Monday, November 28, 2011

Chapter Length: Does it Really Matter? And Other Nitpicky Fears.

I hope everyone had a fantastic holiday weekend, got the deals of their lives and didn't get trampled at Walmart (or pepper sprayed)! To you NaNo'ers out there, good luck in the final stretch!

One thing conferences and writer's groups are good for is making a person even more insecure about their writing. What? Yes, it's me, the person who is typically speaking about how great it is to talk to other authors. The person who encourages everyone to do the same. However, it cannot be denied that the inspiration brought on by being around other artistic types sometimes brings with it a sense of failure or panic on your part when you begin to compare yourself to them.

The latest insecurity I'd like to write about is chapter length. This is one of those things I never would have considered as being an issue until I started being active in the writing community. All of a sudden, people are talking about how your chapter lengths should be consistent for more fluidity in your book. Say what? Is that something ELSE I have to stress over while writing and editing? Do I now have to go through and pare down my chapters, or bulk them up, just so they can be a consistent length throughout the book?

You see, I now happen to have been part of several conversations on the topic. There are writers who write down the number of pages and words in each chapter to keep track. They journal the exact numbers in order to be able to edit them to where they need to be to be similar. Others go back through to check how well they kept to the same numbers, but don't necessarily keep track as they go. Still others set the goal for word count in a particular chapter before they even begin. Then, of course, there are those who just keep them consistent without even trying. You know...THOSE.

Where am I in this? I just write! When did that become obsolete? Some of my chapters are a bit longer, while others are shorter. If the scene is completed, why shouldn't I start a new chapter? Now, if it's too long, I'll split it into a separate chapter, so, yes, part of me does think there's something pleasant about there not being too massive a discrepancy, I suppose, or maybe I just don't like super long chapters. That actually sounds more like it.

I'm not just picking on chapter length here, but it's a symptom of something I see all around. We over-analyze when we should just be writing. We look at something someone else points out and begin to question ourselves because it never occurred to us before. Are we doing something wrong? Is our writing lacking something that other person's might not be? Is this something I need to change, to pay attention to, to address? Is this important? Will it cost me a book deal?

OH MY GOSH! WHAT ELSE AM I DOING WRONG?

Yeah.

It's natural to examine the things you do. It's natural to doubt yourself, to question yourself. It's also natural to compare yourself to others, especially when they seem more accomplished or successful. However, we cannot allow this to get in the way of the important parts. Just create. Worry about the logistics later.

And when you're hanging out with others of your ilk, take what they say in the spirit they're giving it. Typically, they don't think they're better than you. They have doubts, too. They don't know if everything they're doing is perfectly correct, or even if it will work for others. So they talk about it with you. They throw it out there and see how you respond. Instead of internalizing it, discuss the merits and drawbacks with them, tell them how you do it, what you think about it. Have a dialog, but don't draw it inside you and let it eat away at you. What you're doing is right for you.

What about you? Do you think a book is best when the chapters are equal lengths? What do you nitpick about?

May you find your Muse.

12 comments:

  1. I used to really worry about chapter length, but then I realised how much it doesn't matter.

    I recently read Stephen King's Misery. Some of his chapters are really long. Some are (seriously) just a couple of lines. And that's Stephen King.

    It's far more important to end chapters when it feels natural rather than do crazy things like count words.

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  2. I don't think it matters at all. As long as it needs to be.

    mood
    Moody Writing
    @mooderino
    The Funnily Enough

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  3. I don't worry about chapter length. I'm more concerened about beleivability and how peeps will relate to my characters.

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  4. I personally like short chapters so that is how I write myself. I like to feel like I am making progress and it is going quick. It's a mental trick.

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  5. I think people like to boil everything down to a formula. Make a lot of rules about how to do things. If you follow the rules, you'll get a book deal.
    But it just doesn't work that way. Ever.

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  6. I don't think they have to be exactly the same, but I do think a general consistency matters. I know in my critique group that we've all noticed when a chapter is significantly longer or shorter than the rest. It gives users a rhythm and an expectation to the mini story arc that you're building in each chapter. I keep mine consistent for the same reasons, and I've developed a sense over time of when I'm reaching the end of my chapter arc. I used to not write in chapters at all, if that helps. Man was that a nightmare...

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  7. Good questions.

    When I first wrote, I tried to make all my chapters equal lengths, more or less. Now I just try to have them feel complete and end on a note that entices the reader to keep going. Some writers have really short chapters, while some have long ones. If I'm into the book, I don't care either way.

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  8. Chapters don't matter. You don't even technically need chapters at all. Terry Pratchett has been writing Discworld books with no chapters for a long time and they're fantastic. Usually they serve to notify the reader of a change: a change in POV or setting or time, etc. But if you're good enough, you can make those changes clear to the reader without a new chapter. Chapters are just a tool to be used. You certainly don't want to let yourself be a slave to them.

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  9. Some books have really long chapters and some have really insanely short (like one or two page) chapters. The Harry Potter series, for instance, has some very, very long chapters. The thing is, I never noticed this until I was reading them out loud to my kids at bedtime. It takes me two nights to get through one chapter sometimes, because of how long they are. It does have some short chapters here and there, though. One series of YA books I'd looked at had really short chapters.

    I try to keep mine consistent--I'm one of the "when the chapter is finished, check to see what the word count is" or "if I'm trying to finish a chapter, see about how much longer it should be before I end it."

    (There always does seem to be a never-ending list of things for writers to think about!)

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  10. We are quite an odd bunch. Seriously, do doctors worry endlessly about the size and length of a stitch? But the thing is, all the 'rules' they don't get you published. What gets you published is a great book and a great voice. You have that.

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  11. I never knew this was an issue! As I was reading through your post I found myself starting to panic about the lengths of my chapters. We are definitely an insecure bunch! But really, I can't believe it makes any difference. A good story is a good story, I know I never pay attention to chapter length when I am reading.

    Hope you had a great holiday as well!

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  12. Angeline, I agree, and I've read other authors who had the occasional couple of lines for a chapter. It's a scene, and it works.

    Mood, I agree. What matters it what is achieved in the chapter.

    Shelly, definitely.

    Jessie, I do enjoy short chapters sometimes when reading. I also tend to read the book longer because I think "just one more."

    Andrew, so true. I think it's comforting sometimes to have what seems like a concrete rule. I do enjoy breaking them, though.

    Jem, I can imagine that was a nightmare! I'm curious about it, though. Did you separate it after? I can see what you're saying about the rhythm, and I can say that my chapters tend to be within a couple pages of the same length, so no great swings. That isn't intentional, but just the way it tends to work out. Thanks for the insight!

    Theresa, that's what I look for, too, something that makes the reader want to move to the next chapter.

    Sarah, I had no idea he didn't use chapters! I keep hearing about the Discworld books and meaning to check them out.

    Laura, good point about reading out loud. I do notice chapter length quite a bit when reading aloud to my kids. Short works best for my 4-year old, but my son and I tend to read together for 20-40 minutes, so longer chapters are good.

    Julie, I bet they don't! Although, it would be funny. Can you picture the conventions? "About how long do you make your stitches?" "Oh crud, am I supposed to be making them 1/4 in. in length? Have I been doing it wrong this whole time? Is that why I haven't gotten that head position?" And thanks!

    Julie, ack, didn't mean to make someone panic! My holiday week was wonderful!

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