Saturday, March 25, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: C is for CHAPTERS . . .

Infographic for Weekly Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing: C is for CHAPTERS
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. . . and CREATING a book structure.

The most common and important unit of division in most kinds of books is the chapter. Books may be divided solely by chapters; or they may be divided by chapters that are further divided into sections or scenes. In many books, chapters are also grouped in parts or even in books within the main book. For artistic or informational reasons, a few books consist only of sections or parts or some other divisions that may or may not function as, or resemble, chapters. I will refer mainly to chapters in this discussion, but what is said will in most cases apply equally to books structured by other kinds of divisions.

Designating chapters 

Nonfiction works typically use numbers and titles to designate chapters. Novelists these days usually opt for numbers without titles or numbers each prefaced by the word chapter. Some authors of fiction have reinstated an earlier practice of both numbering and naming chapters. Some works of fiction and nonfiction may have chapter titles without numbers. Before writing, you may wish to come up with working titles (which can be changed as needed in the course of writing) or simply think of your chapters as numbered units.

Creating a working book structure 

Start with a basic concept of the ordering of your book's chapters (or groups of chapters or episodes within chapters). Then you sort your notes and thoughts accordingly. You may accumulate and conceive these in any order, which tends to be how the creative process works. But then you organize them according to your planned book structure.

I use a combination of physical file folders and computer folders to put my ideas in, with each folder labelled by chapter number and working title. Very short chapters may be grouped into parts, similarly labelled by number and/or by working title or main theme. For note taking and idea jotting, small-sized notepaper, recipe-type cards, and short computer documents/texts are the best choices for easy sorting and reference. Give each note or related group of notes a title or label so you know at a glance what it is about. If you go in for too-lengthy notes without clear labels, you will find yourself in the predicament that I described in "B is for BLOCK"—overwhelmed and blocked by too much text as you struggle to find the idea or information that you need in order to keep writing. Your chapter file folders, each containing individual notes and ideas, constitute your book's working structure. When I come to write a specific chapter, I pull the file with my labelled notes and ideas, sort them into what seems to be a sensible order—by theme, chronology or plot—and write away.

Your chapter files and working book structure keep you oriented as you write and defend against writer's block. Your organizational system allows you to add thoughts quickly, file them without getting confused, bogged down, and then blocked. You can even write out of numerical chapter order to stay fresh and productive when you perhaps are struggling or bored with one chapter. Leave it for a while and start another, and then go back and forth, if you wish. Write the whole book out of order if that pleases you. You are free to do so because, with the aid of your organizational system, you carry the whole book structure in your head, with each chapter's specific notes, ideas, plot twists, episodes, character sketches, research, sources, and quotes organized for reference whenever you need them.

To outline, or not . . .

Book structure need not be carved in stone
Your ideas may be monumental,
but they are not cast in metal or
carved in stone. The same should 
be true of your organizational
system and book structure.
You might think of your organizational system as a kind of outline. There remains the question of a more formalized outline—that is: Do you need a written-out, detailed book outline in addition to your organizational system? Seasoned writers are divided on the value of such an outline.

I personally work from my sense of the overall structure in conjunction with my files and have not found a need to spend creative energy devising an additional outline. If you, however, feel that you need a detailed outline for writing confidence or memory jogging, then so be it. But don't allow the outline to constrain you and limit the introduction of spur-of-the-moment ideas that could make a crucial difference to your book and its success. Think of your outline not as cast in bronze or chiseled in granite. Think of it instead as something changeable and fluid—like the weather, or a river with many streams that might bear exploring.

Flexible book structure and chapter organization

It is also advisable to remember that your working book structure is just that—a work in progress, and subject to rethinking and reordering. You can have a reasonable working structure from the outset, but be prepared for some surprises as the writing progresses. For instance, you might discover that what you thought would be a great chapter 4 is too short to stand alone and should in fact be a section of chapter 3. On the other hand, your imagined, perfect chapter 10 is now going on and on, and really needs to be divided into two, or even three, chapters. It all becomes clear as you write, create, and re-create.

The point to remember is that planning and organizing to write, and actually writing, are related but different activities. A good working structure will ease your writing and go a long way toward eliminating block. But this structure must be flexible enough to shift as your ideas shift. Like creativity and writing, planning and organizing should be dynamic processes that have constant potential for change and improvement. Otherwise, your organizational system is not worth the price of file folders.

Organization creates structure, enhances clarity, and sustains focus. A flexible structure promotes ongoing inspiration.

Coming next week . . . "D is for DISCIPLINE"

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