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: Creating believable dialogue.

Creating believable dialogue is an art, but part of the craft can be learned.

First of all, there are two adages that come to mind when writing dialogue. Strunk & White’s ‘Omit needless words’, and Elmore Leonard’s ‘Skip the boring parts’.

My own process:

What I most often do is write pages and pages of dialogue before I start culling the pages back to paragraphs. I’m a stickler for verisimilitude, so I tend to write dialogue that’s close to the real thing.

However, dialogue has a function in fiction, so I remove the quotidian from the verbiage and keep that which hints or tells something about the situation or the perspective of the character, as well as moving the plot forward.

I dislike ‘exposition’, but you can inform the reader in dialogue without info dumps if you infer rather than inform. So hint at stuff, instead of explaining things outright.

Another thing is that in real life, people rarely say what they mean. So that’s important to keep in your fictional dialogue–sometimes people are direct, other times they’re circumspect. Some characters are blunt, others tend to be more sophisticated.

An example from my current WIP, In Pocket. Wolfgang the pickpocket visits his fence to cash in his plastic:

I slipped into the booth, ignored the smoke from his cigar smouldering in the chipped glass ashtray, and placed a stack of credit cards in front of him. Mink sifted through the cards, refused three and pocketed the rest. His pudgy hand reappeared with cash and a gold-plated necklace, the lock broken to make it appear snatched.

“Two hundred retail,” Mink said. “Yours for twenty.”

“I don’t wear jewellery.”

He dangled the necklace from his thick fingers. “It’s a woman’s.”

“Don’t have a woman.”

I stuffed the money he gave me in my breast pocket, not eager to let him know where I stash my cash.

Mink smoothed the necklace on the table. “You should get out more.”

“If that advice had come from someone who didn’t live inside a dingy bar stuffed in a back alley, I might’ve taken it.”

“Always the smart mouth.” Mink shook his head. “One day you’ll learn that moving around isn’t the same as moving up.”

“Is that the voice of experience?”

He steepled his stubby fingers. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Respect goes two ways,” I said, “Don’t insult my intelligence pushing that gold-plated crap on me.”

Grinning, Mink put the necklace away. “You’re right, I should’ve known better.”

I got up to leave, but he flapped a pudgy hand. “Sit back down, we need to talk.”

“We do?” I sat back down, even though I didn’t really want to. Mink is connected and while I don’t want him to disrespect me, I also don’t want to piss him off.

Mink leaned back and drew on the stub of his cigar. “You work hotels?”

“Lobbies, on occasion. Sometimes hotel restaurants at breakfast time.”

He blew a plume of smoke at the ceiling. “But no further?”

“Not much to gain from venturing into the corridors.”

“Not for a pickpocket.” Mink ground out the cigarette in the ashtray with a savage twist. I heard somewhere that he used to have a highly volatile temper. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t be useful.”

I didn’t respond. Sometimes it’s better not to talk.

“I’m putting together a small crew for hotel burglaries,” Mink said. “You’d be a good addition.”

“I’m not into team sports, Mink.”

“I’m talking about a crew, not a team.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Members of a team all work towards the same goal, although there can be different tasks. A crew unites members with diverse specialties to work together as a cohesive unit.” He steepled his fingers. “You’d be part of a three-man crew. One stays by the door while two work the room. You have a good eye for valuables.”

I pointed at his pocket. “That necklace was a test?”

“You’d be in charge. I have passkeys, maps of the rooms, floor plans of the hotels. Three-way split. You, me and them.”

I shook my head. “Three people triple the risk.”

“I forgot, you don’t like to take risks.” Mink grinned, but his eyes stayed dead. “Let me know if you change your mind.”

I left the bar, glad to be back in the sunlight again.

If you can, please share your perspective on writing dialogue. And, of course, if you know anyone who might benefit from this information, share this post using the social media buttons below.


Rewritten: The introduction from my Work-In-Progress:

My work-in-progress is a stand alone noir crime fiction novel called In Pocket. The pitch/blurb:

If only Wolfgang hadn’t picked the pocket of the fat woman…

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 things that follow…

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

Below is the rewritten beginning of the novel (old version is here), which is written in present tense. The rest of the novel is in past tense, except for the interludes…

The world is strangely tilted when I open my eyes to the deafening roar of the helicopter reverberating against the walls around me. The down draft of the blades stir the loose dirt on the grimy bricks and I shield my eyes as swirling grit stings my face. Around me everything remains dark. The helicopter’s searchlight must be trained on something else. Or someone else.

The wind dies down and the roar changes to a bass-line thumping as the police helicopter flies off. Just around the corner I hear a siren starting up. An ambulance, not a police vehicle.

I close my eyes again.

I must’ve passed out. For an instant, I think. Just long enough to lose my bearings. My shoulder smarts from lying on the bricks, but the dull pain in my abdomen is worse. I remember her face looking up at me. And the hard punches in my belly, now a faint throbbing.

Without opening my eyes, I push myself into an upright position, the bricks damp and cold against my buttocks. My legs feel like they’re asleep, but without tingling—the usual pins-and-needles sensation is mysteriously absent.

A bad sign. I think I can forget about running. Or even getting up.

I open my eyes and blink a few times to focus.

The wall across from me is less than two meters away. To my left, a dead-end. To my right, plastic garbage bags leaning against an overflowing dumpster.

The siren grows louder and I lean forward carefully to peek around the dumpster.

Sodium lights flood the sidewalk with sickly orange light that reaches into the dead-end alley just far enough to touch my grubby sneakers. A neon-yellow ambulance races past the mouth of the alley, the sound of the siren fading quickly in the distance.

I go through my pockets to check my possessions, but I seem to have lost them all.

Money, gone. Keys, gone. Straight razor, gone.

I look at my filthy pants, stained with dark spots and smelling of urine. I look at my hands, smudged with street grime. And it all comes back. Why I’m wearing these clothes. My possessions aren’t gone. I left them with her before the stake-out.

I only had my phone and the gun. They’re both gone.

All I have left is the small carton in my inside pocket…

Around the corner I hear muted voices and the crackle of a two-way radio. A moment later I hear a car start up. My right hand grabs one of the plastic garbage bags and a spasm of pain pierces my gut as I heave the bag and toss it next to my legs.

The car halts at the mouth of the alley and the bright beam of a searchlight shines on the opposite wall, then swerves around towards the dumpster that hides me from view. The beam briefly illuminated my grimy pants and the garbage bag hiding my sneakers, but moves away without a pause. The light clicks off and the car trundles away.

I realise I’m holding my breath and let it out slowly.

I listen, but don’t hear anyone else, just my own raspy breathing. I’m alone.

My left hand touches my belly, comes away wet.

Sticky.

I raise my hand to my eyes, but it’s too dark too see.

I peer past the dumpster again, but all I see is a cobblestone quay and a canal. Not enough information to determine where I am. Just another dead-end alley in the centre of Amsterdam. The street sign is missing. Or was never there at all. Not all dead-end alleys here have names.

I remember the carton in my inside pocket and take the pack of cigarettes. I open the lid and brush my finger over the filter tips. And the metal wheel of a cheap butane lighter. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t know what would be worse; no cigarettes, or cigarettes and nothing to light them with.

I shake one from the pack and light up. My hands automatically shield the bright flame to prevent giving away my position. In the light I count the contents. Seven left, not counting the one I just lit. And a folded piece of tinfoil curled around a tiny waxed paper envelop. I won’t use that unless the pain becomes too bad.

I glance at my left hand. The sticky stuff covering my palm is red. I lower the lighter to see my belly. The lower half of my shirt is dark with blood. In the weak light the blood looks black. I touch the mess gingerly.

Three holes. Bullet holes.

The lighter sputters and dies. As the flame goes, a ghost-flame shimmers on my retina. I shake the lighter by my ear. Sounds like there is still some fuel left.

I cup the glowing tip of the cigarette in my hand, return the pack and lighter to my inside pocket, and blink to restore my night vision.

A shadow glides over the walls as someone passes the mouth of the alley. I watch from behind the dumpster, unable to draw in my numb legs sprawled amid the refuse that litters the bricks.

The shadow flows over my pants and disappears from view.

I listen to the receding steps.

I don’t want to be found. Not after what I did…

I drag on my cigarette. No idea what time it is. If I’m still in Amsterdam’s old quarter, I should be able to hear the bells from the myriad of churches. And pinpoint my location.

I take a last drag and extinguish my cigarette against the bricks.

The numbness in my legs worries me. Maybe the bullets damaged my spine.

In the distance a church bell chimes.

Once. Twice. Silence.

That sounded like the Oude Kerk, but I’m not sure. If this was the Red Light District it would be busier…

Two strikes, so it’s two in the morning.

Six hours till dawn.

A whole night to die in.

And muse about the events that got me in this predicament.

If only I hadn’t picked the pocket of the fat woman…

I’d love to hear what you think, so please comment below. Also, before I will look for a publisher or publish In Pocket myself I will need beta-readers to make sure the story is as good as I can get it. So stay tuned!

If you want to read the next sample, wherein Wolfgang targets the Fat Woman and set in motion the chain of events that lead to his predicament, send me an email at katlasieltjes@yahoo.com with ‘password sample?’ in the subject line.

 

1400px-inpocket


Rate/Review this sample from my Work-In-Progress:

My work-in-progress is a stand alone noir crime fiction novel called In Pocket. The pitch/blurb:

If only Wolfgang hadn’t picked the pocket of the fat woman…

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 things that follow…

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


I passed out. For an instant, I think. Just long enough to lose my bearings. I remember I was running. From someone. Or something? The back of my head hurts. Guess I hit the wall behind me. Without opening my eyes I feel the bricks, damp and cold against my buttocks.

My legs feel like they’re asleep. Without tingling—the usual pins-and-needles sensation is mysteriously absent.

A bad sign. I think I can forget about running. Or even getting up.

I open my eyes and blink a few times to focus. The wall across from me is less than two meters away. An alley. To my left, a dead end. To my right, plastic garbage bags leaning against an overflowing dumpster. I’m in a cul-de-sac.

Street lights flood the entrance of the alley with sickly orange light that touches my grubby sneakers. I listen, but don’t hear anyone else, just my own raspy breathing. I’m alone.

My left hand touches my belly, comes away wet.

Sticky.

Raise my hand to my eyes, but it’s too dark too see.

I peer past the dumpster, but all I see is a cobblestone quay and a canal. Can’t see which one. The street sign is missing. Or was never there at all. Not all dead-end alleys here have names.

I go through my pockets to check my possessions, but I seem to have none. Money, gone. Keys, gone. Straight razor—

I look at my pants, dirty and smelling of urine. I look at my hands, dark with street grime. And it all comes back. Why I’m wearing these dirty clothes. My possessions aren’t gone. I left them. I only had the two-way radio and the gun.

They’re both gone.

All I’ve left is the small carton in my inside pocket…

I take the pack of cigarettes from my inside pocket, open the lid and brush my finger over the filter tips. And the metal wheel of the butane lighter. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t know what would be worse; no cigarettes, or cigarettes and nothing to light them with.

I shake one from the pack and light up. My hands automatically shield the bright flame to prevent giving away my position. In the light I count the contents. Seven left, not counting the one I just lit. And a folded piece of tinfoil with the small white envelop beside it. I won’t use it unless the pain becomes too bad.

I glance at my left hand. The sticky stuff covering my palm is red. I lower the lighter to see my belly. The lower half of my shirt is dark with blood. In the weak light the blood looks black. I touch the mess gingerly. Three holes. Bullet holes.

The lighter sputters and dies. As the flame goes, a ghost-flame shimmers on my retina. I shake the lighter by my ear. Sounds like there is still some fuel left.

I cup the glowing tip in my hand, return the pack and lighter to my inside pocket, and blink to restore my night vision.

A shadow glides over the walls as someone passes the mouth of the alley. I watch from behind the trash cans, unable to draw in my numb legs sprawled amid the refuse that litters the bricks.

The shadow flicks over my sneakers and disappears from view.

I listen to the receding steps.

I don’t want to be found. Not after what I did…

I drag on my cigarette. No idea what time it is. If I’m still in Amsterdam’s old quarter, I should be able to hear the bells from the myriad of churches. And pinpoint my location.

I take a last drag and extinguish my cigarette against the bricks.

The numbness in my legs worries me. Maybe the bullets hit my spine.

In the distance a church bell chimes.

Once. Twice. Silence.

That sounded like the Oude Kerk, but I’m not sure.

Two.

Two in the morning.

Five hours till dawn.

A whole night to die in.

And muse about the events that got me in this predicament.

If only I hadn’t picked the pocket of the fat woman…


I’d love to hear what you think, so please comment below. Also, before I will look for a publisher or publish In Pocket myself I will need beta-readers to make sure the story is as good as I can get it. So stay tuned!

If you want to read the next sample, wherein Wolfgang targets the Fat Woman and set in motion the chain of events that lead to his predicament, send me an email at katlasieltjes@yahoo.com with ‘password sample?’ in the subject line.

 

1400px-inpocket