WRITING: How to begin and end a chapter – my process of structuring a book.

I often get question on how I write, how I know what I put in or take out, how I know when to end a chapter and begin a new one… This blog post explains how I turn the messy first draft of a book into a manuscript that is structurally sound.

With my first book, that  I wrote in Word, I wrote long scenes that would become chapters. I had three different plot lines – the assassin (A), her client (B), and the investigators, (C). Back then, I was convinced that the right thing was to make the first chapter about the main character, and alternate the main characters chapters with the antagonist chapters. So chapter 1 was about A, chapter 2 about B, chapter 3 about A again, chapter four about C, chapter five about A again. That way, fifty percent of the chapters  were about A, twenty-five percent about B and twenty-five percent about C.
With my second book, (where the antagonists are planning a hostile takeover of the legitimate business of my assassin main character), I wanted to write a prologue where the firm’s bookkeeper was pressured to arrange a meeting between the MC and the antagonists, but instead of a prologue (which many readers seem to skip), I made the prologue my first chapter, and my MC appeared in the second chapter. I did the same thing with the fourth book, where something seemingly unrelated happened at the other side of the world, and in the second chapter our MC appears and …
Another thing I started doing from the second book on was that I stopped writing a linear story. I had bought writing software called Scrivener, and I could write scenes and switch them around by dragging them to different positions in the ‘binder’. Freed from the restriction of one long file that would be cumbersome to switch scenes around, I enjoyed the freedom of writing key scenes and then figure out what would happen in between and write those scenes. The scenes would differ in length, but I wasn’t concerned about that, especially in the drafting phase – where I used to edit while I wrote, I stopped doing that and wrote scene after scene, just putting an @ between scenes. Later I’d cut the whole text into scenes and give them a temporary spot in the binder. Scrivener allow me to make ‘folders’ which would become the chapter, and I could put in what scenes I wanted, measure whether the chapter wouldn’t become too bloated.
Now I would make a chapter about a certain location and/time, put the scenes in, switch them around in the order I liked best, and create another chapter folder with other scenes. I got positive reviews about the second and third book (the fourth is due out on December 1st), so apparently I was doing something right.
I say, apparently, because, despite being praised for my meticulous detail, verisimilitude and tight plots, I’m a total ‘panther’ – while I have a general idea of the direction the story will take, I don’t outline anything. I write scenes that throw up obstacles for my characters and have snowballs that seem of no importance become avalanches of action that mess up the lives of both the characters and the people around them. That keeps the stories from becoming formulaic and keeps the story fresh to me, so that I won’t become bored – bored writers write terrible books.
Generally, at this point, my books have chapters that may contain 1-5 scenes, all in the same location or time. Most scenes just begin and end, so that after I string 2-3 together and decide that they belong together and make them into a chapter, I will have chapters that begin in the middle of action, and end ‘somewhere’.
I turn drafts into e-drafts that I can read on my e-reader, where I can highlight with my finger and add notes with the built-in keyboard, but I cannot change the text itself.
In the pre-digital age, a writer would take a manuscript and a red pencil and write the editing notes on the pages. I do the same thing, except that an e-reader will make lists of all the notes I made that make editing easier. When I read the e-draft, I often find glaring mistakes, scenes/paragraphs that should be in a different place et cetera. When I’m satisfied with the order the story is told in and the chapters and scenes are more or less fixed, then I will check whether the chapter doesn’t begin too abruptly (put in a few sentences to ‘set the scene’) and ends in a way that readers cannot wait to turn to the next chapter.
When I think I cannot improve the manuscript anymore, my trusted beta readers will read the book and give me their feedback. Meanwhile I often work on another project. When the feedback arrives, I read it through and often change scenes and do some re-writing of scenes to improve the flow, but structurally very little changes.
And then I have a book that is ready for public consumption.
If you think other people can benefit from the information in this article, don’t hesitate to share this article using the social media buttons below…
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PREVIEW: First chapter of GHOSTING

The beta version of GHOSTING, the fourth novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series, is ready. The novel can be pre-ordered for delivery December 1st (just click the cover below the sample). Below, you can find the first chapter – I welcome feedback, so don’t hesitate to comment on this post:

JAMAICA

Running flat-out gained Daniel Catadupa some distance on his pursuers as he ran down the dusty Negril forest road towards the coast. Just his rotten luck the car had broken down along West End Road. Still, Cain’s dive shop was not far. He might be able to make it on foot if only he could take a short break. The only living soul between West End and the coast was Mama Benga—an old witch living in a ramshackle old shed where she let her goats roam free. He burst from the forest at breakneck speed and ran around the house.
No place to hide, except…
Daniel dropped on the hard-packed dirt. Without glancing backward, he flattened himself on his belly and crawled feet first under the cracked wooden porch. Pushing refuse out of his way with his feet, he crawled backward into the darkness, the smell of rotting vegetation trying to invade his nose.
While he tried to get his breathing under control, the running footsteps came closer, slip-sliding around the corner, and the three men came to a skidding stop. Daniel stopped crawling. He was still under the porch, not in the deep darkness under the house proper. Hopefully none of them figured out where he was.
“Rass!” the leader exclaimed. “Bone, go deah, Reggie, go deah.”
The men sped off in different directions, but the leader stayed where he was. Lying motionless under the porch, Daniel looked at the mud-splattered tip of the gleaming ebony cane next to the gnarled feet, the soles thick with callouses from decades of walking barefoot.
He shivered.
Barefoot Duke didn’t carry the cane to support himself, he could run as fast as men half his age. No, that black cane was a symbol of his authority, and most people feared Duke’s cane more than the machetes of his henchmen. With Sista Someday’s right hand man after him, Daniel knew he’d fucked up royally.
Overhead the wooden boards creaked and an old voice spoke, “Duke, is that you?”
“It is I, womahn. Go back inna dem house.”
“Who you be looking for?” The old woman coughed, hawked up phlegm and spat on the floor. “And what him done now?”
“No business of you, womahn. Go inna tha house now.”
Wetness moistened his cheek and Daniel glanced up at a glistening string of phlegm leaking through the warped floorboards. He gagged, but remained motionless.
The gnarled feet came closer and the cane rapped the floorboards. “You deaf, womahn? Inna tha house. Now.”
“You no catch him, Duke.” He could hear the sarcasm in her voice. “Him run like the devil be chasing.”
“You see him then,” Duke said. “Which way him run?”
“You think I help you catch dem poor boy?” The old woman spat again, the gob of phlegm hitting the dirt between Duke’s bare feet. “You play at mystic mahn all you wants, I know you when you was a raggamuffin boy scrounching for scraps.”
“Betta shut dem big mouth, old womahn.”
“You betta respect elders, raggamuffin boy. You think you scary with your scowl?”
Duke’s feet moved closer and the floorboards sagged as he stepped onto the porch. “I respect elders, not scummy old scabs with potty mouths.”
“I no invite you on my porch, ragamu—” A sharp crack was followed by a heavy thump right overhead and Duke whispered, “Told you, old womahn.”
Daniel turned on his back, staring up through a crack in the floorboards. He could see the wrinkled greyish skin of Mama Benga’s arm. Above it floated the scowling face of Duke. His pinprick eyes seemed to look straight at Daniel and his face was contorted in rage. Mama Benga moaned and Daniel watched in mute horror as Duke lifted his cane over his head and whacked the old woman’s body, over and over again.
Blood seeped through the floorboards and splattered his face and something broke inside him. Like a frightened animal, Daniel scrambled away to the back of the house, no longer caring about being silent.
As he crawled out from under the house, Duke came running around the corner, screaming his name in fury. Without thinking, Daniel scooped up a handful of mud and threw it at the older man. The mud hit Duke right in the face and open mouth. Seizing the moment, Daniel charged, his bodycheck slamming Duke against the ramshackle shed. As the man fell, Daniel spun away, but not quick enough. Duke’s ebony cane whacked him in his side and Daniel felt something snap in his side. Fear gave him an adrenalin rush and he leaped into the bushes, blindly crashing through the foliage.
“CATADUPAAAAA!” Duke bellowed in rage. “You a DEAD mahn!”
From the frying pan into the fire, Daniel thought as he ran through the forest, branches sweeping into his face and tugging his dreads. Duke and his henchmen ran behind him in hot pursuit, close enough to hear them cussing as they used their machetes to clear their way. He was still ahead, but they seemed to be closing in. Pain stitched his left side, where Duke’s cane had whacked him.
Suddenly he was clear of the forest, but the situation had not improved. His blind panic had led him straight to the cliffs. He sprinted along the edge of the cliffs, not looking at the ocean slamming into the rocks below.
No shelter.
Something whistled past him, followed by the crack of a gunshot.
Fresh adrenalin flooded his body and he ran like the wind, ignoring the pain in his side. Running like the devil was chasing him, as Mama Benga put it. She was an old woman and Duke beat her to death for insulting him. Daniel had no doubt that his fate would be worse if they caught up with him.
Something tugged at his clothes and sliced the skin of his hip, but he couldn’t stop. Another gunshot came from his left. Instinctively he swerved to the right, not realising his mistake until he ran out of land.
At the edge of the cliff, Daniel whirled around.
Fifty yards away, Duke strode towards him, his trademark scowl visible as he bridged the distance on his long legs. Like eager puppies, his henchmen flanked Duke, but a few steps in front of him. As if he wanted to prolong the moment, Duke’s stride seemed to slow to a leisurely stroll. Panic froze Daniel until Reggie pointed a gun at him. Duke whistled sharply and the henchman lowered his arm, his grin a white flash in his dark face, but the spell was broken.
Daniel looked behind him. The ocean crashed into man-sized rocks that looked like pebbles from this height. He took a few steps towards his pursuers, then turned and sprinted to the edge.
Duke yelled and gunshots cracked as Daniel closed his eyes and dived, his arms whipping forward.
For a moment, his body seemed suspended in flight, and he heard the voice of his old physics teacher. ‘The problem is not that humans cannot fly, but that they cannot land’.
Gravity reappeared and Daniel plunged down, his clothes flapping in the wind that tore the tears from his closed eyes.
Jah, be merciful.
Dark death embraced him in her cold arms and squeezed the breath from his body.

aas-ghosting


WRITING: I Want To Write A Novel, But Where Do I Start?

Having a passion for something, but no skills yet and several hindrances to acquire those skills makes for quite a challenge.

The easiest answer would be ‘find something else’, and there would be truth in it. Writing a novel (or even a short story) is an appealing ambition – I read somewhere that eighty percent of all adult Americans seriously entertain the notion of writing a novel, which is also why there’s a whole industry that facilitates burgeoning writers with creative writing courses and workshops and seminars, and enough books on the art & craft to fill several bookcases.

The reason writing a novel is so popular is because it’s an attainable goal (most arts require more than a pen and a piece of paper) and it carries prestige as good writers are revered, their works read both during and after their lifetime.

So what you have to decide for yourself is – do you really want to write a novel, or do you want to show people a shiny cover with your name on it and bask in the adulation? Because the first is hard, and the second is a pipe dream.

I’ve written five novels (published four) and four novellas, just as frame of reference to my answer – if you don’t want to let go of your dream, this is my advice:

Lower the pressure of writing a novel by not writing a novel.

What you will be writing instead, will be a Draft. A Rough Draft. An unreadable shitload of words, not intended to be read by anyone but yourself. That last part is extremely important! Nobody must read that Draft, because it’s not intended for public consumption yet.

The Draft is the Baby, the Novel is the Adult.

People don’t make adults, they make babies that shit and cry and demand food and attention and will keep you up at night. Have you heard writers referring to their novel as a baby? Yes? They’re not actual writers yet, because the draft is the baby, the novel should be an adult, capable of standing on its own legs and fending for itself. If their novel is still their baby, then they haven’t finished yet and they have published prematurely.

The Horror, the Horror…

Before a novel can stand on its own legs, it needs to be born first, which is a messy process. Thus, the Draft is a baby – a stinking smelly mess that will hijack all your attention and cause you to lay awake at night, worrying if it will ever be able to be independent. This is not the kind of baby that you show your family and friends – starting the Draft is not an accomplishment. So shut up about ‘writing your first novel’ and never ever talk about the plot and the characters and the theme. Screw all that. Talking about your creative work kills the spark. Just write and write. Is it garbage? Don’t second-guess yourself, you won’t be able to judge it now, you’re much too close. Nobody throws out their baby, no matter how much it smells. Just keep on writing. Don’t edit. You can’t edit a baby, it has to become an adolescent first.

The Need.

Visit any writing forum and you’ll see the many many questions, that boil down to one single question ‘Is This Any Good?’. It’s the fear of failure, the angst of wasting time, and the need for validation. We have been programmed to desire approval – from parents, from teachers. You won’t get approval for the Draft. Don’t ask for it. Just write it all down.

The Rules.

How long is a chapter supposed to be?’, ‘How do I write a dynamite first chapter?’, ‘Should I use present tense or past tense?’, ‘Is writing in First Person easier than Third Person?’, ‘When do I Show, when do I Tell?’
If you visit writing forums, you’ll hear a lot of talk about rules, but those rules are not for drafts. Those rules are to clinically dissect a finished manuscript prior to publication. Do you have that? No, you haven’t. You have a smelly mess that isn’t nowhere near finished, so forget about all those rules. Because in the end there is only one rule – Engage The Reader. And your baby won’t need to engage the reader yet. It’s a draft, intended only for your eyes.

The Work

Anyone with a knife and a dead pig can butcher a pig, but that doesn’t make you a butcher. And it sure as hell doesn’t make you a veterinarian.
So you wrote an essay at school and the teacher gave you an A. Does that make a writer? No, but it’s a start. If you can read this, you can probably write. You can string words together, maybe in some pleasing way, but five hundred pages of words is not a book. A book is when the words disappear and your imagination shows you the film in your head. That’s the hardest part, and the most neglected part – writers want to write pretty words or show off their ostentatious vocabulary, but what you want to do is tell a story. Tell a story in such a way that the reader forgets about the book or the e-reader and is transported to another world – fictional, but just as ‘real’ as this one. And that requires not only a large vocabulary, but also a decisive mind to apply just the right word. And if you get that right, you won’t need the validation anymore, because there is no better feeling that getting a sentence just right, a paragraph that leaps off the page, and a chapter that you don’t want to end.

But before you get there, you have to put in the work. There’s a common ‘rule’ floating around that to become a professional at something requires putting in something like 10,000 hours. I never measured that, but I do know that I’d been writing for twenty years before Reprobate was published. And I’d been working on Reprobate and all its predecessors for most of that time. Learning the craft, honing my skills. Draft upon draft upon draft. For Reprobate, it was something like forty (!) drafts. Literally every paragraph was rewritten at least once. Edited and polished. That’s the education.

Don’t Do The Crime If You Can’t Do The Time.

My second novel, Peccadillo, was half finished when Reprobate came out. I finished Peccadillo in three months, spending a total of fifteen months on writing it. I wrote the novella Locked Room in three weeks. Microchip Murder took me less than two. And the novella that gets the highest praise, Fundamental Error, was written in eight days. Rogue, the third novel took less than 12 months. And Ghosting, the novel I’m working on now, clocks in at about eight months, despite my battles with kidney stones and glaucoma.

Every time you write, you will get better at telling the story. Writing this answer took me about an hour, with no rewrites or polishing necessary. And that’s because I’ve done the time.

So do the time. Stop fretting about whether you have something to say or who will read it. Write that draft first, the rest comes later. Let me know when you finished a draft, and then we’ll talk about how you can become a writer…


In Pocket now on GoodReads and Amazon.

In PocketIn Pocket by Martyn V. Halm

As the author, of course I cannot rate or review my own work. What I can do is give you, the potential reader, some background information about In Pocket.

About twenty years ago, when I was working on what was to become Reprobate: A Katla Novel, I had a half-finished story on a busker who lived in a delivery van and pretended to be blind in order to rake in more money. As such, Wolfgang was the only one who saw a murder by assassin Katla Sieltjes, who promptly started hunting him down to shut him up.

The story didn’t work and I wrote a new story with Katla as the protagonist, who breaks her rule of never leaving a witness alive when blind busker Bram Merleyn enters her crime scene. Readers of the Amsterdam Assassin Series know what happened after that, so I’m not going to rehash that story.

In the meantime, Wolfgang was still living in his van with his pet rat Gabriel, but he changed from busker to pickpocket, and acquired a heroin addiction (being one of my characters can be very taxing).

I often write on several projects at the same time, and I kept adding to the story of Wolfgang the pickpocket until it reached critical mass, all the pieces fell together, and In Pocket almost wrote itself.

In Pocket is a stand-alone novel, but it has some connections with the Amsterdam Assassin Series beyond the same locations – if you read carefully, you will find cameos from characters that also appear in the series.

I make free e-book review copies available to readers who want to review In Pocket on GoodReads and retailer sites. To get your hands on a free review copy, send an email to katlasieltjes@yahoo.com with ‘review copy In Pocket’ in the subject line.

View all my reviews

In Pocket cover by Farah Evers


ARC In Pocket, now available for reviewers.

Are you a book reviewer and interested in an ARC of In Pocket? Send an email with ‘ARC reviewer In Pocket’, and maybe you can get In Pocket a month early (publication date August 1st).

Picking the wrong pocket might prove fatal…

Nomadic pickpocket Wolfgang gets blackmailed into teaching his craft to the mysterious Lilith, a young woman with no aptitude whatsoever to become a pickpocket. Wolf figures the easiest way is to go with the flow and instruct Lilith in the art of emptying other people’s pockets, but even he could never foresee the dreadful consequences…

IN POCKET is a standalone novel by Martyn V. Halm, the author of the Amsterdam Assassin Series. Follow Wolf as he gets entangled in a possibly fatal web of violence and deceit, where nobody is who they seem to be and everyone has a hidden agenda.

In Pocket cover by Farah Evers

Just as a reminder – I will experiment with pre-orders for In Pocket, so the ebook will be available at pre-order for the low, low price of 99c (for those who like the ebook without strings attached), but only until the publication date, when the book will become the (still cheap) price of 2.99.

So follow my blog and get a two dollar discount when you pre-order In Pocket before August 1st!


‘In Pocket’ won a new cover

While my stand-alone noir novel In Pocket went through the beta-testing, I submitted the cover I had to the 2015 E-Book Cover Makeover Contest, and I won a spanking new cover.

Before:

1400px-inpocket

New cover, courtesy of Farah Evers Design:

In Pocket cover by Farah Evers

You can find information on the contest here. The pitch for In Pocket:

Picking the wrong pocket might prove fatal…

Nomadic pickpocket Wolfgang gets blackmailed into teaching his craft to the mysterious Lilith, a young woman with no aptitude whatsoever to become a pickpocket. Wolf figures the easiest way is to go with the flow and instruct Lilith in the art of emptying other people’s pockets, but even he could never foresee the dreadful consequences…

IN POCKET is a standalone novel by Martyn V. Halm, the author of the Amsterdam Assassin Series. Follow Wolf as he gets entangled in a possibly fatal web of violence and deceit, where nobody is who they seem to be and everyone has a hidden agenda.

I hope to publish In Pocket before the end of this month.


PUBLISHING: Can You Find The Differences?

My cover designer, Farah Evers, updated my covers to make them more legible at a smaller size. I replaced the covers on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Nook, Scribd, and all other retailers.

Here are the old covers (left) and the new covers (right).

REPROBATEREPROBATE 2

PECCADILLOPECCADILLO 2

ROGUEROGUE 2

LOCKEDROOMLOCKEDROOM 2

MICROCHIPMURDERMICROCHIPMURDER 2

FUNDAMENTALERRORFUNDAMENTALERROR 2

Aconite Kill File gray MSACONITE 2

The differences are subtle and perhaps only noticeable if you have the covers side-by-side, but I’m nevertheless very pleased with the upgrade! What do you think? Improvement or not?