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Saturday, November 09, 2013

Chapters

Popping my head up out of the editing trench for just long enough to put up a post here. Some things that are on my mind this week . . . 
Sometimes when a book reads really well, I forget that even good books need editing. Even books that are engrossing will improve if we take the time to whittle away the excess and freshen up what's left on the page after that.
Good books become great books with editing.  
I'm helping one of my clients make his chapters shorter at present. He had a 30,000 word middle grade book with only 11 chapters. I read it and saw nothing wrong with it. I love the book,  enjoyed reading it, and chapters that were 11 pages long didn't bother me in the least. 
But an editor called to ask us to make the chapters shorter. Well, duh! It's a humorous book for boys aged 10-12. I should have known that shorter chapters would be more appealing. (Yes, I'm always harping on how writers need to read, read, read in the genre's they're writing. I need to preach to myself!)
So now the author and I are doing what we should have done before we ever sent the book out. We're making the chapters shorter. 
And that's causing me to look again chapter openings and closings. 
I'm coming up with a list of things I need to look at, even for books I love, before I submit to editors. And . . . you should look at these things before you submit to agents. 

Chapter Length

This won't cause someone to reject your book, probably, but it can greatly enhance the read. Shorter chapters make readers feel like they're making progress and that encourages them to keep reading.
Short chapters are kind of like giving your readers traveling through your story, the promise of a bench. You're saying, "Come on. Just around the corner you can sit down and catch your breath."
Of course, just around the corner, you're going to give the reader a monster, not a bench, but he doesn't know that when he starts the chapter. He thinks, "Just four pages? I can read four more pages before I go back to my X-Box game."  

Chapter Openings

Each chapter opening should be as intriguing as the book opening. Each chapter opening should present a character in need or a compelling story question. Each chapter opening should have a rich voice and depict a well-developed world painted in rich sensory detail that draws the reader in. 
Chapter openings should not have backstory any more than book openings should have it. This is the place to suck the reader in, all over again, to make her commit to "just one more chapter" before bed. 

Chapter Closings

Each chapter should end in one of three ways, I think:
  • Cliffhanger 
  • Everything is fine nowThe heroine can finally relax (said in a way that makes the reader know that nothing is fine and the character is in more danger than ever). 
  • I have a plan! ~ Character takes inventory, recounts his losses, but gets up, dusts himself off, and decides to jump back into the fray.
The absolute worst way to end a chapter is with a problem solved and nothing to pull us into the next chapter. No new problem, no new goal, no impending doom, no intriguing question--no reason to turn the page. The reader stops right there to check email. 
What about you? What do you find easier to write? openings or closings? And what other things should we look for in those places? 

photo credit: pni via photopin cc
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Sally Apokedak
Sally Apokedak is a literary  agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's in the process of of building a dynamite list of authors. She is also active in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. You can connect with her on her blog, where she posts about writing and publishing, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Pinterest, or on Google+

2 comments:

Lisa Fowler said...

Great post, Sally, and it really made me wonder if my chapters are too long. Helpful comments too on the shortage of backstory and "cliff hanger" chapter endings. Much to keep in mind! Thank you.

sally apokedak said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Lisa. How many chapters do you have in your 50K book, I wonder. It is definitely something to consider.