By request, I’m reposting the answer to kenohno’s question question about novel writing advice.
“I’m about to undertake my first novel as part of National Novel Writing Month in November and I’m a little scared (but it’s the good kind of scared!). As I’m outlining my story, I’m wondering how you approach novel structure? How do you know when to end a chapter? How many scenes per chapter? Any info you’d like to share would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!”
This one is hard, because so much of what I do now when I write is intuited, rather than learned. So, I suppose - in that - there is an element of an answer; the more you write, the more you learn to ‘feel’ what the story needs of you.
That said, some answers:
- I try always to begin a novel with the end in mind. The end may change along the journey, but at the start, I find knowing where I’m headed is crucial.
- Following on that, everything that you write should be driving towards that conclusion - either in plot, character, or theme, and preferably all three at once.
- I outline, but my outlines vary; I’ve written novels of 90K words where the outline was 30K in itself. I’ve written novels with 500 word outlines that have come in at 120K. The purpose of the outline is to map the journey in my opinion, but it is not the law. You are the law, and if the story - as you write it - leads you in a different direction, you should be free to honor that. Critical Space was tightly outlined, and half-way through the writing I threw the whole thing out, because one of the major characters - Drama - pretty much made it clear she wasn’t interested in where I was taking her.
(An aside: I’ve heard some writers bitch about other writers claiming ‘their characters speak to them’ and making comments about ‘well, then that writer needs therapy.’ Bullshit. If you’re in your novel - and writing any fiction requires at least some part of your mind remain within the story as you craft it - then it follows that your imagination is active, the characters are realized; when the characters are realized, you learn more and more about them. Thus, they ‘speak’ to you. There is no shame in this; this is - in my opinion - one of the things that makes each writer unique and thus worthy; the characters are yours, not anyone else’s. Listen to them.)
- I believe, strongly, that mastery of the short-story is the key to becoming a good novelist. With that in mind, each chapter is like a short - but unlike a short, it ends with a dramatic question or moment that must be answered, thus compelling the reader forward.
- A hard and fast rule for ‘scenes-per-chapter’ is outside my purview. Rather, I approach chapters with an eye towards “what must be accomplished here?” This applies to character as well as plot/story. Each chapter is a brick in the road, in this sense. Not knowing the purpose of a chapter, in my opinion, leads to a bad chapter that you end up deleting later.
- If you’re looking for some very literal advice, I would make a point of setting a word-count/day - something you can meet, but something that will test you. Then write that much each day. Not less, sometimes more.
And don’t stop your day’s work at the end of a chapter, or the end of a scene, or even, if you can help it, at the end of a sentence. Leave yourself hanging. To mix metaphors, the element of the unresolved chord will bring you back into the work that much faster, especially if you’ve begun your work by rereading your previous day’s writing.
- Final piece of advice? Scare yourself - not in the sense of writing something that gives you the creeps, but in the sense of pushing your boundaries; if you can write something that makes your own heart race or ache, the odds are you can give that same emotion to the reader. Don’t go easy - not on yourself, and never on your characters.
Hope this helps.