2 Steps Forward, 1.9 Steps Back

I mentioned in “Your Baby is Ugly” that I’ve struggled with making progress—writing new material versus editing what I’ve already written—but have managed, for the most part, to overcome it. Here are a couple of things I’ve found helpful:

1. Write more often

I know this seems beyond obvious, but we’ve all had those Homer Simpson “Do’h!” moments, and this suggestion may not be for the reason you think. Sure, the more you write, the more the progress you’ll make, but there’s something else to it as well: the more often you write, the less time it takes you to get back into the story. If I spend more than a few days away from the story, I’ll forget where I was and where I was going. I have to reread a page or two, at least, to get back on track. My first novel, Taleth-Sidhe, took me the better part of a decade, probably a little longer, to finish. One of the reasons was that weeks, or even months, passed between the times when I sat down to write. The longer I went between writing sessions, the further back I had to read to get into my writing mind. Not my right mind, I’m rarely there. I also know this is much easier said than done. If you’re an unpublished author and not independently wealthy, there are bills to be paid, and that means you have to hold down a job. Working doesn’t just occupy the time we actually spend at work, it also can sap your desire to sit and write when you do have time. Sure, that book isn’t going to write itself, but you want to see that movie. Or your friends are going out for a pint. Or your significant other wants some quality time. Or any number of other things that are much more appealing than sitting down for hours at the computer. Sometimes, it’s even hard not to take time and do nothing at all. Like anything else, though, if it’s important to you, you’ll find the time. However, that time might not be as frequent as you like, so I’ve found some other things that help compensate for not always having the willpower to sit and write.

2. Turn off the editor

This is easier for some than others. For me, it’s a struggle. I can’t seem to help myself; I always seem to find a better way of wording something, or realize I’ve left something out that I wanted to include. That polishing is so much easier than trying to figure out how I’m going to deal with the next step in the story. So, I have to force myself to make a clear mental break between the writer and the editor. Of course, I’m never 100 percent successful, but as I’ve progressed and matured as a writer, I’ve move from the low 30 percent range into the high 90 percent range. This didn’t happen magically, it took a lot of forcing myself.

And much as how step two helped me achieve step one, step three helped me achieve step two.

3. Shorter Chapters

My first novel, Taleth-Sidhe, had chapters that were often more than twenty pages. My second novel, The Stolen Child, was closer, on average, to twelve or so pages. People can and will disagree on “proper” chapter length. Obviously a chapter should be as long as it needs to be, and everyone has their own way of deciding that. But, there are several benefits to shorter chapters.

  • Readers tend to read more of, and finish, a book that has shorter chapters.

Back in the days before all the wonderful distractions we have now (TV, the Internet, movies, radio, music, etc.) people read. Books were much longer and so were the chapters. They included more detail and few cut scenes (the action jumping from one point to another without describing the journey). Now, we have countless things vying for our attention: kids, significant others, work, and friends in addition to all the distractions I mentioned above. That means, on average, we spend less time reading in one sitting than we did before. How many times have you been reading a book, usually at night before bed, and you know you need to get up for work, but you just want to keep reading? What do you do in that instance? You look and see how many pages till the next chapter, right? If it’s just a few pages, you know you can finish it and still get a reasonable amount of sleep. If it’s thirty more pages, depending on how engrossed you are, you might chose to close the book. This risks the reader stopping at a point that doesn’t drive them to pick up the book again. Keep the chapters short and the reader is more likely to stop at a chapter break, which probably sets up the next chapter and leaves the reader wanting more. Shorter chapters also tend to make a book feel faster paced. You’re welcome to disagree with me on this point. I don’t have a study that shows all of the above, I’m relying on personal experience and things I’ve read or heard from others. Don’t make the chapters short if they shouldn’t be, but if a good stopping point presents itself, I usually take it.

  • Short chapters mean I have to read less to get back into the story.

Yep, this reason is completely selfish. I know there are people who can pick up a story again in the middle of a chapter, but I can’t. And for me, writing is no different. When I sit down to write, if I haven’t worked on the story in a week or so, I can usually read the preceding chapter to reimmerse myself in it and that’s enough. But if it’s been longer, such as a month, I may need to read three or more chapters, depending on how the story was going at that point. Using my old method of writing, this could mean a hundred pages. With shorter chapters, it’s closer to thirty. No, still not quick, but much better than a hundred, especially if you’re struggling with an internal editor who wants to make changes along the way. Fewer pages mean fewer places for that editor to pipe up, which means more time for writing new words.

So, there you have it. That’s what works for me and maybe it will work for you. If it does, I hope it serves you well. If not, everyone’s writing process is different, so give yourself permission to try different approaches and be patient with your struggles. Writing a journey, not a destination, but that’s another topic altogether…

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