Writing Q&A 9: Revisions; chapter breaks
Published: November 7, 2006
|After I get done with the first draft of a story, revision feels overwhelming. How can I keep going and not lose my momentum?|
You might simply need some time away from the story. The first draft is often one of discovery, where you're learning about the story: how to inhabit it, what you intend to say, what it's about. Taking a break after that first draft is a good way to gain perspective. When you return to the story with fresh eyes, you'll be able to see the reality of what you put on the page, rather than what you thought was there. Time also brings objectivity. The moments that are working--and those that aren't--will be more apparent. Clear next steps can invigorate your momentum.
Some writers find a week is enough of a break, while others might take a month. Wait until the specific sequences of words aren't readily available in your memory. That's a good indication that you'll be able to approach the story anew. I generally have several projects that are active at once, so that my downtime on one story doesn't mean downtime for writing overall. I shift to another story and just about the time I need a break from that story, I'm eager to get back to the one I put aside earlier.
You might also find it helpful to keep an arsenal of revision techniques on hand. If you find yourself eager to get back to the story but still feel overwhelmed as to where to start, you'll have some concrete tasks to turn to. Here are a few I've found helpful:
Revise for one element. Pay attention to just one facet of the craft or story during a revision. I wrote a story set in Chicago during ha eat wave and did one revision focusing only on creating the intense heat. You might do one revision that focuses on character. Another that highlights setting. Breaking revision down to smaller tasks can make it feel more manageable.
Start globally. Look at the larger elements of craft first, such as plot, character and point of view. Save finite revisions for later in the process when you have the major issues more fully fixed. Otherwise, you could spend a day reworking a paragraph that you end up cutting from the story entirely.
Give your highlighters a workout. Use them to create a visual map of your story. You might mark each moment where you appeal to the senses. If you find you've highlighted only once on page 2 and once on page 9, you know you have some work to do in between. You can use this technique for a variety of elements, such as moments where you "tell" rather than "show." Or you can use different colors for different characters' perspectives to see the balance.
Cut up the story. Get a pair of scissors and physically cut the story into its different scenes. Lay these sections out so you can see the entire story at once. This visual approach will allow you a different view of the structure and that might give you additional insight as to its effectiveness.
Lastly, be generous with self-forgiveness. Writing is a process. You have to experiment and take risks to find what will work for the particular story you're revising. You might down a path you don't end up using in the final version. Or you may fail grandly in an attempt. Some writers dwell on the time lost on such efforts. However, what seem like mistakes are often vital steps that help you understand where you really wanted to go. You can't always go straight from A to B. Sometimes, you have to visit several points in between to understand just where B is located and why it's the important destination.
|How do I know where to break for a new chapter when writing a novel? |
I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about this in early drafts. Let the story come out how it may. (You're bound to find chunks that fit together as you write, as well as comfortable points of closure. You can mark them as possible chapter breaks.) When you have a better idea of the whole, natural breaks in the action can be more apparent. This might mean a chapter unfolds as one long scene. The second chapter in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, for example, follows Nick and Tom on a trip into New York City. Tom's mistress, Myrtle, joins them. The chapter begins on the train to the city and ends with Nick at the station waiting for the 4 a.m. train back home after a rather eventful party. Some chapters will include more than one scene, and you might find certain scenes or information hang together well to create a whole, cohesive chapter. In general, find a pause in the rhythm of the story--those moments are good places for chapter breaks.
Of course, plenty of writers do the exact opposite and break a chapter at a particularly intense moment. This is a good way to get the reader to plunge headlong into the next chapter. Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code relies on this often. If you do this regularly in something other than a thriller, however, it may start to feel gimmicky.
The end of a chapter should offer some sort of invitation forward. This might come in the form of an overreaching curiosity. In the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, Nick hears talk of Gatsby, his neighbor who he's not yet met, and then sees just a glimpse of Gatsby in the evening as he returns home. The mystery surrounding this elusive character leaves the reader eager to read forward and learn more.
Some writers have found it useful to abandon the use of chapters all together, as Nelson Algren did in The Man With the Golden Arm. You should have a good reason to do so, though. With the wrong material, it can feel like an unrelenting read.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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