Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why writing is like the pyramids

One of my high school English teachers (shout to Mr. Winthrop!) once said that the books we were going to read that year were on par with humankind's greatest achievements in any sphere, including the pyramids.

I was reminded of this comparison when I recently traveled to Teotihuacan in Mexico and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun. Not only are great novels truly singular achievements, but my trip got me thinking about the extent to which writing a novel is... sort of like building a pyramid.

You work so hard for so long... and that's just to finish the base

The base of the Pyramid of the Sun is so big (see above) you can't even really get it into one photo unless you are very, very far away. It's 720 feet long and 760 feet wide!

Can you imagine the immense amount of work it took just to do the first layer?? It must have felt amazing to begin such a lofty promise... and then it took a ton of work... and when that first layer was done, they must have known they had an incredibly long way to go.

And that reminded me of the first 50-75 pages of a novel. You're psyched! You're going to write the greatest novel of all time! And then you get started. And it takes so much work. And even when you get that initial base going, it almost feels impossible how much is still yet to be written.

Everything is building toward the point of the pyramid

All of those stones, all that work, builds on itself toward the capstone on top. Or, I guess in the case of Teotihuacan, the altar, since the top is flat.

In your novel, it's all about that climax. Every metaphorical stone you put in place should lead to a very satisfying conclusion. Sure, maybe people will notice the sides of the pyramid, but their eyes are always going to go upward.

Finishing is deceptively hard

One of the best things about finishing the first layer is that no other layer will be as big and wide. Every layer after that is going to require fewer stones. But... the farther you go, the higher you have to lift.

This reminds me of ending a novel. On the one hand, you're so close! You can see the end! You're really going to finish the novel!

But in reality, it's so hard to get that ending just right. With all of the different plot threads unfolding, every chapter toward the end feels far more difficult.

Sacrifices will be made

Many of the Mesoamerican pyramids were consecrated with human sacrifice. In the case of the Aztec Templo Mayor, those may have numbered somewhere in the thousands.

And yes. You and those around you will make sacrifices along the way.

But when you're done, you'll have something to marvel at forever.


JOHN T. SHEA said...

Great metaphors, Nathan! And we can tear out critics' still beating hearts with obsidian knives and throw their bodies down the steps! Unless they've got some pesky law against that in Mexico...

Hilary said...

I needed this so much today. Thank you.

Inkling said...

True, and like those pyramids, the results last. An author can dream that people a century and more from now readers will be enjoying and benefiting from what they've written. That's not true of almost every other profession.

Maureen Anne Stapleton said...

Your 'pyramid'metaphor reminded me of the Preface to
Henry James novel'The Portrait of a Lady'though his is more convoluted - if you haven't read it, do, I think you will like it - I do but then I'm partial to a bit of 'purple prose'.
Both supply much to ponder in the 'building' of a work of fiction,enjoy.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

I am currently working on my first book of poetry and your pyramid comparison works well for that too. It's not always easy for my loved ones to understand that I can work for an hour on finding the perfect word for just one line in only one poem, and that the process can be as tough as writing an entire article. But when it's right, it's right and you can move on to the next word, the next layer, the top of the pyramid.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, great metaphor. I love your last line: "But when you are done, you'll have something to marvel at forever." No one else may, but at least you can. I've been marveling at mine since 2004 now. I know of at least two others who have also marveled asking me when I will do a sequel. I got about halfway through a "book 2" and realized I didn't have it in me to finish. Nothing since 2008. I'm now doing shorter novella-type stories and memoirs and still marveling. I'm also convinced no one else will marvel at those either. But I keep looking. And hoping. Thanks, Nathan.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

G. K. Chesterton was an excellent writer, but he said writing a book, any book, was worthy of some praise in itself. We compare books and seek excellence, quite rightly, but I do not believe the good is the enemy of the best. Egypt's Great Pyramid is twice as tall as the Pyramid of the Sun, but that does not diminish the Mexican pyramid literally of figuratively.

wendy said...

It is hard to finish a challenging novel. At the start, no one likes it very much, But after more years have passed, the story begins to gleam with promise. I'm still working on one I started over twenty years ago. But I don't work on it every day. Along this epic trail, my beliefs and likes changed. At the start, I enjoyed paranormal romance, but over the last few years, I've done a 180 shift towards philosophic and spiritual stories. So now, when I work on the story, I work to minimize the sometimes superficial and self-focus of romance and focus on the meaning behind the work and the next great ideas that could be life-changing.

Anne Hungerford-Lowell said...

Also, the foundation is critical. If you don't get it right, the entire creation will be off kilter. The problem may not become obvious until another layer or two is in place, but the time will come when the problem can't be ignored.
I'm curious about how an author makes sure their foundation is set so that they don't have to tear down and rebuild due to a problematic perspective or storyline.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the foundation is so flawed that the structure can't be finished or must be taken down...kill your darling. I've got files full of'em. But you'll do others.

Anonymous said...

[meant to add this:]
As for how to know in advance when a foundation is sound, I too would like to know. Maybe it's not possible apart from copying successful stories. Or maybe that's a clue?

joanna elm said...

Lovely analogy (and I believe this is an analogy rather than a metaphor) and truly apt. Nice read Nathan

Terin Miller said...

Very apt analogy, Mr. Former (Secret?) Agent Man.

Happy 2017, Nathan, and thanks as always for the encouraging words!

Bryan Russell said...

Does this mean I get to write less words on every page?

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Finishing the novel is definitely tough, and I have several unfinished stories to attest to that. I think the hardest part is letting go of the story itself, as well as the characters, because I keep wanting to rewrite them.

guitarjulie said...

Nathan, After reading this post I realize as a 7th grade English teacher that we as teachers have trained our future authors to complete the base of the pyramid and maybe only a small part of the next level when we ask them to write a story. Schools encourage students to write narratives, and then we grade them on what can only be described as, at best, a rough draft. It's no wonder everyone thinks writing is easy and that anyone can be an author. I'm going to change that starting right now. I run my classroom like a communication's department with the idea being that nothing can be published unless it is proofread, edited by others, and polished. The problem is I don't spend enough time on the editing part because of time. You have altered my thinking. My goal from now on is not to create just "authors", but to create "editors". Just think of all the free pizza and beer they will negotiate in college with these new found skills if I do it write. I love learning new things to teach my students. Thank you for writing your blog.

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