The Novel: How to Craft a Work of Art

    work of art - craftsman at work

    If you want to see a room full of writers go ballistic, right up there with a lynch mob on the hysteria scale, tell them there really is a formula for writing a novel.  A list of elements and criteria that define the nature of the work.

    They probably already know that stuff exists for screenwriters, but novels? No, novels are art.  Everybody knows that, and if you don’t, well you’re probably a screenwriter at heart.  Or maybe an engineer with a taste for Clancy novels.

    So are novels works of art?  Absolutely, yes they are.  So is cooking and making candles, but nobody argues that recipes don’t work in those fields, and the same is true for writing novels.

    While penning a novel is indeed an artistic enterprise, it is also one that depends on solid craft to be successful. And you wouldn’t set out to whip together a four-course meal or pour yourself a chapel full of candles without getting your head around the craft of it before putting on the old apron.

    And yet, many novelists – even experienced ones – rip into the writing of a story without the slightest idea what the components or criteria for a good of a story are – that’s the craft of storytelling – armed only with a killer idea and a den full of bestsellers they’ve read, each of which have led them to the dual delusion that,

    a) it doesn’t look all that hard

    b) I’ll just head on down the storytelling road and see what happens.

    As if that’s how it’s done.

    How it’s done is all over the map, and that’s one of the reasons teaching writing is such a challenge.

    Should you outline or write organically?

    Should you depend on your drafts to add new elements and depth to the story, or are your drafts used for honing the elements to a crisp edge and elegant sheen?

    What is the art of storytelling versus the craft of storytelling?

    Let’s look at two  metaphoric houses to tell the difference.  Both are built from specific designs.  Both are executed from blueprints.  But one is a tract home in a crowded neighborhood, the other – no bigger in terms of square feet – end up on the cover of Architectural Digest.  Both were built with excellent craftsmanship.  But only one is considered a work of art.

    The art resides in the design, and the craft resides in the execution.

    Say what?  You’re a writer, not a general contractor.  So let’s break it down.

    At the design stage, both houses are nothing more than the sum of a bunch of concepts and ideas, just like a novel.  To simply stand upright against a stiff wind – the metaphoric equivalent of getting published in the case of a novel – there must be solid ideas and concepts in play which are executed with a sufficient level of craftsmanship.

    But the essence of the truly artistic house is the originality, energy and beauty of the form and shape of the structure.  Without something exciting, fresh and thought-provoking, you risk your story being perceive as yet another tract house in a neighborhood full of mediocrity.

    Unpublished novels earn and keep that label because they lack art or craft, or both.  It’s not rocket science to accept that premise.  But too many of those unpublished writers put all their chips on one or the other, without understand that it is the melding of both that becomes a sum in excess of the parts, which is precisely what publishers are looking for.

    It boils down to this: a great idea or concept does not a good story make.  What evolves a killer idea into a marvelously compelling story requires craft, executed with artful creativity.

     

    Art is the essence of that originality and the power of the end result.

    Craft is execution using the tools of the trade: a great hook, a compelling set-up, a plot point that grabs the reader by the throat, irresistible stakes, magnificent tension and elegant exposition, blinding twists and heart-wrenching character arc, and a denouement that goes down like a smooth southern beverage on a steamy summer night under a full moon.  Or, one that scares the pants off you, depending on your genre.

    In athletics they say you can’t coach speed, and the same can be said of the art of storytelling.  But it can be learned, and the formula for that is this: read, write, repeat… read, write, repeat.

    The art of storytelling is an aesthetic sensibility that evolves with fickle timing, and you have to chase it down and then hold on until the whistle blows.  As for craft, the formula is much more precise: set-up, plot point, response, proactive pursuit, final twist, selfless heroism and irony.  Some call it orphan, wanderer,   and martyr.  Whatever.

    It is a discipline that you’ll embrace before you write a successful, publishable story, whether it be through discovery as you write drafts or through story architecture that you create as a roadmap for your narrative.

    And in the end, if you do it right, the reader will never know the difference between your art and your craft… just like that first bite of something succulent prepared by the hand of a master chef.  It just takes you there, without a hint of recipe, and equally dependent upon both the art and the craft of the creator.

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    About the author

      Larry Brooks

      Larry Brooks’ runs the popular writing craft blog, Storyfix.com. He is the author of novels and writing craft books, including the bestselling Story Engineering, and his newest book, Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant. You can find a series of videos that he calls “hardcore craft training for serious authors,” available at his new training website.

    • Charlotte says:

      Maybe this makes me more of an editor than a writer (or simply OCD), but I had to re-read the article after being distracted by these: “being perceive” and “without understand that”.

      Thought someone should mention it, since it is otherwise a useful article.

    • Great post, I would have to agree with you, writing is creative but in order to be creative it has to include the ingredients that have the ability to make it successful!

      I think that it is important to have an element of creativity alongside the formula to make a piece of writing really stand out!

    • Over the dozen plus years I’ve been writing I learned that craft/skill can be taught. Thank goodness. *grins* Because, for the most part, we all start off being pretty bad writers. No degree of talent/art will write a story. It will give you a foundation to build on, it gives you the instinct to know when an idea can carry a story, it gives you the sparkle that looks pretty but craft/skill adds the substance necessary to make a story stand on its own. I think you’ve really expressed that here and done so in a way that was a pleasure to read. 🙂

    • Larry says:

      Joshua… just gotta add a bravo to your comment. Editing is the juice that can turn craft into art. Rare is the prodigy that pours art onto the page the first time out. Michner admitted he was only an okay writer, but claimed to be a master editor and rewriter. History proves him right.

      Thanks for your contribution here.

    • J.Morgan says:

      As always Larry great stuff. I’m learning that even though I believe creativity is the icing I need to make an equally delicious cake to make a good story. I never get tired of reading your stuff it keeps me thinking and learning. I have found my standards rising and I won’t take second best for anyhitng I will do it and do it right or never submit it at all.

    • The editing (craft) part of writing is just as important as the initial act of writing (art). I think this is what distinguishes serious writers from those who are only into the image of writing. I also agree with the need for reading to hone the craft. Read and edit your own work, and read all of the great writing by other people that you can. Great piece!

    • janice says:

      Great post, Larry. I really enjoyed it and was fun exploring your metaphors.

      I started wondering, as I was reading, how easy it would be for me to separate the art and craft of my writing, and if so, what the ratio would be.

      Your writing is very powerful, articulate and elegant, but my favourite point was something very simple yet profound: “read, write, repeat…” I could tell you what the formula of a Nora Roberts book is without having analysed one formally, just because I vegged out on so many before the predictability bored me. I’m guessing the trick is to get a balance and investigate how many books you have in you. Is there one biggie begging to be written? Do you want to be prolific and earn consistently? I sense it might make a difference to the art/craft ratio.There are housing estates full of well built, high quality popular but virtually identical houses, while some people build one beautiful, unique home and live in it for a lifetime, never building another.

      Thanks!

    • Larry says:

      Thanks for all your kind comments. Glad the article resonated with you.

      To Beth… I didn’t mean to imply that any or all unpublished novels lack art or craft. I absolutely agree, many worthy novels that score high on both counts get passed over, and for reasons that are never made clear or are simply beyond comprehension. While there may be a “formula” for storytelling, there’s certainly not one for getting published, and all we can do is create the best story we possibly can.

      That said, solid craft and high art is indeed the bar we must reach before we publish. (Like I said… it doesn’t mean that’ll get you there… it’s more like the ante-in.) Toward that end, we should all pursue our craft with passion, and imbue our work with an undefinable essence that is art. Craft can be learned, art must be discovered. One without the other doesn’t reach that bar.

      I wish you well in pursuit of your highest writing goals. Keep reading, keep writing, keep dreaming.

      Larry

    • Very Nice Article ..

    • John says:

      Good post Larry,

      It’s great to get advice from experienced writers. I know that I want to write a novel/self-help book one day and this a post to help me in the writing process.

      Thanks!

    • Oke says:

      Larry,

      Your post just keep bringing home the point of reading and writing! I went to one writing class that was a big pep rally. I didn’t learn much from the class and ultimately kept on writing and reading whatever I could get my hand on.

      I am writing a novel right now and have noticed that the craft and art has to bring forth the idea – the idea can’t survive on its’ own.

      What is your take on the ups and downs of novel writing?

    • Larry,

      I agree wholeheartedly that writing is an art and craft and that reading plays a big role in understanding how to craft and create a successful novel. In fact, this philosophy of writing being an art and a craft applies to all genres, including poetry and creative nonfiction. You are so right about novels taking a lot of hard work, planning, and execution.

      I do, however, disagree with your statement that unpublished novels lack art and/or craft. The publishing industry is fraught with politics, like any other business. In addition, there are many unpublished works that are fantastic, but the agent isn’t good at promoting them. I have seen works of low caliber get published.

      Basically, measuring a writing’s worth by its publishing status doesn’t really sit well with me. I have had creative nonfiction published and others rejected, and I can’t really say that my unpublished writings lacked art and/or craft.

      I think that aiming for publication is fine, but the real, pure joy of writing is in writing for its own sake, employing art and craft, but knowing that a piece’s worth is not defined by its ability to be published.

      — Beth L. Gainer

    • This is a wonderful guest post! Great stuff, Larry! I really enjoyed reading about the paradox for writers. It’s something I believe a lot of people battle with and I appreciated reading your insights here.

    • That reminds me of what one of my favorite authors wrote about storytelling – “They say a story stalks a writer and if found worthy, demands to be told.”

      Great post, stumbled and tweeted!


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