R S Belcher: Taming Fire

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Many years ago , I had the distinct privilege of interviewing David Drake for Starlog Magazine. Drake, the author of numerous science fiction and fantasy novels, is best known for his military SF offerings, including the Hammer’s Slammers series. He’s a hell of an interesting guy and a excellent writer. At some point I think I called him an “artist”, and Drake was quick to correct me, saying he was a craftsman, like a guy who makes cabinets, not an artist. Drake’s point was that writers craft a story, they build it, refine it and as they build more, they become better builders, better crafters.

I’ve heard the craftsman/ builder analogy used before from Stephen King as well, in his fantastic book, “On Writing”. If you haven’t read it and you are interested in writing, or want to get better at writing, I highly recommend you read it. King says a writer has a “toolbox” of knowledge, technique and skills that they must refine and have ready for whatever writing job is before them, and while King sees himself as something of a Jungian archaeologist, slowly uncovering his story from the soil of imagination, more so than a carpenter, both authors stress the that writing is about building and refining—crafting, whereas art is a more spontaneous beast- born of pure imagination and often not to be altered, edited or redone—a creation of the moment.

Shotgun Arcana cover picIn my writing, I find myself somewhere between the two camps. My early writing was wholly by the seat of my pants. I’d find my muse and and we’d make mad, passionate, fingernails down the back, knocking over furniture and setting the curtains on fire, love. It was great fun. The stories ended up places I’d never expect. Those stories and novel never sold, but I love them all the same.

Then I had the chance to write and edit for newspapers and magazines for a living (including the above mentioned Starlog interview) and I began to learn the discipline of writing, the craft of it. It wasn’t as sexy—far fewer cosmic hangovers and mystery bruises on my brain—but it gave me a firm foundation to build around, and off of. I actually think that writing non-fiction for a living helped my fiction writing immensely. I’d recommend it if you get the opportunity.

These days, I write fiction pretty much exclusively, and have been fortunate to sell a few books. I still get booty calls from my muse at all hours and I love that. The other night, I dreamed about an idea I have for a new novel. I know it’s knocking around in my brain now and I try to listen when ideas come flying at me like that. However, now I have the discipline to see that idea through, to mold it and shape it, edit it and return to it to finish the job, to make it the best it can be given my my ability.

Do I feel I lost something by trading discipline for raw passion? No, I feel like now I have the tools I need to make my dreams even more vivid, more lucid, and to convey my passion to others with as much clarity as my skill, at present, allows. You never quit learning, growing. You toolbox is never too full.

Writing is fire. Fire is magical, wild, powerful, passionate, primal. Taming fire…I think every writer feels that joy at balancing raw creation with discipline. It is one of the best things I have ever experienced in my life. The best part is you never truly master fire, you just get burned a little bit less by it.

Rod RT pic 1R.S. (Rod) Belcher is an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter.  Rod has been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book store owner and has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice and risk administration, from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s done Masters work in Forensic Science at The George Washington University, and worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly. The Grand Prize winner of the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Anthology contest, Rod’s short story “Orphans” was published in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 9 published by Simon and Schuster in 2006.

Rod’s first novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was published by Tor Books in 2013. The sequel, The Shotgun Arcana, is scheduled for release by Tor on October 7th 2014. His novels, Nightwise, and The Brotherhood of the Wheel are to be released in 2015 and 2016, also by Tor Books.
He lives in Roanoke Virginia with his children, Jonathan and Emily.

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5 comments to R S Belcher: Taming Fire

  • “Write with fire; edit with ice.”
    —Proverb

  • @Wolf: I like that saying.

    I’ve heard the “artist vs. craftsmen” argument a lot over the years. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful metaphor. I think that people who ascribe to it are using it to claim an identity for themselves. Which is fine, but it’s a subjective identity. People in the visual arts, who are more commonly referred to as artists than those who work with language also have toolboxes, and they often edit and refine just as much as writers do. And there are often stories of carpenters who could “feel what the wood wants to be”, etc. So even the artisan trades have the idea of artistry in them.

    There’s a cultural stereotype of being an artist and being a genius that involves just tossing things onto the canvas and having them come out as you want, but it’s a stereotype, not a reality. Painters/illustrators/comic artists do sketches, line art, pencil in and trace over with ink or paint, etc.

    Spontaneity has a place in all art forms, but so do craft and revision.

  • Razziecat

    That last paragraph was a beautiful thought. I think every writer needs to experience that. It is, as you said, a learning experience. Some of my older stuff has a heading I typed at the top that reads: “Thrills! Chills! Sex and violence! Temper tantrums! Overly dramatic speeches! Obvious influence by other writers! But it was fun, damn it…” 😀

    Atsiko, someone on this site (I can’t remember who) once said, “There is no art without craft.” I like that saying, too.

  • @Razzie, You can have just art, or just craft, I think. But it’s better to have both, and I imagine most people have at least some of each, even if the overall proportions are fairly unbalanced.

  • Great post. I love Hammer’s Slammers. That must have been a great experience interviewing Drake. I like King’s On Writing. I’m more on the craft side of things, trying to sharpen my tools. Someone said you have to write five bad novels before the good one comes out. I’m starting my fourth in that line.