Saturday, 24 January 2015

Books Are Always Written In Chapters Aren’t They?

The answer is both yes and know. This is because writing a book is not immediately confined to a set layout. The chapter system has proven its worth over the centuries of novel writing because it is useful for organizing the story and for giving the reader timely breaks should they need them without losing their place when they come back to pick up the action again.

I do not use chapters when writing the first draft, however. The reason for this is that I believe that it is important to get the actual idea of the story down as soon as possible. For me the first draft is a crucial part of doing this and getting distracted by formulating a chapter matrix is a hindrance. I might insert breaks in the manuscript that I think are logical but they are not set in stone. In fact they invariably never survive.

The question of how to organise the book only really surfaces when I approach the end of the first draft (actually I usually never complete the first draft). By this point I have a very good idea of what the story is, the themes, the main characters, the plot and everything else. This is when some organisation is needed.

For ‘The War Wolf’ I quickly realised that a standard Chapter One, Chapter 2, etc., simply was not going to work. This was because the action, once it started in 1066, occurred in a very brief space of time. It seemed better to me to use each day as a chapter and group the events in the story accordingly. This gave me a very strict framework to work within and removed the need to consider how many chapters I needed to write.

I applied exactly the same approach to ‘For Rapture of Ravens, which was logical as it followed on directly from ‘The War Wolf’ and if you are writing a series then readers generally appreciate a degree of consistency. However, for my next novel, ‘Eugenica’, I was straying away from the early medieval period to something much closer to home; the 1930’s.

For this project I did actually attempt to write the first draft in chapters. I created folders on my computer and inserted first draft file copies into them accordingly. It did not work however. The reasons for this were numerous. First, there was my approach to writing; getting the ideas down as quickly as possible and leaving the polishing for the first re-write. I get so deep into the writing that I lose track of time, never mind all the finer points of constructing a book. I quickly found that my ideas were running much faster than the chapter system and trying to keep up proved frustrating so I effectively abandoned it. Another reason was the emergence of other stories within the main story. There was an awful lot going on between the characters and even independently as well.

Once I got the first draft as close to completion as I wanted to I took the time to step back and consider the organisation of the book. I quickly noticed that in trying to write it chapter by chapter I had not done myself any favours; plot-wise it was a mess! Events were not happening in a chronological order if I maintained my original chapter matrix. Obviously I had to abandon it.

That might seem a little radical but really it is not. I believe that my problem was that I was trying to force my story into a system of organisation that was poorly thought out at the beginning. Serves me right for allowing myself to become a slave to convention. I decided to use each individual day as the basis of the chapter organisation. It was similar to what I had done before but the reason for doing it was different. In writing ‘The Sorrow Song Trilogy’ actual historical events were the determining factor. ‘Eugenica’ is an alternative history novel, however, and so it not so closely tied to the actual history of the day. It was one of the major themes of the book that decided the issue.

When I re-read the first draft I realised that there were two stories that were mirroring each other. Both featured a journey, one by airship and the other by bus and then by any means possible. The journeys were triangular, returning to their points of origin. In the airship the theoretical consequences of eugenics are discussed by a congress of savants in superb luxury. In the other journey disabled people experience the practical implications of that same theory when it is applied to them. I did not set out to write the story in this way; it grew and developed as I wrote the first draft. I could see the attraction of it, however, as a vehicle for telling the story. This is where another determining factor came into play. The airship completes its’ triangular flight, Britain to America, America to Germany, Germany to Britain, within a definite timeframe; approximately nine days.

I reviewed the other part of the story and realised that it benefitted greatly from an immediate increase in tension if played out over a relatively short period of time. The move from apparently benign treatment of the main protagonists to a fight for life is accelerated and the tempo of the story picks at a speed much faster than the apparently casual progress of the airship might suggest. It made sense to use each day as a chapter.

When a reader opens ‘Eugenica’ they will see an instantly recognisable table of contents arranged in traditional headings; Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc., but these are not the elements that define the book’s actual organisation. Beneath those headings will be the real determining factors of how the events in the story are organised and presented to the reader. You might read it from Chapter One through to Chapter Nine but that is certainly not how I wrote it!

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