Friday, May 16, 2008

Surviving a Chapter

I wanted to summarize some of the stuff I've been talking about in the last couple days. I'm calling this "How to Write a Chapter". I'm going to sort it by major steps.


-- Write a purpose at the head of each chapter, defining what is to be accomplished within those pages.

-- Write the chapter as you want it to be.

-- Print, and read through, highlighting anything that catches your eye -- makes you “think”.

-- Work page by page, making a list of adverbs and adjectives. Do a count of how many times the same adverb or adjective appears within a page (or over all of the pages). Have this page side-by-side with your chapter, so that you can see each clearly.

-- Start with the words that you used multiple times and work on eliminating them. Question why you used that same word so many times.

**Are there any synonyms that come to mind?

**Do you think you’re going for a particular theme by using that word so much?

-- Pretend that anything with multiples needs to have only one.

-- Look at the places where there are adjectives. Question every one.

**Do you need it?

**Is it better to say “she had flowing blonde hair”, or “she had blonde hair”?

**How important is it to describe her hair as ‘flowing’?

**How important is her hair?

**Do you need to mention the color of this person’s hair?

-- Look at the places where you used adverbs.

**Is it important that a man “slowly read the paper”, or can you say “he read the paper”?

-- If you felt the need to embellish a verb with an adverb, could this mean that you’re not using the correct verb?

**Is there a better verb out there that can encompass the original and its adverb?

-- In this way, you work backwards through a progression of questions that starts first with the specifics of each word, and then traces back to broader questions concerning purpose and necessity.

-- Locate every adjective and adverb on your list, and after you’ve questioned it and established its worth -- or lack of it -- move on to make a new list of all the nouns and verbs. Do the same count of them, and look at each one in the chapter, using the same questions:

**Do I need it?

**What will the sentence look like if I don’t use it?

-- If you happened to use the word ‘had’ five times in a page, take each one of them out and see how the sentence can be rearranged without. If you mentioned a character eating an apple three separate times, question whether or not you really need this action. Can it be replaced with something else?

-- If you notice you have a lot of verbs, such as: “He walked into the room and sat down and crossed his legs” look at what verb is the most important. Is there any way to get around the use of one, if not all, of those verbs? Find the one action that moves the scene along.

-- Cut detail. See how the pages look.

-- Question every word on your two lists. Pretend that they cannot be there. Pretend that someone kidnapped your dog and will hurt it if you don’t cut at least thirty words off of each page.

-- Do a re-write of the chapter, incorporating the changes you made. I recommend making your edits on the printed page with a pencil. Print out the edited version and date it.

-- Go through the new version, looking only at dialogue. As you look at each spoken line, see what happens if you cut it out.

**Are you losing information that needs to be said?

**Are your characters saying things to one another that are already known between them?

**Are you using dialogue to explain something to the reader?

-- Pretend that the reader already knows these people and their situation.

**How does the dialogue sound when you approach it from that angle?

**Do you need dialogue at all?

**Can the purpose of the chapter and scene be achieved only through action?

-- You’ll want some dialogue, of course, but imagine what your characters would say to one another if nothing needed to be explained. How would they interact?

-- Most of all, focus on your purpose here, and use the dialogue to that end. What needs to be said between the characters? If that kidnapped dog was going to die if you had more than two lines of dialogue in your chapter, what would those two lines be? Pretend that you need to have as little as possible. A life depends on it! See how immediate your narrative becomes. Don’t worry about taking things out – you can always put them back in!

-- Rewrite the chapter using the cuts and changes that you made. As you re-write, keep an eye out for your sentences too. Those words aren’t to be trusted just yet. Can you still lose some of them? If you even question a single word, cut it out and see what the sentence looks like without it.

-- Remember, question everything. Do you need it? What is it there for? Pretend you’re an immigration officer, deciding whether or not to let a traveler into the country.

-- Keep an eye out for the number of similes and metaphors that you’re using.

**Are you using too many?

**Are there instances where you could use a metaphor or simile to give the reader a better description?

-- Remember: Focus. If you know what you want to say within the chapter, it might be easier to figure out where a simile or metaphor could really benefit.

-- Keep an eye out for where you can add in a bit more detail by switching one boring noun for another. For instance, in my first chapter, two characters are surrounded by trees. I replaced those with “birch trees” instead. Now the reader can envision the color bark, the shape of the tree. You’re giving them a whole new picture rather than just saying a very generic “trees”. Look for any place where you can be more specific. Instead of saying “he ate some cereal”, how about “he ate Cheerios”? See what a difference it makes, and in most cases you won’t have to add any extra words in.

-- As you edit, keep retyping the chapter and printing it out.

-- With your current version, look at the setting.

**Are your characters surrounded by something? Or are they standing in some void?

**Are they making use of the room they’re standing in?

**Are they making too much use of where they are so that it’s impeding with the narrative?

-- Try to put in something unique about the setting when you can. Remember: specific details. You can express something about a room with only a few words.

**Is it dusty?

**Full of light?

**Is it an echo chamber?

**Does it eat sound?

**Does it smell like frying chicken or dead squirrel?

-- Don’t overdo it explaining every part of the setting, but remember that your characters are actually standing, sitting, or lying somewhere.

-- Once you’ve made your setting edits, print up again and read through the chapter. Pay attention to how it all sounds now.

** Do you feel there’s a voice to it?

** Is your main character coming through?

-- If you’re being a mad killer of words, it’s possible that you’re going to cut out some of the emotion, and the narrative will become too sparse. Now you have the opportunity to build up.

**Are there places where you think you can use a little extra?

-- Hopefully, by the end of your edits, you’ll have a better appreciation for words. It should be much easier to add in a sentence now, with an eye for keeping it integral to the narrative.

1 comment:

The Blogger said...

That really seems too hard. You remind me of the scientist who figured out how to talk to a centipede. He asked the bug, "How do you coordinate the motions of so many legs so that you can walk?" The centipede replied, "Why, I usually ..." and then it fell down. It was never able to walk again.

Welcome to the blogosphere!

- tobyr21,