Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Art (Not Science) of Chapter Breaks


The Art (Not Science) of Chapter Breaks
One of the most popular questions I get from other writers involves the idea of chapter breaks. Many writers feel like there is a certain industry standard dictating where, when, and how a person is supposed to break a chapter. This notion is ludicrous. 


In this post, we'll discuss the concept of scenes, the "right" time to break, and where and how to pull off a successful chapter break.
In the writing world, scene is a term that gets thrown around without much explanation. A scene is simply the smallest meaningful unit of a work of prose such as a novel or a short story. 

While most writers craft chapters containing several scenes, there is nothing wrong with devoting an entire chapter to a single scene as long as that scene contains a clear conflict with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The conflict should be introduced at the beginning, deepened in the middle, and solved or further complicated at the end. The best way to look at scenes is by considering them as miniature short stories. Practice developing well-crafted scenes.

Now that we have an idea of scenes, we can talk about the notion of a "right" time to break a chapter. There is no such thing. I don't know where such an idea got started, but it's only a myth. When it comes to ending one chapter and moving onto the next, you should go with what feels natural. As long as you're consistent, your readers won't mind.

When it comes down to it, the best advice I can give you for breaking chapters is to go with your gut. You know the story and you have an idea of the flow. Another tip I have is to insert a chapter break where a commercial would go if your novel were a show or a movie on television. Commercial breaks create suspense and keep the audience tuned in to see what happens next. When you're ready to move on to the next chapter, lead in with a bit of dialogue, reflection, or action that creates curiosity for what comes next.

Writing scenes and breaking chapters isn't all that difficult. With a bit of practice, hard work, and instinct, you'll be breaking with the best of them.

How do you break your chapters? Do you prefer them to be long or short?

Monday, March 18, 2013

4 Nonfiction Books Every Writer Should Read

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When it comes to writing well, one of the best tips I can give you from improving your work is to read books about writing, especially by authors who have been successful. There are many nonfiction books about writing, but these four are the best of the best. If you want to get better at the art of writing, read these books.

On Writing by Stephen King is the absolute best. Part memoir, part master class, this book is one of the greatest things I've read, period. In addition to the basic elements of craft and technique, King also offers a crash course on grammar. King's book serves as excellent inspiration and motivation as well. Every writer should read this book.

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird is a step-by-step guide on how to write and how to manage the writer’s life, based on personal experience. She shares what it takes to be a writer with a unique voice that is both honest and funny.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. is the most indispensable writing resources on the market to date. Strunk's best advice is to "Omit Needless Words," but there are plenty other topics addressed inside the book. Overall, this book offers guidelines for effective and convincing writing.

Zen in the Art of Writing by the late Ray Bradbury is guaranteed to make you think about what it's like to write for a living. In addition to offering practical tips, Bradbury also celebrates the act of writing. According to him the success of a write depends mostly on how well the writer knows his or her own life. This book is definitely worth sitting down with.

These books will not only entertain you, but also improve your capability as a writer. If you haven't read any of them, do it right now. You'll be thrilled that you did.

What do you think? What books did I miss?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Writing Cover Letters for Literary Journals

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In the modern era of self-publishing, the notion of writing a cover letter may be a foreign one to you. Most literary journals and magazines that allow submissions expect you to submit a cover letter along with your short story, poem, or essay. The cover letter serves as an introduction of your work as well as your identity as a writer. It can bridge the gap between publication and rejection. Writing a cover letter is one of the most important things you can learn to do correctly. Here's a handy guide to insure your next cover letter receives the attention your hard work deserves.

I've prepared a sample cover letter to give you an idea of the finished product:

Kelly Wright
Fiction Editor
Feature Story Magazine
123 Lane Street
Anytown, State, Zip

Dear Kelly Wright,

Please find enclosed my short story “Glue.”

I live in suburban Georgia, where I work as a student and a freelance writer.

I enjoy reading Feature Story Magazine and am hopeful that you’ll find my story to be a good fit.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,
Briana Morgan

We can break this letter down into several different points for emulation.

  • Find out the editor's full name, and use it in your salutation

  • Your cover letter doesn't need to grab the editor's attention. Your work should be strong enough to speak for itself

  • Pay attention to spelling and grammar rules--the way you handle punctuation says a lot about your writing chops

  • A cover letter isn't the same as a query, so you shouldn't summarize your work

  • When submitting fiction or poetry, you don't need to connect the work to your personal experience

  • There's no reason to mention whether you've been published or not

  • It's okay to add some information about yourself, but keep it short and avoid trying to prove how interesting you are

To write a great cover letter, check your spelling and grammar, do your research, and trim the fat wherever possible. Follow the example. You can do it, I promise. Remember these rules, take some risks, and don't give up. Good luck!

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Nifty 350

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In a previous post, we discussed the importance of daily writing. Like athletes, we writers need to exercise our creative muscles in order to improve our performance. You don't have to write much, but you need to write something.

I write at least 350 words each and every day, no matter how tightly my schedule is packed. Even if I don't get anything down past the 350, I feel accomplished. 350 for 365 days ends up to be 127,750 words--which is nothing to sneeze at, if you ask me.

I refer to this technique as "the nifty 350." I'm not sure who coined this term, but I'm going to borrow it. Basically, before your day has time to completely derail your creative consciousness, you sit down with your notebook or laptop and hammer out at least 350 words. That's all there is to it.

You may write more than 350 words. Those morning pages may be the initial spark for a dozen more pages. The only rule is that you have to put down your nifty 350. And it'll pay off--I can promise you that.
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