On Writing and Shape


I was trying to think through an aspect of writing that is generally instinctive to me, to try to figure out what, if anything about it could be taught. This resulted.

A given piece of writing has what I can only describe as a shape. It’s what we usually call style, but we ascribe that more to writers, and this is really on a piece-by-piece basis. Calling it structure almost works, but feels too detached and under the surface, whereas shape is tangible and visible to the reader. It’s ironically difficult to describe, because it is, ironically, a thing I experience in an almost synesthetic way. It’s the aspect of reading and writing that doesn’t feel like words, but instead sensual and physical. This is a difficult thing to describe.

Instead of describing, then, let’s ask how we choose the shape for a piece of writing. The step after having the idea, in other words, ideas being basically trivial things that one generally has too many of, not too few. You don’t actually mean “where do you get your ideas from," you mean “how did you get that idea to become a piece of art." And this is impossible to teach, because each shape is unique and you can’t really just stamp out identical copies of a given shape. Well, you can, but it’s very, very hard to do in a way that’s worth doing.

So let’s instead think of it as a bit of decision-making. That is, what sorts of thought processes might go into shape. A couple examples from my own work:

The Rose post had several competing concerns that defined what it had to be from the start. It had to be a “big" post in some fashion. As I approached it, it became obvious it was also part of a big period for the blog and my life, as my Kickstarter did far better than expected and was coinciding with the planned relaunch of my blog under a new name, and on top of that I’d very recently moved.

Eventually the phrase “initiation ritual" hit me - the idea that the Rose post should be an initiation for the new blog and the new series. The other thing that heavily influenced the post’s shape early on was thinking about the opening paragraph - the music/news paragraph. People ask why I do this sometimes, since the news rarely ties in very much with the subject of the article. The answer, ultimately, is to have a bit of structure - something I can reach for when I need something to ground a post. I wanted something beyond numbers to mark the time, and I figured popular music was good because it helped evoke the shape of a time. And news stories serve a similar purpose. It’s just a brief litany to conjure up the feel of right before the story aired.

But in this case, the news section ran into the problem that the obvious piece of news to include is, of course, Rose itself. And I realized that the only transition out of the news section was “Doctor Who has returned to television."

And the thing is, that’s actually a very good sentence. It’s not very structurally interesting, but it packs a lot of punch, especially two-and-a-half years into a blog about Doctor Who. And you don’t want to waste it right at the start of an essay like this. Which means I needed to not lead with the music/news. That’s OK - a structure like that is made to be broken sometimes. And the nature of the late wilderness years gave me a neat bit of cover - I could actually quietly drop that format for nearly a month before the Rose post so that nothing looked amiss when it started without that. So I could lull the reader into forgetting that it’s there - keep them focused on so many other things that they forget the basic bit of structure the blog has taught them over two-and-a-half years.

And so Rose ends up being structured as a continual resistance to that section. If it works correctly, and it surely does not always, the reader keeps wanting that line, “Doctor Who has returned to television," without knowing that’s the line they want. So you just write the entire piece as stalling for time until that line. It’s a shaggy dog story - you keep the reader hoping this is going to pay off somehow. The trick is to actually pay it all off, but actually, “Doctor Who has returned to television" is sufficient payoff. Or can be if you build to it right.

The other thing I wasn’t aware of when I wrote it, but realize now is that I wanted definitiveness. I knew once I got to the new series I’d have a larger audience, but less weight within that audience. I wasn’t going to be able to have the last word on any story for any meaningful length of time. Whereas I can have the last word on The Celestial Toymaker for a while now, for better or for worse. And I thought Rose was a place I could slip under the radar and really just have the last word on. I could do a nearly shot-by-shot analysis of Rose. It would be a bit brutal, but it could be done.

And if you combine the ideas, you have something relatively compelling. The piece basically opens by saying “what is this thing," and pointing at Rose. Then it completely takes Rose apart and looks at every component of it, in at times gratuitous detail. Then, finally, it gives an obviously correct and satisfying answer.

Within the piece, I just go back and forth between analysis and teasing the answer. It actually breaks fairly cleanly into sections - little essays on each scene, basically. There’s the Rose’s shop getting blown up scene, the domestic scene, the Doctor’s second appearance, the Clive bit, the Doctor’s third appearance, Rose finding the Nestene base, the confrontation with the Consciousness, the big explody bit, and the finish. Oh, and the opening credits, but we can be sneaky and hold those to the end too. Each one of those scenes has its own sort of flow - a “what is this thing" opening followed by an understanding of the scene and a reiteration of the whole piece’s question - what are we building towards?

The episode is familiar enough that this serves as a sort of countdown - the reader knows about how much is left before the inevitable “put up or shut up" moment, and so plays along with growing curiosity, so long as you keep the patter right.

And at that point the patter’s just doing it. That’s where this understanding of shape breaks down. Because only about half of that is in my head, and the other half is stuff I can see went on, but didn’t notice at the time. It’s why the piece works, but it’s not how I built it. That’s the tricky bit - learning to write the style you want.

Last War in Albion is instructive here. I can trace out the exact set of decisions I made before writing it, and then I can talk about starting to write it. The first thing I realized is that I wanted to do a blog about the magical war between Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. I realized this before I’d even started TARDIS Eruditorum, and I even got as far as pitching it to Rich Johnson at Bleeding Cool. He encouraged me to develop it a bit, but never responded to a sample post or two I sent, and the momentum petered out. So I shelved it and did Doctor Who on my own blog instead.

Eventually I realized it was the logical sequel to Doctor Who - my other big blog idea. The problem was that unlike Doctor Who, it would not split into books worth a damn, and I was starting to realize that the books made me money, and I liked money.

So I needed to find a shape other than books for what was still the British Comics Project in my head. I was looking at the Faction Paradox stuff for TARDIS Eruditorum around the time I was mulching this in my head, as I was also looking at The Invisibles again, and I realized that the structure I wanted was that of Book of the War - an encyclopedia of the war. This, however, was ludicrous to try to write as a blog.

So it occurred to me to take the blog in the other direction - a completely linear document of the war, from start to finish, with discursions as needed, that could someday be taken apart and reassembled as a frankly easier to use encyclopedia. So I shelved the encyclopedia idea for later - and I do intend to go back to it if Last War in Albion goes well.

Eventually I got the itch to poke at it again for some reason - I think I was just bored one night, actually - and I started thinking about how to write it. It had to start with the stuff Morrison insisted was the start, since I knew I ultimately sided with Moore, and thus absolutely couldn’t stack the deck against Morrison. And I felt like I would, since actually, at the end of the day the entire angry commentary by Grant Morrison where he shouted about how his comics career predated Alan Moore’s was a response to me. I’d asked Alan Moore the original question in the webchat for the Harvey Pekar memorial, and his answer to me is what Grant Morrison was responding to. So I had to reply, in a sense, directly to Grant Morrison and start with his 1979 work.

So I started thinking about what that would entail. What was there to say about the Near Myths stuff? But this connected with a second idea. I knew I wanted to do this encyclopedia eventually. Ultimately, my goal was to write a description of the comics that was shaped like the War in Heaven from the Faction Paradox universe. This was a heavy lift, given that the idea was that the War in Heaven couldn’t really be described directly.

So I took that seriously, deciding to treat the war as something too big to cover all at once, and to use its linear unfolding in history as a lens for something much bigger. This meant constantly looking down paths to find other interesting things to explore. So figuring out how to write about Near Myths meant figuring out the paths for it. (Actually, the first set of paths I figured out were for Maxwell the Magic Cat, because I wanted to test somewhere else in the story.) I decided on Moorcock and Ballard because Morrison went back and forth on their influence. Luther Arkwright was an obvious choice because I’d heard of him and he was important. I knew I wanted Blake to be a major theme, so I thought, OK, get him in early through Arkwright and Talbot - I knew Roger Whitson had interviewed Talbot about Blake. Burroughs was a late addition because of Moorcock and Ballard, and that seemed like basically enough.

Then I started writing bits. I quickly developed the third person style because it contrasted with Eruditorum. Likewise, the no real chapter breaks style was there to contrast with Eruditorum, and to just embrace the problem of there being no easy book separations with this material. I started writing the paths I was most confident about, then stringing those into the ones I was less confident about. Which is a fairly handy way of approaching something. I write in Scrivener, which makes rearranging paragraphs and reordering sections particularly easy, and just filled in bits until I got to the start and finish. Then I cut it into blog posts from there, consciously interrupting mid-point so as to heighten the sense of the War as a narrative that cannot be broken down into discrete parts.

You’ll note the bit I elided there was again how to actually write it, though this time it’s more visible. I started by writing the bits that were closest to where the ideas came from. I knew the paths structure meant a lot of brushing up on side topics, so I found a given topic I knew I wanted to talk about that seemed fairly short and I wrote it. I think the first bit was Ballard, then Moorcock, then Burroughs, though usually i switched among two or three sections so that when one got frustrating I could just move to something else. Another way to put this is that I just wrote the bits that were in my head when I sat down to write, and worked on stitching them together later given that I’d figured out the shape enough to know how to stitch.

Another way to put it is that I sat on the idea until I could make myself imagine the way I wanted reading the piece to feel. And once I knew what it felt like to read it, I started writing the bits that I knew the feeling of the best and that interested me the most. And from there the rest fell into place.

None of this, of course, is a guide on how to figure out the shape of a piece of writing.  Myriads of other ways to do this exist, many of them very different from how I do it. Many are used by writers far better than me. If you know how to figure out the shape of a piece of writing like Alan Moore does, go do that, don’t listen to me.

Rather, the point is to try to describe what the problem looks like in the hopes that it makes it easier for others to see it, identify it, and figure out how to solve it for themselves.


Callum Leemkuil 7 years, 6 months ago

do you think there's anything to be said for basically structureless pieces of writing, like Naked Lunch, or surrealist automatic writing, or to some extent Gravity's Rainbow? It seems to me that with these the author foregoes structure and just lets the shape of the writing appear on its own.

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Josh Marsfelder 7 years, 6 months ago

Wonderful essay, Phil. This is actually very similar to the way I approach writing myself, especially Vaka Rangi. You've done a great job of articulating how that mental process works.

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Pen Name Pending 7 years, 6 months ago

Scrivener! Scrivener is great! Although it is better if you begin writing on it; I imported my novel from Word and had to divide the chapters up into scenes, but those scenes had not been predetermined, and so it does not have the same simple structure as the book I began writing for fun on Scrivener.

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Bob Dillon 7 years, 6 months ago

Totally not relevant to this post, but did everyone else know that Springhill has been relased on dvd?


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elvwood 7 years, 6 months ago

Looks interesting - I might experiment with it for my current writing project, since I'm only about 2k words in and that's divided into only three scenes.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 6 months ago

I just type shit that pops into my head. It shows, I guess.

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Josh Marsfelder 7 years, 6 months ago

That's called Gonzo Journalism and is just as valid an approach to writing :-)

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Pen Name Pending 7 years, 6 months ago

It's very helpful especially if you are using it as you are writing (as I said), because you can set a target word count for each scene and it tracks your progress. You also get to clump the scenes into chapters, and the chapters into parts if you want. It also has built-in notecards and outlines, which helps if you might want to write things out of order.

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William Silvia 7 years, 6 months ago

Brilliant article, and I completely agree with every bit of it. Writing is like sculpting, in a way. A lot of times you find yourself with a brilliant idea, but you're using much more clay (many more words, in the literal sense) than you ever had any intention of budgeting, and need to cut, and trim, and mold it into a different shape. Except that I'm rubbish at sculpting, and I imagine I'm slightly less rubbish when it comes to shaping words.

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brownstudy 7 years, 6 months ago

Thank you so much for this post -- I've always wanted a peek behind the curtain. It reminded me, for whatever reason, of two bits of fiction-writing advice.

1. Reminded me of Alan Moore's advice to the effect of: think about what kind of footprint or impression you want to leave in the reader's brain after they finish reading the story. So that all aspects of the story should point toward making that effect. "Doctor Who has returned to television" is a hell of a giant footprint to leave in a reader's brain.

2. Samuel R. Delany in his book "About Writing" contends that plot is what you remember in retrospect. But for the writer writing, the process is more about structure: I just finished a slow passage with two people, I now need a fast passage with lots of people. Or: The last chapter took place in the past, the next chapter needs to take place in the present. Your description of the Rose post reminded me of this.

With both fiction and non-fiction writing, I sometimes think in terms of oscillating between foreground and background, or thinking of the sentences and paragraphs as mosaic tile, such that the final work accrues rather than plops out fully formed.

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Jack Graham 7 years, 6 months ago

Kind of you to say so, but I think I'm a little too uptight to be Dr (Who) Gonzo.

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BerserkRL 7 years, 5 months ago

“Doctor Who has returned to television"

Another way to put it might be: "My imaginary friend came back."

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