An engineer taught me to write. I tell this story to anyone who asks me for advice about writing.
Years ago, when I was struggling to start writing my novel, The Occidentals, a structural engineer of close acquaintance told me that, in his mind, writing was fundamentally the same thing as building a segmental bridge.
At the time, this accomplished young engineer was working on a big elevated expressway that required thousands of prefabricated concrete segments to be precast off-site and then trucked in piece by piece. We would see the trucks, trundling along and not elegant at all, taking up space on the road and disturbing the traffic.
In its entirety, the engineer said, the project seemed vast and overwhelming. But once the design, construction plan and calculations were done, it was better to manage the project day by day than to think of it as a whole. So, he had goals for how many segments needed to be completed daily and weekly, in order to finish the project on time. As he explained, eventually, if you meet your target most days (and use others to make up ground), you have your finished bridge, ready for the public.
So, he said, he reckoned that if you attacked the writing of a novel the same way, you’d soon have your completed manuscript. Think about how many chapters (segments) you want and about how many pages will be in each. Set a deadline and work out how many chapters you want to finish a month. Perhaps you have 20 chapters and you will do two a month of about 20 pages each. Thus, you must write 10 pages a week. You have Saturday and two evenings a week to devote to writing. So, say, each Saturday you will commit to writing four pages, and each available evening to three pages.
After 10 months, you will have your completed 400-page manuscript, ready for the next stage, editing.
I’ve been thinking about this advice again, lately. I think there are more similarities between bridges and books than just a work ethic. Both bridges and books are more than the sum of their parts. When you look at a beautiful bridge like this…
…you probably don’t think about the concrete, water, labour, segments and so on that made it, unless you’re an engineer. In other words, you don’t think of it under construction, like this:
Similarly, when a book is published, readers don’t think much about the blood, sweat and tears the author went through, first to write it at all, and second to get it published. Nor do they consider the work of the publisher in taking the novel from manuscript to book. A good book is, rather, a thing of beauty, a work of art, and like a bridge, a symbol of humankind’s infinite creative capabilities.
A monologue in Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind here:
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
[The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene II. Text presented following the First Folio, 1623; published by Rex Library, 1973.]