Learn from my mistakes: Number 1 – Chapters

Once upon a time I started to write a book, actually I started to write a short story and once the preamble had got to about 50k words I realised I was writing a book.

Whether it was because of this initial folly or because I’d started without a plan or just because of inexperience my book kept growing and growing. I actually got to the point where the short story was supposed to start at 140k but even that never got finished. When it hit 180k with no end in sight I decided to kill it.

It sounds harsh but it was a kindness. This was the first thing I’d written and it was awful in parts and terrible in others. Its worst and most unforgivable crime was its lack of structure. I’d assumed that structure would naturally happen as I built up scene after scene. I had several outlines of the way forward and a detailed notion of the ending but this wasn’t structure.

For instance, it’s not a good idea to have an argument between two of your characters go on for five or six thousand words and then have them go over most of the same points in two subsequent arguments later in the book. I’d got lost in all the words and couldn’t really remember if I’d written in that good idea I’d had for an argument; I had and I’d done it three times all told.

Did I mention that this was all in one massive word file? In my defence I didn’t know any better.

The main reason I was happy to kill that book was that I already had a better idea, one that was smaller, self contained and one that I had sketched out in chapters.

Chapters are great; without needing any sophisticated plans you can write down a list of ten to twelve things that happen in your story and then write them as individual chapters, almost in isolation. I had each chapter in a separate file which meant that I could always read from the beginning of the chapter before a writing session, useful for finding the voice again and hopefully spotting errors as you go.

I did end up moving some chapters around and some things in between chapters but overall I stuck to the plan and even when I needed to make changes to the structure the chapters gave me made it easier to do.

There’s also a productivity bonus; my chapters early on were 6-8k, I could conceivably do most of that in a long weekend, suddenly I was writing faster because I was completing things.

In the end I wrote almost 140k words in 13 chapters, it had taken about a quarter of the time the 180k unfinished monster did and even though it needed some savage editing it was structurally sound.

It might not be for everyone, but a chapter based plan is the only way I can even think about writing now.

About Mark Willoughby

Mark Willoughby is the author of "After the Event" an adventure story set in a future full of superheroes, giant robots and aliens. He is currently working on a spy novel so he has a very dodgy looking search history.

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