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.
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WRITING: Considerations before becoming a novelist…

When asked, many people will say they want to write a novel, but do they? While there are many considerations to make before embarking on this fickle career, these are some of the basic considerations you might want to ponder:

  1. Can I tell the story in less than 10,000 words?
  2. Can I create multiple characters all equally able to be protagonists in their own stories?
  3. Can I suspend the disbelief of my readers?
  4. Do I have the stamina to create a 80,000 word novel?
  5. Do I have more than one novel in me?
  6. Can I handle making less than minimum wage while I work almost 24/7?
  7. Can I handle the ridicule and stupid remarks if I go public?

The reason you need to consider these questions:

  1. 10,000 words is a short story. Novels take up more words.
  2. A protagonist needs peers and antagonists, who need to be equal to the protagonist to make the story interesting.
  3. Readers want to be immersed in a story, they want to believe in your characters. So the desire is there. If you weave a story that makes believers out of readers, you can be a writer.
  4. Although everything over 60,000 words can be called a novel, most novels are between 80,000-100,000 words. If you write a 1000 usable words a day, that means about three solid months of writing.
  5. Most successful authors are prolific with at least 5+ novels to their name. There are exceptions, but don’t imagine yourself to be one of them.
  6. Do you know the author Philip K. Dick? People who are serious about storytelling are generally in awe of his storytelling ability. His novels and short stories form the basis of movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck and a host of others. Even in his best years, Dick rarely earned more than 12,000$ per year. In fact, most writers don’t earn more than 10,000$ per year and most earn considerably less. Even Stephen King had to support his family with his teaching job for the first decade of his career. And James Patterson made his money in advertising before he turned to writing fiction.
  7. I’m fortunate that most people don’t want to antagonize me (based on my size and my encyclopedic knowledge of murder), but even I get disparaging remarks, or questions how much I earn with my books, or people who think their ideas are sufficiently interesting that they can tell them to me and I ‘just write them down’. Not to mention the many many people who would love to write a book, if only they had the time. Of course, the idiocy gets balanced by people who are genuinely awed by a writer’s ability to create stories and characters ‘out of thin air’ and readers writing you about the character they like the most and ask if that character will be featured in the upcoming book. Still, a writer needs thick skin. If you’re sensitive and insecure about your own abilities, you might want to reconsider choosing writing fiction as a career.

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