How Long Is My Chapter?

There is an article in Writing Craft, a section of The Florida Writer’s blog, written by Louise Titchener on 8 December 2018 that caught my eye, because I’ve been wondering about the ‘correct length’ for a chapter: my current project has chapters of 6-7 pages, while, in the past, my chapters are more commonly 15-20 pages.

Louise Titchener’s biography in Amazon says that she is the author of over 40 published novels in a variety of genres including romance, science fiction fantasy, and mystery. She has also published articles in leading magazines and written book reviews for The Washington Post.

Louise Titchener

Her article says: “Chapters of twenty to thirty pages used to be the adult fiction norm. When I started attempting to write novels, I crafted long chapters—and proud of it.

“Guess what. Nowadays I’m cutting those long chapters by half, thirds, and sometimes even by quarters.

What changed? I think technology transformed reading habits. When I was learning to write, transitions were a big deal. Writers were advised never to change a scene, setting, or time period without preparing the reader with a well-developed transition. Figuratively speaking, the writer had to take his reader’s hand and lead him down the narrative path so he/she didn’t get lost.

“Today—not so much. When I first became aware of this shift I was cleaning up in the kitchen while listening to a television show in the other room. Because I wasn’t actually watching the show, it dawned on me that the scenes were extremely short and the cuts between scenes lacked transition. Viewers were making the narrative jumps without help. Was this because transitions were no longer required? Are consumers of media so accustomed to sudden swings in narrative point of view that they no longer need guideposts to follow?

“I think technology has trained people to accept quick bursts of action and move right on to new themes and points of view with very little preparation. Nowadays viewers and readers are sophisticated consumers who can navigate non-linear plots, lightning fast scene changes and shifts in time and space with ease. Or, at least, that’s what they’re asked to do in our culture’s mass media environment, and it seems to be working.

“On the other hand, I think most consumers these days have very little patience for long drawn out scene and character development. They have become acclimated to mass media offerings that move at a pace an older generation might have found perplexing.

“So what is the takeaway for writers? The advantage of a long chapter is the slow and steady development of character and scene. The reader feels the writer isn’t skimming the surface of a story, but digging deep, offering insights that only come with a leisurely and thoughtful pace.

“The advantage of a short chapter is the reader knows he can move from one chapter to the next without feeling trapped by a lengthy narrative. In other words, keeping your chapters short make it easier to write a page turner.

“What’s the caveat? Short chapters can make a story feel chopped up. What’s more, they all need to end on a hook that makes the reader want to stay engaged with the story. If your chapters are only three-five pages long, that’s a lot of hooks. On the other hand, maybe writing in short cuts is a good exercise in keeping a story moving with action, dialogue, and heart-racing events.

“If you’re not into heart-racing, the uninterrupted, more detailed narrative might be more satisfying. Decisions, decisions. Well, there’s always the happy medium—short enough to keep things moving, but long enough to make it seem worthwhile.”

Her point about serious serials on television is a good one.  The BBC and Netfix are both offering items like the current MotherFatherSon, which seem chopped up into small pieces of only one or two minutes and in each of which a new issue, scene and character might be introduced.  One has to watch with patience, dropping each piece of the puzzle into place in one’s mind.

I don’t have that kind of situation with the novel I am finishing now.  Rather, it is a ‘diary’ of the major events toward the end of a man’s life.  I have to keep the chapters relatively brief.  As it is at the moment, it is 24 chapters – one chapter per year – for a total of 168 pages, which will yield a 280 page, 95,000 word book.  Longer chapters would make a longer book – probably unnecessarily long.

Beliefs About Writing

Mary Ann de Stefano, editor of The Florida Writer Magazine, and an independent editor with >30 years experience, has an article in the February issue of the magazine in which she expresses her beliefs about writing.  She says she started making a list of beliefs ten years ago, and would revisit her list every year to make revisions to it, trying to be bluntly honest with herself and listing even her most self-defeating ones.  Below is this year’s list.

Mary Ann de Stefano

  1. Showing up to do the work – fully present and open to possibility – is the hardest part of writing.
  2. The best writing sessions begin with and are fuelled by curiosity.
  3. Writing is about layering on, then taking away, layering on, then taking away.  (I’m not sure what she means by this.  If she means ‘writing, revising, writing and revising, I agree.)
  4. No one gets it right the first time. (Amen.)
  5. Don’t get stuck in an idea when another one is trying to happen.  (I would say ‘when one idea isn’t quite working, look for another one’.)
  6. You will always be learning to write.
  7. Writing is messy.  Make a mess and you can always clean it up later.  (I’m not that fond of being messy.)
  8. Although you may regularly prove your inner critic wrong, that doesn’t make the critic go away.  Turn down the volume!  (Fair point.)
  9. Creation is painful.  Revision is a blast.  For some writers, it’s the reverse.
  10. Laughing out loud while the writing is good, even if it’s not during the funny parts.  (There’s something similar about crying during the good sad parts.)
  11. You are a better writer than you used to be, but you’ll always be raising the bar. (!)
  12. Your best writing happens when you’re not thinking about it.
  13. It’s not a bad thing to remain cautious about sharing work in an early draft.  The writing is fragile then and so are you.
  14. Writers need keen readers they can trust to tell them the truth about their work.  (Yes, but they’re hard to find.)
  15. There’s always a nugget of truth in every criticism.
  16. Time slows down painfully while a writer waits for someone to read and comment on their work.
  17. Be kind to other writers and yourself.
  18. No one else can write the story you can write.
  19. Writing well isn’t easy, or everyone would do it.
  20. The writing itself is the best teacher.  (I think writing is like tennis or golf: practice by yourself is necessary and most effective at first, but later you need discover what is possible by watching others.)
  21. Writing is not a social activity, but writer-friends who get it and get you are necessary.
  22. All you can ever do is write it to the best of your ability, and let it go.   Your next work will be better.

We Need to Talk About Children’s Books in a Grown Up Way

There was an article in the Evening Standard on 28 January with the above title written by Katie Law, an ES journalist, covering the views of Lauren Child, the best-selling author-illustrator and current Children’s Laureate, on the problems faced by children’s books.

Lauren Child

Law says: “Lauren Child thinks children’s book publishing still gets a bad deal. It’s one of the reasons she is so happy to be a judge for this year’s Oscar’s Book Prize ‘There’s still a lot of snootiness about children’s books. Just look at the teeny-weeny percentage that get reviewed compared to adults. It’s as if there’s a kind of hierarchy.’

“Child is best known for her books featuring Clarice Bean, Charlie and Lola (who became a TV series), Ruby Redfort and Hubert Horatio, which together have sold more than five million copies worldwide. In the two decades since we first met quirky, snub-nosed Clarice Bean and her chaotic, trendy family, her legions of original fans have become adults. ‘The most touching experience in my whole career is talking to grown-ups who tell me what the book meant to them when they were growing up,’ says Child, 53. ‘It’s why I’m so passionate about the idea that children’s book writing and illustrating should get more recognition, and why prizes like Oscar’s Book Prize are so important, because there is so little coverage. We know that a child’s life can be changed by what they read, so why don’t we spend more time thinking about what that material is?’

“Pippi Longstocking, Mary Poppins and The Secret Garden — all of which she has illustrated — were the books that had the most profound effect on Child when she was growing up. ‘The Secret Garden was a gamechanger because it was about someone who was so hard to like. She was plain, had a horrible expression on her face, was bossy and ungrateful. As a child I felt like her, I felt all of those things. I felt it was me. So for children who might think bad things about themselves, these stories can help let them off the hook. It’s all a drip-drip effect, which is why it’s important we talk about children’s books in a grown-up way, in terms of what they’re about, rather than just saying ‘Isn’t it lovely?’

Clarice Bean

“Ms Child says: ‘We’re great at giving prizes for unusual adults’ books but not so good at praising people who have different ideas about children’s books; things need to be a bit more extraordinary.’ Her own trajectory is a great example: Clarice Bean only took off when she stopped trying to please her publishers. ‘I was young and kept trying to do what they wanted and getting it wrong, so every time I rewrote or redrew something, it would get more dead. It had none of me in it, so quite rightly they rejected it. I actually started writing Clarice Bean as a film and forgot about all the things you need to make a book, and that’s when the publishers suddenly became interested. It’s about the need to reject everything you think they want and find your own voice.’

“The National Literacy Trust finds that one in 11 children and young people in the UK don’t own a book (a figure that rises to one in eight children on free school meals), and that book ownership is one of the highest predictors of reading attainment and mental well-being.

“Child grew up in Wiltshire in a happy family not unlike Clarice Bean’s. Today she lives in north London with her partner, criminal barrister Adrian Darbishire, and their daughter Tuesday, now nearly nine, whom she adopted from Mongolia at the age of two-and-a-half after visiting the country as part of a Unesco project.  ‘Having Tuesday doesn’t change the way I write or illustrate but it does make me see more than ever how important illustration is. We had no common language when she arrived. But we did have drawing, and she was a natural right from the start, which really helped us communicate. It’s important for children that their drawings are looked at and that it has a wide role in education because it’s about learning to observe and understand, just like creative writing, and having these skills can make you much more empathetic.'”

I particularly agree with what Ms Child says about book publishers: they don’t know what they want, but when they find something eclectic that is well-written and full of the author’s passion, they go for it.

 

An Unwelcome Prize?

Last week’s Saturday Telegraph  had and article by Tristram Fane Saunders with the title, ‘Does Anybody Want To Be the Poet Laureate?’

In my early years at university, I used to write reams of ‘classic’, romantic poetry in iambic pentameter, and I would have been enchanted with the thought of being Poet Laureate of anywhere – even Atlantic City – if it had been offered to me.  But, had I read Mr Saunders’ article at the time, I might have had second thoughts.   As far as I can tell, Mr Saunders is a poet, a comic, writer,  translator, commentator for the Telegraph, and all around culture vulture.

Tristram Fane Saunders

He says, “Who would want to be poet laureate? John Skelton, Henry VIII’s tutor and self-proclaimed “Lauryate”, had to put up with rivals “rudely revilyng me in the kynges noble hall”, and royal poets have faced mud-slinging ever since – especially from other poets.

“Dryden, the first modern laureate, called his successor, Shadwell, “a foul mass of corrupted matter”. George III’s poet Pye was guilty of churning out verse “doggedly and dully” according to Southey, who found he suffered from the same problem on inheriting the post.

“In 1999, the appointment of Andrew Motion was denounced as “a shameful failure of integrity and imagination” by Carol Ann Duffy. She had nothing against Motion, but felt the job should have gone to a woman. (Of course, a decade later, for the first time in history, it did.)

“As Duffy’s 10-year tenure comes to an end this year, it’s time for the country to choose its new bardic mascot. But who makes that choice? Until now it has been shrouded in obfuscation, but this time the Government has laid the whole process bare. A “steering group” of 15 named experts has been assembled from the heads of various literary festivals, libraries and poetry organisations around the UK. The group has drawn up a shortlist of four or five poets, culled from a longer list after a bit of back-and-forth with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

“It is now up to the DCMS to make the final selection – or selections, if the first choice turns the post down, as Philip Larkin did in 1984. As a formality, the decision is passed on to the Prime Minister, who then submits it to the Queen for approval. In practice, however, the buck stops with the head of the DCMS, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright.

“I don’t envy the steering group’s job. After all, how can you choose a laureate, when it’s still not altogether clear what a laureate is?

“In theory, being laureate entails no more work than being an OBE. The title is defined online by the royal household as “an honour awarded by HM to a poet whose work is of national significance”. Wordsworth only took the role after being assured by the Prime Minister that “you shall have nothing required of you”. The public may expect topical poems on state occasions, but the Queen doesn’t. Quit writing and move to Majorca, and you’ll still be eligible for your annual salary.

“That salary, as it happens, is £6,000, paid for by DCMS, and a “butt of sack” (cask of sherry) gifted by a vineyard in Spain. The booze was originally a gift received by Ben Jonson, unofficial laureate to James I and Charles I, then revived as part of Dryden’s honorarium. Duffy, Motion and Hughes all received their butt – measured into 720 bottles – from the same producers in Jerez.

“For the past 10 years Duffy has not been sitting on her butt, but giving it away at launches and selling it for charitable causes.

“The lack of hubbub around this year’s appointment is a far cry from the heady days of 1999, when the race was beset by one scandal after another. Rumours that Tony Blair wanted to “modernise” the position and reinvent it as a “People’s Laureate” (though denied by Downing Street) prompted an aghast letter from Hughes’s widow, leaked to the Telegraph, which accused Blair of jeopardising “the sanctity” of the post.

“Then a shortlist of five names was leaked, of which two had already ruled themselves out in verse: Seamus Heaney (“My passport’s green./ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast The Queen”) and Tony Harrison, who published a long poem attacking Blair, the monarchy and “toadies like Di-deifying Motion”.

“Derek Walcott, also on the list, was seen as a long shot by reporters at the time, due to doubts over whether he would be willing to move to the UK, and the lingering bad publicity of a 1996 sexual harassment allegation (though the claim was dropped). Of the five, that left only Motion and Duffy. Then came another leak: a Government “source” told the press Blair had quashed Duffy’s chances. The PM, it was claimed, was reportedly “worried about having a homosexual as poet laureate because of how it might play in Middle England”.

(In) “Bloomsbury, one bookseller is running an under-the-table sweepstake. I’m told three names have attracted significant bets from the literati there: Dalit Nagra, Alice Oswald and Lemn Sissay.  I’d add two more to that list: Jackie Kay, already Scotland’s laureate, and Simon Armitage, who’s been tipped as a laureate-in-waiting for at least 20 years.

“As for the laureateship, whoever gets it must have a thick skin. Take a leaf from Betjeman’s book. “Your appointment has been stigmatised as arbitrary and irrelevant,” Martin Amis once told the then poet laureate in a radio interview. “Do you, Sir John, feel yourself to be arbitrary and irrelevant?” Betjeman didn’t hesitate: “Yes, thank God.””