I spend a lot of time on reddit while I’m doing the work that pays my bills (not writing yet, I’m afraid), and recently I’ve been posting the writing tips that helped get me started to the /r/writing subreddit. Starting today, and every Thursday until I run out of them, I’m going to share those writing tips here on the blog, as well.
You might recognize this first one from my personal note about The Asymptote’s Tail. I’m just going to go ahead and quote the self post directly from reddit, but you can find it here if you want to see the conversation it produced there. I hope it helps:
I finally got around to transcribing an interview that Miéville gave at a writer’s festival earlier this year where he was talking about his new book (Railsea), writing comics, and his place in the fantastic genre. He also took questions from the crowd, and I found his answer to a rather broad question about structure really solid. It’s helped me out in how I’m thinking about structuring my first novel, so I thought I’d post it here in case it helps someone else.
I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to deal with structure? How do you deal with it?
“You’re talking about writing a novel, right? I think it’s kind of like…do you know Kurt Schwitters, the artist? He was an experimental artist in the 1940s who made these very strange cut up collages and so on and very strange abstract paintings. And I was just seeing an exhibition of his, and one of the things that is really noticeable is he is known for these wild collages, and then interspersing these are these really beautiful, very formally traditional oil paintings, portraits, and landscapes and so on.And this is that old—I mean it’s a bit of a cliché–but the old thing about knowing the rules and being able to obey them before you can break them. Now I think that that is quite useful in terms of structure for novels because one of the things that stops people writing is kind of this panic at the scale of the thing, you know? So I would say, I would encourage anyone that’s writing a novel to be as out there as they possibly can. But as a way of getting yourself kick-started, why not go completely traditional?
Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of things. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.
If you front load that stuff, plant all that out in advance and you know the rough outline of each chapter in advance, then when you come to each day’s writing, you’re able to go off in all kinds of directions because you know what you have to do in that day. You have to walk this character from this point to this point and you can do that in the strangest way possible. Whereas if you’re looking at a blank piece of paper and saying where do you I go from here you get kind of frozen.
The unwritten novel has a basilisk’s stare, and so I would say do it behind your own back by just formally structuring it in that traditional way. And then when you have confidence and you’ve gained confidence in that, you can play more odder games with it. But it’s really not a bad way to get started.”