Thursday, October 6, 2011


Here’s what I think about novel writing. You can read about it, you can talk about it, and you can think about it, and all that helps. Especially if you’re in a dialogue with other writers (whether in person or across the interwebs). But it’s the doing it that really teaches you how to make it happen.

Even writing and workshopping short stories, while educational when it comes to learning many of the mechanics of storytelling, doesn’t fully prepare you for the monumental undertaking of completing a novel. At least this has been my experience.

Chapters are one of those things I had to learn by doing. As I made my first attempts at writing a book, questions cluttered my head. What are chapters really? How long should they be? How much should happen in them? How do I know when I’ve done enough to end the chapter? None of these questions have one answer. If I pick up five books from my shelf at random, I’d find five different approaches to building chapters.

And that’s why we have to learn by doing. It’s the only real way to figure out what works for each of us and what works for each of the many stories we all have in us to tell.

With my SUPER AWESOME BIG TIME REWRITE, I’m approaching my chapters with a brand new philosophy. My previous approach was to keep putting stuff in until it looked like I had enough stuff in there to close that chapter, leaving enough stuff unresolved to warrant starting a new chapter. I didn’t always think about chapter goals or what I was accomplishing. The only rule I held myself accountable to was keeping in mind that it had to lead somewhere.

It was very scientific, and I even think that method worked pretty okay (for a first draft if nothing else).

This time around, just to shake things up, I'm thinking about each chapter as encapsulating a specific idea, concern or event and the actions and reactions surrounding that element. Interestingly, doing things this way has made for longer chapters with several section breaks in each and less chapters in the manuscript as a whole.

I’m really liking doing it this way. It’s put me in the mindset of not dragging things out for the sake of dragging things out, which maybe I might have perhaps have been guilty of once or possibly twice. That was back when I associated dragging things out with infusing a story with tension.

I’m not saying that there aren’t times when it’s necessary to delay gratification or a big climax. But it’s important to remember that by going ahead and throwing that big thing at your characters, it gives you the opportunity to raise the stakes, escalate the action, and throw your characters into an even bigger, more crazy climax that you might have never thought of otherwise.

So I guess what I’m saying is that my SUPER AWESOME BIG TIME REWRITE is going awesome (even though progress has slowed to a crawl these past few weeks because I’ve had to sluggishly and painfully chisel out these last few chapters with an ice pick) and I’m learning stuff from the process.

Yea, learning!

I’m curious. How do vous approach putting a chapter together and how did vous come to doing it that way?


  1. It's good to hear that your rewrite is going as planned. In my first book that I wrote I made my chapters way too long. I've learned since then that the proper length for me seems to fall somewhere between 1000 and 3000 words. More than that, and I've definitely got a place where I could break and do a new chapter and just never did. Chapters are important for the pacing of the novel. I really learned this by reading Kurt Vonnegut who makes a chapter one single page. I feel like I'm zooming through his books when I read them.

  2. It's funny. I seem to have gone in the opposite direction. In my earliest draft of this novel I'm working on my chapters were super short and now they're pretty long. And I drew on something I picked up from Slaughter House-5 as far as having long chapters but lots of section breaks to break it up and help with pacing. Vonnegut rocks!