November 8, 2012
Mixing Concrete is Like Writing a Great Book
I started out my “work life” mixing concrete. Concrete is extremely strong. It’s used for roads, for foundations that hold up skyscrapers and bridges, in dams that hold back rivers and lakes. There isn’t anything that can take the place of concrete. And the most amazing thing is that concrete is made up of four common substances: Sand, gravel, cement, and water. When those four ingredients are mixed in the right proportions, they make a magical transformation. Writing a great book is no different.
Concrete made its first appearance more than 2,000 years ago, but it still serves as the foundation and primary building material for many of the world’s largest structures, including the Burj Khalifa (world’s tallest building), the Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, the Roman Pantheon, Roman aqueducts, and the Colosseum.
Four Amazing Structures
When you look at these structures they seem to have nothing in common, except that they are impressive, almost magical, and yet, they are all built of concrete.
I got to thinking about this the other night and realized that books and concrete shared common traits, and, like concrete, books were made up of simple parts. Let’s compare them. Mixing good concrete and writing a great book.
Books and Concrete
When these two things are done right, not much compares to them. Concrete, as the pictures above prove, withstands the test of time, buildings intact after 2,000 years. Books, too, withstand the test of time. Not as leather-bound objects, but as stories. Think of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Dante’s Divine Comedy, or the works of William Shakespeare and Alexandre Dumas.
Although the ingredients for concrete are common, you can’t just throw them into a barrel and expect to produce good concrete; it has to be mixed in the right proportions. Writing a great book is the same.
- Too much water and the concrete is easy to work with, but it won’t stand the test of time.
- Too much sand and the concrete turns out weak.
- Too much cement and concrete becomes brittle.
- Too much aggregate (gravel) and strength is sacrificed.
What Happens When You Get It Wrong?
The consequences of getting it wrong with concrete are far worse than they are with books. Imagine the four structures pictured above if that concrete wasn’t mixed to perfection. With books the results aren’t as bad—unless you’re the author.
Let’s take a look at books. Like concrete, books consist of many parts, but the big four are: plot, dialogue, characters, and storytelling.
- The water in concrete is like the storytelling part of a book.
- The sand is similar to dialogue
- Gravel is the plot, the backbone of a book.
- Cement represents the characters, the glue that holds it together.
If you’re going to fall short with a book at least get the storytelling right—assuming your goal is to write a bestseller. A great story will carry a reader along, perhaps even push them along. Think of The Da Vinci Code. By all accounts it was not the greatest piece of literature. The character development left room for improvement; the prose was often repetitive; dialogue was generally considered to be below standard; let’s say that without the storytelling—and a good boost from the controversy surrounding the Catholic Church—it might never have gotten produced, let alone become a mega bestseller.
The Da Vinci Code, many people think, does not stand the test of time. When it is read a second time, flaws pop up that were overlooked during the first read. I compare stories like The Da Vince Code to concrete with too much water. If you put too much water into the mix, the concrete seems great—at first—it’s easy to work with, it trowels smoothly with a glassy appearance, but it deteriorates quickly.
That’s what happens to books that are all storytelling.
Then there are stories that consist of nothing but plot. No matter how intricate the plot, once you know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t hold up to a second read unless the other factors are all in place. A book that’s all plot is no fun reading twice. A book with not enough plot is the same. Many people consider plot the backbone of the story, but plot is like the gravel in concrete—it bears a heavy load, but to be successful it must have support.
The books without the right mix of plot are like concrete with too much, or too little, gravel. It looks strong at first glance but it falls apart under stress.
Dialogue is an integral part of a story, and just as sand fills the voids of the gravel to support it, dialogue flows through the story supporting plot and enhancing characters. Too much dialogue and the plot suffers. Too little dialogue and character development often suffers.
When I used to shop in bookstores, I often would open a book and flip through it looking for white space, a good indicator of dialogue. If the book didn’t have enough white space, I usually put it down.
I am always torn between what is the most important element of a good book. Sometimes I say storytelling and sometimes I say character development. In reality, I think the most important elements are a mix of all four factors I cited: storytelling, characters, plot, and dialogue. Yes, there are other factors—setting, prose, voice, conflict…the list goes on and on, but all of those can be listed as some part of the four I mentioned. Writing a great book takes all of it.
Nothing can take the place of the characters. The characters an author creates are truly the glue that holds it all together. They are the cement of books. With that said, even great characters can’t stand on their own. If you put too much cement in the concrete mix, it becomes brittle. Similarly, even great characters need support. They need story, plot, and dialogue to make them shine.
The Bottom Line
Whether it’s concrete or books, neither one can stand on any single part. Each element relies on the others for support and strength, and it’s only when you use the right proportions do you get a product that stands the test of time.
Back when I was in the masonry business there was always someone who tried shortcutting the process. Adding too much water to the mix, or not enough gravel. It’s easier to mix concrete that way, but it doesn’t make the best concrete. I see that, too, in the book business. Many authors try shortcutting the process of writing a great book, not digging deep enough for character development, or getting lazy on dialogue. It’s difficult to do it right, but the end result is worth it.
The question you have to ask yourself is do you want to put the time in to do it right…or do you just want to put a book out there to say you are published? You decide.
Ciao, and thanks for stopping by,