C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

See all my books at AllThatChazz.com.

Help for the Anxious Writer

If your book idea feels thin at first, consider that Ice Road Truckers barreled on for 11 seasons and found an audience. If you’ve got a grand idea for a novel, but it’s not springing onto the page fully formed, I have some suggestions. If you’re unsure of yourself as a writer, I’ve got ideas about that, too.

When you lack confidence:

  • You don’t have to stop where you are today.
  • If you write more than one book, each level of success will vary. Think in terms of moving forward instead of dwelling on failures.
  • Go deeper into characters’ back stories to find the way forward.
  • Elucidate motivations and deny what each character wants. When desires conflict, you’ve got drama.
  • Do you have the basics? Who, what, where, why, when and how.
  • Play to your experience and strengths, but it’s not necessary to write what you know. Write what you care about.
  • Go deeper on specifics without beating the reader over the head with your deepest research.
  • Get the details right. For many readers, procedurals and process are porn.
  • Set the scene to give the reader a sense of time and place. Don’t forget the smells and feels, the sense and impact of the location, but don’t go too hard on the weather report.
  • Find the next step in your plot by finding a logical move, but don’t succumb to the first easy answer that springs to mind.
  • Discover the logical surprise twist. Defy the reader’s comfort in thinking they know how the story will unfold.
  • Smooth out the bumps later so it looks like you planned the entire narrative from beginning to end.
  • Too much editing as you go will impede progress. You’ll have a sharp Chapter One with no Chapter 2.
  • Make your characters distinctive. Giving one twin a porkpie hat he adjusts and readjusts for 200 pages isn’t special enough.
  • If two characters sound alike and perform the same function in the story, they might as well be one person.
  • Put the manuscript aside and give it more thought so you look like a genius later.
  • Put it aside and don’t think about it. The answer often appears when you come back to it fresh.
  • Don’t put a manuscript aside for too long.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed or too precious about storytelling. Plenty of half-drunk half-idiots sitting around campfires have told entertaining yarns for thousands of years.
  • Focus on the A to B to C in the first and second draft. Action flows from character and is character.
  • Themes will emerge later. Don’t set out to write a theme. A manifesto has no plot.
  • Entertainment is Goal #1. Don’t set out to educate with a novel. That souffle will fall flat.
  • Your main character needs a fatal flaw or they’ll be boring. Too perfect is boring and inhuman.
  • Your protagonist needs more obstacles in their way. Heroes and heroines have to be smoked in the oven a long time before they’re done.
  • Your villain needs the complexity of nuance and a purpose they believe is noble. No one thinks they’re the villain.
  • No character should feel like a red shirt, easily sacrificed. Henchman #3 has a family and feelings, dammit!
  • Don’t allow a smart person to do a dumb thing just to make a plot work. That’s the sound of gears grinding in a rusty machine.
  • Avoid a story with one tone, particularly if it’s one grim tone.
  • Heroics and horror both have room for humor when the wit is well-placed (but if you aren’t funny, don’t force it).
  • Fight scenes and sex scenes are similar: they both need to acknowledge the breath, heat, emotion and effort involved.
  • Read more in the genre to make sure you’re hitting the tropes without surrendering to cliche.
  • Drop the boring parts and concede that not every idea is worthy of a novel. Your idea for a full-length novel might make a better novella or short story.
  • Make your characters more relatable but don’t succumb to the critic who says, “People don’t act like that.” This character, your character, acts like that.
  • Decide your protagonist is unchanging and the series is episodic (e.g. Sherlock Holmes) or decide on a story arc that allows for character growth. Ignore reviewers who demand your character be fully actualized immediately. They don’t have the patience to understand what you’re doing with that character in the next book.
  • Dare to write a bold plot point, but too many coincidences are death.
  • Disguise your deceptions until the big reveals strike.
  • Contextualize the fantastic with normality to enhance the suspension of disbelief.
  • Read your manuscript like a reader, not like a writer.
  • Pick your allies carefully. Writers are much harder to please than casual readers and their motivations are sometimes suspect. (Hint: most readers are of the casual variety looking for distraction and escape, not an argument over comma placement.)
  • Let go of what isn’t working. Harvest wheat, cut chaff.
  • Go deep to create an immersive page turner. Make a movie in their heads.
  • Find an editor you trust who is out to help you, not tear you down. Some editors get into this biz for the wrong reasons.
  • The right length is the word count that gets to the end of the story.
  • Rely on feedback from your real readers, not randos.
  • Rewrite to make the reading experience richer.
  • Revise for clarity.
  • Edit to get where you’re going at the right speed, avoiding detours, potholes and plot holes along the route.
  • Drop the ten-dollar words but don’t talk down to your audience.
  • Do not overwrite character descriptions. You’ll interfere with the movie in their heads.
  • Have fun. If you’re having fun, readers probably will, too.
  • Are you getting up from the desk often enough? Moving? Getting some air and enough sleep? Feed the body, energize the brain, charge up Ole Ink Hill.
  • The only reason you dislike your manuscript might be that you’ve reread and rewritten it too many times. Your personal draft limit will vary. Send it to your editor when you hit the wall.
  • Cute can work. Too twee? Less so. So much depends on what you’re writing. Consider the variables. Listen to your heart when you write. Listen to your brain when you revise. Listen to your editor before you publish.
  • These are broad guidelines. Sometimes it is better to tell rather than show. If it plays, it plays.
  • Some write like they talk. When done well, it will sound natural.
  • Some try to write as if they’re 17th Century British nobles.
  • Let the words come from you. With revisions, You the Writer will come across smoother than You the Person with Cookie Crumbs Down Your Shirt.
  • Stop being so precious about writing. This is art, not a procrastination project. You want it to be excellent, not perfect.
  • Lives do not hang in the balance, not even your life.
  • Finish.
  • Edit.
  • Proof.
  • Publish.
  • Some will love you no matter what you do. Some will hate you no matter what. Most don’t give a shit. Let go of demanding that your family care about your high calling. Stop caring about anyone outside your target audience. What does your brother know, anyway? He’s obsessed with golf and foot fetish porn.
  • Don’t depend on one book to make you famous.
  • Write another book.
  • Somebody’s going to hurt your feelings. Nobody hits a home run every time and not everyone’s opinion gets equal weight. Look for support in the right places.
  • You’re not writing a novel. That can feel overwhelming and possibly a terrible waste of time. Instead, you’re writing a little short story each day (or most days of the week, anyway). Each short story just happens to connect to the next short story. These stories are your chapters. Writer 45 to 55 or so, and behold! A book! See? Easier than it sounded at first!
  • Relax. Enjoy telling your stories. Focus on process now, not outcome.
  • With enough at-bats, you have a better shot at hitting home runs.
  • Don’t talk about writing more than you write.
  • Don’t give up unless you hate writing.
  • If you hate writing, there are plenty of other things to do that probably pay more.
  • If you love writing, there’s not much else to do.

    *If you prefer outlining, there’s nothing wrong with that and you might end up writing faster with fewer hiccups and less anxiety. Your mileage may vary and that’s a blog post for another time.

    ~ If you enjoy apocalyptic epics or killer crime thrillers, I’m your guy. Find all the books by Robert Chazz Chute at my author site, AllThatChazz.com.

Filed under: the writing life, writing, writing advice, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , ,

How to End a Chapter: Shorter chapters, better books?

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Author of Cybrgrrl, Maxwell Cynn

“You will laugh your ass off!” ~ Author of Cybrgrrl, Maxwell Cynn

I wrote at length recently about how smart it is to write short. (Wow, that got meta-ironic fast.) I was talking about the length of books, the allure of serialization and the benefits to both writers and readers. Today, I’m talking about chapters.

I’m currently revising the book I wrote while wearing my big-boy underpants. This Plague of Days took a little under a year to write back when I wrote part-time. Every day, I’d go to a coffee shop to get away from distractions. I got sucked into the point of view of a boy with Aspergers Syndrome during the coming plague apocalypse. His family hides out in suburbia while much of the world dies. The longer the book goes on, day by day, things get worse around his Christlike figure. When I wrote it, I wasn’t concerned about chapter length. I’d sketched an outline packed with beats and I put my head down and plunged into the story.

As I revise This Plague of Days now, I see how I was writing to the beats and each file folder was a chapter. Each writing session often yielded more than 5,000 words, all in one file/chapter! I’m breaking that up, obviously. As I look for logical places to split the file into more chapters, the logical spots are easy to find. I go out on a beat.

It’s a principle of podcasting, stand-up comedy and entertainment generally that you go out on a high note. Cliffhangers, twists, teasers and aha moments belong at the end of the chapter to seduce readers to turn the page and go for the next chapter. The more of those special moments, peaks or beats you have, the faster the pace of the book. Make the chapters short and those peaks are closer together. More beats close together equals momentum.

Don’t overdo.

If you don’t slow down to develop character, a hundred awful, exciting things may happen but no one will care. Here’s an ugly example of a pace that’s too fast:

Emma’s fiance, Rollo, dies in a skywriting accident when he tries to put the dot under the question mark as he pens “Emma! Will you marry me?” in the sky and ends up flying too low into the meat grinder of nearby chicken factory. Grief-stricken, Emma attends the funeral where Rollo’s mother tries to kill her in a rage. Terrified, Emma escapes to Italy where she falls in love with sculpture and decides to rebuild her life around art. Then, Phillipe, a very handsome and wealthy art connoisseur takes her under his wing, but how does he know Rollo’s mother and is he, in fact, an assassin assigned to murder her after their first night of passion? THEN, ON THE SECOND PAGE…

More spikes aren’t better if the characters are undeveloped. Readers don’t care for whiplash. However, you could take a page from Mary Higgins Clark. Her short chapters skip along. The closer the reader gets to the climax, the shorter the chapters become. This heightens the sense of forward momentum and keeps my wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed, awake much past her optimal bedtime as she powers toward the end of those thrillers.

We have a strange attachment to symmetry, don’t we though? Maybe that’s why more authors do not vary the length of their chapters. I’ve even heard of one author taking perverse pride in hitting an arbitrary word count so each chapter was the same length. That sort of peculiarity may serve someone’s OCD, but your OCD is supposed to serve the story above all else. (He must have been crushed when it came back from the editor with varying word counts.)

 

Don’t under do

If all the chapters are too short, it can feel to the reader that the author was skimping. For instance, while I generally admire James Sallis’s neo-noir novel Driven, some later chapters are so short and light on detail that I felt like I was missing something. He was painting a great picture overall, but here and there he didn’t have enough paint on his brush. I had to check to make sure I hadn’t skipped pages. Don’t make readers dizzy and fill them with self-doubt.

In a book of short stories, you can get away with stories so brief they could be non-rhyming poems. I have a few short chapters in Self-help for Stoners but I don’t worry about it because I’m not fragmenting a larger narrative with a short jolt. Or you can ape Faulkner and write, “My mother is a fish” and leave it at that, I suppose, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Find the right length

You can delight readers with shorter books and shorter chapters as long as they aren’t confused. For instance, a lot of short chapters with multiple points of view can confuse the casual reader. They might accuse you of head-hopping. It wouldn’t technically be true, but that’s how your narrative might feel to them. Stephen King’s It and The Stand manage large casts, but the chapters are longer. Just about the time you’re thinking, Enough of him, what’s happening with so-and-so, you’re switching to another character’s plight.

A warning and a hope

You’ll find the break points for chapters easily and intuitively if you have enough beats. If you don’t have enough beats, you may be writing something of great literary value but it’s probably too slow to be of commercial value. And by slow, yes, I mean boring. Not every story has to drive forward with breakneck speed or maintain an even pace throughout. However, if the way stations of chapter breaks are too far apart, you aren’t giving your readers confidence that they are moving toward a destination. That’s the death of a lot of books. Give us action, engagement, obstacles, reversals, rising action, higher stakes and make us care.

If a comedy like The Big Bang Theory can make me cry over a single line uttered about a letter from Howard Wolowitz’s absent father (it did), you can make us care about your characters. Do it at a good speed.

~ I mentioned how I’d write about marketing in my next post. This is the next post so it turns out I lied. However, I’ll try to get back to that in my next post. I’m experimenting with building buzz about upcoming books with inexpensive strategies. I’ll tell you more about that in my next post. Or I’ll write about unreliable narrators. There’s that pesky meta-irony again. 

Here’s a marketing hint to tide you over:

I’m promoting two books by reading one on Vine. I’m doing it with a contest. Check out the details on that contest at AllThatChazz.com.

Have a peek at ThisPlagueofDays.com for some flavor of what’s to come.

Filed under: Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

You can pick this ebook up for free today at this link: http://bit.ly/TheNightMan

For my author site and the Chazz network, click the blood spatter below.

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