“organic” vs “constructed” writing

If I didn’t know what I already knew, I might have let my MFA “teach” me that the only thing that matters is my organic process. The #1 thing the UBC taught was that the author’s intention for the first draft must — at all times — be preserved. To make “mechanical” structural changes to a first draft would ruin the organic flow of the work to the point where they couldn’t be allowed to even be suggested.

There are true organic writers, the one who creates a perfect first draft and just needs to polish the prose. They’re usually teaching the class. A student who can do the same thing — create an organic story that completes a moment in a character’s life in the first draft — is in the extreme minority.

But the bulk of writers sitting around critique tables don’t have the ability to tell a unique, organic story in the first draft before they even sit down at the table. Teaching all students as though they were already producing work like MFA instructors teaches them that they don’t need to acquire the skills their instructors had preinstalled.

The goal of the “critique” is to produce nicer prose while dynamic story-building skills are taught as unnecessary.

“Organic” to a reader means it “feels like” the book was written with one creative vision from the first page to the last.” They will never know how many thumbs have been in that pie to make it feel like it came out in one singular vision. Alpha readers, beta, critique partners, freelance editors and editors from the publisher could have all nudged what was to be what it could be.

A short story is a single motion in a character’s life and just needs to do one thing particularly well. It is hypothetically possible to say something meaningful in a first draft without it needing a significant rewrite. A novel, however, is a series of movement written over a series of months or years that has to work seamlessly together to engage the reader and draw them back to the story that needs to be read across several sittings.

Organic writing can feel like the muses are on your shoulder and the author is just transcribing the events playing out behind their eyes. Constructed writing, on the other hand, is the writing that takes place without the gift of the gods. Neil Gaiman talks about the difference between amateurs and professionals is who waits for inspiration. I think the amateur writes what they write and calls it good enough. The pro knows good enough isn’t good enough to build a meaningful reader’s experience.

But Gaiman also described inspiration as a butterfly that swoops down and sits on your shoulder every once and a while. He described writing a Study in Emerald this way during Torcon 3. But when the butterfly doesn’t visit, the only other tool the author has is the knowledge necessary to take a story that doesn’t have “it” written into the first draft and craft “it” in the final draft.

I lost ten thousand words last week. The scenes described were some of the most polished organic writing of the book. But they didn’t do nearly enough for the plot. I had to construct the replacement 10k over the past week. By 3k, I’d summed up everything the reader had to know in those 10k. By 4k, I’d leapfrogged the lost section. By the end of the new 10k, I’d progressed to the scene that’s the heartbeat of the story.

In the lost 10k, I was still about 5k away from it. I realized in 2005 that I had to learn how to write instead of hoping what I organically channeled did everything it was supposed to. What didn’t come organically was stilted if it wasn’t filled with shortcuts that told what I had no clue how to show the reader.

It took almost twenty years for what I constructed for plot reasons to feel more organic than what appeared fully formed. I needed to learn how to write what didn’t flow naturally but make it feel like it did. Writers today are insulated against ever learning the same thing if “organic” means the author’s 1st draft intentions and not the final draft the readers experience.

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