Using the grid and other tools to diagnose a novel with problems

In an earlier article from The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and The Novelist, we were introduced to the idea of a character grid—a tool to help us analyze how, and how well, a character fits into the story. McCormack continues his discussion here:

The function of craft is to diagnose

I should repeat the caveat: The function of craft is to diagnose. It does not evaluate. Sensibility does that. My premise is that response comes first; all diagnostic craft can do is point out possible spoilers in the test; it rounds up likely suspects. Sensibility must address the police lineup and say yes, that's the villain, or, no, none of these. Or say there is no villain; everything is okay. It's important that sensibility always have the deciding vote. If two consecutive four-syllable words work, leave them alone; if the truth is that you aren't bothered by the fact that Nick's actions make no difference, then pass on. Craft can only ask: "Given there is a problem, is this it?" Craft can never say, "There must be a problem." Agreed: The danger of craft is that it induces foolish slavishness. This is true in would-be artists, and in editors of manic industry and no sense.

If an approach that utilizes such things as 'grids' seems too mechanical, too confining, too much removed from the unregimentable thing we all feel art to be, it's probably because I haven't convinced you these tools aren't meant to be procedural formulas for how to write, or tests for proving that a book must be defective.

Sensibility comes first

It's sensibility that registers disappointment when Cora at the end elects to go off with Andrew. Why? "Well, he’s not a bad guy, really." Then why? "Well . . . I guess because he feels like such a lightweight." Why? The grid suggests why: He wants nothing much, he does nothing at all. No effect. No impact. No weight. At this point it's still up to sensibility to judge if that's the cause. (It might be caused by facets of characterization—his appearance, the way he always hides his hands in his armpits like a child, his passion for mah-jongg.)

I emphasize that the suppressed premise of a grid is not "This is what the novel should do." But I can reliably testify that I've seen excellent writers use methodical tools very like this as they compose. I have seen startlingly elaborate charts, graphs, timetables, and critical-path diagrams that novelists have devised to help them keep track of the mercurial flows of story.

Don't think such authors must be mechanical hacks. One of the most subtle, dramatic, and moving novels I ever published had been planned by the author in a blackboard-sized diagram using eight different-colored pencils. He needed it to help him shape and control the changing patterns of character, circuitry and setting. If it worked for him, I'm glad he had it. If he'd ever asked me to display similar tracking tools that others had used, I'd have been glad to display them. But at no time would I ever have said, "You must use this." I would tell an editor, "You must use this or something very like it, otherwise you'll get lost in that book." (I would say this only to an editor with the intellect, industry and temperament to accept it. To have the temperament he probably has to be young. In publishing, the satellites of art become fixed early in a firm, undeviating path. Editors, like benighted medieval minions, pass quickly into confident rigidity.)

None of this means to assert that a productive situation, dense profile, positive grid, plus well-chosen POV equals good novel. If the writer does not have the artistry described in Part Three, the novel will be paste and plastic. Good form only allows it to get done; it doesn't do it.

Don't apply the character grid for orthodox narrative fiction to The Catcher in the Rye. Sensibility (for Salinger's ideal intended audience and the aptly responding editor) says that book is well. Therapy can only harm it. (I know there are critics who would have that book different, but it's a novel that pleased and awed a generation, so such a critic, while entitled to his own view, would be wrong as the editor for the book.) Don't ask short stories—especially good New Yorker stories—to satisfy the grids. The response they're looking for is different from that of a novel, and they often effect the cherishable thing superbly.

There will always be readers whose first appetite is to find evident exceptions ("Show me how your character grid would work on The Sound and the Fury"), not to test the limits of a tool, but to disqualify it entirely. Don't do that. Realize that no book, person, or multiplex thesis will ever be perfect. The motive that simply yearns to be able to sneer the whole thing away is an impoverishing one; I know because I've seen myself do it, and, after reflection, I realized that not only was I not larger by having taken in the good fraction of what I rejected, I was actually smaller in the way that our small acts make us. If there were a good textbook of craft, I promise I would hug it to me and press copies on my colleagues. If ever you reach the point where you are convinced no one knows anything worthwhile that you don't, or where you feel no rush at the prospect of encountering someone who could teach you new things in your work, the top layer of your brain has died.

I'll conclude Part Two by restating the convictions behind my plea for craft: It's possible to respond aptly to a novel without being able to identify what's causing that response. If it's a negative response, we can devise valid systematic techniques for diagnosing at least some of the ailments that sensibility has registered. To deny this in defense of art is to misunderstand the editor's task, and to deny craft altogether. And without craft, the work of the editor will forever be fitful, shallow, and incomplete.

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