I love everything about the blog and your work, kudos. I am writing my first book (non fiction), and am lost as to how to break the whole thing into chapters.
Thank you, darling. Great question. I used to break up my manuscript into chapters as I wrote it every day. In the morning I would start a new chapter, and by the end of the writing day I'd try to finish it. The good part of it was, I completed a chapter a day. The bad part of it was, I have constrained my writing into this one-chapter-per-day schedule, and sometimes I rushed my story to make it happen, and the rushed part almost always had to be rewritten, so I wasted time.
Later I got smarter. I read a lot, as in, A LOT, and I steal chapter structure I like. It struck me to see some chapters very long and others very short in the same book. "How could that be?" I thought. I would imagine what's to follow can apply to any book, fiction or non-fiction.
Instead of focusing on chapters focus on the scenes.
A scene is a little nugget of a story that contains a beginning, a middle, and an end, has a specific set of characters, a particular setting, and moves the bigger story from point A to point B. It could be a couple sentences. It could be a paragraph. It could be a page or more. Think of it as a single shot in a movie. We zoom in on the city and see cars bustling to and fro and pedestrians scurry along the sidewalk under umbrellas and the door of a building open and an old crazy lady step out with a cat on a leash and a purse. Or something. Now, this was one scene. Next we cut to the close-up of the lady and follow her to the hot dog stand and see her trip on the leg of a bum and spill gold bricks from her purse and see the cat screech and escape, leash and all. Or something. This is the second scene. When the rather young and pimpled police officer starts talking to the lady, that would be the next scene.
As you write this (or revise or edit), keep another open document handy and for each scene type in a number and a one-sentence description of what happens (that's what I do).
- The town N wakes up on a rainy Thursday morning.
- The crazy Mrs. Wood is on her way to the bank, with her cat.
- The bum is a secret agent who makes Mrs. Wood spill her gold.
And so on.
Once you go through the entire manuscript, you should have a list of maybe 50-200 of these babies, depending on the length of your book. My current novel has 72.
Then comes the fun part. One nice morning when you had a good long night's sleep, set everything aside and read your list of scenes and see if any of them group into bigger logical chunks, i.e., chapters. Some might be long enough to be whole chapters themselves. Others will be much shorter and will group nicely. For that you open up a new file and type in the numbers of the chapters and a one line description of each. You can stack the scenes underneath, if you want. So it'd be something like this.
- Chapter 1. Mrs. Wood's secret gold.
Or whatever you want to call it. You can go even further and group the chapters in yet another file into parts. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. I rarely see more than 3 parts in a book, but you can do as many as you feel inclined to, right?
I must caution you, however.
With each rewrite I do, I alter my scenes as well. Because they change and shift and grow and shrink and disappear and get replaced with new ones. Overall this approach gives me a very solid structure to play with.
There is no hard rule about what should or shouldn't be in a chapter. Ignore every helpful book you see on the subject matter. Ignore this post. Read lots of books and steal what you like and apply it to your book until one day you'll develop your own feel for how to break it into chapters. Go to the bookstore or to the library and pick up a bunch of books that are similar to yours, or at least you think they are. Read them. Study how they're broken up and think about why. It will help you more than any advice I or anyone else can ever give you. Why?
What works for me might not work for you.
Every writer and every book is different, and it's up to you how to structure yours, and no one will be able to tell you except yourself. You'll feel it. You'll know when it's right. I know you're scared to do it wrong. I was scared too. Quite curiously, it wasn't until I saw Stephen King in one of his books write a chapter that was only one paragraph long. Or a couple paragraphs. I read it and I thought, "What the fuck? I didn't know chapters could be so short." Funny enough, TUBE is my first book where it came to me naturally. Yesterday, in fact. I wrote two chapters. One of them was 10 pages long. Another one only one paragraph. And it was a whole chapter! For real! You know how I know?
I FELT IT.
So go ahead, read your book from beginning to end and FEEL IT. Trust your gut. Where does it seem the scenes begin? Where do they end? It's slow and hard but rewarding work. When you get that AHA! moment. The thrill. Of course, if writing were easy, any idiot would do it.
I hope this helps, Mayowa. Otherwise I'll have to resort to sneaking up to your house at night and scaring you shitless. It's the Russian approach. It works rather well. I don't recommend it, through. It might leave you with nervous hiccups for the rest of your life.
Guys, as always, if any of you have any personal, highly guarded secrets, now is the time to spill them and help out Mayowa. Do it.