A nasty, suspicious eye
One of the most attractive books in my home library is the classic Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down by J.E. Gordon, which no less than authority than Elon Musk has included on his recommended reading list. Whenever I get tired of writing, with its arbitrary arrangement of abstract tokens on a screen, a quick browse through Gordon is enough to reignite my love of the act of making itself. A novel or short story may seem to pose a different set of challenges than a ship or a bridge, but the pursuits of the writer and the engineer have more than a little in common. As Gordon writes:
In the traditional, formal steam yacht, grace and majesty are produced by extreme delicacy and subtlety and harmony in the curves of the hull and the sweep of the sheer—by the exact and loving placing of masts and funnel and superstructure…Mutatis mutandis, this is like the exact and loving placing of words in writing. Ship design differs from the creation of poetry only in its numerate content.
And just as a ship—or a bridge—can best be judged by its ability to get its users safely from one point to another, a story is only viable to the extent that the reader is compelled to finish it.
Writing a novel is also like building a bridge in that both require the ability to combine the stock technical wisdom of the field with the maddeningly specific factors arising from local conditions. Gordon’s cautions for the engineer consulting a book of formulas are just as applicable to a writer wondering how to use a rule of thumb to solve a narrative problem:
- Make sure that you really understand what the formula is about.
- Make sure that it really does apply to your particular case.
- Remember, remember, remember, that these formulae take no account of stress concentrations or other special local conditions.
Once you bear all this in mind, Gordon says, you can plug the appropriate values into the formula—”making sure that the units are consistent and the noughts are right”—and then do the math. He concludes: “Now look at this figure with a nasty suspicious eye and think if it looks and feels right. In any case you had better check your arithmetic; are you sure that you haven’t dropped a two?”
Any writer, particularly a novelist, can sympathize with this. When we first outline a writing project, even if it takes only the form of a quick sketch on the back of an envelope or tablecloth, we’re thinking in terms of rules and strategies that have worked for us—or for other writers—in the past. We know, for instance, that the length of publishable novel tends to fall within a certain range, something like 55,000 to 120,000 words, and that this is a function both of the marketplace and of the attention span of the average reader. Many of us think in terms of three acts, and even within each chapter, we have our own set of rules. (Mine include starting as late and getting out as early as possible, opening on physical movement or dialogue, saving any extended description until the action has been established, and structuring each scene as much as possible as a series of concrete objectives.) But you can follow all of these principles to the letter and still end up with a boring, mechanical story. Much of the interest and texture of any narrative arises from the places where the rules can be gently broken without upsetting the structural integrity of the whole. And the only way to pull this off is to look at the result with that “nasty suspicious eye” and see whether or not it squares with our intuitive sense of how the story ought to look.
We do this, most obviously, during the revision stage—a luxury that real engineers don’t have—but also during the planning, which can prevent us from wasting a year or more of work on a story that can’t be written. As Gordon puts it:
When the loading conditions have been determined we can sketch out, to scale, a rough design—designers often use pads of squared paper for their preliminary sketches—and we can then apply the appropriate formulae to see what the stresses and deflections are going to look like. At the first shot these will probably be too high or too low, and so we go on modifying our sketches until they seem about right.
And as casual as that “about right” might sound, it’s the result, as Gordon notes, of many sleepless nights:
When you have got as far as a working drawing, if the structure you propose to have made is an important one, the next thing to do, and a very right and proper thing, is to worry about it like blazes. When I was concerned with the introduction of plastic components into aircraft I used to lie awake night after night worrying about them, and I attribute the fact that none of these components ever gave trouble almost entirely to the beneficent effects of worry. It is confidence that causes accidents and worry which prevents them. So go over your sums not once or twice but again and again and again.
Applying the formulas correctly, checking your work, worrying about it endlessly: a writer, like an engineer, can do nothing less. Because there’s exactly one life at stake here. And it’s your own.