Writing Organically


In the course of speaking about my books, I often tell people that I write “organically.”  And I’m not the only one; I have friends who use the same term when speaking of their own work.  But what does this really mean?

Look up “organic” in the dictionary, and among the several definitions listed there you get the following:  “Forming an integral element of a whole; fundamental” and “having systematic coordination of parts” and “having the characteristics of an organism; developing in the manner of a living plant or animal.”  When speaking of my writing, I actually use the word to describe a process that combines all three of these definitions.  At this point I realize that I’m muddying the waters more than clarifying them, but bear with me.

I outline when I write, thus providing some framework for my narrative and and the evolution of my characters as I procede through a book.  But I don’t outline so much that I actually know exactly what’s going to happen at every point in the novel.  Far from it.  I’ll write down maybe a paragraph for each chapter.  Three or four sentences.  “Character 1 goes to this place.  S/he finds such and such.  This other character shows up.  They get a bite to eat.”  That sort of thing (although hopefully more interesting….)  The rest of the plotting, character development, etc. happens as I write.  And yes, it happens organically.

I know, I know.  I still haven’t said what this means.  This is where it all gets a bit mystical.  When I’m writing, my storylines and the rest just sort of happen.  I can explain this any number of ways:  my characters assert themselves and carry the plot in directions of their choosing; the narrative presents itself to me and I basically transcribe it into book form; subliminally I know what’s going to happen at every point in the book, but I don’t realize that I know this until I actually write it.  As it happens though, none of these explanations is exactly right; and at the same time every one of them is true to some degree.

I know where my books are going from the very beginning — the day I write page one I already know how the book is going to end.  But I have little idea of how I’m going to get from point A to point Z.  Every day that I write, I discover just a little bit more about the story I’m telling and the people I’m writing about.  For example, this past week I needed to write a scene in which a group of Mettai sorcerers use their magic in a battle, and though this magic helps win the conflict, it also has terrible unforeseen consequences.  I knew all of that going in.  But I didn’t know what magic they would use, how this would work against the enemy, or what the unintended consequences would be.  I actually tried to think it through before I wrote the scene and couldn’t.  So I just started writing.  Soon my characters told me which magic they’d use and why.  From there I realized what would happen at the end of the scene.  And this ending fit in perfectly with something I’d set up in the narrative literally two books ago.

Remember those definitions?  “Forming an integral element of a whole; fundamental”; “having systematic coordination of parts”; and “having the characteristics of an organism; developing in the manner of a living plant or animal.”  They’re all there.  The solution to the battle scene problem came to me not because I tried to impose an answer on the narrative, but rather because I let it flow out of what had come before.  Had I tried to force something, chances are it wouldn’t have worked.  Instead, I listened to my characters, or, if you prefer, I allowed the narrative to unfold as it was supposed to, or, I knew what had to happen and just had to be patient with myself until I “remembered”.  Whatever.  To my mind, the best way to explain it is to say that it grew out of what I’d already done and laid the foundation for what needs to come next.  That’s why it worked so well and connected seamlessly with elements of the story that had been established long before.

That’s organic writing.  I begin with the fundamental elements of storytelling:  a setting for my story, characters, and a basic narrative of the events that take us from point A to point Z.  Then, rather than deciding from the outset how each of these elements is going to develop during the course of the story, I mix them together, in this case by beginning to write without a crystal clear sense of where it’s all going.  My characters interact with each other, with the world I’ve created, with the conflicts and dramas that I’ve thrown in their path.  In other words, the various parts of my story develop symbiotically, feeding off one another, enhancing each other.  The story becomes something more than the sum of its parts.  It awakens, grows, and even appears to take on a mind of its own.  As an author, I can never entirely cede control of my story to this creature I’ve created, but neither can I make it do everything I want it to. 

Pick your metaphor here:  If I’m building a house, I have to follow the blueprint and stay within the external walls.  But if the flow works better with a room moved here, or a wall eliminated there, so be it. Or…..

If I’m gardening, I don’t want to let the cantaloupes overflow their plot and take over where the beans or tomatoes have been planted.  But I can let them roam a bit, give them room to climb up a fence here or wind around a pole there.  Or….

If I’m raising a child, I can’t allow her to live her life without any limits, without any guidance.  But I have to give her the freedom to explore who she is, how she wishes to express her individuality, what she wants to make of her life.

So it is with writing a book.  Develop the fundamental elements, bring them together and allow them to interact, and give them the freedom to grow and evolve on their own.  When I speak of writing organically, that’s what I mean.

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10 comments to Writing Organically

  • I remember seeing the coast of North America while on a night-flight to England, once upon a time. All these bright city-scape lights, all connected by streams of light like veins or nerves….

    I’d love to see a PET scan done when a writer is doing the organic part of writing. I bet the brain lights up like cities of the soul. Hmmm. Okay, I got a new book idea. Cities of the soul…

    We use our brains in different ways. I like the way you described it, David.

  • Cities of the Soul is a wonderful book title! I love it. Yeah, when the organic thing is happening full bore it’s pretty fun. The connections just keep on firing away. Of course there are many days when it’s more dribs and drabs, but even then the process is pretty much the same. Just slower, and more painful…..

  • It used to make my mother crazy knowing that I write without anything but the most basic of outlines. I would write my term papers first and then make my outline. That alone is probably responsible for a third of my poor mother’s silver hairs.

    Sometimes I envy the people who can create an unshiftable outline and follow it – it sounds like such an easy way to do things. But after all these years, I know it’s not my way. I know how I’m starting, and where I want to end up, but all the gooey bits in the middle happen when they happen. I’m writing in a fashion that’s honest to who I am. :D

    And hey, Faith, I had a funky idea about robots finding religion a few years ago, and your idea of the brain scans seems to jive with that in my head…maybe we should talk!

  • Let’s talk.
    Tea date!!!
    You are out of school and I am done with deadlines in June. Let’s go to SB and visit and talk about robots and religion (which sounds so weired it just has to work.) We can have a plotting session!

  • Chris Branch

    On the robots/religion thing, just a note that this was attempted by Clifford D. Simak in “Project Pope” in the 80s.

    I say “attempted” because I just read it recently, and although I realize Simak was an acknowledged master, I was thoroughly unimpressed. I have no doubt that you guys could do better. ;)

  • *hugs* to Chris

    I’ll give the Simak story a look, just to be sure I’m not thinking of something that’s already done. Thanks!

    Faith. it’s a date!

  • Wow! Creative stuff happening right before our very eyes! Very cool.

    “…the gooey bits in the middle….” I like that, Misty. That’s the fun stuff, isn’t. And you’re right: it’s almost like playing in the mud.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    The more organic writers I come upon, the happier I am…it makes me feel more confident when I have to explain to my friend yet again why, no, I’m not going to write an outline now. ;-)

  • Outlines are for wimps! Just kidding. But I’m working with only the barest of outlines right now, and loving it.