China Miéville on Novel Structure for Beginners

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:

This was posted here more than a year ago by /u/toothsoup, but it helped me so much, I thought it deserved rehashing for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. What follows is all from the linked post above:

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.”

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

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A Note From the Author on the Asymptote’s Tail

On the Amazon page for every novel there’s a little section with the heading “From the Author”. I didn’t know this section existed until after the book was published, so I didn’t have anything to put there until just now. All that is to say, here’s a note from me, the author, about The Asymptote’s Tail:

I wrote this novel as a challenge to myself. I had been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series and Casual Vacancy–two seemingly unconnected stories, perhaps–around the same time, and what I found myself most impressed with, which was lacking in all my attempts at writing a novel thus far, was both authors’ ability to juggle such a large cast of believable, well-rounded characters.

Keeping that in mind, in November of 2013, I started the first draft of what was then called Outland, hoping to come up with a hefty cast of fleshed out characters of my own making. My first attempts were bumbling and undirected. Unable to find the story because the only things I knew I wanted were an expansive character list, a story full of political intrigue, and a unique futuristic science fiction setting, I discarded those attempts and set to building the world properly while the story composted in my brain.

I studied and restudied story structures all the way from the basic three act, to Campbell’s monomyth, to Harmon’s (Dan Harmon of Community fame) circular story structure, eating up every bit of theory I could, and as I did, I came across a transcription of an interview with China Miéville–whose work I still have yet to read, I’m afraid–in which he gave some advice to new writers trying to get started. Among other things he said:

“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 [your novel’s structure]. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.”

And I took that advice to heart. So I came up with seven characters, each with seven different backgrounds and seven different perspectives of the future world I had created, and I decided that each character would get three 5,000 word chapters from their point of view, adding up to a little more than the 20 suggested by Miéville but something that could be made to work along the same lines.

And as I started to write, I did feel liberated creatively. I could see all the characters’ timelines intertwining as I went, and though I’m sure I didn’t perform up to the standards of the legends I was trying to emulate, I feel like I’ve created something I can be proud of, and I’m certain I’ll continue to improve as I write more novels in the future.

So if you’re a fan of the political intrigue and cast size in works like Game of Thrones and Casual Vacancy, or if you’re into classic dystopian science fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, or even if you’re into absurdism of the likes of Tom Stoppard and Albert Camus, think about giving The Asymptote’s Tail a read. I believe the cast will become your friends, the decisions they’re forced to make will give you philosophical contradictions to mull over long after reading, and most of all, you’ll enjoy yourself.

Thanks for giving me a read, I hope you’ll join me in the future.

-Bryan “with a Y” Perkins 06/04/15

Click here to visit the Amazon page.