Edward Hopper paintingI firmly believe that 90% of writing is craft rather than art. But that ineffable 10%, the part that elevates a well-constructed, readable story to something more—where does that come from?

Knowing how is just the beginning

On an intellectual level, I know how a story works. I know that the protagonist has to want something, face obstacles, and eventually overcome them (or not), growing and developing in the process. I’ve read endless books about structuring a novel, about writing good dialog, about keeping a reader turning the pages.

I enjoy reading well-crafted novels about people or events that fascinate me, and they don’t always have to go beyond that. Yet some do.

I’m not talking about experimental fiction, or about writing that calls attention to itself because it’s so clever and articulate. What I’m talking about is how some novels take a story—and therefore a reader—to a deeper place, to something that transcends the story itself.

What makes that happen? How does a writer do it?

For instance, Marilynne Robinson

She creates quiet stories contained in a world that in many ways is featureless, like a painting by Edward Hopper. She works with a limited palette in subject-matter terms, and yet conveys universal truths. I imagine dissertations have been written about her novels, picking them apart to find those extraordinary moments that illuminate so beautifully. But even then, the parts are so much less than the whole.

Tracy Chevalier achieves a kind of transcendence in her writing as well, inhabiting worlds so thoroughly that the reader—speaking for myself—becomes fully submerged in the story. It’s magical.

And then, there’s Winston Graham. He not only creates characters so round and complex that we feel everything they feel, but he imbues the landscape itself with meaning and presence that haunts us from novel to novel in his Poldark series.

Finding the limits, and pushing them further

Writing a novel is an uncomfortable process. We all lay our souls on the line when we strive to create characters who live in a world and populate a story we’ve pulled from our imaginations. Historical fiction is just as much an imaginative exercise, even if real events or characters form the foundation of the plot, so it’s no easier to start from there (as I’ve said else-blog).

I can’t answer the question I posed above. The only insight I can give is that delving into places I’m afraid of as a writer, dealing with themes that terrify me, is the way I hope to push my writing to another level. A level, I hasten to add, that will never approach that of a Marilynne Robinson.

It’s the wanting to do it that matters. That’s all.