The Organic Craftsman

I just read this excellent article by author Stephanie Cowell entitled ”The Struggle for a Rising Plot Line.” In it, I think she eloquently and rather lyrically captures an important concept that organic, and dare I say “literary” writers like myself, have difficulty implementing into their work.

Admittedly, some would argue that the organic method of composition is inefficient, especially when an author starts with only a vague impression, a feeling, or one single moment in mind around which to build an entire novel. It is in the process of allowing one’s characters to meander through their lives on the page that we discover what drives them—what they really want. And the hard part is cutting out those touching details of a life lived with us in order to focus the story for the second, third, or fourth drafts.

Touching details can be an important part of characterization, but in many novice writers, the details are too mundane, without purpose, and too numerous. The plot line sags, and the writing becomes loose and boring.

“But my novel is character-driven, not plot-driven,” you say. “I’m painting a picture of a real life. My characters have to seem real, don’t they?” So often, though, this mindset overlooks the reality that a novel is not a true representation of life; it is a carefully manipulated construct of life. And as such, these constructs require constant, increasing tension, clear motivations/goals, and they require “something to happen,” whether internally as an emotional point of no return, an unforgiveable decision, or externally, as an unexpected action, verbal response, etc.

Tension can happen in various ways and may not necessarily manifest itself in grandiose or dramatic visible actions. But the longing has to be there; without it, a character loses his purpose, and the reader puts the book down.

As organic as any writer is, after the first draft is done and we’ve gotten to know our characters better, there must be an equally intense analytical (ruthless) component to our revision and re-writing of the manuscript. Jennifer Eagan’s interview is a good example of how one organic writer makes sense of the raw material and cuts, polishes, and sharpens it into the deliberate artwork of a trained craftsman.

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