Just TRY

I found my novel revision floundering a bit. As I said in my last blog post, I’ve been hesitating moving too far forward because I could only read five pages every two weeks at my critique group and I valued their feedback. But, I realized that if I wait for that, it’ll take a couple years to get through the book. Not ideal.

I was at a couple chapters that I liked, but liked with a “but.” The problem was, I wasn’t sure what the “but” was. (A lot of wass in that sentence.) I’d read them and think they’re fine, they’re ok, but that’s the problem — they’re “fine” and “ok”, not “great. I want to read more.” They weren’t what they could be.

I had some ideas, but I was hesitatant to make them. What if they didn’t work? I didn’t want to mess up what I had already.

This is the bad thinking. No one should think like this, especially in the time of the computer, because a quick “save as” preserves your earlier work. (Even if you write in a notebook or on a typewriter — some do — you can keep your earlier pages and start writing on a fresh piece of paper.)

But also, I thought, I didn’t want to waste my time.

This is even worse thinking. When it comes to writing, there is no wasting time — unless it’s the time when you’re not writing or not thinking about your writing. (Fun, chores and general life are allowed and encouraged too, of course. 🙂 ) But through our writing, even those days when what we write isn’t the best, we learn and we get new ideas.

My floundering with these chapters led to me just not write. I used it as an excuse to sleep in. I’d have a late night the night before and instead of setting my alarm for early, I’d set it for later with the reasoning that a) I needed the sleep (very true) and b) I wasn’t sure what to do with these chapters anyway, so I might as well sleep on it.

That didn’t work. I got more sleep, which is good, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with my novel revision, which just frustrated me.

So, on Monday, I set my alarm for 5am again (I have to set it for 5 so I can get up at 6) and I started going through the chapters. Nothing much came to me on Monday, except more of, “I want to do something, but what?”

On Tuesday, I figured out what I didn’t like about the chapters but thought, “It might not be exciting, but it works and gets the information across.”

On Wednesday, I remembered an author’s seminar at the SCBWI summer conference last year in which the author’s main message was “TRY”. Try the scene in six different ways and pick the best one. Try what you think might work and what you think might not work. Just TRY. So, on Wednesday, I did a “save as” (I have a document of “discarded chapters” where I store old stuff in case I could use it later) and I cut. I cut out all the stuff that I thought dragged down the chapters — the first seven paragraphs of one of the chapters and a bunch off the end — and I rewrote.

An amazing thing happened along the way: I got an idea for the scene that I hadn’t had before, one that I think is much more entertaining to read as well as much more interesting for the characters and plot development. It doesn’t change the story, but it makes it a lot more rich. Now, I’m excited about my revision again and longing to get back to it.

The funny thing is, if I hadn’t cut out the stuff I was afraid to lose, I wouldn’t have had this new idea.

So, I pass on the same advice: TRY.

Got any advice you’d like to share?


Chapters for a children's book

When I was writing my middle-grade novel, I didn’t pay much attention to page counts and chapter length. Mainly, chapters were broken up by scenes.


But during my hiatus — after getting to The End — I finished reading “Barkbelly” by Cat Weatherill and was amazed at how short her chapters were and how many she had: most chapters have only 2 to 3 pages, 5 seemed to be a max, and the book has 63 chapters in a total of 309 pages.


A quick look at some of the other books on my shelf and she seems to be the exception: The sixth Harry Potter book has 30 chapters, the first of which is 18 pages, with a total 652 pages; “The Lightning Thief,” the first in the Percy Jackson series, has 22 chapters and the first is 15 pages with a total 375 pages; “Nightmare Academy” has 17 chapters, the first being 21 pages with a total 310 pages. “Eragon” has 59 chapters, the first only 3 pages, the second 10, for a total of 497 pages.


What does this mean? Well, first and foremost, do what’s right for the story. But second, feel free to experiment.


“Barkbelly” got me thinking about chapter breaks in a new way. Not that I think I have to limit chapters to five pages, but that I don’t have to use them to show a change in a scene. In “Lightning Thief,” Rick Riordan often changed the scene in the middle of a chapter and started a new chapter in the middle of a scene — but when something really exciting was happening. It reminded me of my days studying screenwriting, especially for the TV. TV shows are really formulaic — even more than you think. But one thing they all have in common is placing a major plot turning point or exciting moment right before the commercial break to ensure their audience will stay on that channel.


Books, I would say especially children’s books, should do the same. “Barkbelly” is wonderfully written and very sweet, but it’s a simple story that intrigues because of the oddness of the characters and situations more than the action. Short chapters, I suspect, keep young readers interested and feeling as though they’re moving forward. Weatherill split her chapters by scene breaks, mostly, so her scenes are short, but she could have had multiple scenes in chapters (in a few cases she does, but then the scene is only a few paragraphs showing a transition between the last scene and the next).


Following Riordan’s method of ending the scenes at WOW parts, right in the thick of the action, keeps readers coming back to find out what will happen in the rest of the scene, much less the rest of the book.


As readers, we often think chapters are good stopping places, be it bedtime or whatever. Parents might tell their kids they can read one or two chapters before they go to bed. Having the ends of those chapters right in the middle of the action practically guarantees that readers won’t want to put the book down, and if they do, it’ll be all they think about until they pick up the book again.


Weatherill kept her chapters short perhaps recognizing that kids have short attention spans and by finishing a chapter, they feel invested in a book and as though they have accomplished something. Plus, she ended some chapters with a harbinger: “If he had known about the shock he would receive the next morning, he wouldn’t have slept at all” ends chapter 54. Not for use when you’re writing in the protagonist’s point of view, of course.


I had one or two chapter breaks like Riordan’s in my novel, but most were scene changes, not unlike Weatherill’s but with much longer scenes. During my revision now, I’m looking at these differently. When I typed The End, I had 20 chapters and about 206 pages. I’ve already found some interesting places to split the long scenes in early chapters and have added those as chapter breaks. I’m probably at about 24 chapters now and I’m only on chapter 8, which used to be in the middle of chapter 6. I don’t have any chapter quota I feel I have to hit. My goal is merely to make sure I have the most exciting chapter break possible.


How do you determine when to break for a new chapter?


Write On!