creative writing

Chapters and Chapters

Nowadays, many novels are written with short chapters of no more than four or five pages. I guess this is supposed to go along with the limited attention span of today’s readers. However, short chapters create a lot of chapters.

How long should a chapter be? More importantly, how many chapters are too many and what chapter number should the novel end with?

To the first question, I think that chapters are like sentences and paragraphs. Important tools a writer can use to keep the pace of the story and the suspense. I don’t agree with many publishers who think short chapters should be in thrillers to quicken the tempo and longer chapters used in novels such as romance and the literary to slow the pace. I think it really comes down to what is right for the story and a writer should not hold to any nonsense guideline.

Another excuse given for short chapters is that readers need a break from reading. Readers can find a break from reading even with long chapters. At some point, the story has a transition from one event to another, a change of scenery, or the departure/entry of a character. This is where I can stop reading and take my nap.

To the second question, do readers really pay attention to the chapter numbers? They will if they are superstitious, have a need to read only to a certain chapter number, or believe in the ending of odd or even numbers. But, this is another issue.

I just ask the reader not to blame the writer, who probably ended on a chapter number only because that’s where the ending came.

Characters and Plots

I recently read in various writing articles and blogs that literary fiction is character driven and genre fiction is plot driven. This is nonsense. All stories are character and plot driven. At least the good ones.

What makes a story good is the balance between character and plot. Too much of either becomes mundane and not a real story.

As an example, if it is all about a character – that’s a monologue which is usually good only in standup comedy. Other characters are introduced, but just to support the monologue. Usually, the main character (protagonist) explains how they were a victim of some physical or mental abuse or misdeed and the mental stress it caused.

If the story is all about plot, there is no plot. Just a series of action scenes or events that take place (whether the characters are involved or not). The focus is on loud noises, violence, or someone/something running from/to some place.

Both types of stories become a series of repetitive scenes. This is fine for readers who just want to read something without an investment in too much thinking. Some readers enjoy the emotional ride they get and can forget about soon after.

I would rather look for a story balanced between characters and plot.

Plot is the main part of a story. Yet, plot comes from characters doing things. When there is a balance between character and plot, both share in driving the story along. Doing this type of writing may take an author more time to write. So, these stories are hard to find.

It is unfair to categorize all literary fiction as character driven and genre fiction as plot driven. Some good stories are found in both types when there is a balance between plot and character.

(In the picture, who is the character and who is the plot?)

Can creative writing be taught?

Some people in the writing industry say no. They believe you are born with the ability to write creatively. If a person does not have this birthright, they shouldn’t try writing that novel. I think this is ridiculous, highly snobbish, and arrogant.

Creative writing can be taught and at any age. If a person has the motivation and desire, they can learn to write creatively and maybe even get published. Learning to write creatively requires two steps.

First is to learn how to think creatively. Such as imagining a traffic stop on the way to work and an elephant walks over to ask for a ride. Creative thinking is about imagining something different within something routine. It could also be about thinking a “what if” situation such as what if extraterrestrials took over the military. Sometimes creativity can come by paying attention to people in a store and thinking about what kind of life they could be living.

At this point, some people are saying “easier said than done”, but they are listening to the “no” people in the writing industry. A person can learn to think creatively through practice and guidance. Most writing teachers and books do not explain this process or consider the impact of skipping this step.

A person can learn the first step while starting on the second, which is learning to write what is created so it can be shared with others.

In the beginning, it is probably best to write it all out. It may not make much sense, but practice at writing and learning the writing rules will eventually make the creativity readable. At least the writing teachers and books can help with this step.

I think not teaching how to be creative is why so many writers-to-be struggle with their writing. Teachers and authors assume the person already knows how to be creative.

So, self-teach yourself. Maybe keep a journal/diary. Tell your dog or cat or cow what you’re thinking. How about right now getting a pen and paper?

Stories without a Published Home (showing half published, half not)

Sometimes after sending a story out for publishing and getting a lot of rejections, I decide enough is enough. For my sake and the story.

I feel guilty when I stop sending out a short story. It is a strange ending to what I created. No one will ever read it except me.

I keep my stories printed out and in manila folders. Inside on the left are magazines I sent the story to along with date and when it was rejected (or when I never heard back from the magazine).

One folder has red wine stains, another splotches of strong coffee, and still another drips from black tea. Some are peppered with food stains while others are not so anointed (it didn’t take as long to write them).

When I run out of room on the inside cover, I write the rejections on the back. At some point, I stop and file the folder and story away before I run out of room on the back and there’s nowhere else to go.

These stories I file away don’t sit far from the stories that were accepted. Maybe I’ll bring the old stories out and try again one day.