31 January 2015

Treat Your Novel Chapters as Writing Challenges

All of us who write novels probably have, at some point, looked at what we're writing with that uncomfortable feeling that it's just becoming too long, too involved.  We begin over-shooting chapter-length targets, let it slide, and then find ourselves in a pickle, realizing we must severely edit several chapters.  Friends who read your work may say, "It would be a shame to cut all that out - you've worked so hard...."  However, all good writers harbor a streak of perfectionism, at least where their writing is concerned, and they also realize that something can be well-written, even entertaining, but still too long.  When it comes to publishing a first novel - where I am, and probably where you are - word count and style both matter, because publishing is both a business and an art.  Odds are, we will not be struck by luck's lightening - we'll have to play by the rules.

While working on my current manuscript, "Quick Circumnavigation," I found my story about a 125-day round-the-world journey becoming increasingly detailed and intricate, with all sorts of characters and extraneous conversations pouring into the story.  The writing was strong, but by the time I hit about 250 pages, only 11 days into my main characters' journey, I realized I needed to reevaluate what I was doing. 

The problems I was having can be summarized as follows:

1) I was over-shooting my chapter-length target.  I typically prefer chapters / scenes that are about 1,800-2,200 words long.  This isn't a hard-and-fast rule:  everyone has to structure their tale in the way that's appropriate for them.  I have just found that this length works best with my subjects and personal style.  Unfortunately, I found myself routinely ending up with chapters that were 2,400 and even 2,600 words long, and - even worse - still unfinished.  

2) I was allowing chapters to run over into each other.  Now, this isn't at all bad, per se, and often this kind of merging of two scenes is a structural tactic that can help propel a narrative, if the situation or action are compelling.  However, when this is happening in an unplanned way, what it really means is that you're losing control of your story.  While I am a believer in the idea of letting the story "tell itself," so-to-speak, I don't think this means our writing should be undisciplined and without process.

3) I had not quite worked out a key plot element.  When writing my first draft, I had one of those "light-bulb" moments that transformed my story - a major plot twist I had not anticipated, which I injected into the story.  However, I continued writing without fully working out why this new element was there, and where it was leading:  I had some vague ideas, and hoped everything would become clear, eventually.  I then stopped writing my first draft and went back to rewrite everything, from the start, but I still had not fully understood my plot twist.

My solution, for these problems, was to go back and rewrite some of the early chapters, and then one entire section, totaling 31,977 words.  To take control of the manuscript, I drafted a new outline and decided to treat each chapter as a writing challenge.  

If you're not familiar with writing challenges, they are splendid exercises for honing the fiction-writer's craft.  You're given a topic, and you have to develop it, as best you can, within a specific word limit.  This forces you to do three important things:  1) stay focused on your topic, 2) write evocative but efficient descriptions, and 3) tighten and punch up your dialogue and dialogue-framing. 

Following the above guidelines, I found it easier to choose what could be removed and what needed to stay:  I trimmed chapters down to their target length, and ended up with a still-interesting, fast-paced, tightly-written narrative.  As for that one section I had to rewrite, I knocked it down to 21,649 words, eliminating five chapters and over 10,000 words.  I also worked out that key plot twist, and integrated it properly into the rest of my story.  

My plan is to take the same approach to the next section of the manuscript, then proceed to the remainder of the story with a better grasp of how I want each chapter to be structured.  

When you recast a scene or chapter as a writing challenge, you lose a certain amount of freedom, of course, but fiction-writing is a discipline.  A writer's true skill emerges not in doing whatever they want, but in how well they work within constraints.  The trick is to learn how to use constraints - even devise them, as I do - in a way that compels you to craft your story and write more skilfully.  Think of editing not as a post-completion clean-up, but as part of the first draft process.  Learning how to write with an editor's eye in fact, will save you a great deal of hair-pulling and heartache, later, when your manuscript is completed.   

I suppose I am fortunate  in that my day job as a professor requires me to edit other people's writing, while also writing and publishing non-fiction articles, which are all written to a tight word limit and subjected to peer-review and editing.  This experience with the process, of course, has enabled me to see my fiction-writing with a far more critical and editorial eye.  Not all new writers have the benefit of this experience, but if you can obtain it, you may find the lessons learned worthwhile.  Academic and non-fiction writing is different from fiction-writing, of course, but editing is editing, and the same general principles apply.  

For most of us, perhaps, editing is a matter of confidence.  We claim to not want to cut something because we think it's good, or because we really like it, but probably mixed in there somewhere is the thought that we simply can't shorten the scene, or improve upon it.  If you embrace self-editing, and make a real effort to shorten and improve, you will be amazed, perhaps, by what you are capable of, and over time your writing confidence will increase.  The biggest payoff, though, is that you start to see ways to shorten and tighten as you write, so your first draft becomes better. 

Copyright, William Lailey, 2015

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