Friday, March 19, 2010

You Versus Your Book

I'll warn you in advance, this post won't make any sense at all. I was awakened last night first by a 4-year-old, upon whose floor I slept for an hour and a half, and then by the Zodiac killer, who had mysteriously come back from whatever hell he's in to stand in my living room for TWO HOURS. He didn't do anything. He just stood there. And when I finally got up to go confront him, he had mysteriously vanished. Why the Zodiac killer? Who knows.

So I finished my first draft last week. When I first finished it, I thought, "Yay! Awesome." Then a few days went by, and I swung around to, "Awful. Sucks." Funny how that works.

In the meantime, I've been circulating it around to readers to collect some opinions, including one shiny new reader who will most likely be getting a fruit basket from me this Christmas (if you're reading this, you know who you are ... and thanks). Anyway, she pointed out something that got me thinking: all of my chapters feel like "short stories" because each chapter is approximately 1,000 words, with a discrete beginning, middle and end. The result is somewhat choppy, with a rise and fall to each chapter that doesn't always suit the emotional content of the story.

It really got me thinking.

When I'm drafting, I write every day pretty much. And I write fast. I do about 1,000 words a day. That seems to be the amount that comes naturally, partly as a result of being a journalist and having to write newspaper and magazine stories to fit. At the end of 1,000 words, I start to feel my concentration slip, or I get hungry or itchy or whatever, so I end the chapter. Thus, each chapter roughly equals one day's output.

As soon as she pointed this out, it was like a lightbulb went off. Duh. The basic structure of the book reflects my writing schedule, not the pace of the story. As a result, the flow is uneven, and the emotional timbre swings around with the rise and fall of each chapter. It's like sampling a song 65 times and saying the song is whole.

There was a valuable lesson in here for me, actually: as ridiculously obvious as it probably sounds, you have to be careful not to stand in the way of your own story. Like, for example, it's highly unlikely that chapters naturally conform to one day's output ... To go one step further, if you're angry, watch out that it doesn't bleed into the story. Or don't write half a book drunk and the other half sober (either go all in, or lay off the bottle until you finish). The actual writer is supposed to be INVISIBLE in the story.

I was going to say I don't know how on Earth this is really possible. I mean, we're not robots. But then I realized: that's what rewrites are for. Ugh.

6 comments:

Jude Hardin said...

That's precisely what rewrites are for!

LurkerMonkey said...

*cringe* I know, I know. But now I'm at the stage where I'm dreading the whole idea ...

Mark Terry said...

This whole chapter length thing--I go through cycles where I battle it. The Derek Stillwater novels generally work best if each chapter is more or less a scene (I know, I know... I've heard the criticism), preferably rising action, and by and large the DS novels work that way, but not always. And as a reader, there's not much that drives me crazier than a writer that thinks an 80-page chapter is ok (Tom Clancy). I just know that chapter length, number of scenes, etc., influences the pace of the book, big-time, and I pay attention to it. And sometimes longer chapters can slow things down, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.It just depends.

Melanie Avila said...

I know chapter lengths are supposed to be roughly the same length but I like throwing a shorter one in now and then, especially to help pick up the tension. I have three POVs in my current wip so sometimes it's necessary to bounce back and forth faster.

Good luck with your rewrites.

Melody Maysonet said...

Hmmm... Just finished reading the whole draft of your book, and I see where this reader is coming from, although I don't see it as a major problem to fix. Some of it will come naturally during the revision process. When you start your revision, maybe try taking out all the chapter breaks and revising it as one big block of a book. Not sure if that will help or not.

LurkerMonkey said...

Melody,

I think I might try something like the "big block" approach. I think, too, that you're right about the drafting process. The book is literally a first draft. I've barely touched any of it since I first put it down ...