I’ve had a lot of people ask me about my process when it comes to writing chapters. Chapters, much like every other aspect of writing, is something I think every writer has to figure out for themselves. What works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else. But something I have learned over the years is that it’s okay to piecemeal together your own system. It’s okay to take ideas from your fellow writers and smash them together until you find your own comfort zone. We all learn from each other, and so here’s a short breakdown of how I write a chapter for a novel.
I’ve become a big fan of outlines. Before any chapter is written, I plan out a very generic set of events for the novel, which typically consists of an opening, the middle part, and how it will end. Once that’s established I go about planning each chapter. Sometimes I plan them out from beginning to end, and other times I plan out as many as I can and then start writing because I can’t take the anticipation anymore. My current project, Horns & Halos 2: All Of Them Criminals, has been like that. I have a total of six chapters planned out, and I’ve already written three of them. I know what will happen in the other chapters, but the order is still not quite there, and so I’ll probably do the rest as I go along.
Outlines and pre-planning chapter events can be a scary thought for some people. I’ve heard people talk about such things as being a sterile way to go, that it’s less creative and even less authentic. But this isn’t true. Just because I have plans for a chapter or even the entire book, that in no way stops the characters from doing what they want, even if that means changing my plans. An outline is a guide. I like to think of it like a map – it’s there to keep me headed in the right direction. My end goal is to get my characters to the climax of the story, and to do it in the most direct and entertaining way as possible. That map – or outline – will help keep me on course.
I usually try to visualize the events of a chapter in my mind as well. Running things through in my head, helps me to transfer them into words. It helps to make it real, in a way. Once I can visualize the chapter, it’s almost like I’m writing about a memory rather than something that never happened.
Once I can “see” how things will go (especially the opening of each chapter) I set out writing. Sometimes I can sit down and write a complete chapter in one shot. Other times, it’s days or even weeks to get through one chapter. Not because of length, but because sometimes my flow is there, and sometimes it’s not. When it’s not, I can spend thirty frustrating minutes on one paragraph and still not be happy with it. When this happens, I usually call it quits for the day. Trying to force flow when it’s not there doesn’t work for me.
I usually break my chapters up into scenes. A chapter may have one scene or three. Sometimes four, but I never take it over that limit. Even four is a lot. I use Scrivener, and it matches this style perfectly. Scrivener was love at first sight for me. It works using the system of chapters and scenes (which equals super easy formatting for all us self-publishers out there!) which has been ideal for me. Scrivener also gives you plenty of spaces to keep your notes and character sheets right on screen with your project, which I abuse relentlessly.
Once I have all the scenes of a chapter finished, I go back through and edit. I’ve heard a lot of people speak against this – that you should write as much as you can as fast as you can and then save the editing for when you’re done. I can’t work like that. I edit through each chapter as I go, which I’ve found to be a very valuable part of my process. Usually my first draft of a chapter is thin and bare. It’s the outburst. And so I go back through and put meat on its bones. I tighten up my pros, add detail to my description (making sure to run through the five senses to make sure I’m hitting a handful of them) and double checking that I’ve included everything I wanted. Sometimes I’ll have plans of putting comment C or action D in a chapter and I’ll get to the end and realize those things didn’t happen. So then I’ll go back through and work them in.
I typically comb through each chapter three or four times, and that includes one round of reading it out loud, before I move on to the next. At the end of the book, the entire thing will get many read throughs, along with a professional once through with my editor. But when it comes to chapters, I like to make them as full and as close to finished as I can as I do them.
Lastly, I think length is an important topic. For me, I make a very concentrated effort to keep chapters within a certain word count, and that changes depending on the project. For young adult pieces, I try to keep the chapters shorter. I’d rather have forty short chapters than twenty super long ones. Thrillers and mysteries are the same way – I keep them short, so as to send the reader through the story as quickly as possible. For other genres like historicals or high fantasy (as long as it’s not YA) I think longer chapters are okay. I’m not an expert when it comes to this and I don’t think there’s an exact science. With length, it’s a matter of knowing your audience. And even then you won’t make everyone happy. I’ve actually heard people complain about short chapters. Or even short novels! But to each his own, right?
In general, I try to keep every chapter under 5k words and if it’s a YA project, I aim more for like 3k a chapter.
No matter how you work out your own writing process, the key point is make it your own. Don’t think you have to follow my advice/tips or anyone else’s. Try things out, pick and choose what feels right to you, and run with it.
Happy writing everyone 🙂
Check out the trailer for the first book in the Horns & Halos series and get your own copy in paperback or on Kindle here!