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Posts tagged ‘Writing Process’

The Care and Feeding of Chapter Breaks


What do you get when a bunch of writers get together and start chatting? No, it’s not a joke. In this case, some of my friends and I recently got into an interesting discussion about chapters, and more specifically on their use in narrative, and on the various ways in which stories get broken up into chapters.

The Chapter as Structured Emotion

I’m a fairly big devotee of the chapter as a structural unit. They are a natural building block for story: narrower than “act” or “part” (or “book”) but wider than a scene or paragraph (let alone a sentence).

But I think the chapter is at its weakest if we consider it as merely a tool for carving the plot into bite-sized chunks. Yes, a chapter does that. But our engagement with a story is only marginally tied to its plot: our investment is really driven by our emotional engagement, which in turn is shaped by the confluence of plot, characters, language, sentence/paragraph structure, and – yes – chapter structure. To think of chapters as merely tools for managing plot misses on their greatest value. I think the real value of the chapter is as a tool for shaping/directing the story’s emotional arc.

We use more targeted structure in a similar fashion all the time. Consider how we construct our sentences or our paragraph breaks: what is the “punchy one-sentence paragraph” except a way to stress an emotional point? Chapters (and to a lesser extent scenes within those chapters) work on the same principle, only with more weight behind them. It is that weight and the emotional arc chapters take us through which shapes our perception of pace and our engagement with the story.

The All Important End

At the end of a chapter, we’re left feeling a certain way: “Holy shit! What’s going to happen now?” or “Whoa. I’ve got to get a breath of air” or “Aha! I know where this is going [but I need to keep going to make sure…].” The paragraphs in the chapter that lead up to that ending are all leading towards that one crystalline moment, that pause where the reader takes stock of their experience before turning the page and continuing to the next chapter.

At the end of each chapter, we retroactively re-assess our perception of that entire chapter. Our experience of the preceding paragraphs, sentences, and events gets overshadowed by our experience of the chapter’s conclusion. It is only with great difficulty that we can parse where we felt that the chapter dragged, or note where the tension rose. The note on which the chapter ends colors our memory of the chapter, and may even replace it entirely.

This is a structural trick that works in book length as well: consider the end of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Martin’s greatest success in that book was the surprising fate of Ned Stark, and that surprise and its implications force a fundamental reshaping of our experience of the entire novel. Chapter endings do the same on a smaller scale, and furthermore bridge our emotional engagement with the chapter that follows.

The Process of Chapterizing a Book

When we write, different people approach chapter breaks in different fashions. Some of us like to outline, and build chapter breaks into our outlines from day zero. Others like to write an entire novel divided solely by scene breaks, and then cut the narrative into chapters after it’s all down on paper. There is no “right” way to do it, and I think that whether we use chapters as a plot demarcation or an emotional one, the timing for when we go in and slice the story into those chapters is entirely secondary.

Different strokes for different folks. Though my own process has changed somewhat as I’ve written increasing amounts, I find that these days I think of my books as “chaptered” before I sit down to write a word. I view chapters as my milestones in my writing process, and their emotional culmination as the “goal” I’ll be writing towards. I’ll sit down and tell myself “Okay, time to write Chapter X” and then I’ll write until I’m done with that chapter. Later on, I might go in and move stuff around, re-write the chapter from scratch, change the sequence of chapters, drop whole chapters, etc., but that’s part of the “fun” of revision.

From a process standpoint, I’m ridiculously anal retentive about doing all of this. Until I’m putting a completed draft together, I keep each chapter (and for some projects with more complicated structures, each scene) in its own folder, and in that folder I’ve got different files for different versions of that scene or chapter. I’ve got my trusty Excel spreadsheet which keeps track of chapters, scenes, sequence, and versions, and I’m sure if anyone else looked at my crazy system they’d scratch their heads and say “WTF?” but hey – it works for me.

So if your process is to slice up your story into chapters after it’s all down on paper? There is nothing wrong with that. It’s a very different process from mine (my brain honestly can’t quite wrap around its implications – it is very foreign to me), but hey, if it works for your own mental process then that is awesome.

How to Decide Where Chapter Breaks Go

Regardless of when or how we break up our chapters, the key to deciding where to put chapter breaks is the emotional ride we want to take our readers on. Our plots – with all of their twists and double-crosses and cliffhangers – are one of the many devices we use to affect our readers’ emotions. In this, using plot points to signpost chapter breaks might still yield a decent result.

But for greater control of both reader emotion, and for greater flexibility with how we shape / present our plots, I think the key is to consider the feelings we wish to evoke, and to remember that the note struck at the end is the one that our readers will remember.

On the Interbook Indecision


Right now, I’m in that horrible place between WIPs. I’ve put two (very different) WIPs to bed, wrapped up both beta reader feedback and revisions on one, and am now awaiting the final pass on another. This means the two books are far off in the back of my mind, no longer front-and-center. Theoretically, this should free me up to focus on a new book. But I’ve once again run into what I call the Interbook Indecision, and it’s driving me batty. I wonder, do others run into this?

What is the Interbook Indecision?

It’s a heady feeling to finish a book. Finishing that first draft and typing “The End” is awesome. Of course, that is never the end: revisions, beta reads, more revisions, sometimes more beta reads, etc. all await until the project is judged “good enough” to go out to agents and editors (which itself prefigures yet more passes).

For me, doing revisions and awaiting beta reads translates into lots of waiting: either I’m waiting for a WIP to “settle” in my brain so that I can approach it fresh, or I’m waiting for beta readers to get back to me. Since the WIP is done – or at least paused while I wait – I find my writing time idle. And that’s no way to run a railroad.

At this stage, I usually start working on a new concept. At first, it’s easy going: I’m excited by the idea, interested by the voice and the characters I’m creating, and I’m having fun with it. Coming off of the book-finishing routine of writing one to two thousand words a day, I find it’s pretty easy to make a sizable dent in a new project. But then something comes up.

Usually at the 10 – 15 thousand word mark, I run into one of those typical writerly problems: I realize the pacing is broken, character motivation needs re-working, plot sequence is out of whack. Whatever it is, it’s a relatively minor problem. I’ve faced – and solved – similar problems before, so I think…no big deal! I’ll just give it a little thought, figure out the solution, fix it, and be back on the road in no time.

Only it never works out that way.

I give it a little thought, sure. But it’s always at this point that I get distracted by a shiny new idea like some sort of creative jackdaw. So I’ll write a chapter or three of the new idea – just to test the waters, of course, to clear the creative palate – and see if it feels like a story with legs. And of course, I’ll forget that when you’ve only written several thousand words, every story seems to have real legs. And here arises the Interbook Indecision.

I’ll have two stories (or sometimes more) which are all interesting, exciting, and fun (for me, which I think is a prerequisite for readers eventually feeling the same). I’m not (at least not yet – maybe some day!) one of those writers who can produce two decent books at the same time. I find that writing a book takes a great deal of concentration, but having two projects that (to me) seem equally viable is naturally inimical to that focus.

So what to do?

My Favorite Solution: Phone-a-Friend

Whenever the Interbook Indecision strikes, I know that I’ve lost perspective. Having written four book-length projects in the last three years (and two in the last year alone), I know that I have the ability to finish either of the projects open before me. But determining which I should finish – or the order in which I should tackle them – may simply be beyond me. So that’s when I seek an outside opinion.

At some point, I’ll have an agent and an editor who might provide feedback and help me choose between warring concepts. Until then, however, I rely on The Professor’s editorial insight. Having her unvarnished opinion helps me to prioritize my projects, keeps me on-target, and focused enough to finish the next book. (full disclosure: the fact that each time I finish a book, she knits me a pair of awesome socks helps, too.)

Yet even with her sharp editorial eye, this process isn’t without its challenges. She (thankfully) has no qualms about telling me when a concept falls flat. But she draws an intelligent distinction between “I don’t like this concept” and “This concept isn’t for me, so I can’t really judge.” And when I hear that, it just means the judgment call has been bounced back to me…when, as I’ve already stated, I’ve lost perspective on the choice.

The Backup Solution: Finding the Core of the Story

So lacking the perspective to judge between two options, and with my Phone-a-Friend option coming up flat, the decision comes back to me. In this situation, what I find helpful is to take each of the stories and try to identify the core nugget within that initially caught my interest.

This is – at least for me – a more difficult process than one might think. When I write a story, there are layers to my own motivation and those layers are ever-shifting based on a wide variety of factors (e.g. my mood, stress outside of writing, what I had for lunch that day, etc.). Yet underlying those layers is a solid foundation, the core of what made me excited to sit down and write the book in the first place. Once I’ve figured out what that core is, I’ll often find that one foundation is more exciting than the other. I’ll also often find that one foundation is otherwise more stable than the other (for example, I’m often prey to fascination with a particular voice, and so might want to play with that voice even when the underlying story is relatively weak).

It’s really a question of figuring out which core concept makes me rub my hands together in child-like glee the most. And once I’ve done that, it’s a question of committing to that project with the conscious acceptance that I’ll see it through to The End.

I wish that this process were easier, or that it were faster. This Interbook Indecision has hit me after each finished WIP, so it’s part of the writing process that I must learn to work through. With four finished projects, I think I’m building a way to do it. Between outside opinion, introspection, and examination, I’ve built a method that (so far) works for me, even if it’s not fast. The consideration and weighing of choices takes time, and it is annoying in that when I’m considering I find myself not writing. If I don’t write, the story doesn’t get finished, and that is incredibly frustrating. But this Interbook Indecision may be part of my mental composition as a writer: something I need to accept and deal with, as a natural consequence of finishing a book.

Thankfully, I’ve already started to refine my method. And if neither outside help or careful consideration helps? I guess I can always flip a coin. But it hasn’t come to that yet.

Does anyone else run into this Interbook Indecision? I know others get distracted by shiny new book ideas when they’re about three quarters done with a WIP, but does anyone else get distracted when they’re 10 – 15% into one? If so, how do you deal with it and settle on a project to finish?

Why Process, Criticism, and Theory Can Be Good for All Writers


What’s the fastest way to start an argument with…
The Professor? Advocate an analytically-driven, engineered writing process.
Chris? Advocate process-less, instinctive writing (“Just write!”)

Obviously, this is one subject on which my wife and I disagree. Sometimes quite vehemently. And this is also an argument that I’ve seen writers manifest in the perennial debate over outlining, writing synopses, or just seat-of-the-pantsing it.

Why Seat-of-the-Pants vs Outline is a False Dichotomy

That question, beloved of the interwebs, is bogus. For a story to be effective, it must be coherent on one or more levels. And coherence in narrative results from having a plan. If a story didn’t have an underlying plan, it would be stream of consciousness and word association. And while some few (*cough* James Joyce *cough*) may have pulled it off, most of us won’t. The real question is one of timing, worldview, and brain wiring.

Let’s posit two (obviously extreme) writers: Jane Outline and John Pants. Obviously, Jane likes to map out the events of her story before sitting down to pen some prose. John, by contrast, sits down and lets his characters tell the story. Both John and Jane still execute on a plan. The real difference is when each prepares that plan.

Jane, with her spreadsheets, notes, and color charts front-loads a great deal of the work. Before she writes her opening sentence, Jane knows what her characters will do at each stage of her story. She knows what motivates them, and how they will react to the situations she puts them in. For her, the act of writing is more a question of finding the words to best express actions that she has already mapped out. The events of her story will rarely surprise her, but her execution might.

John, by contrast, sits down with a character, a voice, or a sentence. He has a hook that brings him into the world of his story, but beyond that he doesn’t know much of where the story is going. After he writes that first sentence, or the first paragraph, he lets the character/voice guide him. The story that unfolds might surprise him, though he counts on his facility for language to express that story as it makes itself apparent. If John has a plan, he makes it up as he goes: he knows what will happen in the next sentence, the next paragraph, or the next scene. But he might not necessarily have an end-goal in sight. His plan is gradually uncovered in parallel to the story.

Both plans come from the heart of storytelling in our souls. Those of us wired like Jane might consciously try to tap into that wellspring, while those like John might have to negotiate access on a moment-by-moment basis. But if we want to write at a professional level, we need to develop the capacity to touch that heart of storytelling whenever we need to. Waiting for the elusive muse, or relying on some ritual, is counterproductive and inhibiting. And that is something that the Professor and I agree on. So how can writers – regardless of whether they plan ahead of time or not – develop the capability to build stories? While at its most basic level the answer is practice (or as the Professor tells me constantly: Just write, dammit!), I think the more complete answer depends on how our brains are wired.

Creative Tools for the Analytical Writer

I’m a fairly analytical fellow by both nature and training. I see patterns and systems just about everywhere (whether they’re really there or not). When I sit down to write, I try to think of it in terms of systems and processes. This isn’t to say that I write by the numbers, but I find that I will always try to build a conceptual framework around whatever writing project I’m working on at any precise moment. Sometimes, that conceptual framework manifests itself in an outline, other times in a synopsis, and sometimes (usually when I write short fiction) it stays in my head. But the quality of those conceptual frameworks, and the tools that I can apply to them are actually the result of critical theory and extensive analytical reading.

I try to read as much critical theory as possible. And since I write primarily in the speculative genres, I also read heavily in genre theory. If your only exposure to critical theory has been Derrida (ick) or most of the other post-modernists, then I strongly suggest you take a look at some of the more formalist schools of thought: there’s a lot of value to be found there. I’ve found that useful critical theory expands my conceptual vocabulary, and gives me a way of thinking about story structure, character archetypes, and narrative techniques. Unlike how-to-write books or blogs (which can also be helpful), most good theory isn’t didactic. It’s diagnostic: it describes what the investigator sees in the field, rather than what a practitioner should do.

Why is this helpful? It explains what other authors, schools of writing, or genres have done. If I’m writing a fairy tale, I find that I keep Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale close to hand. Not because I slavishly stick to the plot constructions he describes, but because he has laid out a time-tested architecture for fairy tale storytelling. I might choose to diverge from his framework, but if I do so, I do so consciously: I know where I’m diverging and why. When I write fantasy, I keep in mind Farah Mendlesohn’s categories of fantasy (from her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy). Doing so does not limit my writing, but it expands my awareness of where my story might go.

Analytical reading is a way of consciously constructing my own conceptual vocabulary. When I read a story, in particular when I’m reading something for review consideration, I’m always asking myself what techniques the author used to manipulate the reader’s perception. I examine their effectiveness, and the reasons driving it. In essence, I’m creating my own internal critical theory that then informs my writing and affects how stories get constructed in the deeper recesses of my brain. A big part of this blog is actually my attempt to further systematize this nebulous personal critical theory and deepen my conscious awareness of it through its articulation.

“Theory is Boring, Didactic, and Risky,” says the Instinctive Writer

Our theoretical John Pants (and The Professor, and a who’s who list of amazing writers) would probably disagree with everything I just said above. They would say that theory can be inhibiting, leading us to write by the numbers. And yes, this is a real risk. Just consider all of the dross produced on the back of the Campbellian monomyth. Instead, they would probably suggest that people should just read extensively and analytically, and write, write, write.

And that is absolutely true. But extensive reading (whether consciously analytical or not) has the same ultimate effect as reading theory. Have you ever found yourself reading extensively in a particular time period, or genre, and discovered that you’ve picked up habits (sentence construction, pacing, plot) from your reading? Even if we don’t consciously dissect our reading material, the act of reading still builds our internal critical theory. Consciously, analytically, or through osmosis, the act of reading assembles our conceptual vocabulary whether we want it to or not. Whether we can ever consciously articulate that theory or not doesn’t matter: it’s still somewhere in our brains. And it percolates there, and then leaks out to flavor our writing. And the more extensive our internal critical theory, the wider assortment of narrative tools we have in our writing workshop.

I admit, I’m not one of these instinctive writers. But I suspect the biggest challenge for such writers is to work through the moments in their writing when their limited conscious plan peters out. “Where do I take the story from here?” is a question I suspect many struggle with at some point. Which is why they say Broadway is paved with excellent first acts. The exhortation that writers force themselves to write, come hell or high water, is designed to train us to smoothly access our conceptual vocabulary – whether we’re conscious of the process or not. And the wider our reading, the broader and deeper that conceptual vocabulary becomes. This then lets us avoid such dead-ends, or to more easily identify them so we can backtrack to fix them.

Process vs Ritual: The First is Good, the Second is Bad

We writerly types are fairly idiosyncratic. Like athletes, we all have our little habits that put us in the zone. Whether it’s a particular chair we love to write in, or a particular time of day to write at, or a particular process that we go through before setting fingers to keyboard, we’ve all got our little rituals. And rituals are bad. They’re crutches that over the space of a career are just not sustainable. Because life generally is not conducive to ritualized work processes. Sooner or later, our favorite chairs break, mugs get lost, schedules get all mixed up. Life just gets in the way. And if we’re beholden to our rituals, then our writing will suffer.

Imagine if John Pants lands a three book deal, with a national book tour (okay, I realize this isn’t likely in the modern world – but for illustrative purposes only, bear with me). He’ll be on the road for eight weeks plugging the first book in his trilogy, meanwhile his deadline for book number two is rapidly approaching (if it hasn’t already passed). If he’s addicted to his favorite writing chair, or to his cat lounging on his feet, he’s going to have a lot of trouble finishing book two while on tour.

I find that I struggle with a variety of rituals in my writing. For example: when I sit down to write a short story, I like to write a complete draft in one sitting. Silly, but it’s just a little ritual or idiosyncrasy that I’ve got. Or if I’m working on a long form work, I like to write a complete scene, or a complete chapter. As far as rituals go, this isn’t that bad (the upside is I usually finish the stuff I start). But it still means there will be times when I decide not to write because I know I won’t have time to get far beyond a single sentence or paragraph. If I don’t have an hour or two to focus, I might just wait for later. And that’s an inhibiting habit that I’m working on breaking. It’d be nice to be able to write effectively at any time of day, whether I’ve got five minutes or an hour to do so. With the Professor’s exhortations (and mockery) I’m working through this, but it’s something that takes – and will continue to take – work.

But there is a difference between ritual and process. Process is an outgrowth of how our brains are wired, and so if we need to write an outline to tell a story, then I say go for it! But we cannot let ourselves become slaves to that process. An outline is one process that is particularly suited to those of us with an analytical mindset. There are others (synopses, notes, mind-maps, and yes – even just winging it, etc.). If we say we absolutely need an outline to write, and then we get stuck in the outlining phase, that might mean our process has broken down for a particular project.

If our process has become a ritual, we might get stuck. But if we have the flexibility to switch to a different process, the odds of bogging down fall dramatically. The last three long works I’ve drafted (one fantasy novel, one graphic novel script, and one alternate history novel) all used a different process. The first had a detailed outline before I ever started writing it. The second had a loose synopsis. And I winged the third until I got about halfway through it, then built a detailed scene-by-scene outline from there. Much as I like process, it can be a crutch. And here my wife’s aversion to analytical writing is dead on: At some point, crutches always break. Which is why having the widest possible assortment of processes in our writing toolkit makes good analytical sense. It is always good to push our own boundaries as writers, to play and experiment with different tools, techniques, and methods.

So what processes work for you in your writing? What techniques would you recommend? What techniques have you tried that didn’t work for you?

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