The never-ending chapter

Not really. When I was writing the Finnegan novels, I found that in first draft I generally used about two thousand five hundred words to complete a chapter. Rewrites nearly always brought this number up by another thousand, and in a couple of cases, I wrote chapters of more than four thousand words.

I never strove for a minimum word count. I always wrote however much story the purpose of the chapter required. I probably did try to limit myself to a maximum word count per chapter, but not consciously and likely from some innate sense of keeping the story readable in the conventions of the genre. (You can probably cite dozens of examples of mystery novels with much longer and much shorter chapters.)

I’ve found that with the novel I’m now working on, The Sleep of Reason, this practice is out the door. I’m only halfway through the third chapter, and yet I have nearly twenty thousand words written (across three chapters, not in chapter three itself). The first chapter alone is more than double the maximum I ever wrote for a Finnegans novel.

I don’t know what the conventions are for the genre this novel falls into (I don’t even know what genre the novel falls into — I simply write the story I have.) Chapter three seems on track for ending somewhere around ten thousand words. I expect that to continue in subsequent chapters. Not only is there a lot of story to tell, but my narration is in first person, and the protagonist is well educated and a bit affected, so he’s verbose.

I suppose in the most formulaic genre writing there is some conventional wisdom about keeping chapters the same length. I’d hate to think I was constrained by that. As I said, I write what the purpose of the chapter requires. If there were words in a chapter than could afford to be removed just so the long chapter could be brought to size, wouldn’t that suggest that there were words in a shorter chapter that should also be removed?

Faulkner is famous for some very short chapters. One is only four words long. I think Moby Dick has a chapter that is only a few lines long. I don’t claim to write in that league, but I think they wrote to the dictates of the story. I recently read a well written mystery novel in which some chapters were only a couple of pages while others went on for more than a dozen.

So I’ve managed to liberate myself from thinking that I must write the chapters of any given size. Maybe in the big rewrite I’ll break up some of the longer ones, but as they say, writing is rewriting, and right now I’m writing.

Explore posts in the same categories: Humble efforts, Sleep of Reason

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