaborate on my admittedly facetious 308% comment of a while ago, you need much more than creativity and craft to succeed at this business. To break it down further I'd say:
Creativity 8%
Craft 6%
Great title 5%
High concept 9%
Allusions to Shakespeare 3%
Allusions to Greek tragedy 2%
Allusions to the Brady Bunch 5%
Memorable character names 4%
Celebrity endorsements 7%
Platform 6%
Platform shoes 3%
Great author photo 8%
At least one potentially libelous statement 2%
Thinly veiled lampoons of real people 3%
Searchable phrases 9%
Rooming with Oprah's niece 4%
At least one zombie 5%
Ripping the lid off something or someone 2%
Luck 5%
Persistence 4%

irritated anon said...

Forgive me, for this is a mean statement, but sometimes on blogs I find myself trying to suck up as much knowledge as I can and taking in everyone's point of view as if all viewpoints are valid. Then I remember that probably ninety-five percent of the commentors (me included) aren't published. If everyone knows as much as they think they know (me included) they'd more than likely be too busy writing -- with both craft and creativity -- to comment on this post. Which is what I should be doing, as a matter of fact...

roger sakowski said...

I’m a lousy speller and not much better at grammar. Still I love writing. The creative end of writing is the most rewarding to me (at least that much is honest) as a result (here’s where my honesty starts to flag) spelling and grammar play a distant second fiddle. So I’ve tried to reconcile things by redefining “craft”.

Creativity is the act of drawing relationships between real and abstract concepts; art is the act of making these relationships realizable. Craft is the measure of how well art is preformed. That’s loose enough to make me feel comfortable with writing in general.

I have a background in fine arts. There are “best practices” that are applied to visual arts that provide guidance, and most often they do provide a roadmap to artistic expression. On the other hand, the painter can violate some of them to achieve drama between forms. That’s just one example. There are lots of good reasons to toss a “best practice”. But note I had to say “good reasons”. Nuts. I’m back to the humdrum definition of craft. I simply can’t dig myself out of the “best practices” dilemma. If breaking a rule brings its own implications to my work, and I didn’t know I was breaking the rule, I’ve lost control of my own expression. Double nuts.

OK, so I give in, spelling and grammar are as important to writing as controlling paint is to a painter. That’s the part of writing I truly hate.

Karen A. Chase said...

Creativity is the ability to take something ordinary and do something quite extraordinary with it. A craftsman builds a unique cabinet with the same wood as any other cabinet maker who makes wooden boxes. Creativity is part of the craft.

Diane Mettler said...

I think you have to know the rules before you can break them. Everyone needs a strong foundation.What you build is where the creativity comes in.

Matthew R. Loney said...

The idea of "craft" changes when invention becomes the spur kicking the horse's ass.

Abstract artists and hip-hop dancers were able to step completely outside of traditional technical craft to create new methods of expression, which in turn breeds new technique.

Writing is a slow child. Everything takes longer to catch on.

JaneDoe said...

I can’t help but picture a tribe sitting around a fire; the medicine man telling a compelling story to the children and then the chief interrupts and says, “Oh wait, back up you used way too many adjectives in that sentence.”

Legalistic people ruin it every time! Enjoy the story people!

Anonymous said...

Cormac McCarthy. Need I say more?

Ink said...

Anon,

Um, yes? Please say more? Are you suggesting Mr. McCarthy's success is the result of creativity, craft or both?

AM said...

Irritated anon,

Everyone's opinion matters to the topic of conversation and to the community.

This blog and others like it create communities of writers who share common interests, goals, and concerns. They provide a place to interact with other writers that many of us do not have elsewhere.

Although I cannot participate every day, I read the blogs almost daily, and I am reminded that I am not alone, and I often learn something new.

I appreciate those who host the blogs, and I appreciate all of the writers and members of the publishing industry who participate.

Just knowing that I am not alone has encouraged me whenever I have asked myself, ‘Am I crazy?’.

Why don’t you hang around with a positive attitude , and you may discover the benefits of this community, too.

SphinxnihpS of Aker-Ruti said...

"jjdebenedictis said...
The prose only needs to be competent enough to be invisible to the reader."

Side tangent. When I think of invisible prose, I think of Michael Crichton type prose. But although I can't name any off hand, there are also writers we like also for the style of writing, the clever or pretty phrase or metaphor, etc.

Others said it too. I think grammar is important enough to earn its own category from craft. However, grammar, craft/technique, and creativity all have overlaps, because you cannot have one work without the other. It's like asking. What is more important--lungs or heart? You need them both to live. You need all three of the above to write publishable material.

Jodi

Luisa Perkins said...

I don't care how creative a story is. If the writer unintentionally makes grammar or usage errors, I'll fall right out of the magic and have a hard time climbing back in. For me, the tools are an essential part of story construction.

Daniel Allen said...

In my mind it's more important for the work to read naturally. We don't always speak in proper English, so why should our writing?

That said, I think it's important for anyone who considers themselves a master of their craft to know its inner-workings. I think of it much like an artist who paints in abstract. Does his child-like creation mean he can't paint a beautiful landscape if he wanted? Probably not. Master your tools first, then draw from them to create the work you envision.

I think you can learn a lot about writing from reading the work of others. You may not know exactly why something doesn't sound right (i.e. dangling modifier), but an avid reader would know that it doesn't sound right.

Gina said...

I was asking myself how AGENTS perceive this very thing yesterday, in the course of my virtual query-letter quest.

I came across a winning query which landed the now hugely successful author (who also seems like a very cool, sane and helpful person indeed) the one hotshot UK agent everyone wants over here, on account of his track record of securing six-figure deals for debuts by unknowns.

The very short query contained a dangled participle, and if I noticed this Mr Super-Agent surely did (and I bet the author has too, and has to be doubly commended for displaying the letter in order to be helpful).

Super-Agent with the super-nose loved the story, instantly took the author on after over 30 rejections elsewhere (by grammar purists?), and the book was a bestseller.

I think the craft, its tools and creativity are inseperable, but it was interesting to see that an ultra-successful agent didn´t care about grammar when he saw a great story (which is written just beautifully, incidentally).

Reesha said...

Wow. All this interesting discussion. Thanks you guys.
Although now I'm left thinking, "Does it really matter? And if it does, should it?"

Just arm yourself with both to the best of your ability and you'll be ok. Us writers are always about doing the best we possibly can anyway. We'd give our last dollar to help promote our book. Why wouldn't we spend hours perfecting our spag (spelling, punctuation and grammar) and our craft?

Still, my curiosity into the subject was fun by reading the comments. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Sometimes you learn to ski by pushing off the mountain.

(and going real fast or real slow)

It's a ride, man.

Mira said...

Ink - I think we're in agreement.

Uh oh. What do we do now?? :)

I like the comments here. Cool thread.

Annie Reynolds said...

I guess its a matter of taste and preferred style really. I am finding myself thoroughly enjoying the YA novels I have been reading lately. Instead of being weighed down in the literature as a whole they tend to let the story drive them. I have probably just been lucky with the novels I have been reading of late, but is it just a coincidence that the best reads are the ones powered by the story, and don't have me reaching for the dictionary every page?
David Gemmell, while entertaining a gathering, told the story of how his first attempt at getting legend published ended with a letter saying stick to delivering coke. He was a born story teller and his creativity and spark lit the wold for too short a time, thank God he didn't let that rejection letter stop him. Perhaps he was not the master of his craft at that time, but he most certainly continued to learn and in the end he achieved something so manny authors are still striving for; that magic formula when good writing and creativity collide to transport the reader to another land.

lora96 said...

More creativity than convention surely, but pleeeaaase, adhere to some form of structure, use verbs, etc. I have nearly suffered skull implosion from some "avant-garde" work I have read.

Jeff said...

If you break grammar rules because you don't know them I think it can be a detriment to your writing.

If you break them deliberately for whatever reason I think that's part of the creativity of writing.

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