The Alchemy and the Craft

by James Scott Bell

The Alchemist at Work, Pieter Bruegel, 1558

Alchemy was the medieval “science” of transmuting base metals into gold and silver, though its origins can be traced back to the Alexandrian Greeks of the early Christian era. The practice was based on the idea that all substances are composed of one primitive matter—the prima materia. By removing imperfect qualities from a base metal and adding other ingredients, the alchemists hoped to transform the material from rough to precious.

Legend has it that the source of this “knowledge” goes back to the Egyptian god Thoth, whom the ancient Greeks associated with Hermes. That’s why medieval alchemists called their work the “hermetic art.” They would put the “seal of Hermes” on their vessels, which is where we get our phrase “hermetically sealed.”

Of course it never worked, but that didn’t stop fraudulent alchemists from making a pretty ducat from unsuspecting patrons. One ruse involved a forged spike made of half gold and half iron. The alchemist would paint the gold half so it appeared to be iron. Then, in front of his patrons, he would dip the gold half in his brew (paint remover) and take it out, revealing gold! If the patron insisted on having the spike tested by a refiner, it would indeed be proven that there was actual iron and actual gold. How long the alchemist could get away with this before skipping town is a matter of conjecture.

But get this: alchemy lives on! For writers! (Though in a different form.) Let me explain by way of an email I recently received (quoted with permission):

I’m one of your fans. Purchased many of your books. Reading “How to write short stories and use them to further your writing career.” Thank you for writing this.

So, I read and agree that every short story worth reading and worth writing has a “shattering moment.” I know that you can place it in the beginning, middle or the end. I understand that it is a life changing event that happens to the character/s.

What I do not know is how to find out what that event is. I have stories that are more anecdotes because I can not find that shattering moment. Or I have a shattering moment, but do not know how to build a story around it.

Do you have any suggestions on how I can learn more in order to deal with the above problems in my writing?

What this email alludes to is the difference between craft and what I’m calling alchemy. Craft is the nuts and bolts of what works to make fiction better. These are tools and techniques that can be learned and applied. It’s what we spend most of our time here at TKZ talking about.

But then there is the “certain something” that each individual writer brings to the keyboard. Some might call this talent, which cannot be taught. True enough, but what I suggest is that we consider talent our base metal. By removing impurities and adding ingredients, we can actually transform it into fiction gold.

  1. Removing impurities

The main impurity is your “inner editor.” That is the judgmental voice that assesses every creative move the moment you try to make it. It loves to reject things. It tells you what not to write. It makes snap decisions at the surface level.

The problem is that there is gold underneath the surface. You’ll never find it if you give the IE sway as you write. (The IE is only welcome in the editing phase.)

The way you turn off that voice is by writing through it. One exercise is the page-long sentence. You write 250 words without stopping and without using a period. If even for a second you start to feel nervous or fearful or embarrassed by what you’re writing, you write the next word and keep going. You only assess things after you’ve written, not before.

Doing this exercise frequently will weaken the inner editor until finally it shuts the heck up whenever you’re creating. (I might cleverly add that IE silence is golden.)

  1. Adding elements

Now, what can we add? The short answer is: you. Your talent, your knowledge, your memories, your feelings…but not at the surface level. We must dig deeper, coaxing the hidden material to the surface.

The way I like to do it is to make brainstorming lists. As is true for most of us, the first thing that usually comes to mind is something familiar, even clichéd. That truck driver you need for the scene, is he wearing jeans, boots and a baseball cap? Go deeper! Make a list of other modes of dress. And a list of ethnicities. And does he even have to be a he? Aha, a whole new direction for brainstorming!

My rule of thumb is a minimum of five items on a list. Why? Because it’s when you get down to 4 and 5 that surprising, original material is sent up from the boys in the basement. Going on to 6 and 7 is a further adventure.

And remember, your inner editor has no business in your brainstorming.

So, to bring this back to the specific question from my emailer about short story writing: If you can’t identify a shattering moment from an anecdote, try this: write a page-long sentence in the voice of a character. Listen to her describe her emotions about the anecdote. Let her tell you how it is shattering. If she doesn’t know, ask her what she’s trying to hide. Keep after her! She’ll eventually confess.

Try the same thing with another character. Even another. You’ll eventually find the right narrator and thus the right story.

If you have a shattering moment but don’t know how to build a story around it, start making lists.

  • What sort of character would be most affected by this moment?
  • Where might this moment take place?
  • What kind of people are in that place?
  • Why are they there?

(Remember, make your lists at least five items long.)

We often hear about the “art and craft” of something. That’s what this post has been about. Craft is necessary to shape a story into the best form. Art is the alchemy, the thing that cannot be taught. But it can be coaxed!

So start coaxing.

Over to you. How do you describe the talent part of our craft? How do you like to coax your creativity?

55 thoughts on “The Alchemy and the Craft

  1. Good morning, Jim. Thanks once again for a (dare I say it?) magical post. As you so often do, you provide answers to questions many of us don’t even think to ask.

    Hope you’re having a good weekend.

  2. I get along all right with my IE when I’m writing. It’s when I’m reading that I wish I could shut her up.
    One other thought. Jeffrey Deaver said that short stories need a twist. Is that easier to deal with than a shattering moment?
    Feel free to ignore me. I’m not a fan of writing short stories. But when I do, I start out as if I’m writing a novel and then eliminate all but one plot thread.

    • No, indeed, Terry. Deaver’s stories are the very essence of the shattering moment. It’s usually found in the twist. In fact, Mr. D allowed me to publish one of his stories in my book!

  3. Great post, Jim. I love the analogy – craft and alchemy vs. the magic and craft of writing. I don’t know how to describe the talent/alchemy/creative part of my craft. I do know that the good Lord gave me an overactive right brain, to the point that I often have to pull myself back to boring reality and get some work done (vs. invent things). And I coax my creativity by constantly thinking in analogies, and constantly inventing things – games, tools, methods, stories. With writing specifically, I like to constantly ask, “What is the wildest, most crazy, unexpected thing that could happen?” And that makes fantasy fun to write.

    • Steve, you are blessed indeed to have an “overactive” right brain. Balzac used gallons of strong coffee to get his going…not healthy, but man the guy wrote fast!

  4. Happy Sunday, Jim. What a great email to serve as the basis for today’s post.

    How I think about the talent part of our craft–I see talent as the sum of us, our conscious mind and our subconscious. Our conscious mind can draw from the well of our imagination, which resides in our subconscious mind. My conscious mind needs to heed what the subconscious comes up with, try to use or adapt it, and that’s where craft helps turn a promising material into gold.

    Brainstorming, journaling, and writing in flow state all help coax creativity. Writing in flow state can help silence the inner editor, too, in my experience.

  5. Excellent post.

    I “coax”—a good word for the NYT Spelling Bee—by stepping away. And letting things simmer. My latest is going outside and throwing one of my golf discs (like a Frisbee). Moving and pondering. With notebook in pocket.

    • I love the NYT Spelling Bee! My husband and I sometimes work on one together. After we’ve exhausted the short list of obvious answers, we have to go deeper. Very similar to JSB’s brainstorming lists.

    • Great tip, Harald. I use a “stew, brew, and do” formula sometimes, esp. when I write and ending. I think about it hard (stew) then walk to a local java joint for an espresso (brew) and then start jotting random notes, doodles, mind maps. Finally, I go back to my office for the “do” part.

  6. Morning, Jim. Excellent advice on how to silence the inner editor. Love the list idea! Gotta try it.

    To answer your question, I silent mine with music. I find a song(s) that encompass the tone, emotions, and/or setting of the book, then play it over and over till it becomes white noise. But I still feel the emotions even though, technically, I’m not hearing the song anymore. Every time I slide on the headphones, I’m right back in my story world. Some might call it a type of self-hypnosis. All I know is it quiets that voice.

    • Interesting practice, Sue. So it becomes white noise. Never thought of that. I am totally with you on the emotions music can bring out in us. I use movie soundtracks for various emotions…esp. Hitchcock scores for suspense.

  7. When I don’t want to write–because my IE is telling me the story is crap–I sit behind the computer and make a deal with myself. Write for five minutes–anyone can write for five minutes–then I can quit. I usually keep writing. 🙂

    • Love that trick, Patricia. You’re so right. Your ficus tree can write for five minutes! So can you. And specifically giving yourself permission to write crap drives the IE crazy.

  8. Good morning, Jim. My inner editor can be a real martinet at times. I’m going to try the 250 word sentence to put her out of my misery.

    I find reading, listening to books and podcasts, and watching good movies to be great stimuli for creative thinking. Running outdoors while listening to a book or podcast seems to be particularly helpful for coming up with new ideas.

    • All that input and then the brain goes to work quite on its own, right Kay? When I watch or listen to something I keep trying to add “What if?” to the mix. Coming up with potential stories that way is always cool.

  9. Alchemy is the perfect analogy for writing, Jim. You also taught me the origin of “hermetically sealed.” That’s a fun bit of trivia.

    [Drumroll] CONGRATULATIONS, Jim! You are the winner of yesterday’s Word Play Invitational contest. Your trophy will be delivered soon.

    Two strong contenders tied for second place in the contest: Cynthia Hooley and Joe Hartlaub.

    To read Jim’s winning entries (plus lots of other hilarious submissions) here’s the link to yesterday’s contest:

  10. I love the idea of making sure to go at least 4-5 ideas deep when brainstorming. Once in a while I’m tempted to stop brainstorming too soon.

    My biggest problem isn’t coaxing creativity. Yesterday was a case in point. I was doing research for one particular novel, and while doing so got overtaken for an idea for a completely different novel. Taking advice that has been mentioned here and elsewhere, I wrote down the gist of the idea and tried to set it aside & get back to the WIP, but I just could not get my mind off it.

    And often, while working in one project, I will be brainstorming possible ideas for a scene or a chapter and will be assailed with several different options on how it could go and have trouble deciding. Theoretically, you could just write the chapter with each of those variations & see which is best, but not terribly realistic from a time perspective.

    The good news is, when I write through the Internal Editor, what I usually find is that while I may hate it at the time I’m writing it, I come back later and say “Hey, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.”

    • I come back later and say “Hey, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.”

      That happens a lot, BK.

      So does getting a crackerjack idea while working on a WIP, one that tempts you away. It’s always best to put that idea into development (like you were a movie studio) and finish your WIP. I have many such projects in various stages. I’ll take a half hour a week just to play with them.

  11. Great post, Jim! My IE dogs my steps even when I’m not writing… 🙁

    Echo Kay on watching a movie. We discovered one last night called “Solace”, a thriller, starring the great Anthony Hopkins. (Warning: some intense intimate scenes-but I just closed my eyes.) 🙂

    I find, these days, that I pay more attention to the characters in movies than the actual story. Hopkins is a joy to watch in this one. He doesn’t have to speak a line . . . his expressions, panned closely by the camera, say it all.

    As I watched him last night, telling a silent, agonizing story with his face, I envisioned my own characters. How to translate that into words is the alchemy for me.

    I might get it right some day. To quote the character Angus Starling (Brian McCardie) in The Ghost and the Darkness, “The joy is in the struggle.”

    Happy Sunday all!

    • Amen to that, Deb. The struggle can indeed produce the joy of accomplishment. It is perhaps the main reason we go through this mad, wonderful alchemy called writing.

  12. Thank you for this reminder. I needed it today. I don’t struggle with the shattering moment so much as getting to it, but I suspect much of the same advice applies.

    I recently downloaded from my cloud library three of your books including this one with intentions to re-read this fall. The Last 50 Pages and Pulp fiction were the other two.

    Thank you for all of your advice.

  13. Pure gold, Jim. “Shattering moment.” Just added “SM” to a little yellow sticky note after I struck an iron in the Amazon fire and bought your short story book that adds to my collection of other JSB tutorial wisdoms.

    My IE and I have a love-hate relationship. I have an old set of handcuffs left over from a former life. When I start a new piece, I cuff that bastard. (Handcuffing technique 101 – always have the IE lock his fingers behind his back with palms together, then snap the restraints on his wrists with the chain looped through his belt. That way he can’t slip his hands under his feet and bring them back in front. Nor can he manipulate anything with his fingers from behind.

    And I don’t gag him with a sock or anything he can spit out. No, I wrap a long scarf around his mouth and tie it in a double knot behind his head. That way my hermetically-sealed IE can still breathe, and he can stand there and watch all he wants, but he can’t dextrally interfere or say anything at all. Sometimes I leave my IE stay that way for hours – days – even weeks. Months, if necessary. And when he’s ready for release, he’s mighty thankful – eager to pitch in and clean up the mess. Enjoy your day, JS and KZers!

  14. Over ten years ago, when I was tinkering with writing, I didn’t give the talent part much thought. Actually, I would have thought back then you sit down and do it. That there was a struggle to get the words right and the rest would come.

    However, if I have any talent, I would describe it as an artist painting a picture. I know that what’s below looks like a process—but it really isn’t. This is a flow of how to use my talents to tell a story. It cannot all come at once—but it’s applies along the way to paint a beautiful picture.

    1. I have to sketch out the outline (plot the story.)
    2. I have to choose my colors (establish who my main characters are.)
    3. I have to think about how dark the horizon is going to be (how nasty will the antagonist be?)
    4. I have to choose to fill in the painting with colors (first draft.)
    5. I have to add in the small details to highlight the picture (second draft.)
    6. I have to make sure the picture has transition (self-editing.)

    And so on.

    I guess what I’m saying is that maybe the talent you describe and what I’m thinking could be something more like intuition. That means you know what to do—when to do it.

    • Ben, Brenda Ueland wrote a great book on writing called If You Want to Write. In there she says everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say. And she talks about how to get at that stuff, in line with your comment. Nicely put.

  15. What works for me is setting a timer for 30 minutes. My brain knows it doesn’t have time to waste and it always gives me something.

    If I’m just trying to brainstorm and the IE pipes up, I just tell it “It’s not your turn.”

  16. The good news is that scientists have figured out how to turn lead into gold. The bad news is the process is so expensive it’s useless except as an experiment.

    I’ve spent most of my life teaching craft. Almost anyone can learn craft. I’ve read an incredible amount of novels. There’s a lot of professional authors out there who are successful at craft and can put together a plot, but they lack the magic to go beyond what I call potato chip fiction–a tiny bit of enjoyment, mainly intellectual, then the book disappears out of the reader’s mind and, worst of all, their heart. There’s a lot of professional authors out there who suck at craft but they have that certain something called storytelling ability that makes their books fly off the shelves. But those books also disappear out of the reader’s mind and, worst of all, their heart. To be able to have craft, storytelling ability, and the natural alchemy to touch the reader’s heart is a very rare combination.

    • Ha! From the article: “It would cost more than one quadrillion dollars per ounce to produce gold by this experiment.” (Maybe Congress will go for it.)

      You’re right, Marilynn, about that rare combination. Chandler had it, so did John D. MacDonald. That’s why I’m always re-reading them.

  17. How do you describe the talent part of our craft?

    Well, you asked. I call the creative part of the mind/brain “The Guardienne.” [] Coincidentally, or maybe not, it’s the protective core of the brain, “designed” for emergencies. Since it’s for emergencies, it is (1) faster than the frontal cortices and (2) has no conscience to slow it down or filter its output. In this context of writing, it doesn’t monitor our output to see if it’s moral or PC or even grammatical. Thus it’s a perfect brainstorming mechanism. And brainstorming for 15 minutes will awaken it for a long time thereafter, maybe 30 or 60 minutes.

    How do you like to coax your creativity? See above. Or go for a walk, dialogue with my characters, read some awful writing (Me: “I can do better than that!” Guardienne: “Let’s!”) The worst play I ever saw inspired me to write my first play, a full 3-act classical work, “Midnight in the Temple of Isis.”

    Some people drink alcohol to get their Guardienne moving. Do not do it. Yes, alcohol is a poison and being poisoned is an emergency, so it works for a while. The ancient Romans said, “In vino veritash.” But over time, your body chemistry will change, and, as L. Sprague de Camp says, “…Eventually you have do drink more and more to write less and less.” Many sad examples spring to mind.

    Finally, “In each of us there is an ʘther whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams and tells us how differently he sees us from the way we see ourselves.” –Carl Jung

    • That’s some great stuff, J. Thanks for the link and the info. Makes perfect sense.

      And I so agree with you about the booze. Yes, so many examples…and one notable exception! Perhaps the most prolific pulp writer of all time, Frederick Faust (who wrote as Max Brand and a bunch of other pseudos) wrote 4000 words a day, every day, toasted on whiskey. How much longer his body could have done that is anyone’s guess, as he was killed in a war zone at age 51.

      • Thank you, JSB-san. I had to choose between responding to your questions and going to church. The questions drew me in!

        Yes, “the exception tests the rule!” I’m German-Irish, and at risk, so I don’t drink. An Irish relative ceased binge drinking at 80, died at 97, still sentient.

        Another semi-exception: IIRR, F. Scott Fitzgerald would stop drinking when he had a work in progress and not start again until he’d shipped the m/s off to his agent.

  18. Write a page long sentence…excellent suggestion for taming the IE. Shattering moments are dangerous places and my IE would stop me every time I started to go there for fear someone (like myself) would get hurt if I went there. It is incredible the sort of things that will flow onto the paper when I don’t take time to think, but just let the words freely escape. And of the page long sentence thing doesn’t work, I’ll see about borrowing Garry’s handcuffs.

Comments are closed.