Structure of novels vs. manuals

Subject: Structure of novels vs. manuals
From: geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA
Date: Tue, 5 Aug 1997 12:16:32 -0500

Alessandro Bottoni wrote that <<...writing novels is not
just a matter to let your thoughts flow down to the paper.
A real novel (or a short story) requires a carefull design
and has to be written keeping in mind the final result you
want to get, chapter by chapter and sentence by sentence.>>

Very well put, Alessandro. And in that sense, novels are
very much like technical manuals. The main differences are
that: (1) the structure of a novel should be imperceptible
to the reader, except for highly stylized works, whereas
the structure of a manual must be readily perceptible
(e.g., levels of heading, organisation), and (2) novels are
almost always linear, whereas manuals are almost always
nonlinear. I find that working with one type of structure
helps me with the other type because it stretches different
mental muscles and provides a different perspective on the
communication task. For example, novel-writing helps me
learn how to make a structure helpful without being
obtrusive, whereas writing documentation helps me learn to
impose discipline on my style.

David Dvorkin expressed strong disagreement: <<Writing
novels with their overall structure always in mind is
something that generally comes a bit later in a novelist's
career. With the first novel, often with the first few,
it's best for most writers to simply write, to enjoy the
act of creation and the putting of words on paper (or

While there's some good points there, I don't agree with
the overall conclusion. Every writer has a different
approach that works best for them, and though this approach
may change over the course of the career, the direction of
change may surprise you. I talked about this with two
novelists I'm rather fond of and discovered radically
different approaches; Tim Powers plots everything out in
detail before he starts writing, and never strays an inch
from the path, whereas Steven Brust starts with a known
direction and lets his characters pick their own path to a
conclusion. So far as I know, neither has changed their
approach over the course of their careers. I started out by
writing to a carefully predefined structure and have
evolved towards understanding the characters well enough to
let them find their own way through my story.

<<Books and courses on creative writing techniques are to
be avoided like the plague.>>

Not at all. Take them with a grain of salt, by all means,
but don't neglect the benefits that come from gaining
another person's insight into the act of creation. I've
learned an awful lot about writing from reviewing the
opinions and philosophies of other authors; some opinions I
disagreed with vehemently, others I agreed with equally
rabidly, but every one taught me something new about my
craft. The same applies to books on technical writing, BTW.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Disclaimer: Speaking for myself, not FERIC.

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